Posted: 2:00 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 5, 2013
If there were a shadowy, government-sponsored football team, it would be the Patriots. At its helm is of course the hooded genius, Bill Belichick, and his subject, Tom Brady. Someday Brady may end up President of the United States-laugh if you wish, but I'm putting good odds on it. For now, though, he is merely a quarterback, and his team is not the juggernaut it once was. It lacks viable weaponry and accomplished skill players. With Vince Wilfork gone for the season, outside of Brady, there is no real star-power anymore. Nonetheless, they are undefeated, and, for the thousandth time, they have shown that they will adjust in anyway necessary to win games.
Some of that star-power improves this week if the enigmatic Rob Gronkowski is once again spotted wearing a helmet (and presumably a shirt) and playing football against the Cincinnati Bengals. While Brady has quickly developed the likes of Kenbrell Thompkins and Julian Edelman into starting-caliber players, a dose of Gronk would put the New England offense at ease when looking at the long-term picture of the season. Therefore, with Gronk's uncertainty, coupled with the fact the Patriots are able to show a wide variety of looks, this week seems especially difficult for the Cincinnati coaching staff to prepare for.
We know what Tom Brady can do. His accuracy, pocket-presence and clutch ability are paralleled only by the other living legends in the game today. What I remain impressed with the most in regards to New England is their consistent ability to simplify the game. More than any other team in the league, I say to myself "that makes sense" while watching the Patriots. While it may be an ancient cliché, it's hard to dispute that they collectively allow the game to come to them.
An example of this is the contrast of attacks they showed against Tampa Bay in Week 3 and then against Atlanta a week later. Against the Bucs, they came out as their old selves in the shotgun every play, and converting on short routes with emphasis on yards-after-catch. They quickly got the lead and ran the ball well enough to coast to an easy win.
In Week 4 in the Georgia Dome, Brady stayed under center and handed the ball off on a very regular basis. They looked patient and committed to the run until they began gashing the Falcons on play-actions, which once more allowed them to enjoy a two-score third-quarter lead.
Both of these opponents had to operate in comeback mode during most of the second half. Teams don't typically play well in comeback mode; it's predictable and desperate. The Falcons rallied because they pass the ball well. The Bucs floundered quickly because they don't.
There is no straight-forward way to beat Tom Brady. You always have to watch the slot receiver in the flats and the tight ends sneaking past coverage on play-action, and getting pressure always helps, but more than anything, the defense simply needs to minimize the damage by making open-field tackles and avoiding dumb penalties. Yet my prescription for the Brady-itis is to stop the run and make him throw it.
Crazy, I know.
Despite the all the Brady praise, the rest of this passing game is just okay. If the Bengals were forced to use the same collection of skill players, they would likely have a horrible offensive season. When watching Patriots games this year, one can sense the slightest hesitancy to attack the jugular with pass the way they used to. Leaning on the run game in power formations speaks to an identity shift in some regards. It's as if they're covering something up. That's why the Zim Clan should attack that something, by stopping the run first and foremost and making them show what's behind that curtain. Loading up the box and daring LeGarrette Blount to beat you sounds awfully risky against a sure-fire hall-of-famer like Brady, but if you don't stop the run, the Patriots won't stop using it. The Falcons got handled defensively because they dropped too many defenders back in coverage too often. This not only allowed a successful rushing day, but gave Brady long stretches of time in the pocket where he expertly dissected the dirty bird secondary. If the Bengals bring the heat on blitzes to stop the run and disrupt the pocket, Belichick and company will adjust with three-step drops and quick-hitters. That's when quality man-to-man coverage and sure tackling by the secondary must come in to play.
On offense, if you are a regular reader of mine, then you can probably guess what I recommend: that's right, run the ball. Vince Wilfork, the run-plugging megafauna that has stabilized that defense during some lean years up front is out with a bad wheel. Atlanta, partially because of the score and partially because of their style (and partially because Steven Jackson was out), pretty much abandoned the run and allowed themselves to become one-dimensional. The Bengals can't make the same mistake. Yes, they didn't run it well last week against the Browns, but they didn't do anything well on that side of the ball, and Cleveland's defense is better than you might suspect. They can run against the Patriots if they stick with it. Jay Gruden drifts away from the run too easily at times. His complex passing attack dominates his play-call selection, and, in my mind, overwhelms Andy Dalton. When Cincinnati throws it over 40 times in a game, they become a lot less likely to win that game. The front office has done a good job of building a deep and balanced team; to rely solely on the arm of its quarterback seems wasteful.
You cannot, however, run it every down. Passes will obviously come into play, When they do, I would like to see the emphasis put on using the middle of the field. I have built an ongoing observational theory that many teams, including the Bengals, rely on sideline pass patterns too much and that it's hurting their performance. New England exploits the middle of the field quite a lot with nice results. Even the Bengals do well when they try it, but last week Dalton had a hell of a time completing anything thrown outside of the hash marks.
It makes sense when you think about it. A quarterback needs a powerful arm to throw it laterally down the field because the pass takes longer to reach its target; throwing in the middle is a more direct route. The Bengals have a stockpile of talent that could easily exploit this area of the field. Their tight-end tandem is working when given the chance, but not when they are asked to run toward the sideline. Giovani Bernard is a tremendous underneath pass-catcher that should be used more often as an escape hatch. Mohamed Sanu is a big-bodied receiver that has shown an ability to go across the middle. Even A.J. Green has gained first downs on easy inside slant patterns.
After an ugly performance like the one last week in Cleveland, it's important to scale back the complexity on offense and go back to basic stuff that makes sense. You can only build on success. Perhaps this being the first game of the second quarter of the season, some more macro adjustments will be made and an emphasis on the run will become noticeable.
The forecast says it will rain tomorrow which only strengthens my argument to run the ball. Whichever team wins in this statistical column, wins the game.
The Bengals need this one. Not only for records sake, but also for a much needed jolt of confidence. They are a miracle defensive touchdown away from being 1-3, and haven't come anywhere near the level of play that we expected on a regular basis this year. The whole organization needs to rise up if they are to truly and significantly change the culture of this team. It must start now, but my gut tells me it won't.
Patriots 28, Bengals 24
Mojokong-surprised to see it this way.