Tag Archives: Brandon LaFell

Sorting out the Patriots Issues During the Bye Week

Steve Balestrieri
November 8, 2019 at 7:00 am ET

The Patriots only held one practice during the bye week, on Wednesday, and then the players were given some needed time off to rest and recuperate. If you bet that after the loss to the Ravens on Sunday night that the coaches would keep them here all week in pads, you’d have been wrong. 

This is telling in that it says that the issues facing the team aren’t physical and Bill Belichick doesn’t feel that they need to practice doing things that they aren’t doing well so that practice makes perfect. No, this means that the coaches have done, and are still doing no doubt a healthy dose of self-scouting. The issues that the team is facing are more scheme-related than physical. Which includes the defense, and we’ll get to those. 

But first, let’s take a quick look at what we feel are two of the biggest issues facing the team after deciphering the first nine games of game film have been watched, watched again and analyzed. 

The Team Needs to Fix Their Red Zone Production:

Despite being one of the top-scoring teams (1st in points, 2nd in Points per Game) in the NFL, the Patriots have not been anywhere near as efficient as they have in years past. In fact, in the red zone, the Patriots currently rank 21st in red-zone production tied with the (gasp!) New York Jets at 50 percent. That is down from 62.18 percent from a year ago. 

Part of the reason they have struggled in the red zone is three-fold. They have struggled to run the football. Their tight end production is way down, and so is the production from their outside or “X” wide receiver.  Missing their left tackle, center, fullback James Develin and having both starting tight ends being dinged up for most of this season doesn’t help with the running game. 

Not that anyone really expected Matt LaCosse and Ryan Izzo to block as much as well as Rob Gronkowski and Dwayne Allen did a year ago. Having these issues compounds the entire picture. While some will point to Sony Michel as being the issue, that is too simplistic and ignores the fact that there is often nowhere to run and he’s getting hit in the backfield.

Gronkowski was a tremendous red-zone threat in the passing game. Izzo and LaCosse? Not so much. Missing Gronkowski in the passing game was known to be a given. But their lack of production in the red area combined by their big “X” WR and TE are both show stoppers. Much more was expected out of both positions. LaCosse has three catches for 55 yards on the season and has been hurt more than anyone on the offense. Izzo, a blocking specialist, has six catches for 114 yards and a score. Ben Watson has played in the last three games and has 8 catches for 72. Put together, the tight end production is not going to cut it. 

Josh Gordon was placed on IR and then released, being picked up by the Seahawks. But in six games, he only had 20 receptions for 287 yards and just one touchdown this season. Added together, it is a weakness that opponents have taken advantage of and needs fixing. 

The problems along the offensive line have been well documented at this point and the lion’s share of the blame has been heaped on backup left tackle Marshall Newhouse. Is it correct? Look he hasn’t been great, but putting all of the blame on him is unfair and untrue. Neither Shaq Mason nor Marcus Cannon has played anything close to their level that we’ve come to expect. Although Cannon was better on Sunday night against the Ravens. 

Getting Isaiah Wynn back against Dallas will certainly help but will be no panacea for the OL as a whole. Wynn should immediately help in the running game and we’ll have to see how well he holds up in the passing game. But the offensive line as a whole needs to get healthy and perform better. Wynn will help. But Newhouse has been the convenient whipping boy but in truth, it is the group that needs to improve overall. 

At tight end, Watson will continue to see more targets as he finds a comfort level in the offense and his timing gets better with Tom Brady. What the team really needs is for either Izzo or LaCosse to step up, preferably both. But at this point, they are what they are and I’d be surprised if they got anything different than what they’ve gotten up to this point. 

They’re going to have to live with what they have for the rest of this season. Watson, although 38-years old, is much more viable than the others in the passing game. The fades and crosses that we saw him practice with Brady during side sessions in training camp need to get dusted off and used again. This is a position that the team will need to address, and address in a big way next year, either through free agency or the draft, possibly both. 

At the WR position, it seems obvious that N’Keal Harry “should” provide a big part of the answer. The Patriots invested a 1st-round draft pick in Harry and despite some of the bobos who are already asking if he’s a bust, he was supposed to be one of the best WRs coming out of the draft at getting his hands on contested passes. 

He has the frame (6’4, 225) that is ready-made for working the same part of the field that Gordon was working earlier this season. He’s big, athletic and physical. He’s not going to stretch the field vertically but those side sessions with Brady during the summer had him working fades, back-shoulder throws, and quick outs and slants. 

But he’s not going to be the focus on the red zone production. It is a lot, too much to ask of a rookie who’s been hurt and hasn’t played a down yet. He should see plenty of reps but then who will the offense lean on more in the red area? Mohamed Sanu. 

Sanu has good size (6’2, 210) and should easily fulfill the Brandon Lafell role in the Super Bowl year. Sanu had 10 catches in just his second week with the team and caught a what? Yes, a red-zone touchdown last week. He and Julian Edelman will continue to work in and out of the slot and create some mismatches. 

So getting Wynn back, adding Harry and putting more on Sanu and Watson’s plates should help to get the passing game going. In the running game, look for Rex Burkhead (if he can stay on the field) and James White to get more play in the running game in the red zone. That’s not blaming Sony Michel for the lack of production, but if they use the other two more, it gives them a more versatile look with the run/pass option where Sony is more run focused.  

Is the Run Defense Vulnerable? Don’t Sweat It Too Much: 

Oh my, after Sunday, social media had the “blueprint” to beat New England. The run defense was the Achilles Heel and the sky was definitely falling. “Can they win any of the next four games?” Take a deep breath folks and relax. 

What we saw against Cleveland and then against Baltimore was scheme-related and is easily fixable. The Patriots against the Browns were protecting the pass playing a lighter front in an attempt to take away the pass and weren’t overly worried about giving up some yardage in the running game. Obviously, the long run that was fumbled by Nick Chubb was something that they accept, but that was more of a missed tackle(s) thing than anything. 

Against the Ravens, the OL of Baltimore did and should get a ton of credit for being the more physical and dominant unit. But the coaching staff, something Bill Belichick said in his postgame comments didn’t put the defense in a good position to succeed. 

