It’s fair to call Dont’a Hightower’s sack of Andy Dalton in the end zone for a safety the turning point of the New England Patriots’ win over the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick, however, had a much simpler explanation for what jerked New England’s offense out of its first-half slumber.
“Well, the biggest thing for us (Sunday) was just, when we were able to avoid the negative plays and stay out of long yardage, we moved the ball fairly well,” Belichick said Monday morning in a conference call with reporters. “But we got into third-and-12, third-and-11, third-and-15, third-and-30. In some of those down-and-distance situations, it’s hard.”
The Patriots found themselves in far too many of those long-yardage situations early in Sunday’s contest, which New England went on to win 35-17. After Stephen Gostkowski kicked a field goal on the Patriots’ opening drive, a mix of penalties and sacks forced Belichick’s team to face a third-and-10 or longer on each of its next four possessions.
Those four drives produced just seven points, which came after an illegal contact penalty on Bengals cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick on third-and-18 gave New England a fresh set of downs. Quarterback Tom Brady found James White six plays later for the Patriots’ only touchdown of the first half.
“We were fortunate we got off the hook on third-and-(18) there with an illegal contact penalty, which was part of a touchdown drive,” Belichick said. “But when we were able to pick up first downs or get into third-and-4, 5, 6, in those areas, where you have a chance to run the ball, you can throw to any of your receivers for 4 or 5 yards, you have a lot of options, and it’s a lot easier to execute in those situations.
“I mean, you still have to do a good job of it, but you have a lot more options. With third-and-30 or third-and-15, how many guys on the field can you actually get to that distance to have a chance to pick up the yardage? It’s not very many.”
The Patriots’ offense finally stabilized midway through the third quarter. After Hightower’s safety cut Cincinnati’s lead to 14-12, New England needed just nine plays to score two rapid-fire touchdowns that put the team ahead for good.
Two late penalties on Rob Gronkowski forced the Patriots to settle for a field goal on their second-to-last drive of the game, but by that point, the outcome already had been all but decided.
“When we were able to play the game on our terms, we had more success,” Belichick said. “When we had negative runs, sacks, penalties and were in a lot of long-yardage situations, then that was a problem. I’d say those negative plays were a combination of everything. A couple plays weren’t great plays. We had some blocking breakdowns. We had some breakdowns in the passing game at all positions.
“When those negative plays happen and we’re in long yardage, that’s not where you want to be against a team like Cincinnati.”
It’s also not where one would want to be against any of the Patriots’ next three opponents — the Pittsburgh Steelers, Buffalo Bills and Seattle Seahawks — who enter Week 7 with a combined record of 12-5.
Thumbnail photo via Stew Milne/USA TODAY Sports Images