The New England Patriots are facing the Cincinnati Bengals in week 6 so I spoke with Connor Howe of CincyJungle.com to get the inside scoop!
1. WR Brandon LaFell appears to be fitting in well with the Bengals; how has he looked this year?
My opinion definitely isn't representative of the Bengals' fanbase as a whole -- most Cincinnati fans have been highly critical of the former Patriot, especially considering the offseason losses of Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu. But while LaFell is no Jones, he's certainly matched the former Bengal's production through five weeks.
LaFell has already tallied 21 catches, 276 yards and two touchdowns, versus Jones' 15 catches, 225 yards and as many touchdowns through five weeks in that same timespan last year. As we've seen this season, LaFell is no Jones -- the former Bengal and now-Lion is leading the league in receiving. But the drop-off from the former to the latter hasn't been nearly as big of an issue as it was made out to be this offseason.
2. The Bengals have missed TE Tyler Eifert so far this year; how have the Bengals replaced him in the offense?
That's the issue this year -- they haven't. Granted, Cincinnati's three losses have come to three 4-1 teams, but Eifert's absence has been a major issue for the Bengals, especially in the red zone. Prior to last week, the Bengals were one of the worst red zone offenses in the entire NFL, before the aforementioned LaFell caught two touchdown passes in his team's two red zone attempts.
Backups Tyler Kroft and C.J. Uzomah look promising -- the two former 2015 draftees have been fairly effective in both the passing and running games -- but neither Kroft nor Uzomah is anything close to Eifert, who prior to injury was being compared to Rob Gronkowski (though we all know Gronk is in his own world when it comes to tight ends).
There's a slight chance Eifert returns this week, but seeing as though the Bengals would be starting a fresh-off-injury Eifert (which would still be an upgrade over his backups) this week, it appears as though either A.J. Green or the rushing attack will need to pick up the slack if Cincinnati is going to have any chances at winning in Foxborough.
The Bengals rank 10th in offensive yardage per game and 24th in offensive scoring per game. Eifert's absence has certainly been a major component of this problem.
3. How has the Cincinnati offensive line performed in both the running and passing game?
There's no sugarcoating it; the offensive line has completely fallen short of expectations. I wrote an in-depth piece on the struggles here, but to summarize, the lack of execution has been incredibly frustrating. It's hard to pin the line's issues on any particular player -- or even the coaching staff -- as last year's weakest link of the line, Russell Bodine, has shown significant improvement.
But when Andrew Whitworth, who has been otherworldly over the past few years, and Kevin Zeitler, a Pro Bowl-caliber player prior to this season, are both struggling (and of course, that term is relative), your line is going to have a bad time. It also doesn't help that first-year starter and 2015 first-rounder Cedric Ogbuehi needs time to get comfortable at right tackle. He's struggled in virtually every matchup he's faced.
4. Cincinnati managed to avoid playing good tight ends all year until this past week against Cowboys TE Jason Witten. The Jets don't have any tight ends, Steelers TE Ladarius Green was on the IR, Broncos TE Virgil Green was out with a calf injury, and Dolphins TE Jordan Cameron missed the game with a concussion. Do the Bengals ask linebackers to cover tight ends? Is there enough secondary depth to match up against Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett?
I wouldn't really say missing out on matchups with either any of those tight ends you mentioned would necessarily mean the Bengals lucked out, but I see your point.
To answer your question, the Bengals play a ton of zone. They're primarily a Cover-2 team, but they've been utilizing more Cover-3 concepts in 2016, likely due to the matchups they've been facing on defense, with three teams (or even four, if you count the Dolphins) who are loaded at the receiver position.
Safety George Iloka is one of very few players in the NFL built to cover a guy like Rob Gronkowski, but the Bengals haven't really aligned in man-to-man coverage very often, especially when facing difference-making tight ends. Linebackers Vincent Rey, Vontaze Burfict and Karlos Dansby are decent in coverage, but none should be tasked with trying to cover either tight end, particularly Gronk.
Playing Cover-2 against New England isn't the greatest idea ever, as it leaves the seams wide open for tight ends to take advantage of. And in the most recent matchup between these two teams in 2014, Bill Belichick took advantage of Cincinnati's defense, utilizing both Gronkowski (six catches, 100 yards and a touchdown) and Tim Wright (five catches, 85 yards and a touchdown).
I honestly don't know what Paul Guenther and the Bengals defense will do to stop the Patriots. If I'm Bill Belichick, I'm going to do everything in my power to run the ball early and often, as Cincinnati leaves Rey Maualuga -- who, to put it nicely, is a linebacker who does not cover at all -- on the field to stop the run. If LeGarrette Blount or whoever lines up at running back gets going early, New England's tight ends should have a field day.
5. How did the Cowboys have so much success running the ball against the Bengals talented defensive front seven?
I really don't know. I'd assume having such a dominant offensive line -- one which creates holes Adam Jones said his daughter could run through -- doesn't hurt, especially considering Zack Martin and Travis Frederick lined up across him.
You're right; the Bengals do have a talented front seven. I honestly don't know why it didn't show up last week. Domata Peko couldn't draw double-teams, Atkins was essentially a non-factor, Michael Johnson's struggles at defensive end continued and even Carlos Dunlap made a mistake, biting on a read-option which ultimately resulted in a Dak Prescott touchdown.
A 60-yard run by Ezekiel Elliott inflated the Cowboys' rushing numbers, but even before he broke off the long run, he had his way with Cincinnati's defense. Maualuga wasn't thumping the way he usually does, Burfict took several bad angles -- something which rarely seems to occur -- and the defensive line wasn't getting any push.
As a Bengals fan, I hope things will change. As someone who has watched this team play during the past five weeks, I'm far from confident things will change (though it's worth mentioning I'm not certain they won't). We'll see what happens on Sunday.