The Patriots went to their 3-4 base and their interior players mainly Danny Shelton and Lawrence Guy who have both been outstanding this season were asked to two-gap against the Ravens running schemes. 

Instead of zone running schemes that they normally employ, the Ravens attacked the gaps and the passive nature of the two-gap system was a poor choice and put their big men in a difficult position to win. 

After the first couple of possessions, they switched things up and went to a four-man front and were attempting to penetrate and disrupt the running game by attacking it. That is the correct way to try to counter the powerful Ravens running game. Does it guarantee success? Of course not, but it offered a better way. 

Instead of having Jamie Collins as an outside linebacker, where he got overplaying the running game early, he was moved inside with Dont’a Hightower and was asked to be a penetrator. 

We know the NFL is a copy-cat league, the Eagles will try some of what we saw from Baltimore, and the Cowboys and Texans can definitely attempt more of the same. Something tells me that the coaches will have this figured out by next week in Philadelphia. The Eagles are running the ball a lot more lately as they take advantage of a heavier running package…we’ll have more of that next week when we do our pregame look at the matchups. 

As it appears here, the issues they had were more scheme-related than a personnel weakness. And those are easily fixable. If there is anyone who can make changes on the fly and in mid-season better than Bill Belichick, we haven’t seen him. 

That’s why they play the games…  

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

 

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcasts as the writers Russ Goldman, Derek Havens and I from PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news and game analysis.

New England Patriots News 12-18, AFC East Notes

Steve Balestrieri
December 18, 2016 at 5:00 am ET

Good morning, here are Sunday’s Patriots news 12-18, and AFC East Notes for this week.

Ever Wonder What It is Like to be a Part of the End Zone Militia?
Everyone who has ever been to or watched a Patriots game on television knows who the Patriots End Zone Militia is. Every time LeGarrette Blount scores a touchdown at home, he rushes to take a photo with the group. They are instantly recognizable in their Colonial garb but much of the background information on them is still cloaked in the shadows.

We were able to sit down with one of the senior members of the militia, Bob Elliott this week. Bob and his wife Katherine are a wonderful couple who are actively involved in Millbury’s Asa Waters Mansion. Not surprisingly, it is a Colonial-era mansion that maintains the look and feel of that era. Katherine, until recently was the Executive Director there until retiring. Bob and members of the militia have appeared at events there as well.

I asked Bob how the militia got started and was surprised to learn it wasn’t with the Pats. “No, it wasn’t,” he said. “The group originally got started with the New England Revolution (soccer team). It wasn’t until later the group starting attending Patriots games in the old stadium.”

Bob has been with the group since 1998 and has seen plenty of Patriots games with the best standing spot (they don’t sit) in the stadium. So…I asked, ‘How does one become a member of the Militia?’ Bob laughed, “it is a question we get asked a lot,” he said. “You have to be a regular Revolutionary War reenactor for about 5-years, and have to own all of your own gear.”

“And if there is an opening, we’ll bring someone on board.”  But don’t hold your breath. Bob has seen only about 3-4 additions in his 18 years there as some members move away or retire. There are 37 members of the End Zone Militia but only 20 work each game, 10 in each end zone. When members have family or other commitments, they’ll pass off a certain game to the backups. The senior members, like Elliott, get to pick which games they can work.

They were strictly unpaid volunteers until the 2012 season. “The NFL was cracking down on the number of volunteers on the field, so Mr. Kraft immediately put us on the payroll.” Is it a lot I asked? He laughed again, “no it isn’t a Tom Brady type contract. But it does cover the cost of our black powder but not much else.” But to a man or woman, that isn’t why they are here.

What was the most magical or special moment in your 18 years here I asked him? He didn’t hesitate. “The final game in the old stadium, the Snow-Bowl, Tuck Rule Game. It was really special. The near blizzard conditions, fans throwing snow in the air, I will never forget that night,” he said.

“It was so dramatic and then we fired a shot after the Patriots won and a few days later a friend of mine called my wife and said, ‘did you know that your husband is in Sports Illustrated?’ What a great time that was.”

Finally, I asked him if the End Zone Militia would travel to Houston this year if the Patriots make the trip. “We’ve never been asked,” he said. “But we’d all go in a heartbeat.” You get that Mr. Kraft?

Patriots End Zone Militia, Bob Elliott, third from the left. (Bob Elliott Facebook page)

Goodell and the NFL Show Their Bias with the Deflategate II and Walkie-Talkie Issue with the Giants:
Just when you thought that the Deflategate sorry saga was finally over and done with, it raises its ugly head and more questions about the NFL and Roger Goodell. Jay Glazer broke this story on Fox’s pregame show last week.

Two weeks ago, the Giants were playing the Steelers and intercepted two of Ben Roethlisberger’s passes. When the footballs were on the sidelines, the Giants thought that the footballs were feeling soft and measured them on the sidelines. Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio reported that the two footballs in question measured 11.4 and 11.8 PSI which is below the league mandated 12.5 PSI. The Giants alerted league officials about it but did not make a formal complaint. Ben McAdoo the Giants coach admitted, that this is how they found out about the air pressure. There were two things that needed to be addressed about this incident by the league.

First, why were the Giants in possession of a gauge or measuring device on the sideline when those are expressly forbidden by the NFL? Second, where was the leaks of this information by the league office to selected media members. Where was Mike Kensil rushing to the Pittsburgh sideline and yelling at the Steelers’ coaches that “you’re in big f**king trouble.” Where was Ted Wells hiring a junk science firm that will say whatever you want them to, so long as you’re the one footing the bill?

After all, this Commissioner stated that air deflated from a football was akin to performance enhancing drugs. And the rules would be applied EVENLY and enforced as such across the board. And where the hell was that dreaded word that Goodell shoved down New England’s collective throats for 15 months? What about the “Integrity of the Game” Roger?

The league would have never mentioned it, had not Glazer done so in the pregame of last week’s games. But did the NFL leak out erroneous BS data to media members to enrage the populace? Nope…silence. For a week. And then about an hour after Glazer’s report, they released a statement that effectively ended any further discussion.

