The Patriots outdistanced the Bengals in the second half yesterday, claiming a 35-17 win in Foxboro. The victory keeps the Pats a game ahead of the surging Bills. Next week they face an ailing Steelers team in Pittsburgh, with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger undergoing surgery that will keep him off the field.
The Pats started slowly against the Cincy, scoring just before the half for a 10-7 lead at the break. But in the second half, it was all New England: 25-10 and not even that close. The Bengals that offense could do no wrong in the first half-hour couldn't do much right for the last 30 minutes, and I credit the Patriots defense more than failures by the Bengals offense.
And that defense was led by linebacker Dont'a Hightower. For the second consecutive week, Hightower pressured the quarterback into a safety; this time with a sack of Andy Dalton in the third quarter. That play turned momentum in the Patriots favor, and started a string of 15 straight points scored by the Patriots.
Hightower also led the team with 13 tackles, almost double the second-best total. With starter Jamie Collins out with an injury, rookie Elandon Roberts stepped up with seven tackles of his own, and he was a factor in forcing running backs to change direction in the backfield. These two used delayed-blitzes up the A-gap to great effect against both the run and pass game. And if Roberts have broken through more under control, he would have had at least two additional tackles for a loss.
Malcom Brown and Alan Branch performed the best among defensive linemen. Branch made six tackles and Brown 5, but Brown's run-stuffing was more impactful. The rest of the line was decent, but Brown and Branch stood out.
It appeared to be a mixed bag in the secondary. Safety Devin McCourty was late on a few throws but made big hits after the catch. And though he wasn't perfect, corner Malcolm Butler ended up with three tackles and three passes defended. Logan Ryan got beaten a few times and did not have a great game, before being replaced by newcomer Eric Rowe (who played pretty well).
The offense was all about the passing game. Quarterback Tom Brady made his Gillette Stadium debut count: 29 of 35 (83%) for 376 yards, 3 touchdowns, 0 interceptions, and a 140.0 QB rating. And those numbers are even more impressive when you consider that he had a slow start: four of his six incompletions, and only 36% of his yards came in the first half.
Brady's most devastating receiver was tight end Rob Gronkowski, who had 7 catches for 162 yards and a touchdown. His tight end partner in crime, Martellus Bennett had 5 for 48, and the other receivers had pretty pedestrian numbers.
The other receiving weapon was running back James White, who had one of his best games as a professional. White had 8 receptions on 9 targets, for just 47 yards but two touchdowns out of the backfield. In the AFC Championship Game last year, Brady and White just missed on two similar passes. So it's good to see progress on that front.
LeGarrette Blount had a trick-or-treat game. He led the team with 50 yards on the ground and scored a late touchdown. But he lost his temper with the Cincinnati thugs, and got a 15-yard penalty. Gronkowski also lost his cool, being flagged for taunting after getting into it with the Cincy linebackers and secondary. Neither penalty cost the team in the end, but Gronk was right after the game: you never know when it will cost the team, so both players have to clean that up.
The offensive line had a bad first half and a slightly better second half. They still have trouble when the other defense has a front-four that can pressure the QB without blitzing. And Brady was under constant pressure in the first half. Their run-blocking is better, but I'd hoped to see more progress in pass protection.
Kicker Stephen Gostkowski missed again, this time an extra point in the third quarter. And this is about the fourth consecutive update where I wrote that the special teams coach needs to earn his money on this. Missing a field goal now could cost you the game, but eventually, it could cost you the season.
On the plus side, Ryan Allen's punting and Gostkowski's kickoffs have been excellent. And Brandon King is making as many special teams tackles as long-time captain Matthew Slater.
As for coaching, the defense did a great job stopping the run, but seemed a little slow to adjust to the Bengals' passing attack. And at some point, you have to pull back Gronkowski; once his behavior starts hurting the team.
So where does that leave us? 5-1 sounds good, and with a wounded Pittsburgh team up next. The Bills are now 4-2, and the Pats play them the following week in Buffalo. So winning the next two games could go a long way toward a division title and playoff positioning.
Non-Brady MVP of the Week: It's Hightower; his safety turned the tide in the Pats favor and his overall outstanding play was central to the defensive effort. (Narrow win over Gronkowski.)
Statistical Oddity of the Week: There are two active cornerbacks in the NFL with the last name Butler (Darius with the Colts, and Malcolm with the Pats) — and both started their careers in New England.
Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: “Not bad when a sloppy effort gets you an 18-point win.”
Keep the faith,