It would've been hard for the New England Patriots defense to maintain the pace they started the 2019 season with. It was a historic start that initially put them on pace to be one of the best defenses of all time.
Since early November they've tapered off, but are still among the best defenses in the league, if not the best. They're tops in third down percentage (22.6 percent), points (12.9), yards, interceptions (21) and Football Outsiders DVOA. Those are some very important and telling stats.
The concern that emerged when opponents began to actually move the ball on the Patriots defense was stopping the run. Those worries peaked when the Ravens attack put up 210 rushing yards on the heels of Nick Chubb's 131-yard rushing performance against the Patriots for the Browns in a losing effort.
But in the last two weeks the run defense has been back on track, holding Houston and Kansas City to a combined 127 yards. Since Baltimore, no team has hit their season rushing average against the Patriots defense, a trend they'll be looking to continue this weekend where the Bengals' versatile running back duo of Joe Mixon and Giovanni Bernard will provide another good test.
"Bernard's quick, he's shifty, he's got great vision, he's got good short-space quickness," said Bill Belichick. "Mixon's quick, too, but he's strong, he's a hard guy to tackle, runs through some tough tackles. Both guys can catch the ball, I think they both have almost 30 receptions, so it's not – they're good in the passing game, they're good in the running game."
Mixon has carried the heavier workload with 789 yards rushing on 206 carries to go with 230 receiving yards on 29 catches. At 6'1", 220 pounds, he's is a rare big back who is a double threat.
"We face a lot of great backs in this league, but I would say [Mixon] stands out because he has the ability to break tackles," said defensive line coach Brett Bielema. "He's powerful, but he also has a very quick burst – the things that they do with him to free him up at the line of scrimmage in between the tackles, but then he has the ability to get the edge.
"Mixon creates a lot of issues just because you do everything right and you have the ability to make a play, you've still got to get him down. That's the unique challenge of him."
Devin McCourty saw Mixon's versatility jump off the screen, but more so his physicality, a similar problem to what the Patriots saw earlier in the year with Chubb. Coming off his best performance of the season with 186 all-purpose yards against the Browns, Mixon will be a matchup problem for the Patriots to solve.
"[Mixon] can catch the ball out of the backfield," said McCourty. "He's a guy that to me has the speed and quickness and agility to really go anywhere within the run. But he has no problem dropping his head and running guys over. Really a bigger combination back that can do a lot on the field."
If The Boogeymen are to return to their early season form against the Bengals, stopping Mixon will be the first key.
Practice & Injury Report
The Patriots welcomed Julian Edelman and Byron Cowart back at practice on Thursday, but were missing left tackle Isaiah Wynn. After popping up with a new knee injury, it was a positive sign for Edelman's availability as he powers through an injury-plagued season that has yet to cost him a game as he remains on pace for a career year. He needs just 16 catches in the last three games to set a new career high (2013 - 105 catches) and is a mere 97 receiving yards away from breaking his career high for yardage (2016 - 1106).
Wynn missed practice with an eye injury and will certainly be something to monitor on Friday's practice.
DID NOT PARTICIPATE
OT Isaiah Wynn, Eye
LB Ja'Whaun Bentley, Knee
DL Byron Cowart, Concussion
WR Julian Edelman, Knee / Shoulder
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
Dont'a Hightower on the Bill Belichick-Nick Saban HBO Special "The Art of Coaching":
"I thought it was really good. I thought it spoke a lot about what those guys meant to each other and how much an effect they have on not just one another but their families as well. Just understanding what football is. A lot of times people just see, no disrespect, the McVay's of the world, they see the razzle dazzle stuff. This circumstance with Bill and Nick, understand and respect the hard work that comes in with starting from the bottom and understanding how things work. A lot of guys kinda get things handed to them. Those guys started from the bottom."