OCTOBER 1, 2006
An NFL scout joins our roster of observers that includes a former NFL personnel head (The Guru) and a current NFL player personnel director (The Chief) as they break down Bengals-Patriots, a tight matchup in which they give a slight edge to the Bengals citing home field, the Pats offensive woes, and the Bengals’ younger athleticism.
“I just don’t think they’re going to be able to score to keep up with Cincinnati,” The Guru says. “New England just has no firepower on offense. They’re really searching for big-play people and they just don’t have them right now. If they can give Carson Palmer time, he should be able to attack that secondary with the receivers they have.”
The Chief: “The Bengals are catching the Patriots at just the right time because they’re in transition. They’ve always been a team that has set up the run with the pass and now that they’re struggling in the passing game, I think they’re going to have to take a step back and see where they are.”
The Scout: “The Patriots are a good, solid veteran team, but I think the Bengals have more athleticism.”
WHEN THE BENGALS HAVE THE BALL
QB Carson Palmer vs. Pats QB Tom Brady
Two of the best. They get to resume their Foxboro duel that got short-circuited when Palmer had to leave the Dec. 12, 2004 game with 202 yards in the middle of the third quarter and Brady finished up with 260 and two touchdowns in leading the Pats to a 35-28 victory.
Palmer and Brady are statistical twins. Check this comparison after their first 32 starts:
Palmer has completed 663 of 1,026 passes for 7,405 yards for a 7.2-yards per throw average, 56 touchdowns and 34 picks for a 90.4 passer rating.
Brady: 676-1,076, 6,939 yards for 6.76, 49 TDs, 30 picks for an 84.9 rating.
But QBs are judged on wins and losses, and no QB is better in the NFL in that than Brady. Brady is taking needless heat for his play last Sunday. But, hey, how would Palmer play if defenses took Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh away from him? Beware Brady even if he’s throwing to Mitt Romney. Under his leadership the Pats have gone 52 straight games without losing two straight and that’s why he’s a very dangerous man Sunday.
C Eric Ghiaciuc vs. Pats NT Vince Wilfork
It’s more like Bengals offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski vs. Pats head coach Bill Belichick, but Ghiaciuc is the guy that has to put into practice.
“Belichick is going to give you something different. You know it, and then the Bengals are going to have to adjust to it,” The Chief says. “One time he played us with two defensive linemen. He’ll throw the whole kitchen sink at you.”
That’s what the Steelers did last week and they got to Palmer for six sacks. That’s 10 the Bengals have allowed in the last two weeks, the bulk of which have come without the injured Rich Braham at center.
The Bengals are saying his absence isn’t a problem, but clearly a complicated defense and a loud crowd didn’t help Ghiaciuc. The hope is that a home game is going to help the communication that got garbled in Pittsburgh.
Plus, Ghiaciuc is dealing with a very large man in the 6-2, 325-pound Wilfork. The Broncos ran for 144 yards with 285-pound center Tom Nalen able to leverage the bigger man, but then Nalen is a 13-year Hall of Famer.
The Pats are known to switch out of a 3-4 to a 4-3, but The Scout says, “They just watched Pittsburgh get pressure with a 3-4 and I have to believe they’re going to leave a nose on Ghiaciuc."
LT Levi Jones vs. Pats DL Richard Seymour
The Bengals didn’t block him very often the last time they played (he knocked Palmer out for the season with a knee shot), but who does? Next to Denver corner Champ Bailey, he’s the second-highest paid defensive player in the league.
“When he wants to be, he can be a very dominating guy, an excellent player,” The Guru says. “Their front seven is very strong and that’s the reason this is going to be a tight game. The Bengals have their hands full there.”
The Scout says, “He can bull rush you, speed rush you, and do it from tackle and end.”
WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh vs. Pats CB Ellis Hobbs
The Bengals wideouts vs the Pats DBs should shift this game Cincinnati’s way. How beat up are the Pats in the secondary? They just signed corner Hank Poteat, a guy they’ve cut a couple of times and a guy the Bengals attacked a few times when he was in Pittsburgh. Hobbs has been hurt and barely practiced this week and if he does play his 5-9 frame is reminiscent of the physical advantage the 6-1 Houshmandzadeh had on Steelers corner Deshea Townsend last week.
Asante Samuel, New England's best corner, sometimes has trouble playing the ball, and the Pats have been scorched this season for touchdown passes of 73, 46, 32 and 83 yards. The Bengals are actually going to get more man-to-man opportunities than they did last week because Belichick doesn’t zone blitz as much as Pittsburgh’s Dick LeBeau.
Palmer is still waiting to fling one beyond 43 yards, his longest throw of this season and Chad Johnson is still without a plus 20-yard catch this season.
Of course, Belichick may not blitz at all to protect his secondary but know that he’ll have his DBs pounding on them. Composure may be the password running routes in the secondary this week.
WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL
Pats RB Corey Dillon vs. FS Madieu Williams
OK, this isn’t just because they ended up getting traded for each other in the 2004 Draft. Williams was Cincinnati's best defensive player last week in Pittsburgh, changing the game with an end-zone pick and saving the game with an end-zone deflection.
The big charge is to stop the Pats running game because you know that’s what they’re going to do after hanging Brady out to dry Sunday night with 55 passes in the loss to Denver.
“It seems like every team we play, the week before they play us they have trouble running it and you know they’re going to try and do it on us,” said Bengals defensive tackle John Thornton. “We expect them to come at us.”
The Bengals believe Dillon has some left in a gas tank that turns 32 in three weeks. But he’s also left two out of the three games with injuries and he’s coming off his second injury-riddled season in three years, so he’d like nothing better than to show he can still do it on what used to be his playground.
“I think he’s still good, but they’ve also got a threat running the ball in rookie Laurence Maroney,” The Scout says. “He’s going to be a very good back. He is now. He’s fast, tough, and he’s got good contact balance. A good change-of-pace because Corey is still a power guy.”
SLB Caleb Miller vs. Pats TE Ben Watson
With Rashad Jeanty (foot) figuring to be inactive, Miller, this week’s Sports Illustrated cover boy, must hold up his 220 pounds in the running game because here they come. “The (SI) jinx only works on guys that people know who they are, so I’m all right,” Miller said.
A lot of people think what is going to win this game is the fact that the Bengals generate turnovers (11) and the Patriots don’t with their only one coming on an intercepted Hail Mary.
Belichick talked about the Bengals penchant for forcing it at length this week in Foxboro.
“They have a lot of guys that are looking for it. They’re breaking on the ball. They’re raking it out. Sometimes they’re not really so much as trying to tackle a man,” Belichick said. “A lot of times they try to tackle the ball. I think it’s something you have to have a real awareness for. I don’t think you can predict that it’s going to happen on this play or that play. It kind of depends on what position the defender is in, what kind of situation or opportunity he has as to how aggressively he's going to play it. When you watch the film you keep seeing it over and over again. I'm not saying you see it on every play, but you see it repeatedly. There are a lot of guys that do it. It's not just like sometimes it's just one or two guys. In this case, it’s just about everybody on the team you see doing it.
"They are covering one guy, but they're watching the quarterback and the ball is over here and a lot of times they really drop their guy or their coverage and go where the ball is. They have a good coverage package. They are more of a zone team than a man team. Again, if you’re a zone team, that gives you a chance to watch the quarterback more than being a man team. They do both. They have a nice mixture of zone, man, pressure. They stunt their front. They keep them stationary. They give you a lot of things to work on. It's not like you can count on, ‘Well, this is what they're going to do,’ because they have enough variety to keep you honest.”
Watson leads the vertically challenged Pats (they don’t have a receiver with a catch longer than 29 yards) with 11 catches, but he has no touchdowns and his longest grab is 34 yards. He’s a long way from Antonio Gates, but he can run. So can Miller and he’ll have to.
It’s a good test for the linebackers. With wide receivers Deion Branch and David Givens gone, the Pats do most of their work over the middle and on screens to running back Kevin Faulk. But Denver’s backers are so fast that the game plan was squashed.
“The Bengals linebackers aren’t slow,” The Scout says. “Maybe not as fast as Denver, but those guys like Brian Simmons and Landon Johnson can run, too.”
DEs Robert Geathers and Justin Smith vs. Pats LT Matt Light and Pats RT Ryan O’Callaghan
Geathers and Smith have four sacks and they’ll be trying to exploit a one-on-one matchup with Light and the inexperience of O’Callaghan. Light is a tough nut to crack because he’s a solid guy while O’Callaghan is not seen as a great in-space athlete in pass protection.
“But he’s a good player. We had a high grade on him,” The Chief says of the fifth-rounder from Cal, a smart guy who casts a 6-7, 330-pound shadow. “He’s not great in space, but you can’t go through him.”
When Smith or Geathers tries him, expect O’Callaghan to get some help in a double team. “It’s a solid O-line,” The Scout says.
DT John Thornton vs. K Stephen Gostkowski
Thornton, who knocked down a field goal last week for the third block of his career, faces a rookie who has had two field goals blocked in his first three games. Gostkowski, who has inherited the Pro Bowl shoe of Adam Vinatieri, hit a low liner on a 27-yarder that got blocked. Sunday night he had a 37-yarder blocked on a miserable field that was blocked by the Rolling Stones as much as the Broncos, thanks to their Gillette Stadium concert.
And now he’s got to be thinking because later in the game Belichick eschewed a 52-yarder and went for it on a fourth-and-one when he really needed three points.
“This kid will be good,” The Guru says. “But he’s not Vinatieri yet.”