Here we go.
Despite the lingering stench of hollow disbelief in the Bengals one detects among the dross of national football writing, this is the same tough-as-nails team as last year, only deeper and more talented. The road is challenging, but the doubters will see once more in due time.
The first demonstration of their might comes this Sunday in New England, where they encounter a team with superstar gloss, but with a soft foundation.
Patriots offense vs. Bengals defense
Yes, Tom Brady is amazing, one of the best of all time, immediate Hall-of-Famer, blah, blah, blah. The same for Randy Moss. Neither player's production is expected to drop off, and there are no secrets to their ability. Fine. The others on offense are far more interesting story-lines than Brady/Moss=Good, so let's do that instead.
The next best player on the Pats offense is no doubt Wes Welker. This little tough-guy has a pair of sure hands, is somehow hard to tackle, and has become Brady's b.f.f. in the last few years. He is excellent at finding open spaces underneath and converting third-and-mediums. He plays best in the slot where he can work the middle of the field and become the ultimate safety-valve when Moss is covered. Welker has caught over 100 passes the last three years, and averaged nine a game last season. The bummer for Wes was blowing out his knee in Week 17 and missing the 2009 Playoffs, but he's back and ready to show the world he hasn't lost a step. Considering his game was never of the speed-burner variety, I don't think it will hamper him all that much, but if he finds it difficult to plant and change directions on that knee, he may have problems.
The last receiver in the mix is Welker-prototype, Julian Edelman, who once played quarterback at Kent State and is a good return-man too. Edelman looked comfortable as a third receiver for a seventh-round draft choice learning a new position last year, and I would think that his role will expand this season in the Pats' scheme.
New England's play-calling is heavy on shotgun formations often using four and sometimes five receivers. Because Welker and Edelman are so effective in the slot, I would suspect we see them both running crosses and underneath routes, which forces defenses to creep up their coverage on passing downs and frees up Randy Moss deep.
Defensively, the Bengals will have to keep the slot receivers in front of them and make tackles right away. Expect to see the linebackers drop back a few feet on the snap rather than blitzing all that much. Johnathan Joseph has to run with Moss almost exclusively as there is no one else fast enough, and there should be some safety help on Moss' deeper patterns. New England's pass protection is listed as one of their concerns-especially with guard Logan Mankins sitting at home unhappy with his contract-so the defensive line could get enough pressure by themselves to at least hurry Brady into delivering the ball early. Typically, I am a blitz-all-day kinda guy, and Baltimore won their playoff game against the Pats doing just that, but I don't think that the team speed of the Bengals' defense allows one to gamble with the blitz against such an expert passer. If a nickel corner or linebacker blitzes and Brady reads it and gets the ball out quickly, does the secondary have the recovery speed to keep it from becoming an "explosive" play? I'm not so sure.
The strength of this defense is to contain and tackle. They are a strong and disciplined unit that doesn't need to risk much as long as they can get their hands on the opponent. If it becomes a track meet, they're in trouble, and that's exactly what New England will try to do-spread their receivers out and run by the Bengals.
As for their running game, it's average at best, isn't used all that often, and should not produce a 100-yard rusher against the stout Cincinnati run defense.
Bengals offense vs. Patriots defense
It's safe to call New England a finesse team, and when speaking of offenses, that can be a compliment, but if it's the defense that is called finesse, it hurts. Actually it's a polite code word for calling a defense soft, which is fighting words, yet that's what I suspect this Patriots defense is-soft.
They have a very large human specimen by the name of Vince Wilfork; a man who resembles something that dwells in mountainous caves and hunts Sasquatch. This bearded monstrosity was paid buckets and buckets of cash for being large and swallowing up running backs, and throughout his career, he has done both quite effectively. They also have a studly middle linebacker, Jarod Mayo, who has developed into an All-Pro caliber player and should continue to impress this season. Outside of those two, however, I don't see much worth writing about.
There are no vicious pass-rushers and no lurking ball-hawks on this team. From what I've read, many Patriots fans are upset that the team didn't make more of an effort to bring in new talent on defense. The mastermind Bill Belichick makes them better by himself, but if he has no worthwhile talent to work with, how far can he stretch his magic?
It all adds up to a nice debut for the revamped Bengals passing attack. I still don't know who defenses will key on in regards to the Bengals offense, but, honestly, it doesn't seem to matter. To be fair, though, we Bengal fans might be giving both Jordan Shipley and Jermaine Gresham a bit too much credit. They haven't played when it counts, and they still have to prove themselves under live ammunition. Still, both look mighty impressive entering their pro careers and if the Patriots take them lightly, each will get looks from Carson Palmer.
The best defense to a great quarterback like Tom Brady is keeping him off of the field. The Bengals offense should initially not go for the jugular and throw deep, but rather try to move steadily down the field by converting third downs and using up clock. This way, not only does it keep Brady and Moss on the sideline, it wears down their defense and forces them to creep up to stop the short stuff. Both Shipley and Gresham make up a major part of the short-stuff strategy, so their impact must be immediately felt. Once they're both established as threats, Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens can get loose on New England's greenhorn corners. If the pass-protection holds up and Palmer looks as sharp as he has in the preseason, this could be a big day for the offense as a whole.
Of course everything isn't going to go as swimmingly for the Bengals as mentioned here. Penalties and turnovers can strike at any moment and the perfect game-plan can be rendered suddenly useless. New England is not a chump team by any means. They are an organization who has a firm grip on how to win in the NFL. Foxboro is a tough place to just stroll into and walk away a winner. It's serious business, and the Bengals had better treat it as such. Nevertheless, this should be a win. New England is fancy and fleet of foot, but they simply aren't as tough and gritty as Cincinnati.
Bengals 28, Patriots 20
Mojokong-set the tone.