8:25 PM EST, NBC – Line: New England -Pk
Teams trending in opposite directions meet tonight in Foxboro, Massachusets, as the struggling New England Patriots host the undefeated Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday Night Football. It’s a rare sight indeed, but with a quarter of the Regular Season already in the books, the Partiots (2-2) have the look of a vulnerable team in need of help in many areas. Simply put, the offense has been a mess, with the lone exception being Week Two’s 30-7 drubbing of the Vikings. Apart from that, they were uncharacteristically outscored 23-0 in the second half of the Opener at Miami in what became a 33-20 defeat, and very nearly fell at home to the woeful Raiders in Week Three in a 16-9 victory, saved by a late holding call in the Red Zone followed by an improbable interception from Nose Tackle Vincent Wilfork. However none of that compared to the beating they sustained at Arrowhead Field last Monday, as the Chiefs took them to the woodshed in a 41-14 debacle.
So what in the name of Adam Viniateri is going on in New England? Well, quite frankly, the offense stinks. Through four games, the Patriots have averaged 20.0 points (24th overall) on 312.8 yards of offense (29th overall), including 215.3 passing yards (30th overall) and 97.5 rushing yards (23rd overall) per game. Most surprising is the collapse of the passing attack, which has been one of the most prolific in the league over the past four seasons. In fact, since 2010 Bill Belichick’s offense has ranked eleventh, second, fourth, and tenth in passing yards. However, what has clearly been the strength of the team for so long has quickly deteriorated into a weakness courtesy of a make-shift Offensive Line that has rarely afforded two-time MVP Tom Brady a clean pocket from which to operate from. As a result, Brady is posting career-worsts across the board; in 2014, the 37-year old has completed 59.1% of his passes for 197.8 yards on just 5.8 yards per attempt, with four touchdowns and a pair of interceptions, with a Passer Rating of 79.1. He’s also been sacked nine times thus far, which would put him on pace for 36 sacks, marking just the third time in his fifteen-year career that he had been dropped for a loss more than 35 times. With the constant pressure, Brady has had to resort to getting the ball even quicker, attempting more and more short throws; New England ranks next-to-last in the league this season in Net Yards per Attempt (5.2), with Brady personally ranking last among the 32 starting Quarterbacks in the NFL (5.07). At Kansas City last Monday Night, he never appeared to be settled in the pocket, completing 14-of-23 passes for just 159 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions, while losing a pair of fumbles.
For a franchise that has made a living over the last fifteen years on brilliant offseason transactions and savvy drafting, the Patriots have really struggled in this department recently. The most curious move came shortly before the beginning of the Regular Season, when Belichick inexplicably traded away Pro-Bowl Left Guard Logan Mankins to the Buccaneers for draft picks. Many questioned the timing of the transaction, which has sent the Offensive Line into a state of disarray that they have yet to escape from. Think about it for a second; no position grouping thrives off of continuity more than the Offensive Line, so why would you jettison the undisputed leader and most experienced member so shortly before the Opener? Furthermore, if you were resigned to trading him, why wouldn’t you do it earlier int he offseaosn so that the remainder of the Line could adjust and compensate for his absence? Indeed, these are all questions that have been thrown Belichick’s way, but it’s not just Brady that has been affected, for the running game has fallen off as well. In 2013, New England averaged 129.1 yards per game on the ground on a healthy 4.4 yards per carry, with the tandem of Stevan Ridley and LeGarrette Blount rushing for 773 and 772 yards respectively, and seven touchdowns apiece. This season, Blount has moved on in Free Agency, and the rushing attack has averaged a paltry 97.5 yards on a mere 3.7 yards per attempt. Outside of the blowout in Minnesota where they trampled the Vikings to the tune of 150 yards, the backfield has racked up 89, 76, and 75 yards in the other three outings. Bryan Stork and Daniel Connely have not played up to par on the interior of the Offensive Line, depriving the offense of any push in the trenches. Add it all up, and these problems do not bode well as one of the league’s better Defensive Lines comes calling tonight.
