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10 things you have to know about Patriots-Bengals

10.05.13 at 11:34 am ET

Here’€™s everything you need to know about Sunday’€™s Patriots-Bengals game.

Our three favorite matchups on the afternoon:

1. Cornerback Aqib Talib against wide receiver AJ Green ‘€“
We’re not overdramatizing this, but to this point in the season, Talib has been at the center of most of the major positional battles. He’s won them all, and therein lies a sizable reason the Patriots are 4-0. While he hasn’t worked exclusively in one-on-one coverage against the opposition’s best receiver, he’s played a major role in slowing down elite pass-catchers like Vincent Jackson and Julio Jones. He has four picks through the first four games of the season. According to Pro Football Focus, he’€™s been thrown at 20 times this year and allowed six completed passes for a 30 percent completion rate, the best total for any starting corner in the league. He’s also helped the Patriots pass defense cut an average of 40 passing yards per game since this time last year, and deserves to be included in any debate regarding possible Defensive Player of the Year candidates. Now, he turns his attention to Green, another top-level pass catcher who falls right into Talib’s wheelhouse, at least from a matchup perspective: At 6-foot-4 and 211 pounds, he has great speed and great length, and does a nice job when he’s been asked to be physical. On the season, he has 26 catches for 300 yards and three touchdowns. It should be another big matchup.

2. Offensive lineman Logan Mankins against defensive tackle Geno Atkins ‘€“
Atkins is a terrifying interior pass rusher, someone who, as Bill Belichick noted earlier in the week, makes many offensive linemen look like they’re wearing roller skates. (Belichick also said that if they held a re-do of the 2010 draft, Atkins — who was taken in the fourth round by Cincinnati — would be the top overall pick in the draft.) Atkins, who has 2.5 sacks over the first four games of the 2013 season (after finishing last season with 12 sacks) is a 6-foot-1, 286-pound All Pro out of Georgia who has served as the unquestioned anchor of the Bengals defensive front since he arrived in 2010. He’ll be matched up against Mankins, the well-established leader of New England’s offensive line who is tied for the lead in total snaps played with Tom Brady and Ryan Wendell with 306 through the first four games of the season. Mankins and the rest of the Patriots line has done an excellent job of working as road graders for the New England run game the last few weeks, allowing the Patriots to establish the tempo and tone of the game, but he will face his biggest challenge of the year to date this week against Atkins.

3. The Patriots defensive front against the Bengals running game ‘€“
New England will go the rest of the 2013 season without one of its premier run defenders in Vince Wilfork, who was placed on injured reserve with an Achilles injury he suffered in last Sunday’s win over the Falcons. In his place, the Patriots will likely try and variety of looks in hoping to maintain their solid run defense numbers they put up over the first quarter of the season. (They’re yielding an average of 105 yards per game, 14th in the league.) New England will ask a lot of veteran defensive tackle Tommy Kelly, as well as rookies Joe Vellano and Chris Jones up front. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Patriots utilize some three-man fronts with a combination of Kelly, defensive ends Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich and bringing run-stuffing linebacker Brandon Spikes down into the box. They might also pull Jones into the defensive tackle spot a little more frequently than they have done in the past and put rookie Michael Buchanan on the edge, but again, that would only be sporadically. Statistically, the Bengals are middle-of-the-road to poor when it comes to running the football, but youngster Gio Bernard has shown flashes of excellence over the first four games of the season (4.6 yards per carry, 10.2 yards per catch), and if he continues on his current pace, could take over the starters’ job from old friend BenJarvus Green-Ellis sooner rather than later.

4. Under-the-radar opponent Patriots fans need to know ‘€“
Bernard is the sort of multidimensional back the Patriots have occasionally struggled with in recent years. A 5-foot-9, 202-pound rookie out of North Carolina who compares favorably to Shane Vereen in some aspects, he can beat you out of the backfield as a receiver (12 catches, 122 yards, one touchdown in the passing game) or running the ball (32 carries, 147 yards, two touchdowns on the ground). Expect the Patriots to try pound on Bernard as he comes out of the backfield on a consistent basis in an attempt to disrupt his routes and throw off his timing.

5. By the numbers:
From our old friend Nuggetpalooza: Since the start of the 2012 season, New England opponents who have tried runs on 3rd and 4th and short situations — classified as five yards or less — picked up a first down on just 43 percent of the time, the lowest percentage in the NFL.

6. Quote of note:
“I’d probably just rather see someone not as good as him.” — Logan Mankins talking about Geno Atkins, and whether he’d rather face a tall guy or a short guy across from him on the defensive line.

7. Patriots fans should be worried about ‘€¦
other than Atkins, it would probably be the the two young tight ends, Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert. Last week, the Patriots yielded 12 catches, 149 yards and two touchdowns to tight end Tony Gonzalez. A large part of that was because New England was more focused on other offensive options, but regardless, the veteran scalded the Patriots defense. (Thanks in large part to the work of Gonzalez, New England has now allowed 20 catches for 216 yards and two touchdowns to tight ends through the first four games of the season.) The two youngsters don’t have the same resume as Gonzalez, but their complimentary presence allows them to play off each other in much the same fashion as Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez used to. They have combined for 30 catches for 340 yards through four games, and have the potential to create some matchup issues for the Patriots, who will likely work to redirect them with a physical shot right off the line.

8. Bengals fans should be worried about ‘€¦
the Patriots putting together another sixty minutes of complimentary football. On Sunday, the New England offense managed to maximize its scoring opportunities, putting points on the board on six of its first 10 possessions, which made things considerably easier for the defense and special teams. (Scoring with that sort of frequency will turn a team into a one-dimensional squad that has to throw to get back into the the game.) Those two units continue to return the favor — through the first four games, they’ve gifted the offense with an average starting field position of the 31-yard line, fourth-best in the league. If the Patriots are able to produce the same sort of well-rounded performance this week against the Bengals that they did against the Falcons in the Georgia Dome last Sunday, New England shouldn’t have a problem.

9. One more thing ‘€“
While the rookie receivers continue to progress — particularly Kenbtrell Thompkins, who is now on pace for 60 catches, which would be the most for a rookie receiver in the Tom Brady era — I’m not sure I can recall the Patriots going into a game with so much uncertainty when you’re talking about availability of some of their elite skill position players. At tight end, Gronkowski’s a question mark. Ditto for receiver Danny Amendola. (Heck, Belichick even intimated they’d try and get Austin Collie some snaps on Sunday.) There’s slightly more clarity at the running back spot, where Stevan Ridley was ruled out on Friday, but even then, there’s some question as to who might take over temporary chairmanship of the running back by committee, LeGarrette Blount or Brandon Bolden. If this is a conscious smokescreen on the part of Belichick to keep Marvin Lewis and the rest of the Bengals on their toes when it comes to preparation, mission accomplished.

10. Prediction —



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