The New England Patriots 35-17 victory against the Cincinnati Bengals was a tale of two halves as the team made necessary adjustments on both sides of the ball to come away with a victory.
The Patriots won the first half 10-7, even though the Bengals seemingly had their way up and down the field. The Patriots were more decisive in the second half with a 25-10 edge.
Despite allowing more points in the second half, it was pretty clear that the defense was better at its job after the Bengals opening drive of the half. Credit goes to the coaching staff for recognizing their weaknesses and adjusting the defense on the fly.
“We made some adjustments, changed up some things in the second half coverage wise which definitely helped us,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said after the game. “Matt [Patricia], Josh [Boyer], Steve [Belichick], the players, Devin [McCourty] did a good job on that. And then obviously just a little more consistent on third-down. That helped us.”
Belichick noted that the defense forced some more “longer yard situations” in the second half.
So what were the key changes? Upon watching the tape, there were two main changes that flustered the Bengals offense.
First, the Patriots found a way to eliminate Bengals RB Gio Bernard. Bernard had been taking over the field in the first half with 64 total yards and the Patriots were unable to cover him. So the Patriots made a simple adjustment of showing blitz with their linebackers.
The Patriots got to Dalton a few times, including on his safety, and moved him out of the pocket. This interior pass rush forced the Bengals to keep Bernard in the pocket as an extra blocker and allowed the Patriots to focus their coverage attention on the deep half of the field.
The second adjustment was how the Patriots decided to cover Bengals WR A.J. Green.
“We ended up putting [Eric] Rowe on [A.J.] Green and kind of changing that match-up from our nickel where we were using Pat [Patrick Chung] in there,” Belichick explained. “We still used [Chung], but using Pat in there more as kind of the third corner. But yeah, I thought Pat did a real good job on the tight ends. We got into some of those dime situations where he was really the sixth DB [defensive back] out on the field or however you want to call it, three corners, and then he was on the tight end.
“Again, I thought overall our coverage in the second half, we just matched it better. We played it better. We got a little more rush. Obviously we had the lead. That helped too, towards the end of the game, so some of those things fell into place for us.”
In other words, the Patriots had been playing nickel defense with Patrick Chung as the slot corner for much of the first half. The Patriots had CBs Cyrus Jones and Justin Coleman as healthy scratches, so Chung had to step up. While Chung wasn’t in coverage of Green, there was a trickle-down match-up problem for the Patriots against the Bengals wide receivers.
The original game plan against Green was to remove the deep in route passes. Green loves to cut inside to pick up yards across the middle, so the Patriots used Logan Ryan in trail coverage with a safety over the top- or they just used zone defense.
The Bengals responded well by focusing on sideline routes as coverage beaters. Green is a good enough player to get separation from Ryan and he is able to crush zone defenses. Cincinnati also used Green out of the slot, which is where Ryan was beaten by Larry Fitzgerald in week 1.
Through the first half and the Bengals opening drive in the second half, Green was targeted 7 times and he caught 5 for 79 yards. Only one of those catches came against man coverage (Logan Ryan on a deep out pattern). The rest came on screens or against zone coverages.
For the rest of the game, the Patriots asked Ryan and Eric Rowe to cover Green in man coverage and they held him to one catch on three targets for 9 yards and two pass break-ups.
A.J. Green production:— Rich Hill (@PP_Rich_Hill) October 17, 2016
v Ryan: 1/2 for 22, PBU
v Butler: 0/1 PBU
v Rowe: 1/2 for 9, PBU
v Zone: 4/5 for 55
Not only was the Patriots coverage of Green better, but, as Belichick noted, so was the third down defense.
In the first half, the Patriots were 4/8 on 3rd and 4th down, with conversions coming on a penalty (Ryan’s illegal hands to face), a 6-yard pass to a tight end against zone coverage (Devin McCourty was unable to break it up), a 32-yard pass to Bernard over Barkevious Mingo on 3rd and 2, and Green’s lone reception over Ryan on 3rd and 6.
CB Malcolm Butler was responsible for the Bengals three failed 3rd downs, with a tackle of Bengals WR Brandon LaFell short of the sticks, an end zone break-up against Green, and then by coming off his man to disrupt a deep pass right before the half. The other failure was the Patriots 4th down stop on the goal line.
The Bengals added two more third down conversions on their opening drive of the second half, with a 23-yard pass to Green against zone coverage, and then LaFell’s touchdown grab over Butler (“That was a great play by [Brandon] LaFell,” Butler said after the game. “Like I said once before, earlier this week, he looked crispy. So that was a crispy route right there.”).
But the Patriots forced stops on the Bengals final four third down attempts, including two stops by Rowe, a sack by Jabaal Sheard and Dont’a Hightower, some nice coverage of Bernard by Mingo. The Bengals did convert a 4th down attempt.
Overall, the Patriots defense played much better football in the second half and the coaching adjustments played a major role. Rowe should see more time moving forward against bigger wide receivers, while the Patriots will probably send more pressure up the middle in the future if they ever struggle to cover running backs out of the backfield.