Patriots head coach Bill Belichick knows brains when he sees them so it should be no surprise as he prepares for Sunday's game (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) against the Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium that quarterback Andy Dalton and center Trey Hopkins have caught his eye.
"(Dalton's) a hard guy to fool or get on a new look or something like that," Belichick said earlier this week. "He is very good, and he does a very good job with (Trey) Hopkins, the center, they do a really good job of getting the communications right."
Hopkins, who has literally been in the middle of the Bengals' run game revival with his I.Q. and innate ability to pull and operate in space, has been just as impressed with the Patriots' top-ranked defense.
"My thing at first glance is that so many people on their team can do so many different things," Hopkins said before Wednesday's practice. "That allows them to be kind of unorthodox … You don't necessarily know where everyone is going to be from snap to snap."
The versatility can be seen in the snap counts. A total of 18 players on New England's defensive two-deep have played more than 25 percent of the plays. The knowledge of the system can be seen in the years in the system. Nine of those players are in at least their fourth season with the Pats and five of them are in their fifth season.
When Hopkins begins his film review each week, he looks at two things right away. How the defense looks on first down and then on third down. The Patriotic problem is it's hard to tell which down is which.
"Personnel-wise on third down with a defense based out of a 3-4, typically they'll go to a nickel or a dime or some kind of a sub (package) front to get to four down (linemen)," Hopkins said. "But with them they can do either one because they have the capabilities of having both their safeties in the box and being good run supporters. They also have the same capabilities with their big guys or their linebackers, who sometimes play defensive ends and they also walk out and be in coverage. It causes a little bit of confusion and a little bit of pause."
Yes, Bengals head coach Zac Taylor has called a game against one of Belichick's defenses in New England and it was a big one. When he was the interim offensive coordinator for the Dolphins in 2015, the Pats needed to beat them in Miami in the finale to get home field for the AFC title game. Miami's Ryan Tannehill threw for 350 yards in a 20-10 victory and Denver ended up beating New England by two at Mile High to go to the Super Bowl. But that was before the arrival of Kyle Van Noy (one of those ends/backers Hopkins was talking about), the NFL's No. 1 cornerback in Stephon Gilmore and another sticky corner, Jason McCourty.
JOLTIN' JOE: Hopkins is not only impressed with running back Joe Mixon's five-game run that has him on the verge of another 1,000-yard season, but also with how Mixon never wavered while presiding over a historically bad running game in the first seven games.
"He's definitely been tested this year with his patience and its paying off and everybody sees that," Hopkins said. "Things just weren't going well early. We were all frustrated. He stuck with us every step of the way. He's been encouraging as a teammate. He's been great all year and he's getting the chance to shine now."
Hopkins loves the new mobile run scheme that features his talents on the move, but only because of the results.
"Anything that gets (No.) 28 going, I like it," he said. "When I can see 28 taking off past me, I like it."
Mixon likes it, too. He likes to get behind Hopkins and the guards on those tosses to the edge because he can shove him where he wants to go.
"I want to help set up their block. I feel like it helps them a lot whether they made the block or they didn't," Mixon said. "At the same time, they're in the way. I've been trying just to make their blocks right and run off that. Even to the receivers: 'I'm always going to make your block right. You just make sure you get in front of them."
Mixon's not asking much. Just get in front. He'll do the rest and he likes it out there on the edge. He has not only shown patience off the field, but also waiting for his guys to set up with a slight hesitation conjuring up images of Le'Veon Bell to the hole before he went into bowling.
"If you look at it in a game, there are a lot plays of me slow to and fast through. I feel like my stop to start is up there with the best of them," Mixon said. "At the same time that being said, that's what gives me that separation and break through, the vision that I've been displaying. I feel like it works well."
But he's not copying Bell or anybody else.
"I've had that since I was little. I've had that since I was yeah high. You feel me?" Mixon said.
Defenders are feeling Mixon. In the last five games he's carried an NFL and career-high 105 times. On his first carry of last Sunday's game in Cleveland the 228-pound Mixon blew up the 185-pound Greedy Williams in their first meeting anywhere on or off the field. Zac Taylor's culture needs exactly this:
"He didn't say anything," Mixon said. "I just told him it's going to be a long-bleep game for you. You better get your crap ready."
He's not tired. He only averaged 12.5 carries in those first seven games He still needs 31 carries to match the total he had last year to win the AFC rushing title.
"Honestly, with the carries I've been getting, I think I've been feeling great," Mixon said. "I feel great. I feel like I want more. I can handle more."
MO AND AE: Bengals wide receiver Alex Erickson threw his first NFL pass on Sunday off a double reverse, a 26-yard strike to running back Giovani Bernard down the right sideline.
"A dime," Bernard said.
Remember the 25-yard dime Bernard caught from another wide receiver in his rookie year of 2013? Mohamed Sanu hit him from across the field on a moon ball, also down the right sideline. Also against the Browns. Bernard wouldn't be surprised if the Patriots rolled out Sanu for a pass Sunday.
"He'll throw it to Rex (Burkhead)," Bernard said of his former Bengals back-field mate.
Every Cincy school kid knows Sanu has a perfect passer rating in eight NFL throws, including four touchdowns. Now here comes Erickson, who last threw a pass for Darlington High School in what amounted to a state semi in Wisconsin. Erickson coolly reverted to his old letter jacket form.
"He was open right away and maybe if I could throw it on a line like Andy Dalton, I would have hurried it," Erickson said. "I kind of wanted to make sure I got around the edge and set my feet."