Every week leading into the Patriots' next game, ESPN NFL analyst Tedy Bruschi and ESPN Patriots reporter Mike Reiss preview the matchup. This week, it's Sunday night's home game against the Cincinnati Bengals (NBC, 8:30 p.m. ET):
Mike: Let's start with the obvious: We'll see what kind of fight the Patriots have this week after they were blown out on Monday night.
Tedy: This is a great week for them to batten down the hatches based on a lot of the heat they have taken. They can go into that mode of "Nobody believes we can win a game" and that can be the best motivation for a team. Everyone doubts you. Everyone criticizes you. Some of the teams I played on, that's when we were at our best. We loved coming into the locker room after a game and sticking it right back to the media based on stuff said to us or written about us and our performance. We'd laugh at guys like Felger, Borges, Reiss ... yeah, throw Reiss in there too (laughs).
Mike: Come on! I thought you never read the newspaper?
Tedy: Seriously, in situations like this, you drive home after practices and in weeks after a bad performance you big-picture it to yourself and realize that at 2-2, you're not far away from the top teams record-wise. A lot can happen over the course of the year when thinking about who the best and worst teams will be. That's how you break it down -- simplistic -- and the formula is this: Just win a game. Do that and a lot of your problems will be solved. I rewatched last year's Patriots-Bengals game and there is no reason the Patriots shouldn't have confidence that they have every chance of winning.
Mike: The Patriots lost to the Bengals 13-6 in Week 5 last year, and they were 1-of-12 on third down in that game.
Tedy: They had a couple of good chances and maybe some questionable play-calling was part of it -- throwing to Nate Solder in the end zone, Danny Amendola was close to a touchdown but hit the ground and couldn't get the ball over before being touched, and then the rain came and made it hard to come back. Two big differences I saw from that game to now is that Tommy Kelly is no longer on the defensive line -- you watch him last year and he was helping -- and Logan Mankins was setting the tone on the offensive line. They miss those guys. Another thing was Ryan Wendell holding his own at center against Domata Peko. Maybe Wendell needs to get the start at center. Was he exposed a bit toward the end of last year? He was. But there were other games I remember that he was holding his own and fighting in there. Dan Connolly also looked good at right guard, which is where he's probably most natural. That offensive line is so important and this is a really good Bengals defensive line.
Mike: It's a 4-3 defense and they have had the benefit of being able to cut it loose at times because the Bengals have only trailed for 48 seconds this season.
Tedy: The first guy to look at up front is defensive tackle Geno Atkins. He's good, but has he lost a little burst, still waiting for extra healing to happen in the knee (torn ACL in 2013)? I'd say yes. You're still waiting for that true explosiveness, pre-ACL, to come back. It seems it's coming along. Domata Peko is a stout defensive tackle who is going to fight you in there and anchor. Carlos Dunlap is a solid pass rusher at defensive end, but this isn't Tamba Hali or Justin Houston. He's a bigger body (6-6, 280). It's a solid unit and once again a test for the Patriots' offensive line, especially on the interior.
Mike: Noticing many changes with Paul Guenther now at coordinator?
Tedy: This is still a pressure-based defense even though their defensive coordinator from last year, Mike Zimmer, is now in Minnesota as head coach. Guenther coached under Zimmer and he likes to send the linebackers up the middle. It could be Rey Maualuga or Vontaze Burfict, who is a budding star. Burfict had some problems coming out of college, but he's turned into a quality linebacker, leading the NFL in tackles last season. He's a guy who can get downhill, run through linemen and he's not afraid of contact -- one example came in Week 1 against Baltimore when he ran over an offensive lineman to record a tackle for a loss (second quarter, 8:46 remaining). He's like a Brandon Spikes, but with a little more ability. That would be significant if he doesn't play because of a concussion. (Burfict did not practice Wednesday or Thursday.) They play a lot of zone and do a good job of dropping to the sticks on third down and coming up and making the tackle. They will also drop defensive ends out, like they did against Atlanta (third quarter, 12:20) with Dunlap as he broke up the pass. You see that and say, "Wow, if their defensive ends can do that in coverage, it really gives them a lot of options." They will also send safeties off the edge, and cornerbacks off the edge. So that's another thing for the Patriots' offensive line -- it's not just physically matching them, but also the mental chess match. Once you see the A gaps are full and the ball is snapped, and they drop out, you have to get back to your responsibility in terms of scanning out who the threat is. If the Patriots are in the 'gun like they were last week in Kansas City, and the running back is offset, he's going to have to do some thinking too.
Mike: Think they can get the running game going?
Tedy: You see how they tried to do it against them last year, not necessarily by moving them off the line of scrimmage but getting angles on blockers. Mankins was pulling around. The offset tight end would angle back to the unblocked defensive line in the middle. It's possible that's part of the plan this year when you know you can't overpower them.