“The officiating game ball procedures were followed and there was no chain of command (sic… custody) issues,” the league’s statement read. “All footballs were in compliance and no formal complaint was filed by the Giants with our office.” No, they weren’t because no one is supposed to have a gauge on the sideline. But Goodell pooh-poohed that off as well, “You have to go by the league’s gauges? Really?

What does this tell you? That the league’s little data collection exercise of 2015 with the air pressure in the footballs showed what any smart sixth grader already knew. That the Ideal Gas Law, which the blowhards on Park Avenue never heard of before the 2014 AFC Championship, showed that air pressure will drop in footballs in cold weather.

Did we want Ben Roethlisberger punished with a suspension and the Steelers to lose a million bucks and multiple draft picks? No, because the air deflation happens naturally in every football in cold weather.

Except if your name is Tom Brady and you play for the Patriots. It shows that this was a set-up from the jump and Goodell caved to teams and owners that were sick of seeing the Patriots win too consistently. Not even the most die-hard fan would expect to ever see the league recompense the Pats the draft picks, but this latest NFL fiasco should clear the Patriots name in this bogus generated mess. Not that they’d ever say so.

But one has to consider this… if the Giants were playing New England two weeks ago, would the Mara Family, the owners of the Giants have made a complaint?

The second issue also had to do with McAdoo and the Giants. During Sunday night’s game in the Meadowlands against Dallas, Eli Manning was having consistent problems hearing the play call from the sidelines. During the 4th quarter, it stopped completely.

But in plain view of the television audience, McAdoo was calling the plays to Manning on a walkie-talkie which is expressly verboten by the league as well. As I watched this unfold, I grabbed my phone and was monitoring Twitter as I assumed (you know what happens there) that the national media would be screaming for a pound of flesh from the Giants. Nada, nicht, nothing.

Peter King in his MMQB, didn’t even mention it although he talked about the game at length. From the league? Deafening silence. On Friday, the NFL issued a statement that they were “looking into the Giants use of a walkie talkie,” McAdoo mentioned in his Friday presser that he and the team were cooperating with the league’s investigation. The Cowboys, it has been reported had NOT made a formal complaint. Now imagine this was Belichick. Would the media be so quiet? Would the Jones? Or the league?

Floyd Signing Draws the Ire of Two Former Colts:
After a disappointing season with rumors of a work ethic problem, the Arizona Cardinals released wide receiver Michael Floyd after being arrested for DUI on Monday morning. After passing thru waivers, the Patriots claimed him on Thursday.

He practiced on Friday and traveled with the team to Denver although it is unsure whether he’ll be active. It was a low-cost, possible high reward move as the Pats are only on the hook for Floyd’s remaining salary, about $1.2 million dollars.

But two former members of the Colts organization, General Manager Bill Polian, and C Jeff Saturday, lambasted the move. Polian, stated that Colts fans would never approve of such a move and Saturday, went even further stating, “What is this? A win at all costs mentality?

I’ll admit, I’m not a fan of this signing either, but for different reasons and these two ring of sour grapes. Please don’t throw stones at a guy who, no doubt was driving intoxicated but you were strangely silent when the owner of the Colts was arrested with cocaine and a load of cash in the trunk.

Nobody from the Colts talked about winning at all costs when WR Marvin Harrison shot a man in 2010. And the same man was later found shot to death just blocks from a bar Harrison owned. The only surveillance video of the shooting death was ironically from Harrison’s own bar, but….had three minutes of video erased when the shooter approached the man’s car and could have been identified.

Who Do You Like This Week:
Last week’s picks were 8-8 putting me at 112-84-2 on the year. So, who do you like today?

I am going with Seattle (Thursday Night Football picked last Sunday), Miami on Saturday night and for the games today, GB, Buffalo, Baltimore, Kansas City, Pittsburgh, NYG, Minnesota, Houston, Arizona, Atlanta, Oakland, NE, Dallas, and Washington.

Early pick for Thursday Night Football, NYG over the Philly. Saturday’s Christmas Eve slate …Buffalo, NE, Tenn, GB, Cleveland, Washington, Atlanta, Oakland, TB, Seattle, LA, and the Texans.

Eastbound and Down, AFC East Notes:

Bills Offer $10 an hour and a free ticket for shoveling snow:
The Buffalo Bills’ playoff hopes are barely hanging on but today, they face the Cleveland Browns and a chance to get untracked, both offensively and defensively. With the snow that fell over the stadium this weekend, the Bills were making an attractive offer to those who would help with the snow removal.

Bills management made an offer of $10 and hour to anyone 18-years old or older who agreed to shovel snow out of the stadium, but there were perks. If you shoveled for four hours or more, you got a free ticket to the game. Or if you couldn’t make four hours, you could purchase a ticket to the game for just $8.

Granted the Browns are winless but the Bills are still in the hunt for a playoff spot. That is a pretty cheap ticket. Kickoff is scheduled for 1 p.m. and the temps are scheduled to be around 30 degrees with scattered snow showers.

Moore, Maxwell Are the Focus Players for Saturday Night Game:
The Miami Dolphins will have completed their Saturday night game against the Jets when this hits the airwaves. But the story of the game going into the Meadowlands this week center around QB Matt Moore and CB Byron Maxwell.

Moore is getting the start, his first in five years and will have to play well if the Dolphins want to keep their playoff hopes alive with Ryan Tannehill out with a knee injury. How will the perennial backup fare against their hated rivals? Fair or not, he’ll be judged by how well the offense played in a cold, stadium, something that they’re not accustomed to.

Maxwell is a great story himself, after a disastrous campaign in Philly in 2015, he ended up with Miami and his season didn’t exactly light the world on fire. He was benched briefly but since returning to the starting lineup, he’s performed excellently and now is one of the bright spots for the Miami defense.

In a hidden chess match of this game, Jets WR Brandon Marshall has been involved in a war of words with Maxwell all season, prior to the November meeting, he claimed that Maxwell held on every play, back in 2015 and this week said he was bringing his own flag to the game …ostensibly to help the referees out.

Are Petty and Hackenberg the Future for the Jets? They Better Be:
The New York Jets have had a nightmarish 2016 after Coach Todd Bowles first year had them filled with such hope. Injuries, poor play, and some questionable decisions have derailed the year that the team hoped would result in a playoff spot. But the most glaring position this year was one, they’d hoped they were prepared for. The quarterback position.

