The Patriots dove into preparations for the Cincinnati Bengals on Wednesday, their final road opponent of the regular season and a game that is critical to New England maintaining their grip on the second seed in the AFC. At 1-12 the Bengals might not strike fear into the hearts of many, but seven of their 12 losses have been by a single score and they've been very competitive in recent weeks. With Andy Dalton back under center, the Bengals got their first win of the season over the Jets before dropping a close decision the Browns last weekend.
"On the offensive side of the ball with Zac [Taylor] and Coach [Brian] Callahan, who's the offensive coordinator, there's certainly a strong Rams presence in what they do, and that's a little different than what they've had there the past few years under Marvin, but similar to what the Rams do," said Bill Belichick. "But of course, it's different players and it's different matchups, and they've certainly modified some things and not everything is the same as the Rams, but that's certainly the basis of it."
The two leading weapons are receiver Tyler Boyd, with 73 catches for 833 yards and three touchdowns, and running back Joe Mixon, with 789 yards rushing with three touchdowns. They've combined for the last five touchdowns the Bengals have scored over the last four games. Just as the Patriots depend on Julian Edelman and James White, the Bengals lean on Boyd and Mixon.
Devin McCourty played down the similarities to the Rams offense. Instead, they play to their player's strengths and have their own version.
"If you watch Cincinnati, it's not really the same offense," said McCourty. "They got some RPO in there, Rams don't really do much of that. There's some crossover in there, but I would say you gotta watch Cincinnati for Cincinnati. It's not exactly the same, obviously they have some condensed splits and things like that, they'll run fast to the ball and get a play off fast. There's some Rams elements in there but it's not exactly the same."
One area of potential interest is in the red zone where the Bengals are the third-best defense in the NFL. That's a compelling matchup for a Patriots offense that ranks just 27th in the red zone and has had to resort to creative play calling to score touchdowns.
"Defensively with Coach [Lou] Anarumo, there's a very aggressive front mentality," said Belichick. "These guys are very good up front – [Sam] Hubbard, [Geno] Atkins, [Carlos] Dunlap. They have some very explosive and disruptive players up there that they cause a lot of problems, and they do a good job of creating negative plays and just generally being disruptive."
Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels echoed Belichick's observation, if there's a word to describe the Bengals front it's "aggressive" and that should challenge a Patriots offensive line that has been inconsistent this season.
"Cincinnati is an aggressive team – one-gap style on defense, really built on penetration pressure to create negative plays in long-yardage situations for the offense that they're playing against," sad McDaniels. "Lou [Anarumo] does a great job of really changing up the coverage schemes, what they're doing, how they play, their different blitz packages. This is a team that will blitz everybody. Everybody will get a turn to make some disruptive plays, which is always a challenge to your communication and ability to handle those situations well."
The Bengals also feature the top-ranked special teams in the NFL per Football Outsider's DVOA metric. For a team like the Patriots that has preyed on special teams mistakes, they will have their work cut out for them in the third phase of the game.
"Schematically they've always been one of the best special teams units that we've faced," said Belichick. "Darrin [Simmons] does a great job with fundamentals, techniques, and his units are always very well-prepared."
With no playoff spot, much less a playoff bye, locked in yet, every game in December has major ramifications. Despite the Bengals lackluster record, this is lining up to be a good challenge for a Patriots team that could use a statement win.
Practice & Injury Report
The Patriots welcomed back Ted Karras at practice but were missing Byron Cowart and Julian Edelman. It was later reported by Jeff Howe of The Athletic that it was a maintenance day for Edelman, who has been fighting injuries all season long. Clearly, a day off from a padded practice makes a lot of sense for the Patriots most valuable offensive weapon.
There were also a few new practice squad additions, including kicker Josh Gable as reported by Field Yates of ESPN. Gable gained fame with nailing long kicks on YouTube though never having played college football and spending time playing pro soccer in Europe. The other two newcomers are Eric Lee, a defensive end/linebacker who played five games with the Pats in 2017, and Adarius Pickett, an undrafted rookie safety who spent time with the Chargers this summer.
DID NOT PARTICIPATE
WR Julian Edelman, Knee / Shoulder
LB Ja'Whaun Bentley, Knee
DL Byron Cowart, Concussion
OL Ted Karras, Knee
CB Jason McCourty, Groin
WR Mohamed Sanu, Ankle
DL Danny Shelton, Shoulder
QB Tom Brady, Right Elbow
WR N'Keal Harry, Hip
Locker Room Sound Bites
Mohamed Sanu on Julian Edelman's toughness:
"Y'all don't understand how tough Jules is. That dude is tough. He is a tough son of a gun. He goes out there every day whether there's something aching, something biting, whatever the case may be. He gives it all he's got. Even when they tell him not to, he's still out there. That's what I love about him. I love to compete with him. Love to compete with him. You can see how tough he is in his play. They don't call him squirrel for nothing. He's a bad man."