Patriots head coach Bill Belichick is known for his ability to make any team sound like the 1995 San Francisco 49ers, but he gave the Cincinnati Bengals higher praise than usual this week.
"They have a lot of good players, they're well coached, they're tough, they're physical, they're explosive," Belichick Wednesday. "It's been a while since I've seen a team that's as complete as they are — even going back the past [years], they've been a playoff team here, but the way they started the season this year [and] watching them through training camp, they're really a good football team."
The Bengals (3-0) are one of two NFL teams that have not lost a game — but while they are undefeated, but they are far from perfect, and definitely not unbeatable.
Make no mistake; the Bengals are every bit as tough, physical and explosive as Belichick says they are. That toughness and physicality starts up front on both offense and defense.
The Bengals' coaching staff trusts its defensive front four to create pressure; they sent five or more defenders after the quarterback on 43 of 156 pass plays (27.6 percent) through three games. The four-man rush disrupted Patriots quarterback Tom Brady in last year's meeting, bringing him down four times.
Their offensive line set the tone for the whole group, and has yet to let up a single sack of quarterback Andy Dalton. The offense thrives on their ability to establish the run, and have more rushing attempts through three games than any team in the NFL — including teams that have played four games.
That explosiveness on offense is funneled mainly through running back Giovani Bernard. Watching him is like watching the Tecmo Bowl version of Bo Jackson. They love to get him the ball in his hands in the open field and just let him work his magic.
Dalton doesn't have to do any more than simply flick the ball into the hands of his running back and watch the back of his jersey ride off into the painted grass on the walls of Paul Brown Stadium.
While Bernard plays the role of human joystick, rookie Jeremy Hill plays the role of human bowling ball. He's been the team's go-to on the goal line, and he isn't afraid to lower his shoulder and run over would-be tacklers at the second level between the 20's.
And their success in the running game has come mainly out of three-receiver sets. By my unofficial count, the Bengals were in 11 personnel (one back, one tight end, three wide receivers) on 104 of their 186 offensive plays this season so far. They were in 12 personnel (one back, two tight ends, two wide receivers) on 35 plays.
By forcing defenses into a nickel front — with one fewer linebacker and one more cornerback — the Bengals offense puts pressure on the defensive line to win one-on-one matchups at the line of scrimmage to either make the play on their own, or free up the linebackers.
As mentioned before, Dalton has yet to be sacked, but that's not because the offensive line is holding their blocks while Dalton has a picnic in the pocket. In fact, according to stats website Pro Football Focus, Dalton has spent less time in the pocket than nearly any other quarterback in the NFL. His average time in the pocket is 2.1 seconds, the second-longest time in the NFL. His average of 2.05 seconds to attempt a pass is the quickest.
The Bengals have done a good job of keeping the game out of his hands. The pass attack is heavily predicated on short throws that get the ball out of Dalton's hands quickly, to a first read who is designed to be open, within nine yards of the line of scrimmage. Beyond 10 yards downfield, Dalton has hit only 11 of 23 pass attempts. He has hit only two passes that traveled 20 yards or more downfield.
Thanks to an elite defense that has allowed only three first-half points, Dalton has not been forced to carry the burden for the offense. They've been able to run the ball and utilize a short passing game to drain the clock. But that hasn't helped silence critics in Cincinnati who still wonder if Dalton has what it takes to lead the team when it's on his shoulders.
The Bengals have trailed for a grand total of 51 seconds this season, when Dalton promptly threw a 77-yard strike to Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green — another of those "explosive" players Belichick was talking about.
"Everything," Belichick said, when asked what kind of problems Green poses to a defense. "He's really good. Good route runner, got great leaping ability, go up and take the ball away from defenders. Good runner after the catch with the ball in his hands. Excellent quickness [and] burst out of breaks. He can play at all three levels and excel at all three levels. He's one of the best receivers in the league."
This season, Green has caught seven short passes (nine yards or fewer downfield) for 75 yards and five long passes (10 yards or more downfield) for 168 yards.
So, as you can see, the Bengals have plenty of strengths, but also some weaknesses.
Their most glaring weakness is on run defense, where they currently allow 5.1 yards per carry (fourth-highest average in the NFL). One reason is that they have been spending a lot of time in their nickel defense. They have a deep group of cornerbacks in Terrence Newman, Leon Hall, Adam Jones, Darqueze Dennard and Dre Kirkpatrick, but the desire to get playmaking cornerbacks onto the field has left the defense susceptible to running plays.
In the past, they've been able to get away with their heavy tendency towards nickel defense thanks to the elite play of their front seven — namely, Geno Atkins. The 2012 All-Pro has not looked like his old disruptive self — like a player Belichick once compared to Hall-of-Famer John Randle — coming off of a season-ending ACL injury in 2013. Domato Peko, a nine-year veteran, has also been sealed off in run defense on a consistent basis. Injuries have forced Devon Still into meaningful snaps at defensive tackle, and their best run-defending linebacker Vontaze Burfict (concussion) is doubtful for this game after failing to practice until Friday.
The Patriots would be wise to run the ball with power against the Bengals' nickel defense to exploit the lack of size.
The Baltimore Ravens, Atlanta Falcons and Tennessee Titans all had some success running behind a fullback and/or tight end when the Bengals were in a nickel. This could be a game where fullback James Develin sees an increased workload thanks to his ability to play both tight end and fullback.
The heavy zone coverage of the Bengals secondary could mean some free releases off the line for the Patriots' receivers, but their penchant for sending rushers from unique places could cause problems for the Patriots offensive line. It will be up to the receivers to get open quickly, so that Brady has outlets when the rush is on.
The Bengals don't like to send pressure often, but they love to rush linebackers and safeties while dropping linemen into zone coverage. This creates the illusion of pressure for the quarterback, while also potentially confusing linemen and causing unblocked defenders to get a free rush.
This has been a tenet of their defense, regardless of the coordinator.
"I think it's been pretty similar [to last year]," Belichick said of their schemes on offense and defense. "They've promoted from within. Every year is a little bit different. There's always a couple new wrinkles or things, little adjustments and so forth. But I'd say the core of it is absolutely, it looks like it's Coach Lewis' system and whoever the coordinator is, they're doing what they do.
This is a team of players, and systems on offense and defense, that helped land head coaching jobs for both its offensive coordinator (Jay Gruden, Washington Redskins) and defensive coordinator (Mike Zimmer, Minnesota Vikings). At this rate, the Bengals could be looking for new coordinators again very soon.
These are not your father's Bungles. They are beatable, just like every other NFL team, but Cincinnati has talented players and smart coaches — a winning formula in any league.