The team went out and signed Ryan Fitzpatrick to a big one-year deal with options and the hope was that Fitzy could recreate more of the magic from 2015 where he led the Jets to an improbable 10-6 record. But that hasn’t materialized. Fitzpatrick has been a turnover machine throwing14 interceptions against just 10 touchdowns this season. He was benched for Bryce Petty.

Petty was drafted in the fourth round of the 2015 NFL Draft and in a perfect world, would become the Jets backup quarterback. The team may let him finish out this season to see what they have in him but here lies the crux of the matter. Many Jets fans and some media think the team will jump into the 2017 NFL Draft for the fifth straight season looking for a franchise quarterback. That would be a big mistake.

The Jets spent a 2nd round pick this season on Christian Hackenberg. He hasn’t even taken the field yet. Washing your hands from this young QB this soon would be disastrous for Gang Green. But we’ve seen this before and there are some who are clamoring for the Jets to draft either DeShone Kizer from Notre Dame or DeShaun Watson from Clemson.

Will they do it again and go high for another young QB? Smart money says no because none of the QBs in this draft stand out so far. But time will tell.

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcasts on blog talk radio as the writers Russ Goldman, Derek Havens and I from PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.

Podcast: Tom Brady Returns Home And Steelers Preview

Russ Goldman
October 19, 2016 at 11:22 am ET

In this episode, we looked back at the victory for the Patriots against the Bengals and later on we previewed the upcoming game with the Steelers.

Patriots Film Review, Execution, Mismatches Key Victory

Steve Balestrieri
October 18, 2016 at 10:32 am ET

All-22 Film Looks at Turning Points in the NE Win

Reviewing this week’s game film from the Patriots win over the Bengals highlights a couple of key plays that led to the victory. Courtesy of the NFL’s All-22 Coaches’ Film we get a nice look at how they were able to do that.

The margin between winning and losing in the NFL often comes down to executing a few keys plays at important points in the game. In this case, the Patriots made them and the Bengals didn’t at crunch time and New England came away with a hard-fought win.

Here are some of the key plays of the game that allowed the Patriots to come from behind twice to winning by three scores.

James White 15-yard TD Reception: Late in the first half the Patriots are down 7-3, but Brady has the team moving after hitting a big 39-yard pass play to Chris Hogan that set the team up for a go-ahead score. The Patriots aligned trips left with three WRs, (Mitchell, Amendola, and Edelman) and TE Rob Gronkowski in-line on the right-hand side. James White is the lone back, aligned next to Brady on the right.

white-15-yd-td

The Bengals show their four-man front and have four defenders lined up evenly spaced at the 10-yard line trying to take away the short middle of the field. At the snap, Gronkowski takes his defender straight up the field into the end zone. That clears out a large amount of space for White who drifts out into the right flat.

Karlos Dansby has to come over from his position in the middle of the field and doesn’t have the speed to catch White, who had a big advantage in terms of room for him to move at the snap. It was an easy pitch and catch for a touchdown.

white-15-yd-td2

Dont’a Hightower Sack/Safety: This is the play that ultimately turned the tide and led the way to the Patriots second comeback and one that once they took the lead, they never looked back. The Bengals had taken the lead 14-10 early in the third quarter and after stopping the Patriots offense, had a chance to make it a two-score game.

But after getting backed up to the 8-yard line due to a holding penalty, they had the down/yardage against them as well as field position. The Patriots hadn’t been getting pressure on Andy Dalton much to this point, so Matt Patricia started getting a little creative and it paid off.

hightower-sack

The Patriots align in man coverage with the two safeties deep in the middle of the field. At the snap, both linebackers, Elandon Roberts on the left and Hightower, on the right come on an A-gap blitz. Roberts is picked up but Hightower loops around from his right to left and gets a free lane right at Dalton.

But the Patriots rushed just four, at the snap both defensive ends, Trey Flowers and Rob Ninkovich drop back into coverage. Dalton sees it coming and wants to go to his hot route, TE Tyler Kroft. But by dropping, Flowers is in perfect position, right in the throwing lane. Dalton has to pull the ball down and is sacked by Hightower resulting in a safety.

hightower-sack2

Bennett 24-yard reception: After the Patriots got the ball back at their 32-yard line, they were in business with good field position and the opportunity to get back in front. On their first play from scrimmage Brady hit TE Martellus Bennett with a 24-yard pass to put New England on the Bengals side of the field. It all stemmed from an excellent fake by Brady that set them up for a big gain.

The Patriots go 4-wide with a WR and TE split wide to each side. Bennett and Hogan were split wide right and Gronkowski and Edelman wide left. The Bengals again had five defenders, five yards deep trying to take away the short pass across the middle of the field. So Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels decides to go vertical.

bennett-24-yd

At the snap, both receivers on the right run straight down the field.  Gronkowski and Edelman on the left run crosses back to the right side. LeGarrett Blount, aligned to Brady’s right side, drifts out in the flat in an attempt to find some open space. Brady did an ever so slight pump fake, more of a shoulder dip, but it works. The inside linebacker, Vontaze Burfict and the safety covering Bennett bite hard on the play fake.

By the time they stop and recover, Bennett is running free down the field and Brady hits him with a pass at the 45-yard line. Bennett loses his footing but still had time to get up and get another 10-11 yards after the catch. The Pats would score soon after with Gronkowski catching a four-yard score to put the Patriots back on top for good 19-14.

bennett-24-yd2

James White 4-yard Touchdown: White’s second touchdown pass put the Patriots up by two scores and really put Cincinnati under pressure in the pivotal second half. Once the Hightower safety and Gronk touchdown put the team ahead, the momentum completely flipped and the Patriots began to totally take over the game.

The Patriots held Cincinnati to a three-and-out with three straight incompletions after the Gronk score. They took over with a chance to open things up and Brady immediately hit Gronkowski with a huge 38-yard pass and run that set them up.