Meanwhile, there are just two remaining unbeatens in the NFL, and one of them is the Bengals (3-0), who would have to be one of the clear favorites to come out of the AFC at this juncture of the season. In his twelfth year on the job, Marvin Lewis has subtly crafted one of the more complete teams in the NFL, possessing a balance between both sides of the ball rare in today’s game. After emerging from an ugly 23-16 victory at Baltimore in the Opener, Cincinnati handled the Falcons (24-10) and Titans (33-7) with relative ease in the following weeks en route to an early Bye Week. Defensively, they’ve been as staunch as ever, allowing a mere 11.0 points per game (1st overall) on 352.6 yards (15th overall), a disparity made possible by a wealth of takeaways, seven to be exact, good for the high-water mark in the league. Long regarded as a defensive mastermind, Lewis has his charges playing with a chip on their shoulder, which could really wreck havoc against a Patriots’ offense that has resembled a lame dog. When these teams met last year, the Bengals trumped the Pats 13-6, relegating the visitors to 248 yards, and snapping Brady’s 42-game streak with a touchdown pass in the process.
Through three games, Cincinnati has been particularly stout against the pass. Despite giving up 239.3 yards through the air (16th overall), the Bengals have yielded the fewest passing touchdowns in the league (two), and have in turn registered the most interceptions (six), though only taking part in three games. Furthermore, opposing Quarterbacks are averaging a league-low 4.9 Net Yards per Attempt against them, meaning that they’ve done a tremendous job in sealing off the deep ball. Case in point; in Week Two they faced Matt Ryan and Atlanta’s prolific aerial assault, but nevertheless limited them to just 212 yards 24-of-44 passing, permitting one touchdown while producing three interceptions. Cornerback Leon Hall has performed well after returning from an ACL tear that ended his season prematurely in 2013, while Terrence Newman continues to defy his age (36), fending off Dre Kirkpatrick and Darqueze Dennard, whom were both drafted in the First Round in recent years. Up front, Geno Atkins is one of , if not the most, disruptive Defensive Tackles in the NFL, collapsing the pocket so that his cohorts can make plays. Though he hasn’t logged a sack yet, he’s opened opportunities up for Defensive End Carlos Dunlap, whose three sacks lead the team. Tackling machine Vontaze Burfict has been a difference-maker at Weakside Linebacker when healthy this season, but is currently listed as doubtful for tonight’s contest after continuing to feel the ill-effects of a concussion suffered against the Falcons.
Earlier, we mentioned that this team was balanced, and they pack just as much talent on the offensive side of the ball as they do on defense. Now in his fourth season as the starter, Andy Dalton has shown a good deal of improvement at Quarterback, completing 65.5% of his passes for 240.7 yards per game on 8.6 yards per attempt, with two touchdowns and one interception, posting a Passer Rating 95.4. Unlike his counterpart tonight, Dalton has received excellent protection, as he remains one of a small handful of starting signal-callers that has yet to be sacked this season. Many questioned how the young passer would continue to develop with former Offensive Coordinator Jay Gruden off to the nation’s Capital, but in truth it looks like that departure has been the best thing to happen to him; with Hue Jackson now calling plays, the Bengals have been dynamic in possession, producing more big plays than they had in any of the previous three seasons under Gruden’s guidance. Thus far, Cincinnati has averaged 26.7 points (7th overall) on 384.0 yards (7th overall), including 263.3 through the air (11th overall) and another 121.7 on the ground (15th overall). Rushing-wise, they’ve been fairly mediocre, netting 3.6 yards per attempt, but Jackson has shown a commitment to running the ball, doing so more times than any other team in the league (34.0). This has opened up the possibility of play-action which has helped them to average a healthy 8.9 Net Yards per Pass, again good for best in the NFL. Trickery has been incorporated more into the fray as well, with Receiver and former Rutgers’ Quarterback Mohamed Sanu going 2-for-2 on passes, for 68 yards, and a score. Pro-Bowl Wideout AJ Green continues to be the focus of the passing attack, leading the Bengals with a dozen catches for 233 yards (19.4 yards/catch) and a touchdown.