Despite quite a few struggles on the defensive side of the ball this year, the Bengals linebackers have performed very well. In fact, in our weekly analysis of player grades from Pro Football Focus, Bengals linebackers have combined for 20 percent of the top five weekly grades for Bengals defenders. That is primarily due to the play from outside linebackers Karlos Dansby and Vincent Rey. In fact, according to Pro Football Focus, the duo ranks No. 9 and No. 1 in pass coverage, respectively.
The Bengals will need every bit of that pass coverage prowess from their linebackers against the Patriots this Sunday. That is because the Patriots boast one of the NFL’s most dangerous tight end tandems in Martellus Bennett and Rob Gronkowski.
“They’re 6-6 apiece and both athletic. They have a big advantage,” Dansby told Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com. “You have to play through the hands and there are a lot of things to do with technique. Match size and speed and just try to get in the passing lane and make it difficult to catch the ball. They body up on guys. They get open. If a guy blows coverage, they’re so sound in what they do if you mess up, Tom will find you and make a play.”
Gronkowski has had a bit of bad luck with injuries this season, but he is still one of the most talented and productive tight ends in the league when healthy. We saw this evidenced last week against the Cleveland Browns when he returned to shred their defense for 109 yards on only five catches.
Bennett has played extremely well in Gronkowski’s absence. Even after Gronkowski’s best game of the season last week, Bennett currently ranks No. 4 among tight ends in yards per game (62.8), No. 7 in catches (21), and No. 1 in touchdowns (four). Behind Gronkowski last week, Bennett continued to dominate with six receptions for 67 yards and three touchdowns.
"I don't know if Bennett's been to a Pro Bowl, but they sure look like Pro Bowl tight ends," Dre Kirkpatrick told Katherine Terrell of ESPN. "They create different matchups for linebackers. At the end of the day, we know they're going to be a problem. We just have to roll with the game plan and see what we can do as far as distracting them."
Luckily, the Bengals have performed well against tight ends this year. Their 150 yards and three touchdowns allowed rank among the top of NFL defenses against the position, and that’s largely due to the play of Rey. That said, Rey has seen both Gronkowski and Bennett in the past, so he’s not taking this matchup lightly.
“Sometimes even when they're covered they're kind of open it seems like because they're so big,” said Rey. “They're listed as 6-6 and I'm pretty sure they're taller.”
The Bengals defense has gone up against decent tight ends this season like Kellen Davis, Jesse James, Virgil Green, Dion Sims, and last week was their toughest test when it comes to tight ends against Jason Witten. Despite the level of competition, however, they have recorded mostly good results.
So, despite the sheer intimidating size and production of the Patriots’ tandem, the Bengals have proven themselves to be good enough to at least compete with Gronkowski and Bennett, or keep them in check. But, if you ask Marvin Lewis, he’ll remind you that it should be noted that this will be a very difficult challenge.
“Both players are good line-of-scrimmage players, good receivers, have been accomplished as receivers in the league,” Lewis said. “Martellus has got new life. You can see it in how he’s playing, which is good – for next week, but not for us this week. You like that about him. Gronkowski is obviously an exceptional football player.”
This matchup is going to be the biggest challenge the Bengals’ linebackers have faced all season in coverage. If they can rise to the challenge and come away with a good performance, the Bengals should have a significant chance to pull off a win in New England that so few will have predicted. If they can’t, Bennett and Gronkowski will surely have an absolute field day.