On the White score, the Patriots are lined up with the Trips left again but this time Bennett is in the slot. Gronkowski is again inline on the right side just as in the previous formation for White’s early touchdown.

james-white-4yd-td

The Bengals go with their front four and have the five defenders aligned at the goal line with a deep safety in the middle. Karlos Dansby, (circled) is in the middle of the formation. At the snap, Gronkowski takes his defender (Kirkpatrick), deep into the end zone. The nearest linebacker Burfict comes on a blitz and is picked up inside.

White flairs out into the flat and Dansby has a tremendous amount of territory to make up and he is not going to get there in time. White has another easy touchdown and it was just another well-designed play by McDaniels and executed by Brady and White.

james-white-4yd-td2

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcasts on blog talk radio as the writers Russ Goldman, Derek Havens and I from PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.

Week 6 Patriots Report Card, Big Comeback Win Over Cincinnati

Steve Balestrieri
October 17, 2016 at 10:54 am ET

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.

Quarterback: A
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.

Linebackers: A-
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.

Secondary: B
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.

Coaches: B
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.

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcasts on blog talk radio as the writers Russ Goldman, Derek Havens and I from PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.

Second Half Surge Catapults Patriots Past Bengals

Steve Balestrieri
October 16, 2016 at 9:41 pm ET

What We Learned on Sunday in the win over the Bengals

The Patriots made some key adjustments in their play-calling in the second half and the offense took off with Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, and James White leading the charge as New England beat Cincinnati 35-17 on Sunday at Gillette Stadium.

But it was the play of LB Dont’a Hightower who ultimately turned the game’s momentum in the Patriots favor. With Jamie Collins out with a hip injury and Jonathan Freeny placed on IR this week, the Patriots’ big man from Alabama was going to be leaned on for veteran leadership and production. And he didn’t disappoint. His tackle in the end zone on Andy Dalton for a safety flipped the game in the Patriots favor and they never looked back.

The crowd was loud and boisterous all day and wanting to see Brady in his first home game since his suspension. Brady followed up his big game in Cleveland with another gem. He completed 29 of 35 for 376 yards and three touchdowns with Gronk having a career day.

Gronkowski who missed Friday’s practice with the stomach flu was cleared this morning that he’d be good to go. And he was; Brady hooked up with Gronkowski seven times for 162 yards and a touchdown. It was a career high for Gronkowski. It was the second 100-yard effort in a row and the 22nd in his career tying him for third in NFL history.

He was virtually unstoppable in the second half. In our pregame keys, we said Gronk and Bennett along with White would be successful attacking the Bengals linebackers in space, something they struggle with. Combined, the three had 20 catches, 257 yards, and three touchdowns.

White was another key member of the offense on Sunday, when Cincinnati went all in on stopping Gronkowski and/or Bennett, White made them pay underneath, catching eight passes for 47 yards and two big touchdowns from 15 and 4 yards out. Bennett had five catches for 48 yards.

Hightower was immense on Sunday, making thirteen tackles, one of them for a loss and had 1.5 sacks of Andy Dalton. The first was possibly the turning point in the game. Down 14-10 in the third quarter, the Bengals were backed by a holding penalty. On the ensuing play, Hightower came on an A-gap blitz and sacked Dalton in the end zone. On the following drive, New England went right down the field to score and never looked back.

The game see-sawed back and forth with Cincinnati outplaying the Pats in the first half and bottling up the Patriots offense. They were able to jam the Patriots short passing game down low, forcing Brady to hold the ball and their front four was getting good pressure on Brady.

Meanwhile, Dalton was cutting a swath thru the Patriots defense. Down 3-0, Dalton drove Cincy down the field after RB Giovanni Bernard burnt LB Barkevious Mingo on a wheel route for a big play down to the NE six. But the Pats defense held and on fourth and goal, Chris Long blew up the run to the left side and Bernard was swallowed up by the linebackers and Cincy was stopped on downs.

On their next possession, Dalton again was excellent and this time ran it in from the three on an option keeper and the Bengals led 7-3. That’s when the old Bengals demons began to surface.

On a third and 18 from deep in the Patriots end at the 17, Dre Kirkpatrick got called on a brutal illegal contact penalty that gave NE an automatic first down. From there, Cincinnati’s defense went to a soft zone. Brady eviscerated them quickly marching down the field, hitting Hogan for 39 yards and then three passes to White, the final one being 15 yards for a touchdown and inexplicably the Patriots led 10-7 at the half.

Dalton led another TD drive to give Cincy back the lead 14-10 and stopped New England and had a chance to seize control of the game. But RT Cedric Ogbuehi, who we also identified in our keys as the weak link, was called for holding. That set up the Hightower sack/safety and with the score 14-12, the Pats flipped the script.

Josh McDaniels made adjustments and the routes were deeper in the second half, targeting the linebackers and safeties. Brady’s protection was much better in the second half and the offense couldn’t be stopped.

Brady led the Patriots on a 68-yard drive on five plays that the tight ends shined in. Bennett caught a big 24-yard reception, followed by a Gronk 38-yarder on a 3rd and 8. Brady hit Gronkowski for a 5-yard touchdown to put the Pats up for good 19-14.

On the ensuing drive, Brady once again led the Patriots on a quick 53-yard, 4-play drive, featuring a 38-yard pass reception by Gronkowski and an 11-yarder to Bennett. It culminated with a White four-yard touchdown reception to make the score 25-14, the extra point was no good.

The defense stepped up their play in the second half and tightened up their coverage and began to force more pressure on Dalton. Eric Rowe got in his first action and played well. Hightower and rookie LB Elandon Roberts were very impressive all day.

After the team’s traded field goals to make it 28-17, Hightower and Jabaal Sheard combined for a big third down sack on Dalton that forced a punt. Julian Edelman made a really nice punt return of 23 yards to past midfield, there Brady drove the Patriots for the final nail in Cincinnati’s coffin with a nine play, 42-yard drive with Blount taking it in for a one-yard touchdown run.

Cincinnati then did what they always seem to do in at crunch time, they melted down and started with the cheap hits and the chirping. Gronkowski had words with Adam Jones after he dove at his knees and with Vontaze Burfict as well.

