3TFO: Patriots @ Bengals, Week 5
While injuries have forced the Patriots to win without their best receiving weapons, New England has been up to the task and is undefeated through four games. Last week’s victory in Atlanta was convincing, but costly, as perennial Pro Bowl defensive tackle Vince Wilfork suffered a season-ending torn Achilles. The team is expected to receive a boost this week in the form of top receiver Danny Amendola’s return to the field.
Entering the season, expectations for the Cincinnati Bengals were as high as they have been in recent memory. Early results have been disappointing for a group that has its sights on becoming the first Bengals team to win a playoff game in more than 20 years. Quarterback Andy Dalton (-6.1) has been especially disappointing in his third season — despite playing behind an offensive line that has yet to allow a sack and leads all offensive lines with a 87.5 Pass Blocking Efficiency. Not only has Dalton struggled behind excellent protection, but he appears to be regressing, as his passing grade has decreased each week in 2013.
A.J. Green vs. Aqib Talib
Wide receiver A.J. Green is clearly Cincinnati’s best, and probably its most important, player on offense. The offense grinds to a halt when opposing defenses take Green out of the game. This season, the Bengals are 2-0 when Green earns a positive grade, and 0-2 when he does not. The former Bulldog has been targeted more than any other wide receiver except for Cecil Shorts, but has not capitalized on these opportunities like he did in 2012, when he finished seventh in Yards per Route Run. Green has been bottled up after the catch this season. Though he has forced four missed tackles, Green is averaging a paltry 1.7 Yards After the Catch per Reception, a far cry from the 4.6 YAC/Reception that he averaged during last year’s Pro Bowl campaign.
Aqib Talib enjoyed a career game last week in Atlanta. He did not allow a single catch while covering Julio Jones and Roddy White, and his +4.1 grade was the highest he has received since being drafted in 2008. Sam Monson did a great job breaking down Talib’s night in his Analysis Notebook. Because the Bengals do not have a receiver of White’s caliber across from Green, I would expect Talib to follow Green for the entire game, as he did against Vincent Jackson in Week 3. Talib has allowed just six catches through four games, and is allowing 1 catch per 28.7 Snaps in Coverage, the best mark of any corner. Talib has also been a playmaker in addition to his excellent work in coverage. He already has four interceptions, tying him for the league lead, and only one corner has allowed a lower QB Rating than Talib’s 24.8.
Patriots Offensive Line vs. Bengals Defensive Line
New England’s offensive line has been tremendous so far in 2013. The group currently ranks third in run blocking and fourth in pass blocking in our cumulative grades. Nate Solder (+13.2) and Sebastian Vollmer (+10.2) have been excellent, and they are currently our second- and third-highest graded tackles, respectively. Neither has allowed a sack or hit. Center Ryan Wendell and right guard Dan Connolly will need to step up their games this week. They are the only starters with negative grades, and they have struggled in pass protection. They will have to be better this week if they hope to keep Geno Atkins from ruining the Patriots’ game plan.
Atkins was dominant last week in a losing effort, and the team is hoping that he will continue to play at a high level after a slow start. Atkins 2012 season (+80.0) was easily the best that we have ever seen from a defensive tackle, and he earned the best grades, both as a pass rusher and in run defense, of anyone at his position. To put Atkins’ grade into perspective, Gerald McCoy, drafted 117 spots ahead of Atkins in 2010, earned our second-best grade — +31.7. The matchup between star defensive ends Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap, and New England’s bookend tackles should be a great one. Johnson and Dunlap have done their best work in the run game in 2013, but each ranks in the top 20 in Pass Rushing Productivity among defensive ends as well.
Bengals Offensive Line vs. Patriots Defensive Line
Cincinnati is the only team yet to allow a sack, and the offensive line also ranks eighth in run blocking. Though incumbent starter (and former Patriot) BenJarvus Green-Ellis has failed to capitalize on the strong blocking (-3.6 running grade), rookie back Giovani Bernard has seen his snap count increase each week. It seems like just a matter of time before Bernard becomes the starter. The Bengals have an opportunity to improve on their 3.4 Yards per carry (26th in the league) this week against a Patriots team that is missing its best run defender.
Wilfork’s importance to the Patriots cannot be understated. Though he struggled at times this year (-5.1 grade vs. Jets in Week 2), Wilfork consistently commands double teams and plays a huge percentage of snaps at a position where the Patriots have the least depth. Starter Tommy Kelly has been solid, but only undrafted rookie Joe Vellano (-1.9 run defense grade) and fellow rookie Chris Jones (-1.1 run defense grade) remain behind him on the depth chart. Defensive end Rob Ninkovich ranks second among 4-3 ends with a +8.1 grade, while Chandler Jones has been better as a pass rusher. Jones’ 9.9 PRP ranks 13th at his position.