Quick-hit thoughts after 1st quarter

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Quick-hit thoughts after the first quarter:

Tight end versatility a key in offensive plan. The Patriots opened with an impressive five-play, 72-yard scoring drive, and one strategic aspect that stood out was how the tight ends were utilized split wide – Alge Crumpler, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. This forced the Bengals’ defense to play more in space, and opened up space down the field in the passing game, with one big example coming on Hernandez’s 45-yard catch-and-run.

Sanders & Chung the safeties in base defense. When the Patriots are in their base 3-4 defense, they are using six-year veteran James Sanders and second-year player Patrick Chung as the safeties. Brandon Meriweather, who played more snaps than any defender last season, is playing in the nickel. TV replays seemed to show Sanders as the player who forced Cedric Benson’s first-quarter fumble, although credit was given to Rob Ninkovich. It was Ninkovich with the initial hit and then the recovery.

Nickel package a 4-2-5. Respecting the Bengals’ ability to run the ball out of multiple-receiver packages, the Patriots are going with a nickel package (5 defensive backs) that has four sturdy defensive linemen on the field in Mike Wright, Ron Brace, Myron Pryor and Vince Wilfork. Usually in the nickel, it would be fewer defensive linemen and an extra linebacker, so this is a creative wrinkle for this week’s game-plan.

Sharp start as team came ready to play. After finishing the preseason with two uneven performances, the Patriots have been sharp through the first 15 minutes. The defense is attacking and the offense has been energized by the tight-end play in the passing game and some hard-charging, situational running.