Gathering on the green

Posted Sep 11, 2010



SEPTEMBER 12, 2010


The roundtable is splintered again for Opening Day 2010.

Our scouts have returned intact from 2009 but not their opinions. In another split decision, they give Sunday’s 1 p.m. opener (Cincinnati’s Channel 12) to the emerging Bengals over the transitioning Patriots in a matchup of defending division champs eyeball to eyeball on the Foxborough village green that starts the NFL's 16-game march.

“The Patriots are still well-coached and Tom Brady is as good as it gets,” says The Eye, an NFL scout familiar with the AFC North. “And they have good players. But they’re not as good as the guys they’ve lost on defense. They’ve replaced the great player like Mike Vrabel, Richard Seymour, Tedy Bruschi, Rodney Harrison with good players and young players.”

The Sage, an ex-NFL player that played for a decade, can only conclude that for the first time in since whenever the Bengals match up better than the Pats.

“All across the field,” The Sage says. “The Bengals receivers should beat the Patriots secondary. The Bengals secondary should be able to cover their receivers. Their defensive line should be able to handle their offensive line. And I don’t even think you can say they’ve got the better coach at this point. Bill Belichick is still a Hall of Fame coach, but he’s lost a lot of his players and you have to give Marvin (Lewis) his props. He got this team through last year and won the division and now they’re better.

“If you look at how Marvin wants to play it, that’s exactly you beat the Patriots,” The Sage says. "He wants to pound it with the run, play defense, and that’s how Baltimore went on the road and beat them last year in the playoffs.”

The dissenting opinion belongs to another double digit NFL vet. Big Bird is as sweeping as The Sage.

“T.O. and Chad aren’t the best receivers on the field,” Bird says. “The Patriots have the better coach, the better quarterback, the better tight ends. I’m just not ready to believe yet in the Bengals. They have to prove it to me first.”

The Eye and The Sage are convinced. The Eye calls it, 24-20, Bengals. The Sage says the Bengals will win by two scores, something like 27-17. Big Bird sees a high-scoring deal, more like 27-23, Pats, with Brady all knowing.

QB C. Palmer vs. Patriots QB Tom Brady

This is purely an intangible matchup. In Brady the Bengals go against a cool, cold-eyed killer. At 7-1, no one in the league has a better Opening Day record. No one has more than his three Super Bowl rings. Six of Brady’s 29 fourth-quarter comebacks have come in the playoffs and the last one was last Opening Day.

And the Bengals have never been mature enough to weather it.

The last time these teams played in 2007, the Pats’ professionalism left the Bengals in tatters. The Bengals were consumed by so much bickering and emotion that Lewis exploded after the game so loudly that the Associated Press reported:

"If you don't want to be on this team, please don't show up! You don't call the offense, you don't call the plays. You just play. Nowhere in the NFL do guys act like this. We've got to figure this out."

And veteran right tackle Willie Anderson shook his head and said, "I'm worried about the maturity of this team. We can't play like kids when the other team has grown men."

On Friday, right guard and offensive co-captain Bobbie Williams remembered. The team has done what Lewis said and figured it out.

“The one thing about this team is everyone is on the same page,” he said. “I’m not saying that team didn’t work, but there is more focus on detail. Guys are putting in the work. There is no sense of entitlement. You work for it and earn it ... this is a different team.”

Defensive tackle Dogmata Peko, a co-captain, agreed.

“We’ve grown up. We’ve got grown-up men now,” Peko said. “We feel like we’re a real team. New England is great. They’ve won three Super Bowls in 10 years, but it’s not about them. It’s about us. We can’t wait to go out and fire our guns.”

WRS C. Ochocinco and T. Owens vs. Patriots CBs Darius Butler and Devin McCourty

The second-year Butler and the rookie McCourty bring in a total of five NFL starts vs. two guys that should leave the stadium with 15,000 and 10,000 career yards, respectively.

“Belichick likes to take away what you do best and there is no way he is going to let T.O. and Chad run by those kids,” The Eye says. “It’s going to be Cover 2 and Cover 4 and I’m not sure their front seven is going to be able to hold up against the run doing that because they’re not as big as they’ve been."

The Ocho has been saying all week he expects to get doubled. So does Owens. So is the passing game decided elsewhere?

TE J. Gresham vs. Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski

It makes sense for Belichick to take away the vets and open up the middle of the field for the untried Bengals rookies, Gresham and slot receiver Jordan Shipley.

“I think a big part of the game is how the rookie tight ends play,” The Sage says. It’s always been a big part of the Patriots offense and the Bengals always seem to have problems covering the other team’s tight ends. I like Gresham. You know he can catch, but I think he’s been doing a good job blocking. You can tell he’s been watching Reggie Kelly. I saw him take out a D-end in a preseason game with some good technique.”

The Eye: “Gronkowski and Gresham are very similar. They were the two tight ends in the draft that could both block and catch with any consistency. Gronkowski scored a couple of touchdowns in the red zone in the preseason and is a rangy guy.”

The veteran Bengals safeties and linebackers are going to be tested here and they have to come up big against Gronkowski and the other rookie tight end, Aaron Hernandez. The Patriots use Hernandez like a wide receiver but he hasn’t played the last couple of games because of injury. Look for nickel linebacker Brandon Jonson and safety Chris Crocker to be active here. That’s 142 NFL games to none.

