First, Tom Brady has a new contract. Second, Brady should employ his offensive linemen to double as traffic cops during his morning commute. And third, the Bengals have Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens, who love the spotlight as much as they love catching passes.
So let's forget all of that for now and dive into the X's and O's. Here's what the Patriots will be looking at when they line up against Cincinnati on Sunday at Gillette Stadium.
Cincinnati's defense is led by its athletic front seven and starting cornerbacks. They play a 4-3 base, and defensive end Antwan Odom, who had eight sacks though five games before getting hurt last season, is the anchor. It will be of the utmost importance for tackles Matt Light and Sebastian Vollmer to contain the Bengals' toughest pass rusher.
The three starting linebackers — Keith Rivers, Dhani Jones and Rey Maualuga — are fast, physical and good tacklers, and they make it tough to run the ball.
The Bengals' starting cornerbacks — Leon Hall and Jonathan Joseph — are fast cover guys who emerged as one of the best tandems in the league in 2009. They've also added Pacman Jones, who plays the role of nickelback but can also slide to the outside in some occasions. Jones, the troubled former first-round pick, looks like he's playing pretty good football on film.
The Patriots' best bet is to attack Cincinnati's safeties, who are hard hitters but lack coverage skills. Roy Williams is the best example of that. The Bengals signed Gibril Wilson this offseason with the hopes that he would take Williams' spot, but Wilson suffered a season-ending injury over the summer. Williams has earned a big-play reputation, but he gambles too often, which results in missed tackles and blown coverages. Chris Crocker has better range and coverage skills than Williams.
The Bengals have a tough defense, and the Patriots' best bet is to spread it out and try to exploit the middle of the defense in the passing game. Use the rookie tight ends — Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski — along with Wes Welker and Julian Edelman in seam routes to isolate the linebackers and safeties, who are much better against the run than the pass. Of course, keeping Brady upright will go a long way in that regard.
Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer got a couple of new rookie weapons in the offseason — tight end Jermaine Gresham and wide receiver Jordan Shipley. Cincinnati has already drawn up specific plays to get the ball to Gresham, who is big, physical, fast and has great hands, similar attributes to Gronkowski, though Gresham was a higher pick.
Shipley will line up in the slot and led the Bengals with 14 preseason receptions. Patriots cornerbacks have noticed Shipley gets a lot of looks on third down, too, so it's already apparent that Palmer has established a connection with him.
Cedric Benson has revitalized his career with the Bengals, reaching 1,251 yards last season in just 13 games. He's a physical guy, and it takes effort to bring him down. Also, the Bengals will run off tackle more often than not — they're not much of a straight-up-the-middle running team — so the Patriots could potentially use Vince Wilfork at defensive end if they notice Cincinnati targeting one side over the other.
The Bengals also use a lot of max-protect sets — typically meaning they'll utilize two extra blockers and only sending three players into passing routes — which leads the Patriots to believe there could be a weakness on the whole of Cincinnati's offensive line.
And finally, of course, there are the headline grabbers in the Bengals' passing game. Palmer is coming off a down year with just 3,094 passing yards. Granted, he didn’t have anyone to really throw the ball to other than Ochocinco, who is still the dangerous outside threat. Owens has given more size and speed to Cincinnati's passing game, and young Patriots cornerbacks Darius Butler and Devin McCourty must be on their game.
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