Everyone figures it is going to be a close shave at Gillette Stadium on Sunday.
It always is against the Patriots and they’ve never lost a Gillette opener in eight tries. And New England is 19-13 in the month of September in the Bill Belichick era. But if you have to catch Belichick, early is better than late. September is the Patriots' worst month. December is best (37-9) and October (29-12) and November (27-14) ain’t bad either.
But it doesn’t matter when or where you play the sound and sure Patriots. You can’t take penalties. Look at how the Ravens beat them in Gillette last year in the Wild Card Game. They committed just three for 15 yards. The Bengals, among the NFL leaders in penalties last season and coming off a flag-fest preseason in which they averaged more than 10 per game, have been emphasizing it.
“Sometimes when you’re looking to be explosive offensively or defensively, you might make a mistake. The Patriots never seem to make an explosive play, but they make a lot of solid plays all the time. They don’t hurt themselves.”
Offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski has been pounding away in class and on the field about stats like these: The Bengals had the third most false starts in the AFC last season, the fourth most holding calls, and the most delay of games in the NFL with 15.
He also could have added the Pats had the fourth fewest false starts in the AFC and the fourth fewest holding calls with half the delay of games with seven.
“You tell them the stats,” said Bratkowski of attacking the problem. ”You show them all the drives the holding penalties stopped and how hard it is to overcome those extra 10 yards. The statistics show how it puts you at risk at losing a game.”
Bratkowski says practice involves making sure players are aligned correctly and not jumping the snap count. Referees have been a staple at practice. And, head coach Marvin Lewis brought out the speakers this week to the practice fields across the street from the stadium, a sure sign it is a road game.
“The noise puts a lot of uneasiness on the players,” Bratkowski said.
Not counting the preseason opener, which was basically a scrimmage, the Bengals first unit had two holding calls, three false starts, and an illegal formation flag that was declined. The thinking is that one of the factors for the struggles last year was that the Bengals were going through a transition with a new offensive line and a revamped scheme that had a lot of shifting and moving.
“When you’re a younger team like we are, you’re trying to figure out how to beat people and survive,” Whitworth said. “(The Pats) usually use their experience not to make mistakes and just play effectively. I think we can grow and mature and guys realize being solid football players is important more so than a huge play where you have to hold a guy to have an explosive play. You’ve got to let guys go if you get beat and it’s OK to get beat sometimes. Sometimes helping the team and getting beat is better than you getting the holding penalty.”
Or, as right guard
Whitworth can see the fruits of the offseason emphasis. But he knows no one really knows.
“We’ve emphasized it. I think in the first group you have had a little bit of penalty, but I think you’re going to have some of that in the preseason,” he said. “I don’t think it’s been as bad as we probably had last year in the first couple of groups. But you don’t really have a test until you’re out there for 60 minutes with live bullets.”