Mike: Bill Belichick pointed out this week that the Bengals have five players in their secondary who entered the NFL as first-round draft picks, but it sounds like it's a later-round pick who has caught your eye.
Tedy: Safety George Iloka, a big guy out of Boise State at 6-foot-4, 220 pounds, is starting to show up a little bit. He was a fifth-round pick in 2012 and he shows good pursuit. I always like to watch young defensive backs and see how they play. He had an interception earlier this year and has had some other good moments. It might be interesting to see him on Rob Gronkowski.
Mike: Offensively, let's start with running back Giovani Bernard. Patriots defensive tackle Vince Wilfork said this week that the Bengals are best when they get the running game going, and Bernard is a big part of that.
Tedy: He's a very explosive, exciting player who is a difficult one-on-one tackle and will test your run force. He has a great spin move and it will be crucial for Patriots defenders to execute good open-field tackles. Bernard has enough toughness and instincts to make you commit inside and then bounce back out, like he did against Atlanta in Week 2 (third quarter, 1:08 remaining).
Mike: Because they are seldom playing from behind, it seems the offense under quarterback Andy Dalton has never really been placed in a compromising situation.
Tedy: They are using a lot of check-downs, screens and swing passes. That's part of the reason why Dalton hasn't been sacked this season. Yes, the offensive line is playing well, but they also get it out very quick. They'll run their quick screen game to anyone. It could be to Jermaine Gresham, the tight end. Or maybe it's Mohamed Sanu, one of their receivers. Bernard. Rookie Jeremy Hill can also catch coming out of the backfield. Hue Jackson, their offensive coordinator, is not afraid to use the read option either. So you see Dalton running that and then Sanu -- who is a wild card for them and does a lot of things -- throwing it back to Dalton in the game against Tennessee. In fact, it was Devin McCourty's brother, Jason, in coverage and he had the dream hit on the quarterback but didn't execute it. The point is this: The Bengals aren't afraid to pull the trigger on gadget plays.
Mike: What have you seen from Dalton?
Tedy: I still want to see more. His arm strength is OK, as you sometimes see receiver A.J. Green outrun his throws. And the accuracy is still sporadic at times.
Mike: Speaking of Green, he had a toe injury that knocked him out of the Week 2 win over Atlanta. He's their No. 1 and I expect Darrelle Revis to do what Aqib Talib did in this game last year -- shadow him all over the field.
Tedy: Whatever nicks players had, it's been two weeks for them as they're coming off their bye. They're rested and coming into a prime-time game. Some might say it could be a letdown for them, and maybe I could buy into that if it was a 1 o'clock game on the road -- "We just had our bye, we're a little rusty." But this is prime time. A huge stage. This team is going to want to come out and have a great night. Thus, it's almost like the worst-case scenario for the Patriots.
Mike: The Bengals' offensive line doesn't get much publicity, but the results look impressive with left tackle Andrew Whitworth, left guard Clint Boling, center Russell Bodine, right guard Kevin Zeitler and right tackle Andre Smith. Zeitler might not be ready to go.
Tedy: Whitworth is a good player and you sort of look at this solid offensive line and say, "That's how you build it." A lot of draft picks. Football, to me, will always tell you the truth of what will win games and championships. You can fool people with smoke and mirrors as much as you want, but it always comes down to the line of scrimmage. Even when we were 18-0 and playing the Giants in the Super Bowl, they won the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. They ran the ball behind the offensive line and the defensive line got pressure on Tom Brady. Our high-powered offense only scored 14 points. How did we not score more than 14 points? We lost the line of scrimmage.
Mike: Both clubs are well coached on special teams as there is a link between coaches Darrin Simmons (Bengals) and Scott O'Brien (Patriots). That will be a good matchup. As for a prediction, I go back to Monday night and as things crumbled around the Patriots in an embarrassing performance against the Chiefs, the knee-jerk reaction was that maybe they just aren't that good. But after rewatching the game, I actually felt like it wasn't as much about that as it was talented players not rising up to the challenge -- both emotionally and physically. Being put into the best position to make plays by the coaching staff is part of that too. I expect the Patriots to rise up in those areas as they are being widely questioned. Simply put, I think they are better than they have shown, and by starting games faster and getting back to basics on both sides of the ball while returning to their home stadium, it will be the formula to help them get back on track. The Patriots are 22-1 at home in the month of October since 2003, and the Bengals are 1-5 in prime-time road games since 2009. Patriots 17, Bengals 14.
Tedy: This game is a test of what you're made of. You got your butts kicked last week; now what are you going to do about it? This game will tell me a lot about how much pride this team has. I think they respond. I know they respond. Defense takes the ball away and Devin McCourty takes one to the house. Pats 20, Bengals 17.