NFL regular-season football is finally here, and the Patriots open their 2010 season against the AFC North Champion Cincinnati Bengals. The Pats face a stiff challenge against the Bengals, who while known for their offense, field a strong defense. Last season, the Bengals were ranked 4th in total defense, while their offense ranked 22nd in total points. Despite last season’s ranking, the Bengals’ offseason additions make them more dangerous on offense. Rookies Jermaine Gresham and Jordan Shipley give QB Carson Palmer more options underneath while Terrell Owens helps open things up over the top. On top of those additions, the Bengals return last season’s 1,000-yard rusher Cedric Benson. Needless to say, the Patriots have their work cut out for them. Here are 5 keys to a victory Sunday for the Patriots:
1. Overcome injuries. The Patriots have been hit hard by the injury bug. We already know that DE Ty Warren, CB Leigh Bodden, and S Brandon McGowan are on IR. T/G Nick Kaczur has not suited up since the beginning of training camp and will not play Sunday. In addition to Kaczur, CB Terrence Wheatley has been ruled out of Sunday’s game with a foot injury. Also, CB Kyle Arrington (groin), WR Julian Edelman (foot), and RB Laurence Maroney (thigh) are listed as questionable, meaning they have a 50-50 chance to play. If Arrington can’t go, the Pats will only be fielding 3 corners (Darius Butler, Devin McCourty, and Jonathon Wilhite) unless they activated Tony Carter or Prince Miller from the practice squad. The players filling in must step their game up if the Pats hope to win.
2. Stop the run with the front 7. Despite the offseason additions I mentioned earlier, the Bengals are still a run-first team, and they will look to get Cedric Benson going early. If the Pats can’t stop the run with their weakened front 7 and have to bring up safety help, it’s going to further expose the young secondary. If the safety can stay back and remain as security blanket against the pass, the Patriots have a good shot at slowing down the Bengal offense.
3. Be able to rush the passer with 4. The less the Patriots have to blitz the better. The Pats have to be able to put pressure on Carson Palmer with a basic four-man pass rush. Even if they can’t sack him, rushing his throws and making him uncomfortable in the pocket will go a long way to helping the secondary out. If the Pats have to blitz a lot to put pressure on Palmer, that’s less men in pass coverage and more exposure of the inexperienced secondary. The Pats haven’t shown the ability to do this in preseason, but perhaps with some scheming and the addition of rookie OLB Jermaine Cunningham the can get it done enough to win.
4. Protect the defense on offense. The running game is key to controlling the game and protecting the defense. The Patriot ground game looked real good when it was utilized during the preseason, especially with RB Fred Taylor carrying the ball. Taylor will likely start Sunday and if the Patriots can run the ball, they can win the game. The Patriot offense in the preseason put on display the new additions to the offense, namely the tight ends. Last season, the offense became predictable, relying on Wes Welker and Randy Moss way too much, and in predictable plays. With more reliable options and a year of calling plays under his belt, de facto offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien should be able to diversify the offense and be creative. Tom Brady should be able to utilize all of his new toys and control the game on offense. If the running game can’t get going, screens and quick passes to a variety of pass catchers can work the same way in controlling the clock, moving the ball, and keeping the defense off the field. Look for big days from rookie tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski. If Julian Edelman can play, that will only further open up the playbook for the offense.
5. Give the Bengal offense a long field to work. The more space between the Bengals and the end zone the better. The key to making the Bengals have to drive down a long field is through special teams. Kicker Stephen Gostkowski can put kick-offs in the end zone, and the more times he can do that for touch backs the better. Punter Zoltan Mesko has been off and on during the preseason, but he’s shown that when he is on he is excellent in pinning teams back inside their own 20. Good punts along with good coverage on special teams will help pin the Bengals back and provide the Patriot defense more opportunities to make a stop.
Despite the tough task ahead of them, the Patriots have their superb offense and home-field advantage this week. While I have centered my 5 keys on the defense and its youth and lack of experience, we really don’t know how good or bad the D will be now that it’s for real. The defense could surprise and play extremely well like they did during the first two preseason games. I think the defense will have its share of bumps in the road but the offense will be good enough to win. I am sticking with my earlier prediction and going with the Pats, 31-27.