Gillette Stadium is a difficult place for opposing teams to enter and win inside of. Last time the Bengals faced the Patriots in Foxborough, New England slaughtered Cincinnati in a 43-17 victory. That’s not to say the Bengals haven’t ever beaten the Patriots. In 2013, Adam Jones and the Bengals’ secondary ended a 52-game streak in which Tom Brady had a touchdown pass in each game. Brady’s streak fell just two games short of Drew Brees’ record of 54 consecutive games with a touchdown pass, as the Bengals came away with a huge victory. What will happen this week? We spoke with Rich Hill of Pats Pulpit to get a closer look at this year’s Patriots team.
Connor Howe: Tom Brady is back. His remarkable performance in Cleveland was no surprise to anyone. In his first game back at Gillette Stadium, do you think last week's momentum will carry into Sunday? Or is the game between New England and Cincinnati just another game on the schedule?
Rich Hill: A little of column A, a little of column B. Last week, head coach Bill Belichick made a point of not talking about Tom Brady. Brady isn't our savior, he seemed to be telling the team and media after an ugly game against the Bills. He wanted the team to get better, regardless of who was playing under center. I'm sure that will be the message for next week, too.
But it's hard for the team not to get a little amped up. Brady will be playing his home opener and his teammates like Rob Gronkowski, Martellus Bennett, Julian Edelman, and Chris Hogan have been thrilled to have Brady back. Brady is going to try and put on a big show in Foxboro.
CH: Along with Brady's re-emergence post-suspension, NFL fans also saw Gronkowski remind everyone he's still the best tight end in football. But Bennett, who scored three touchdowns against the Browns, wasn't far behind. With two premier tight ends and an established running game, do you think we'll see a lot of two tight end and jumbo sets?
RH: Absolutely. The Patriots played the two-tight end set for roughly two-thirds of Brady's offensive snaps (Jimmy Garoppolo subbed in early in the 4th quarter). And it probably would have been closer to 100% if Bennett didn't hurt his ankle on the opening drive. Both Gronkowski and Bennett are good enough blockers to win their one-on-ones against defensive ends, and good enough receivers to win their one-on-ones against linebackers or defensive backs in coverage.
The Patriots rely heavily on the play action pass to draw defenders out of position and to generate easy separation and the two tight ends make the run call extremely convincing. Bennett's third touchdown is the perfect example, as the Patriots showed run, the Browns put on personnel to defend against the run, and then both Gronkowski and Bennett sprinted down the field. Neither Gronkowski, nor Bennett was 100%, so the offense will continue to improve with their returned health. Look for offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to plant seeds with two tight ends on film in the first half that will be harvested in the second half.
CH: Tell me about this Patriots defense. Obviously Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hightower are two of the best linebackers in football, but how is the rest of the team playing? Does New England miss Chandler Jones on the edge, and if not, who has picked up the slack?
RH: Hightower actually hasn't really played that much over the past four weeks due to an MCL injury. He missed Weeks 2 and 3, was clearly hampered by his injury against the Bills in Week 4, and the coaching staff decided to play him less than half of the snaps against the Browns. The team has struggled to find a good replacement, but they finally settled on rookie Elandon Roberts who had a fantastic game against Cleveland.
"Struggled", of course, is a relative term. The Patriots rank 6th in the NFL in points allowed per drive and would probably be higher if not for garbage time scores against prevent defenses by the Dolphins and Browns. While the defense doesn't really have any "superstars", although Collins is reaching those levels, everyone is pretty good. The team rolls three- or four-deep with starting-caliber players at every position other than DT and CB, where they rely heavily on rookie and sophomore players.
Young depth at defensive tackle isn't that big of a problem, but it's the cornerback position that raises some questions. Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan have flashed their potential, but they aren't playing to the same level as 2015. 2nd years Justin Coleman and Eric Rowe, and rookies Cyrus Jones and Jonathan Jones fill out the depth chart and they've played like rookies and sophomores (other than Rowe, who has been battling an ankle injury and hasn't seen the field).
The edge defender role has certainly missed Chandler Jones since he would've elevated the unit to new heights. But the trio of Jabaal Sheard, Chris Long, and Trey Flowers have done pretty well, and Rob Ninkovich is now back from suspension and he'll see some time, too. Long started out the season well, but he's struggled the past two weeks and I wonder if it would be better for Flowers to serve as the starter and for Long to be the substitute.
CH: Despite a home loss to the Bills (and playing Brady-less prior to last week), the Patriots have only turned the ball over one time over the past three weeks. How does New England keep this streak alive?
RH: While the Patriots have done a good job of avoiding interceptions (maybe three or four interceptable passes all season), the Patriots have been awful at holding on to the football. Last week against the Browns was the first time all season that the Patriots didn't fumble. The Patriots have the 3rd most fumbles in the NFL (12), behind the Chargers (14) and Browns (13). New England has just been very lucky that these fumbles have gone out of bounds or were self-induced in the backfield so the players could just fall on them.
I'm sure Belichick has been harping on the Patriots to hold on to the football over the past few weeks. Interception avoidance, however, is entirely schematic. Turnovers lose games, so McDaniels has created an offense that is completely risk averse in the sense that quarterbacks are coached not to throw risky footballs. That doesn't mean they don't attempt deep throws, but it means that the team will avoid throwing into double coverage and that there will usually be a player open for a 3-yard gain so the offense can regroup and fight another down.
CH: How are the Pats looking along the injury front?
RH: New England is in pretty good shape. Other than 3rd string QB Jacoby Brissett (thumb), the only players out for extended periods of time are those that started the season on the physically unable to perform list- and they get to return after this week.
As I mentioned earlier, Hightower has been dealing with an injury, as has Gronkowski and Bennett and Edelman and others, but these are more minor as far as football injuries are concerned. Maybe they'll miss a week or two, or be limited in practice, but the Patriots make the active decision to rest a player for a week longer than necessary to ensure they're 100%.
The players that missed last week's game include starting RT Marcus Cannon (and his back-up Cameron Fleming played better than Cannon has all season), 3rd string RB Brandon Bolden (knee), rotational DT Vincent Valentine (back), and back-up SLB Shea McClellin (concussion).
CH: And finally, give us your score prediction:
RH: I think the Patriots will win 27-17 and I'm going purely off of points per drive (PPD).
If you average the Bengals PFPD and the Patriots PAPD, you get roughly 1.50 PPD for Cincinnati. If you average the Bengals PAPD and the Patriots PFPD when they have Brady (2.58 PFPD against the Browns, average of 2.5 PPD in 2014-15) you get 2.25 PPD for New England.
Both the Bengals and the Patriots are averaging 11 drives per game, which yields a rough 25-17 final score. I give the Patriots a couple bonus points for home field advantage.