The Cincinnati Bengals failed a big litmus test last week against the Dallas Cowboys, but another big one looms in Week 6 against the New England Patriots. Not many folks are giving Cincinnati a chance to even their record at 3-3, but they are still a talented squad whose backs are against the wall.
While a loss at the hands of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick still won’t spell doom for the Bengals’ chances for a 2016 playoff berth, a win could spark a major turnaround to the poor start to the season. Here are some of the biggest keys for Cincinnati to gain an improbable win at Gillette Stadium.
Ride the cliche and win in the trenches:
In the most recent rebuild of the Bengals’ roster under Marvin Lewis which started in 2011, Cincinnati has relied on great play from their offensive and defensive lines to make five straight postseason berths. A major part of the issues leading to the Bengals’ disappointing 2-3 start this year directly lies in the play of these two units.
Though quarterback sacks have been racked up by the line, pressure hasn’t been consistent, particularly in their three losses, as evidenced by their No. 17 ranking in the category through five weeks (tied with four other teams) with 10.0. In the lone win in Marvin Lewis’ 1-5 record against Belichick’s Patriots, the Bengals had four sacks of Brady. If there’s one Achilles heel to Brady’s seemingly impeccable play, it’s pressure—especially if it comes from unexpected areas.
On the other side of the ball, the once-proud Cincinnati hogs up front have inexplicably given up 17 sacks through five games, good for second-worst in the league right now. Andrew Whitworth doesn’t look like the Pro Bowl player we’ve grown accustomed to and Cedric Ogbuehi isn’t jiving well with his line mates. No one on the line has been immune to criticism either, and making quarterbacks uncomfortable is part of what makes Belichick a Hall of Fame coach.
Stout play by both units will be absolutely critical if the Bengals want to pull an upset on Sunday. And, if they play near-impeccable football, it’s very possible Cincinnati leaves New England with a win.
Brandon LaFell’s big homecoming:
After 2014, the veteran receiver was the toast of Boston, helping in a Super Bowl win over the Seahawks. However, one year later, injuries and dropped passes led to his ticket to free agency. There’s no doubt LaFell would like to stick it to the Patriots after he felt discarded in such a Belichick-ian way.
Normally, feeding A.J. Green is always at the forefront of the Bengals’ offensive strategy, but one of “the hoody’s” fortes is taking away what an opposing quarterback likes best. Let Brady do his thing while protecting him up front, pressure the opposing signal-caller and take away his security blanket. It’s a formula as to why the Patriots sprung for rental deals with Aqib Talib and Darrelle Revis.
LaFell has come under scrutiny because of what Marvin Jones previously brought to the team, but he’s made his share of plays through the first five weeks as a Bengal receiver. His two touchdowns last week against the Cowboys could be ones labeled as those gained in “garbage time”, but they sparked a mini-comeback by the Bengals, nonetheless.
Green will be bracketed to be sure, so Andy Dalton’s ancillary weapons will need to step up. It’s unclear if Tyler Eifert will suit up Sunday because of his absence at practice on Wednesday, but even if he’s there, LaFell will need to contribute as the Pro Bowl tight end gets his feet under him in his 2016 debut.
Giovani Bernard, the three-down back:
The Bengals utilize a two-back system and rightfully so, but issues in the run game, Bernard’s skill set and a shoulder injury to Jeremy Hill might bring Cincinnati’s multi-dimensional back into a huge role Sunday afternoon. Ironically, Bernard seems to be the prototypical back Belichick usually covets in the mold of Kevin Faulk.
Hill, the grinder back, is nursing a chest/shoulder injury, while Bernard continues to be the security blanket for Dalton in Eifert’s absence. Ironically, the slighter Bernard continues to show the ability to be a three-down NFL back.
Hill missed a critical block on a LaFell handoff on Sunday against the Cowboys, but Bernard’s ability to turn short passes into big gains and his pick up of blocks continue to be a game-changer for the Bengals. Personally, I love the idea of riding the big back of Hill to a victory against Belichick’s Patriots, but it seems like Bernard is just the type of weapon for the Bengals’ offense to use on Sunday.
No turnovers. Like, zero:
You can’t give freebies to Brady, Belichick and Rob Gronkowski—you just can’t. For all of the issues with the Bengals’ offensive line, the running game and new weapons struggling to get open, Dalton has taken relatively good care of the football this year. He isn’t making the forced throws that littered the early years of his career and the backs are taking care of the football.
The return game has been subpar this year, even with the much-heralded departure of Brandon Tate, so hanging onto the football there will also be paramount. In short, not only will the Bengals need to have one or fewer turnovers, they’ll need to win the overall battle.
For the record, playing “angry” and playing “undisciplined” are two completely different things. Unfortunately, the Bengals blended the line between the two last January, but everything they have told the public this offseason notes otherwise.
Cincinnati is in an odd predicament at 2-3. Not only do they see themselves as a mirror image of the Patriots in 2014 when they were facing the Bengals in Week 5, but they’re scrambling to regroup a squad that has Super Bowl aspirations.
For former athletes and coaches, sometimes thinking less and letting both instincts and emotions taking over players is the way to win an a game most don’t expect them to win. Though most fans of other teams publicly state they don’t want guys like Adam Jones and Vontaze Burfict, this seems like the perfect time for their temperaments—for better or worse.