The Patriots are 5-1 after a big come from behind win over the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday afternoon at Gillette Stadium. They remain a game ahead of the Buffalo Bills in the AFC East. Miami remains three games back and the Jets play tonight.
Yesterday’s game wasn’t easy nor always pretty, but the team made the adjustments they needed to make to take home the win. The second half adjustments made it a point to use the Patriots tight ends against the Bengals linebackers in space which turned out to be a big mismatch.
The defense as well made adjustments in the second half and played much tougher when they switched from a three-safety look in sub-packages to going with an extra corner in the third quarter. Sunday Eric Rowe made his Pats debut and had a key play defending A.J. Green in the end zone.
So we’ll start with the offense and the players can come forward to pick up their grade sheets.
Tom Brady had some struggles in the first half as the Bengals did a very good job or disrupting the short passing game and getting pressure on him with their front four. But late in the half, Brady heated up and had excellent production from there onward.
Brady finished another stellar performance in Gillette completing 29 of 35 for 376 yards and three more touchdown passes. He also completed his 5000th pass during the game becoming only the 4th QB in the history of the NFL to pass that milestone.
Brady continues to amaze at age 39, he shows no signs of slowing down and appears as good as ever. His pocket awareness and ability to see the field are unparalleled. System QB? In the four games he was missing, the Patriots passed for 840 yards. In the two games since his return, they’ve passed for 782.
Running Backs: B
LeGarrette Blount had some success running the ball early in the game, but the Bengals really clamped down on the running game in the second half. Blount found the going much tougher as the game went on but still managed to grind out 50 yards in 13 carries, including the one-yard touchdown that sealed the win. He also added two catches for 20 yards in the passing game.
James White celebrated a career milestone with his first two touchdown game of his career on Sunday. It is interesting to see all of these players setting career highs with Brady back at the helm, no? He had touchdown receptions of four and 15 yards and totaled 47 yards on eight receptions. He added seven carries for 19 yards in the running game.
D.J. Foster was active Sunday but was used just on the kickoff return team. He did have one return for 30 yards.
Wide Receivers: B-
The wide receivers didn’t have big statistical days on Sunday. The Bengals were doing a good job of covering them in the short-medium range and disrupting the timing.
Chris Hogan had just one catch but it was a big 39-yard reception that set the Patriots up for their first touchdown. Hogan isn’t getting a ton of receptions but he’s quickly becoming a producer of big plays when he gets his hands on the ball. While he’s caught just 13 passes on the season thus far, he’s averaging 21.2 yards per catch.
Julian Edelman chipped in four passes for 30 yards and seems like his normal burst in cutting and changing direction is still not quite 100 percent. He did return one kickoff and three punts for 49 yards including a nice 23-yard return in the fourth quarter.
Danny Amendola chipped in with two catches for 30 yards, including a key third-down reception. Malcolm Mitchell played only about a dozen snaps and didn’t register on the stat sheet.
Tight Ends: A
Last week we talked about Gronkowski looking like he was finally healed up from his hamstring injury that slowed him thru much of the summer. This week, he was dealing with a case of the stomach flu that caused him to miss Friday’s practice.
No worries, Gronkowski turned in a stellar performance catching seven passes for a career-high 162 yards and a touchdown. The big man was unstoppable in the second half as Brady targeted him on the Bengals big and physical linebackers. But they couldn’t match his athleticism. He did get caught up in the foolishness with the antics of Cincinnati, which cost the team 15-yards and a touchdown in the fourth quarter.
Martellus Bennett had a quiet first half but picked things up in the second half as well, logging five catches for 48 yards. Once again both tight ends provided very good blocking in the running and at times pass protection games.
Gronk and Bennett’s combined numbers a week ago were 11 catches for 176 yards and three TDs. On Sunday, they had 12 catches for 210 yards and a touchdown. Things are trending up with these two. They will cause some sleepless nights in Pittsburgh this week leading up to the game.
Offensive Line: B-
The team had Marcus Cannon return to action this week. As a result, Shaq Mason returned to RG and Joe Thuney returned to his normal LG position. Facing a very tough and physical Cincinnati front four, the unit had its work cut out for themselves this week.
