Bill Belichick took two big risks in mid-May.
On May 13, the Patriots’ head coach cut Brandon Deaderick. On May 15, he cut Kyle Love. Both players were quickly scooped up by Jacksonville. Deaderick remains on the team and has been one of the lone average spots on an otherwise horrendous defense. Love was cut at the end of the summer and remains unsigned, though he’s completely healthy and at his normal playing weight, despite battling diabetes.
By cutting both players, who had become fixtures on the defensive line, the Patriots accepted that depth could become an issue at the position. Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly would sit atop the depth chart, Armond Armstead would be waiting in the wings, and either Joe Vellano, Marcus Forston or another undrafted player would have to step up to take the fourth spot on the roster.
It did not quite work out that way. Armstead underwent surgery in July for an undisclosed infection, Forston never emerged during training camp and Wilfork was lost for the season with a torn Achilles last week. That left just Kelly, Vellano and Texans and Buccaneers retread Chris Jones on the depth chart at defensive tackle. Belichick took another risk by choosing to sign a linebacker and safety off the practice squad for special-teams purposes rather than either defensive tackle, Forston or A.J. Francis.
That decision came back to bite the Patriots in the fourth quarter when Kelly had to come out of the game on fourth-and-one. The Patriots had to play Jake Bequette and Dane Fletcher in the goal line defense. They let up a one-yard touchdown run to BenJarvus Green-Ellis.
Somehow, that short-yardage defense held up later in the game when New England had to hold Green-Ellis on third-and-two with less than two minutes left in the game.
That stand summed up the defensive performance for the day. No matter how many tough situations they were put in, they held up for the most part.
The Patriots’ offense could not stay on the field. Cincinnati won the time-of-possession battle 34:16 to 25:44. Punter Ryan Allen finally started putting them in decent field position late in the game, but prior to that, they constantly had to defend the Bengals after the offense had done nothing to contribute.
The Patriots proved once again why they have been praised so highly this season. There were occasional rough spots, but for the most part Aqib Talib, Alfonzo Dennard, Kyle Arrington, Devin McCourty and Steve Gregory stopped Cincinnati’s receivers, Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes and Dont’a Hightower stuffed the line and Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich got after the passer. Joe Vellano had another strong game in defending the run, Tommy Kelly wound up with a key sack and Chris Jones recorded his first 1 1/2 sacks of his NFL career.
The Patriots have to be hoping Kelly’s non-contact knee injury is minor, but the whole unit is playing so well that while losing Kelly would hurt, it wouldn’t tank the season.
The defense did their part for the fifth game in a row. They tried to bail out the offense. McCourty forced a fumble midway through the fourth quarter recovered by Mayo. The offense responded by going three-and-out and the defense had to (and did) do it all over again.
The offense is hoping Rob Gronkowski, Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen will be saviors. The defense has to just continue doing what they have been doing. Because it’s working.