Burfict, having just returned from a suspension for dirty play, dove at the back of Bennett’s knees away from the play, and will probably see a Fed Ex envelope from the league next week. Gronkowski fell into that trap and was flagged for the follow-on stupidity. Bottom line, the Bengals are an ill-disciplined lot and nothing will change anytime soon.

The Patriots were locked in a tough struggle today, but they made adjustments on both sides of the ball and Brady, in particular, was on fire in the second half. Gronkowski and Bennett were the big recipients of his passes and the Bengals couldn’t stop them. As a result, with Pittsburgh and Denver losing this week, New England now owns the AFC’s best record at 5-1 and that sets up a big game on the road against the Steelers next week.

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcasts on blog talk radio as the writers Russ Goldman, Derek Havens and I from PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.

Five Patriots Players to Watch Against the Bengals

Steve Balestrieri
October 14, 2016 at 11:30 am ET

Gillette Will Be Loud, Pats Need to Keep It That Way

The Patriots return home to the friendly confines of Gillette Stadium this Sunday to take on the Cincinnati Bengals. Kickoff is scheduled for 1:05 p.m. This will be the first home game for Tom Brady since his suspension ended a week ago. Gillette will be loud and rocking, the Patriots should aim to keep it that way.

The opponent this week, the Bengals are coming in wounded at 2-3. Always one of the more talented teams in the league, Cincinnati has struggled to score, especially in the red zone this year, a combination of the injury to Tyler Eifert and the free agency departures of Marvin Jones and Muhammad Sanu have hurt their production. Andy Dalton’s protection has suffered and he’s been sacked 17 times. But their defense hasn’t been as stout as years past as well.

The Patriots know that the Bengals will come into Gillette fired up. They need this game and can’t afford to drop to 2-4 in the AFC North. They’ll also remember the last time that they came in here, just two years ago and were wiped out 43-17 on national television.

Here are our five players from a Patriots perspective to watch on Sunday:

QB Tom Brady: The Patriots QB returned with a vengeance on Sunday in Cleveland and looked to be in mid-season form and not someone who missed the first quarter of the season. Passing for over 400 yards and three touchdowns Brady made quick work of an overmatched Browns defense.

This week, he’ll face a much tougher test, as Cincinnati’s defense is much stouter than the Browns and can get after the quarterback. The Bengals front seven is big, physical and aggressive and Brady’s pre-snap reads and reaction time will have to be spot on.

The crowd may have an effect on Brady as well. He did a great job of keeping his emotions in check on Sunday and playing a very cool and collected game. With the crowd into it at the start of the game this week, will he be able to check his emotion again or will it get the better of him a bit, at least initially?

DE Chris Long: Facing the Bengals passing attack with Andy Dalton this week, the Patriots know what they need to do. Dalton has passed for over 1500 yards in five games and has one of the best WR targets in A.J. Green. So to neutralize the deep play threat of him, they’ll need to bring some pressure on Dalton this week. That’s where Long, as well as fellow DE Jabaal Sheard come in.

Dalton has been sacked 17 times this year already and his normally stout offensive line has struggled including both tackles, veteran Andrew Whitworth and Cedric Ogbuehi. Long will be going against Ogbuehi and will need to get the better of the 2nd year RT to force Dalton into getting rid of the ball early and possibly forcing him into a mistake or two.

The veteran Long has been a good signing thus far, giving the Patriots the veteran presence, outstanding edge setting in the running game and good QB pressure. This week facing another playoff team from a year ago, he’ll have to step up his game and take it to the next level.

TEs Rob Gronkowski/ Martellus Bennett: The big men had a fantastic day against the Browns a week ago providing great run blocking and tremendous production in the passing game. Gronkowski, rapidly approaching full health, had five catches for 109 yards including a highlight reel 34-yard completion where he made five defenders miss. Bennett had six catches for 67 yards and three touchdowns. They were a big mismatch for the Cleveland defense, which had no answer for the dynamic duo.

This week, they too will be facing a tougher matchup, especially in the running game where the Bengals front seven is vastly superior to that of the Browns. The Bengals linebackers, Vontaze Burfict and Rey Maualuga are big, physical downhill types who can crash the point of attack and disrupt the flow and timing of the offense.

But it is in the passing game that the Patriots will try to pressure those two backers. Gronkowski and Bennett have the advantage here as well as with the safeties. Look for them to attack the seams of the Cincinnati defense this week. They will look to isolate the LBs in coverage and may split them out on occasion to create matchups in space.

CB Malcolm Butler: The Patriots top corner is getting kind of a raw deal this season. Judging from most of the “evaluation” you see from social media, you’d get the impression he’s having a bad or at least a disappointing season.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Jeff Howe of the Boston Herald tweeted out on Thursday that in the last three weeks, Butler has allowed just 4 catches on 14 targets. Those are impressive numbers by anyone’s standards. But if you’re into those fantasy football stats, I guess he hasn’t logged any interceptions.

It isn’t known if Butler or Logan Ryan will draw the dangerous A.J. Green this week, but whoever it is, they are sure to have safety help over the top as Bill Belichick always looks to take away the opponent’s biggest weapon. History says that will fall to Ryan. So Butler will draw the task of taking on his former teammate, the big, physical Brandon LaFell. Those two know each other well from practicing against one another for two years.

The chess match within a chess match takes on added importance when, if successful in neutralizing Green, Butler will be on his own against LaFell, who has a good size advantage.

OT Cameron Fleming: With Brady returning a week ago, all eyes were on him as he performed the usual Brady magic without missing a beat. But one of the things lost in the shuffle was the play of right tackle Cameron Fleming who was filling in for starter Marcus Cannon. Cannon missed Sunday with a calf injury.

The fact we didn’t call Fleming’s name very much spoke volumes about how well he played in protecting Brady in the passing game. He allowed just one pressure all day, facing the Browns’ talented rookie Carl Nassib for the most part.  Fleming played very well and had good communication with RG Joe Thuney who slid over from the left for this contest.

This week, he’ll be facing the very dangerous Carlos Dunlap if Cannon isn’t ready to go. Cannon was listed on Thursday’s injury report as having just limited participation at practice. Dunlap leads the Bengals with four sacks, all of them coming in the past three weeks after having 13.5 a year ago.