The Bengals are deep and have sub-package players (Michael Clarke, Pat Sims) who can really help out in run support or rushing the passer and the Patriots were pressured in the first half. The OL had troubles all day consistently opening holes in the running game, and they ran for just 79 yards on the day.
Brady’s pass protection was a tale of two halves. For the majority of the first 30 minutes, Cincinnati’s pass rush of just their four down lineman were dominating the day. They were forcing him to slide in the pocket and forced him off his spot when he wanted to throw. The second half was a much better effort. Brady had much more time to throw and it showed as he used the tight ends in the passing game and had the time to look downfield more as they tightened things up.
Defensive Line: B
The Patriots defensive line was very good in the running game despite Cincinnati having 120 yards rushing on Sunday. Jeremy Hill and Giovanni Bernard combined for 87 yards rushing but did so on 28 carries. The duo averaged just 3.1 yards per carry which the Patriots will take all day long. The remaining yards were on two scrambles from Dalton and two runs by Rex Burkhead in garbage time.
The stepped up when they needed to in the goalline stand with DE Chris Long blowing up the 4th down run and allowing Elandon Roberts to fly up and make the play. The pass rush was non-existent in the first half. Once they mixed in a few A-gap blitzes by Hightower, Mingo and Roberts, it loosened things up and they got better pressure in the second half.
Moving forward, it is an area that will need to be improved as they move toward the second half of the season.
Dont’a Hightower was arguably the player of the game. He was fantastic and with the Patriots very shorthanded Sunday, he stepped his game up as leaders must do. With Jamie Collins (hip), Shea McClellin (concussion) and Jonathan Freeny (placed on IR), out this week, the onus was placed on the large shoulders of #54.
He responded with 13 tackles, 1.5 sacks and the safety that turned the game’s momentum in the third quarter. With the Bengals pushed back because of a holding penalty, Hightower looped from his left to his right untouched up the A-gap and sacked Dalton two yards deep in the end zone. The Patriots rallied and never looked back.
Elandon Roberts had a very strong game again, showing very impressive instincts and the downhill, physical style that belies his size. He chipped in with 7 tackles. He was injured early in this one but was able to return and played very well. Mingo bit on and was victimized on a double move by Bernard on a wheel route for a big 32-yard gain.
The defensive game plan needed to be changed at halftime. The secondary in their nickel package brought in an extra safety in the first half. That wasn’t working as Dalton was picking them apart. In the second half, the defense switched it up with an extra cornerback and the coverage improved dramatically.
Malcolm Butler had a really strong game. When the Bengals targeted him, they were just 3-7 for 14 yards, with a touchdown and 4 passes broken up. He got beat by Brandon LaFell to the inside on the touchdown pass, but against A.J. Green, Dalton only completed 1-4 for 4 yards with two passes defensed.
Logan Ryan and Eric Rowe were placed on Green with safety help over the top in the second half and did a great job of slowing him down. He only had a single catch for 9 yards with two passes defensed after halftime.
Devin McCourty had another strong game at safety. Pat Chung played in the slot for much of the first half but moved back to a more comfortable position later.
Special Teams: B
Stephen Gostkowski missed another kick this week, an extra point and now the concern with him gets real. He’s already missed more kicks in the first six weeks (four) than he normally does in a season. One has to wonder if Belichick starts bringing in kickers for workouts soon.
Ryan Allen was once again a difference maker in the punting game with a net average of 40.3 on Sunday. He did a great job of pinning the Bengals back with punts that either couldn’t be returned or if they were, were of no consequence. His counterpart, Kevin Huber, had a net punting average of 28.7 against the Patriots. A clear win for the Pats special teams.
Bill Belichick, Josh McDaniels, and Matt Patricia get high marks for making the adjustments that they needed to win the game. Things were going right in the first half with neither the offense or the defense. They made the changes and took over control of the game.
McDaniels changed up the passing game to use the tight ends and target the Bengals linebackers in coverage and it worked to perfection. Patricia changed his nickel packages and after getting burned by Bernard in the passing game in the first half, started to blitz more, forcing Cincinnati to leave him in to block in the second half.