While large portions of NFL media are taking a sensationalist angle towards the upcoming game between the New England Patriots and Cincinnati Bengals, the two teams themselves are focused first and foremost on getting ready for the task at hand. For the Patriots, this includes trying to get their offense back on track after it has struggled to build positive momentum over the last few weeks and consistently move the football down the field.
At least on paper, though, the team will face a favorable matchup this week: the Bengals are not just the worst team in football when it comes to their 1-12 record, they are also ranked just 22nd among the league’s 32 teams when it comes to defensive points surrendered per game (22.8). The unit is a therefore welcome opponent for quarterback Tom Brady and company, but one that still has its strengths despite its statistical rankings.
In order to find out more about Cincinnati’s defense, we spoke with Cincy Jungle editor Patrick Judis. And according to Patrick, the unit is a better one than one would think when looking simply at the numbers: “This defense overall is very improved from what they were before the bye week. Who knows what magic defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo worked in that time, but whatever he did really worked.”
A big reason for that is the play of the team’s defensive front — one head coach Bill Belichick recently praised for its aggressiveness and disruptive talent. Patrick also touched on the group earlier this week: “Anarumo has gotten pretty exotic with having defensive ends drop in coverage, lineup as linebackers and twist and have different pass rushing angles than offensive lines are use to seeing from a 4-3 defense.”
“The thing is: they’ve looked extra disruptive against guys like Derek Carr, Sam Darnold and Baker Mayfield. None of those guys are in the same league as Tom Brady and his ability to be decisive with the football,” he added. “I do think they will get their hands on Brady a few times, but Brady is who he is, and I wouldn’t bet against him and this offense. He won’t have all day to throw, but out of all the offenses to finally put up more than 20 points against Cincinnati’s defense after the bye, New England is the easiest money.”
The Patriots, of course, have had a tough time keeping Brady out of harm’s way this season even with left tackle Isaiah Wynn returning from short-term injured coming out of their Week 10 bye. While the greatest quarterback of all time has been sacked only 24 times — 21 other passers have been taken down more often — the pocket around him has often collapsed too frequently for New England’s aerial attack to get into much of a rhythm.
On Sunday, it would not be a surprise to see this happen again considering who the Bengals field up front: defensive tackle Geno Atkins is a seven-time Pro Bowler and the team’s leader in quarterback pressures, while Carlos Dunlap, Carl Lawson and Sam Hubbard have all contributed as well. Together, the four men have combined to take opposing quarterbacks down 18 times so far this season.
“Most fans know about defensive linemen Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins who have been staples for years now,” said Patrick about the group. “Defensive end has Carl Lawson really been making some noise the past few weeks consistently getting pressure on the quarterback. He has also stepped up in the run game, but with Sam Hubbard returning the lineup we should see more of a split between Lawson, Dunlap and Hubbard. All three have had a great turnaround following the bye week.”
What should the Patriots therefore do in order to challenge a Bengals defense capable of disrupting the passing game with its pass rush?
“This is interesting, because previously linebacker Nick Vigil would be the target. He had previously struggled with more athletic players in space, but he has really played well since the bye week,” said Patrick when asked how he would attack the unit. “The biggest weakness is still their rushing defense. Teams that are committed to the run and are able to get a running back to the second level consistently are bound to have big plays waiting for them.”
New England has had its ups in the ground game recently, but also has been inconsistent putting pressure on opposing run defenses. Last week’s game against the Kansas City Chiefs was a prime example of that: while the Patriots averaged 4.3 yards per attempt, they ran the football only 22 times all game — with lead-back Sony Michel getting just five carries for a grand total of eight yards. On Sunday, the team will need to get more production out of the second-year back or else the offensive struggles might continue.