Belichick was effusive in his praise of Dunlap on Wednesday’s presser stating that the veteran has “great ball awareness, causes a lot of fumbles, strip sacks, good pass rusher, hard to block because he’s so long, very athletic, occasionally gets into coverage, a hard guy to throw over, takes up a lot of space.”

This will be a key matchup for the Patriots in their passing game. If Fleming can’t handle the assignment on his own and Dunlap brings pressure on Brady, it means the Patriots will be forced to keep one of the tight ends in to help block him which takes away from the passing game.

Stay tuned to PatsFans.com as we’ll have up-to-the-minute breaking news as well as post-game analysis.

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcasts on blog talk radio as the writers Russ Goldman, Derek Havens and I from PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.

Patriots – Bengals Key Matchups, Who Has the Razor’s Edge?

Steve Balestrieri
at 6:00 am ET

The New England Patriots will play the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday afternoon at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro. Kickoff is scheduled for 1:05 p.m. The game will mark the first home game for Tom Brady, fresh off of his suspension and the crowd should be fired up for the start of this one.

The game will be televised by CBS and can be seen locally on WBZ-TV Channel 4 in Boston. Ian Eagle will handle play-by-play duties with Dan Fouts as the color analyst. Evan Washburn will work the sidelines. The game will also be aired on the Patriots flagship radio station 98.5 The SportsHub with Bob Socci and Scott Zolak on the call, produced by Marc Cappello.

The Patriots (4-1) routed the Cleveland Browns 33-13 on Tom Brady’s return to the field on the road Sunday. Brady threw for 406 yards and three touchdowns, all of them to tight end Martellus Bennett as he and Rob Gronkowski were more than the overmatched Browns defense could handle.

The Bengals (2-3) were embarrassed by the Dallas Cowboys 28-14 on Sunday in Dallas. The score wasn’t indicative of the game as the Bengals were essentially blown out and down 28-0 in the second half. The Cowboys ground game churned out 180 yards rushing and rookie QB Dak Prescott was impressive both running and throwing against the Cincy defense. Brandon LaFell scored two late touchdowns for the Bengals making the score respectable.

We here at PatsFans.com are continuing our “Razor’s Edge” column in 2016 to give some quick analysis on some of the key matchups of the game and what you can look for in how the game plays out.

Series History:
The Patriots and Bengals will meet for the 25th time on Sunday. The Patriots hold an all-time 15-9 edge including a big 9-2 advantage at home.

The Patriots beat Cincinnati 43-17 in the famous, “We’re on to Cincinnati” game from two years ago. After being embarrassed in KC and questioned openly by the national press, the Patriots blew out a previously undefeated Bengals team and rode that momentum all the way to a Super Bowl victory. They had tremendous balance in that one with Brady having 285 yards net yards passing and the backs rushing for 220 more.

Now Cincinnati is the one struggling at 2-3 and after a bad loss on the road to Dallas, they may be the ones at a crossroad. Since Bill Belichick took over in 2000, the Patriots are 6-2 against Cincinnati with both losses coming on the road.

Here is a look at some of the key matchups and who holds the Razor’s Edge.

First up is the Patriots offense:

Patriots 2016 Opponents, 5 First Impressions of the Bengals

Steve Balestrieri
October 11, 2016 at 8:12 am ET

Cincinnati Offense Struggling Early in 2016

The Patriots return home to the friendly confines of Gillette Stadium on Sunday afternoon when they take on the Cincinnati Bengals. Kickoff is scheduled for 1 p.m. This is the second of three straight games that New England will take on opponents from the AFC North.

The Patriots (4-1), welcomed back QB Tom Brady as well as DE Rob Ninkovich on Sunday in Cleveland. The offense with their starting QB back behind center clicked very impressively as Brady led them to touchdowns on their first three drives as the team burst out to a 23-7 lead and cruised to a 33-13 win.

The Bengals (2-3) are struggling. Last season’s division champion is now facing in what is almost a must-win type situation if they want to repeat. They’re two games behind a Steelers team that is rolling and things don’t seem to be improving. They were blown out 28-14 in Dallas on Sunday, with two late scores making the score appear much closer than the game truly was.

Here are our Five First Impressions of the Bengals:

Offense Struggling Especially in the Red Zone: The Bengals offense is really struggling early in the 2016 season. The offensive line isn’t playing well allowing 17 sacks and is averaging only 3.4 yards per carry.  For a team with Jeremy Hill and Giovanni Bernard, that’s far too low.

The Bengals rank 10th in total offense but 25th in rushing offense. Additionally, the Bengals rank 20th in scoring, averaging 18.4 points per game. With Tyler Eifert on the shelf with offseason surgery as well as a back injury, they’ve really struggled to score, most importantly in the red zone.

The play calling of Ken Zampese has been criticized as being too conservative and when teams have been able to neutralize A.J. Green the team has struggled.  In the red zone where Cincinnati scored touchdowns on 66 percent of their trips a year ago, their scuffling along at 31 percent in 2016. Without Eifert in the lineup, teams are taking away Green and the rest of the cast hasn’t picked up the slack yet.

Things showed some improvement this week, albeit late in the game with Brandon LaFell getting his first two touchdowns in a Bengal uniform against Dallas. But this will bear watching this week.

Lewis, “This Isn’t Who We Are”: Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis didn’t shy away from the questions that came after his team looked flat in Dallas and fell below .500 in 2016.

“Obviously, it was not a very good football game for us,” Lewis said. “First half to be down 21-0, threw up a touchdown [in the] second series of the second half right after we get stopped on offense. We didn’t well play enough and they outplayed us.”

While the Bengals defense was gashed for 180 yards by the Cowboys on Sunday, that was more indicative of the level of play of the Dallas OL than it was of the Bengals defense. Still, there are issues that need to be looked at defensively before they come to New England this week.

“Defensively, we gave up some plays where they got 7, 8, 13 yards,” Lewis said. “Crossing routes and things like that hurt us today. On third downs in the first half, we weren’t very good. They converted the three-or-four they had. They kept the drives alive when they had opportunities.”

