ReFo: Patriots @ Bengals, Week 5
Seemingly always on the search for a signature win, the Cincinnati Bengals took advantage of their big opportunity Sunday when they hosted the New England Patriots. Sure, they’ve made the playoffs the past two seasons, but their inability to pick up a postseason win has them in constant “prove-it” status.
Despite a near-disastrous turnover on a Giovani Bernard fumble late in the fourth quarter, the defense held strong to earn the 13-6 victory. The defensive struggle was broken when the Bengals marched 97 yards on 14 plays late in the third and into the fourth, highlighted by a fourth-down touchdown by running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis. The Patriots had the Bengals on the ropes on the drive, but on 3rd-and-15 from the Bengals’ 2-yard line, quarterback Andy Dalton hit wide receiver Marvin Jones for a 28-yard completion to salvage the series, and perhaps the game.
For New England, the game highlighted many of their early-season concerns. The offense is well below the expected and desired level, while the defense appears much-improved over past years but is still not without concern as well.
Here’s a look at the performances that shaped this potential AFC playoff matchup.
New England – Three Performances of Note
Generally viewed as perhaps the most irreplaceable player on the Patriots’ defense, defensive tackle Vince Wilfork had season-ending surgery this week on a torn Achilles. New England entered the season with a less-than-full cupboard at the position, so much of the pressure has been put on undrafted defensive tackle Joe Vellano. Early returns were not good, as Vellano was easily moved in the running game at times on his way to a -6.1 grade against the run. It started on the Bengals’ first play from scrimmage as Vellano was moved off his spot by center Kyle Cook to open a hole for a 13-yard gain for Green-Ellis. It was more of the same later in the quarter with 1:37 to go as this time Vellano got sent to the ground by Cook and left guard Clint Boling with a similar 13-yard result. Fast forward to the 11:32 mark of the fourth quarter and Cook once again had his way with Vellano to open a gaping hole up front. While Vellano did have some positive moments as a pass rusher, his weakness at the point of attack was evident throughout the game.
An uncharacteristic offensive effort by the Patriots was marred by poor guard play, as LG Logan Mankins (-2.8) and RG Dan Connolly (-3.3) were generally handled by the Bengals’ defensive front. Granted, going up against DT Geno Atkins doesn’t help, as Mankins can attest. Atkins bull rushed him into QB Tom Brady’s lap with 4:39 to go in the first and later notched a sack that was negated by a Cincinnati offsides penalty. It was more of the same in the run game, as Atkins continually got inside Mankins to affect Patriots’ blocking schemes. As for Connolly, most of his issues came in pass protection where he graded at -2.7 on his way to surrendering a sack, hit, and two hurries on 45 drop-backs. Atkins got the better of him for the two hurries, while DE Wallace Gilberry notched all three hits, including one that saw him get into Brady’s face in 1.7 seconds at the 0:22 mark of the second quarter.
One way to replace Wilfork is at the linebacker level, and the Patriots got stellar play from their starting three, particularly Brandon Spikes who entered Page of Fame status with a +5.5 effort. He was a force against the run as he graded at +4.0 with eight stops. It was classic Spikes as he shot gaps, as he did at the 7:21 mark of the second quarter, but he also made offensive linemen pay as he did to Andrew Whitworth with 10:24 to go in the second, and to Andre Smith at the 0:32 mark of the third. At times he even lined up in the A-gap and effectively worked as an extra defensive tackle, as he did against Cook with a quick shed for the tackle at the 12:44 mark of the fourth quarter. In addition to his work in the run game, Spikes also picked off Dalton in the red zone at the end of the first as he stepped in front of the ill-advised throw intended for tight end Tyler Eifert. While the defensive tackles struggled in the running game, Spikes more than picked up the slack in Wilfork’s absence.
Cincinnati– Three Performances of Note
Defensive Line Controls the Action
The tone was set right from the Patriots’ first drop-back, as Atkins knifed into the backfield for the sack ahead of LT Nate Solder’s downblock. The Bengals’ defensive line came to play despite not having DE Michael Johnson and his +13.6 grade through four games. Gilberry stepped up in his place, playing a season-high 23 snaps at defensive right end, grading at +3.1 along the way. He notched five pressures (2 sk, 2 ht, 1 hu) on his 38 rushes and added two stops in the running game. We’ve already discussed Atkins who put together his second consecutive excellent game at +5.3. He finished with two sacks (one negated) and three hurries while grading at +3.2 against the run. The other key cog was DE Carlos Dunlap who was generally held in check as a pass rusher, but notched a +2.4 run grade that included two stops of his own.
Strong Play from Tackles
As always, when the offensive tackles don’t hear their name throughout the broadcast it’s generally a good thing, and that was the case for the Bengals on Sunday. LT Andrew Whitworth’s (+2.4) one early blip in pass protection was a sack and declined holding penalty against DE Chandler Jones, but that was it for the day. He exacted some revenge on Jones in the running game as he washed him down the line at the 2:27 mark of the fourth. On the other side. Andre Smith notched a team-high +4.9 grade as he surrendered just a lone sack as well while grading at +2.6 as a run blocker. His double team with RG Kevin Zeitler blew DT Chris Jones right off the ball with 11:32 to go in the fourth quarter, and he followed it up by taking DE Jake Bequette 3 yards into the end zone on the next play. The Bengals continue to get strong play from both offensive tackles.
Gresham Struggles in the Run Game
Perhaps one of the more common gripes we hear from Bengals fans is about TE Jermaine Gresham’s less-than-stellar run blocking grade, and this game will surely continue to fill up our in boxes. Among the negative plays, Gresham was stood up by LB Dont’a Hightower with 8:51 to go in the first, and later controlled at the point in similar fashion by Chandler Jones at the 10:24 mark of the second quarter. Fast forward to the fourth quarter, and it was DE Rob Ninkovich having his way with Gresham as he tossed him aside with 13:54 to go, and it was more of the same at the 2:20 mark but this time Ninkovich got in on the tackle for no gain. Among these negative blocks, the positives were few and far between as Gresham continues to struggle in the run game.
– When Brady had less than 2.6 seconds to throw, he was 6 of 19 with a QB Rating of 35.2. When using play action, he was 1 of 8 for 53 yards with the lone completion going to rookie WR Aaron Dobson.
– In a back-and-forth battle, Bengals WR A.J. Green caught 4 of 7 passes for 58 yards when matched up against CB Aqib Talib. Talib defensed one pass and nearly intercepted another on an errant overthrow from Dalton.
– Patriots receivers dropped six passes, including three from WR Danny Amendola.
PFF Game Ball
The Bengals had some notable efforts, including Geno Atkins and Andre Smith, but Patriots LB Brandon Spikes gets the game ball for his exceptional work against the run, with a red zone interception to top it off.
Follow Steve on Twitter.