Matchup of the Game: Pats test Bengals' versatility

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Karlos Dansby (56) upgrades the Bengals coverage.

BENGALS OLB KARLOS DANSBY VS. PATRIOTS TES ROB GRONKOWSKI AND MARTELLUS BENNETT:

The svelte 6-3, 251-pound Dansby has the Patriots to thank for help keeping him in the league back when he played for the Dolphins from 2010-2012. As they are inclined to do on either side of the ball the Pats shook everything up for one game and spread the field with five receivers back when Aaron Hernandez played tight end.

"They were running something totally different," Dansby recalled this week. "Two-yard stick routes with Hernandez.  I remember that like it was yesterday.  At that time I was 270 trying to play in that game and I got on a diet after that game ASAP. I've been lighter ever since.

"They were in (five receivers) a good chunk of the game," Dansby said. "Little two-yard stick routes. They'd get two, three yards, five, six yards then, boom, they hit you with a pass getting behind you in coverage."

Dansby wasn't here in 2014 when the New England tight ends boomed them for 185 yards on 11 catches in dastardly matchups.  There was a good-to-be-Gronk 100-yard night and someone named Tim Wright hit them for 85 more. Now they've teamed the 6-6, 265-pound Gronk with another Pro Bowl talent in the 6-6, 275-pound Bennett.

Imagine two Tyler Eiferts.

"These guys are bigger then Eifert," Dansby said.

 "Sometimes even when they're covered they're kind of open it seems like because they're so big," said Vincent Rey, an outside linebacker who was there the last time. "They're listed as 6-6 and I'm pretty sure they're taller."

Gronk is coming off a 100-yard day in Cleveland (isn't he always?) and Bennett had his first three touchdown game in his nine-year career. The Patriots' versatility always tests their foes' versatility.

But the Bengals linebackers and safeties are in better shape than the '14 game, when profootballfocus.com charted on 15 targets, Rey and linebackers Emmanuel Lamur and Rey Maualuga allowed 11 catches for 154 yards and two touchdowns while giving up 209 yards in short and intermediate routes.

Yet that night the Bengals didn't have WILL backer Vontaze Burfict, not only their best linebacker, but also their best three-down linebacker and, more importantly against the brains of Tom Brady, the guy that wears the communications helmet. Without Burfict, Lamur, in his fifth NFL start, wore the helmet and Rey had to play every scrimmage snap as well special teams.

Brady wasted no time going no huddle and picking out the mismatches and blown coverages in a wave of miscommunication when they got caught off guard by the tempo. In those decisive first few minutes, they had trouble getting lined up and no one covered Wright on a 17-yard touchdown pass that made it 14-0 just 11 minutes into the game.

With Burfict back and the addition of Dansby, the Bengals have significantly upgraded in coverage and experience. Now, according to PFF, Rey leads all NFL outside backers playing at least 50 percent of the snaps in allowing yards  per coverage snap and Dansby is ninth as he heads into his 186th career start and eighth against Brady.

"He throws them open," Dansby said of Brady and his tight ends. "They use their body. These are some big guys. They're 6-6 apiece and both athletic. They have a big advantage. You have to play through the hands and there are a lot of things to do with technique. Match size and speed and just try to get in the passing lane and make it difficult to catch the ball. They body up on guys. They get open. If a guy blows coverage, they're so sound in what they do if you mess up, Tom will find you and make a play."

Also in on trying to cover the big guys are the Bengals' band of big safeties with a lot of focus on slot corner Josh Shaw, a second-year corner-safety type that watched tape of the '14 game this week.

"They give you a lot of different looks. They've got a Hall of Fame quarterback over there and he's going to get them in good situations. It's up to us to execute. I think Paulie (Bengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther) has done a good job this week giving us a simple game plan and it's up to us to execute," Shaw said. "It will help having Tez back. A three-down backer is only going to help. Dansby, Vinny.  I think we've got guys that can match up to go up to Foxboro and make it a real good game."

The play last week wasn't drawn up for Shaw to be on Cowboys Pro Bowl tight end Jason Witten. But he was and Witten pulled away from him for a 31-yard gain after a catch over the middle.

"I still should have made that play," Shaw said. "I saw the ball, I dove and I thought I could make a play on it. Lesson learned. Next time I've got to be 100 percent sure knowing I can make the play if I'm coming underneath or just secure the tackle."

It's a different deal Sunday. They're just so tall.

"You can fight it or they're going to use their height and size against you,' said the 6-1, 200-pound Shaw. "You have to let the play come to you … Bennett has been playing real well for them. Gronk is back as far as being healthy. They're going to feature them a lot. Just like they did back in the day when they had Gronk and Hernandez. They have been playing a lot of ace (one-back sets) and three-receiver personnel, but you never know what you'll get."

That's always the buzz phrase for the Pats. Run or pass? The early confusion around the no huddle in '14 hid the fact the Pats rushed for 220 yards. Along with the Ravens' 221 yards in the 2011 finale, it's the most allowed in the Green-Dalton era. With 250-pound running back LeGarrette Blount lurking, Dansby knows exactly what they can do.

"You've got Bennett coming in whamming three techniques," Dansby said of Bennett blocking a defensive tackle. "You don't see that from other tight ends. You're not going to have Eifert come down in there and wham the three technique or the nose guard. You don't see that. These guys are so versatile. We have to be on our game and play technique sound."

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