Green is the ‘Must Stop’ Guy This Week: Bengals WR A.J. Green is one of the most dangerous receivers in the NFL. And with the rest of the offense still in search of its game, the Bengals are becoming increasingly reliant on him. It is becoming a case of if he has a monster game the Bengals win if he doesn’t they lose. That isn’t fair, even for one of the most talented WRs in the league.

The 6’4, 210-pound 6th year player from Georgia is always a matchup nightmare and will present a very tough defensive key for the Patriots smaller cornerbacks this week. Green dominated against the Dolphins two weeks ago using his size, speed, and physicality where he was targeted 12 times and made 10 catches for 173 yards and a touchdown.

Therein lies the challenge; it is never easy but if the Patriots can limit Green’s effectiveness, the Cincinnati offense has struggled. In their two wins, he was targeted 25 times and made 22 catches for 353 yards (16.0 average) and two touchdowns. In Cincy’s three losses Green was targeted 27 times and made just 14 catches for 165 yards and 0 touchdowns.

With the Cincinnati offense needing a spark this week, they’ll look to their most talented offensive weapon first, to get him into the game quickly. He had just a single catch in the first half against Dallas as the team fell behind 21-0.

Dalton Playing Well Despite Struggles: There never seems to be a shortage of criticism leveled at Andy Dalton who, despite having solid seasons playing in the tough AFC North, is still looking for his first playoff win.

Dalton had the best year of his career in 2015 before going down with a thumb injury that cut short his year. And he’s playing better in 2016 despite not having his biggest and best red zone target in Tyler Eifert.

He’s attempting and completing more passes in 2016 than he did a year ago. Part of the issue is that with the struggles of the running game to get untracked, he’s been forced to throw more. But his accuracy is up and his interception rate is down.

“He keeps getting better every year,” Bengals offensive coordinator Ken Zampese said. We’re just the production over a long time of digesting plays and knowing how to fix them. And knowing how to salvage them.”

Thru the first five games Dalton is completing 67.4 percent of his passes (126 of 187), for 1503 yards, 8.0 yards per attempt, with five touchdowns and two interceptions for a passer rating of 96.4.

After losing productive wide receivers Marvin Jones and Mohammad Sanu this offseason, the WR unit has struggled to find their rhythm beyond A.J. Green. But at the end of last week’s game, Dalton found LaFell for a pair of scores that could foretell of a turning point for the offense.

Cincinnati Front Four Poses Tough Challenge: While the unit was gashed by the Cowboys on Sunday, don’t let that influence the fact that this is a very tough physical front four. Carlos Dunlap, Geno Atkins, and Domata Peko spearhead an excellent group that not only can stop the run but get after the passer as well. They also have Margus Hunt and the talented reserve sub-package rusher Will Clarke who has three sacks already this season.

They’ll be looking to redeem themselves this week and we all remember how disruptive they can be. When the Patriots visited there in 2013, they held New England to just six points in a big victory.

While the Patriots will look to remain balanced, or close to it with LeGarrette Blount running the ball this week to keep the defense honest, this will be a tough unit to run on. One caveat from a week ago, not many teams have an offensive line like the Cowboys.

They’re also backed by the very physical MLB in Vontaze Burfict who returned two weeks ago from a suspension and is a downhill, spark plug for the front seven.

Check back with us later in the week as we’ll break down the key matchups for the game right here on PatsFans.com.

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcasts on blog talk radio as the writers Russ Goldman, Derek Havens and I from PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.

Patriots Offense Will Lean On Heavier Two Tight End Sets

Steve Balestrieri
September 3, 2016 at 7:18 pm ET

Patriots to Rely on the Strength of Gronk and Bennett

With the release of the 20 players on Saturday, the Patriots have made their initial 53-man roster. It is interesting to note that the breakdown consists of essentially 4 WRs (five if you count Matthew Slater), 4 TEs and 4 RBs with a FB (James Develin).

The good news is that Danny Amendola will indeed begin the season on the roster and not on PUP and the fact that they kept just four wideouts to begin means that rookie Malcolm Mitchell must be very close to returning to action.

So what can we expect to see from the Patriots offense based on the personnel they’ve kept. One thing is for sure, with four TEs on the roster, you can expect a lot of the two-TE run heavy sets in either “12” personnel (1 RB, 2TEs, 2WRs), or in the “22” personnel with (2RBs, 2TEs, 1 WR).

With Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett, the Patriots have bookend “Y” tight ends that can be excellent run blockers with James Develin leading the way. We can expect a lot of run-heavy formations like this with either LaGarrette Blount or James White in the backfield. With the extra blockers in-line, it will open up some holes in the running game and put the offense into favorable down and distance scenarios.

Brady-Gronk

Of course, it also opens up the play-action passing scenario as well. Opponents will have to respect the run and with Gronkowski and Bennett, they’ll be able to face a base defense with each at times getting isolated on a linebacker.

With Julian Edelman and Chris Hogan getting the majority of reps initially, we can expect them to each rotate in and out of the slot. Hogan is a bit bigger and faster in the straight line but not as quick in the short areas and out of cuts. They’ll move them around to find favorable matchups but look for Hogan to take over the old Brandon LaFell role as the “X” until Mitchell is healed up.

White and D.J. Foster are the third down and passing backs and each brings a little bit of a different element to the table. White has the experience and knows the offense inside and out. Foster is still learning it, as he missed a ton of time this summer. He still needs to work on his protection and ball security skills but he’s electric in the open field.

It will be interesting to see if the Patriots move him in motion and slide him into the slot on occasion, something he did in college at Arizona State. He and White give them a couple of nice extra pieces in the passing game. Jimmy Garoppolo will have some intriguing weapons to work with now.

The key is to get the rust off of Amendola as quickly as possible and hopefully get Mitchell back on the field as soon as possible. They have some very impressive pieces to exploit mismatches on the field with. The problem is, in the short term, that most of them haven’t worked together as a unit all summer.

There’s lot of work to get done before they head out to Arizona to face the Cardinals. But the coaches and veterans can get it moving in the right direction as soon as they get back to practice. It is time for Jimmy G. and the veterans on the offense to step up and put the work in.
Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcasts on blog talk radio as the writers Russ Goldman, Derek Havens and I from PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.