If the Patriots are going to move the ball on offense, it starts with good blocking up front.
Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins earned high praise from Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, and often commands double-teams up the middle.
If there's likely to be one man-on-man situation up front, it's Patriots left tackle Nate Solder against Bengals defensive end Michael Johnson.
The battle pits two of the league's best at their position. According to Pro Football Focus, Solder is the second-highest-graded offensive tackle in the NFL, while Johnson is the second-highest-graded 4-3 defensive end.
On the season, Solder has allowed just seven total pressures (seven hurries, no hits, no sacks) on quarterback Tom Brady; Johnson, on the other hand, has 18 pressures (10 hurries, six hits, two sacks).
Solder is known for his size and long reach, which allows him to keep defensive ends off his frame and re-route them all the way around the quarterback. On this play, however, he simply smothered the pass-rushing defensive end to the ground.
The Patriots ran a play-action fake from the one-yard line. Solder eliminated the threat of the blindside rush by grinding defensive end Cliff Matthews to dust. That bought Brady all the time he'd need to find tight end Matthew Mulligan just barely open between two defenders.
Matthews is 6-foot-4 and 268 pounds, which is not small by any stretch, but Johnson's extra three inches of height and his long reach make him Solder's most formidable opponent yet.
Johnson put his length and explosiveness on display against the Packers, rushing against left tackle David Bakhtiari. He started out in a four-point stance, coiling up his body like an animal hunting its prey, and used his burst off the line to quickly get upfield. Bakhtiari waited to engage Johnson, letting the rusher come to him instead of lunging and exposing himself in the process.
Bakhtiari made a valiant effort to get leverage on Johnson and keep him away, but Johnson's reach was too much to handle. He jacked Bakhtiari backward and tossed him to the side in the same move.
All Bakhtiari could do was grab hold of Johnson's gangly arm, which drew a penalty, and even then, he couldn't stop Johnson from hitting quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
He has the explosiveness off the edge, but is also adept at warding off blockers to make plays against the run.
The Packers lined up with the 11 personnel grouping (one running back, one tight end, three wide receivers) with Rodgers in the shotgun and running back James Starks flanking him to his right.
The play was a draw run right up the middle, looking to attack the A-gap between the left guard and center.
Those players did a nice job of blocking down on the Bengals defensive line, but even with a tight end helping Bakhtiari, Johnson was still able to get penetration and stop the run for just one yard.
Solder, however, is used to doing a lot of the dirty work all by himself.
On the Patriots first offensive play against the Falcons, Solder was lined up across from defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux. The 6-foot-2, 300-pound interior linemen is a much bigger foe than Solder is used to blocking, but he handled his business admirably.
Before Ridley had even taken the handoff, Solder had blocked Babineaux to the outside, while left guard Logan Mankins got downfield to block the linebacker. The combination of solid blocks gave Ridley a window big enough to drive a Mack truck through, and all he had to do was plow straight ahead for a five-yard gain.
Johnson and Solder are both used to manhandling the player in front of them, so whether it's a running or passing situation, this matchup figures to be one of the most intriguing and important battles to watch this Sunday.
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