The New England Patriots offense struggled to find a rhythm early on against the Cincinnati Bengals and were limited to a mere 10 points in the first half. The coaching staff found a solution at halftime which led to a 23-point burst as QB Tom Brady was decisive and TE Rob Gronkowski was unstoppable.
“In the first half we were getting after him [Brady] and he was scrambling,” Bengals DT Domata Peko said after the game. “He was throwing the ball away and that was what we were trying to do. We were trying to get pressure on him early and mess up his rhythm.”
The Patriots opening drive stalled after the Bengals coverage forced Brady to shuffle around the pocket. Upon review, Brady was too focused on his receivers that he missed open opportunities. It also didn’t help that the Patriots were getting hit with penalties and sacks that set long distance plays.
“Offensively we hurt ourselves in the first half,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said after the game. “We were in a lot of long yardage situations, third-and-30 and second-and-20 and stuff like that. We need to eliminate those negative plays and keep the yardage shorter.”
The players didn’t think the struggles were anything more than self-inflicted wounds.
“I don’t think it [the start] was sluggish,” TE Martellus Bennett said. “I thought they [the Bengals] made some plays and we were trying to figure it out...We had some penalties earlier in the game that could have put us behind the eight ball, but guys just kept chipping away.”
“It’s just our tempo and making positive plays, WR Chris Hogan noted. “Negative plays hurt your options. Making positive plays and moving the ball forward that’s part of starting fast and putting points on the board.”
“Anytime you get penalties, it’s tough to overcome,” WR Julian Edelman added. “It’ll kill a drive, so when we were able to not get penalties, that’s when we were able to execute at a better level.”
After the Bengals forced a field goal on the Patriots opening drive, Hogan was slapped with a 10-yard holding penalty on 1st down in Bengals territory on the second drive. Brady was sacked on the third drive, and then Brady was sacked and Edelman was hit with a false start penalty on the fifth drive.
While the Bengals defense forced the sacks, the Patriots drives were ended by poor execution.
“I mean [Pat] Sims beat us on an inside move and then I think [Vontaze] Burfict got us on a blitz pickup,” Belichick said. “Again, look they’re a good defense. They have a good front. They have a lot of good players. They got a lot of good linebackers; Burfict, [Rey] Maualuga, [Vincent] Rey, [Karlos] Dansby and then they got several guys that can rush on the front.
“They’ve got good depth at end. They’ve got good depth at tackle. [Geno] Atkins and [Carlos] Dunlap, I mean they’re two of the most disruptive guys in the league and if your helping on them then you’re not helping on somebody else. We’ve got to do a better job of getting open, getting the ball out and blocking them. So I’d say some of the problems we had were just team execution plays. Coaching, playing – just a little bit of everything.”
The Patriots had much better execution and coaching in the second half after the Patriots figured out how to attack the Bengals defense.
“It took us a little bit of time to figure out how to kind of get our guys open, and once we did that it was good,” QB Tom Brady said. “We got the ball to a bunch of different guys in space and made a bunch of guys miss.
“It’s finding guys that are running free in the defense and we do a lot of different things to try to create that,” Brady added.
Instead of Brady focusing on the killshot to Hogan down the sideline, the Patriots decided to take the easy passes up the middle of the field by dropping the ball over the top of the linebackers.
“Some of the things they did, we were anticipating them doing it in the 1st half, but they didn’t do it until the 2nd half,” Bengals LB Karlos Dansby said. “We were out of position and we had a couple of technique errors and they got open.”
The Bengals defenders are notoriously downhill aggressors with questionable ability to change direction, so the Patriots tried to get them to bite in one direction before throwing in another.
The Patriots needed a big score after LB Dont’a Hightower forced a safety, so Brady went after a big chunk play to Bennett to start the next drive.
Brady fakes the toss to RB LeGarrette Blount in the flat, which causes three Bengals defenders to bite and step up, allowing Bennett to leak into the second level completely uncovered.
Brady then found TE Rob Gronkowski later in the drive for a big 38-yard gain.
Brady saw the linebackers keying up to blitz and by bringing RB James White into the backfield, it allowed the linebackers to attack the line. This was intentional by Brady because it opened the entire middle of the field for Gronkowski to navigate.
And then the Patriots isolated Gronkowski on a linebacker on the next drive and the Patriots were off to the races.
Vontaze Burfict is not a good coverage linebacker, so this is a perfect match-up for the New England offense. Once the Patriots settled on using the tight ends to carve up the Bengals defense, the game was over. The Bengals couldn’t stop the Patriots offense for the rest of the game as the Patriots closed out with four straight scoring drives.
The only time the Patriots needed more than 10 yards for a first down on those four drives came on the field goal drive where Gronkowski was hit with a false start and a taunting penalty.
The Patriots stopped beating themselves in the second half and were able to put the Bengals away.