RB C. Benson vs. Patriots ILBS Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes

If everyone is right and Belichick is coming out in Cover 2 and Cover 4, then Mayo and Spikes, another rookie, are the last line of defense in the running game. Mayo, the league’s ’08 Defensive Rookie of the Year, is probably New England's best defensive player. Benson looked crisp in the preseason a year after he had big games against the AFC North’s 3-4 defenses.

“I just don’t think New England’s front seven can hold up against the Bengals offensive line in the run game. They’re just not as big or powerful as they have been in the past,” The Sage says. “Ty Warren’s not there. Richard Seymour’s not there.”

C K. Cook vs. Patriots NT Vince Wilfork

Big Bird says a big question for him is if the Bengals can play with discipline against a Patriots team that rarely beats itself.

“They haven’t proven to me yet that they can go out on the road and play a clean game when it comes to penalties,” Bird says. “That’s a huge thing against the Patriots. They don’t lose very often at home.”

Cook is heading into his second season as a starter after a season he was a calming influence for a line that was four-fifths new. Now everyone is back and should be even more comfortable.

“Wilfork is a good, smart nose man,” The Eye says. "But Cook held up OK against the noses in the division, so he should be fine here. Wilfork isn’t as big or as strong as Shaun Rogers and he’s a little bigger than Kelly Gregg. Cook is smart, a good technician and he won’t be seeing anything much different than what he saw in the division last year.

WR Randy Moss vs. Bengals CBs J. Joseph and A. Jones

The Eye says Moss may not have his youthful explosion, but he can still run by corners on the deep ball, and the Patriots also like to use him on underneath stuff. He also says they Bengals probably need to play a little Cover 2 of their own, or at least use two guys on Moss a lot of the times. When Brady goes play-action, a lot of times he’s looking for Moss deep on a post.

“I think Moss going against Adam Jones on the outside when the Pats spread it out is a good matchup for New England,” Big Bird says. “Jones tends to not play with discipline and tries to jump stuff. You’re talking about a guy in Moss that scored 13 TDs last year, so he’s still a Pro Bowl guy.”

WR Wes Welker vs. Bengals CB L. Hall

This ought to be a Pro Bowl matchup in the slot most of the time. Welker is coming off an ACL and Hall is coming off a breakout season. Hall is an excellent tackler and he’ll have to be on top of his game Sunday to prevent Welker’s yards after catch.

“Even after his knee injury, Welker is shifty. He’s great getting you going one way and he goes the other coming out of cuts,” The Eye says. “He plays fast with his body language. He’s not a physical guy. I would imagine that Hall has gone up against Shipley in practice and that’s a plus for him. Shipley probably won’t play as fast as Welker because he’s a rookie, but they are similar players.”

The Sage says the guy to watch is Moss.

“If Moss is making plays downfield, then the rush isn’t getting home,” The Sage says. “Welker is going to make plays in the slot. That’s hard to stop. But they have to limit Moss’ big plays.”

LG Dan Connolly and RG Stephen Neal vs. Bengals DTs D. Peko and T. Johnson

Brady rarely gets sacked (just 16 times last season) largely because the Patriots keep him in three- and five-step drops and run a lot of screens and underneath stuff where he’s getting the ball out quickly. He doesn’t have his very good left guard in Logan Mankins or his right tackle in Nick Kaczur.

“They have to get Brady off his mark and that has to come from a push up the middle,” The Sage says. “They like to run the screens and the Bengals have athletic linemen that can run. They’re going to have to. You can’t sack Brady, but you have to get in his face.”

Special teams coach Scott O’Brien vs. Bengals special teams coach Darrin Simmons


Simmons meets his mentor for the first time ever in the regular season after eight years, so if it looks like a two-way mirror out there in the kicking game, that’s why. Both guys sunk their teeth into the pro game under Belichick on what may have been the best special teams group of all time, the 1994 Cleveland Browns. If anyone wants to know why Simmons watches endless tape of the third guy from the left on kick returns so he can get some tendencies, O’Brien is why.

“We talk several times during the season, but not this week,” Simmons says. “His whole thing is preparation. If you see it and do it, you’re going to execute it.”

Ironically, both are going through some transition. Simmons has lost three of his top four tacklers from a year ago and O’Brien has lost similar players. The big edge for the Pats is they have an excellent veteran kicker in Stephen Gostkowski. The Bengals head into the first game of the post-Shayne Graham era with Mike Nugent, an accurate guy before injuries derailed his career after the 2007 season. After kicking 54- and 52-yarders in preseason, Nugent’s groin problem from early in training camp looks to be cleared up.

Simmons Is wary of wide receiver Brandon Tate, the third-round pick out of North Carolina that can return both punts and kicks and popped a 97-yard kick for a touchdown in the preseason while averaging 44 yards.

Of course, O’Brien also has to worry about the Bengals return games after two players had two kick returns of at least 40 yards and three players seven punt returns of at least 20 in the preseason. And O’Brien can’t assume that Bernard Scott is going to return kicks and Adam Jones punts with Shipley and Quan Cosby around.

Asked to sum up what O’Brien has, Simmons said, “Explosive returners and they’re well-coached.”

They’ll be looking in a mirror Sunday.


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