Giovani Bernard has proven to be quite elusive so far in 2014. (Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
FOXBORO — The Kansas City Chiefs certainly provided a challenge that proved to be too much for the Patriots on Monday night.
But Bill Belichick is telling his team this week that if they thought the Chiefs were good, they better be ready for an even stiffer challenge Sunday night at Gillette Stadium.
The 3-0 Cincinnati Bengals have their sights set on finally realizing all of the potential that has built up over the last three seasons, all of which ended in one-and-done experiences in the playoffs.
This season, they’ve started with a road win in Baltimore, when A.J. Green bobbled and then hauled in a 77-yard touchdown pass from Andy Dalton. They then proceeded to dominate Atlanta and Tennessee at home. They are coming into Gillette Stadium off the bye.
They have two of the more dynamic running backs in football in rookie Jeremy Hill and second-year sensation Giovani Bernard. They’ve been tabbed “Thunder and Lightning” and for good reason. Hill is a powerful downhill runner and can pound between the tackles. Bernard, who can run inside, is also lightning quick and tough to bring down on the outside and is a good pass-catching receiver out of the backfield.
Even after losing longtime defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer to Minnesota, the Bengals again possess one of the better pressure defenses in football. Geno Atkins (coming off ACL surgery) anchors one the best defensive lines in football, alongside Domata Peko and edge rushers Carlos Dunlap and Wallace Gilberry.
“This is really an impressive football team. I think [owner] Mike Brown, Coach [Marvin] Lewis [and] the organization have really done a good job of building this football team. They have a lot of good players. They’re well coached. They’re tough, they’re physical, they’re explosive. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a team that’s as complete as they are ‘ even going back the past [years], they’ve been a playoff team here, but the way they started the season this year.
“Watching them through training camp, they’re really a good football team. [They're] strong in all areas of the game ‘ offense, defense, special teams. [They're] playing extremely well. Well coached, good fundamentals. Marvin has an excellent ‘ I think they’ve got an excellent approach to the game as an overall team. They play to it and they do it consistently and they’ve done it consistently. It will be a big challenge for us Sunday night. Good to get back on the field today here and get going. They’ve been very impressive, watching the Bengals and where they’re at. I’m sure coming off the bye week they’ll be fresh and ready to go. They’ve played very well the first three weeks of the season.”
The Bengals started the season with two flawless games in terms of protecting the quarterback and turnovers, not allowing a sack or committing a turnover. Dalton has been intercepted once, the offense has no fumbles and the offensive line hasn’t allowed a sack through the first three games.
“They’re tough, they’re physical,” Belichick added. “They’ve done a great job on the turnovers. They’ve done a good job controlling the line of scrimmage. They’re an explosive team that can make big plays, score from anywhere on the field on offense, on special teams and on defense, relative to strip-sacks and interception returns and things like that. They’re a very dangerous and explosive team. They play hard for 60 minutes. There are no plays off. You can’t turn your back. There’s something ‘ they run fakes in the kicking game. They have good returners; they can change field position on special teams. They can score on defense. They can grind it out on offense, but they can score from 80 yards too, with a number of different guys. All of the above.”
This is a team that replaced Zimmer with Paul Guenther at defensive coordinator while the boisterous and energetic Hue Jackson took over for Jay Gruden as the offensive coordinator.
“I think it’s been pretty similar,” Belichick said. “They’ve promoted from within. Every year is a little bit different. There’s always a couple new wrinkles or things, little adjustments and so forth. But I’d say the core of it is absolutely, it looks like it’s Coach Lewis’ system and whoever the coordinator is, they’re doing what they do.”
Here are some other takeaways from Belichick on Cincinnati:
Q: How do you go about defending Gio Bernard? He seems like one of the more dynamic backs in football right now.
BB: Yeah, he is. He’s very good. He’s very good in space. He can make a lot of people miss in terms of with the ball in his hands ‘ running or passing. He’s a very hard guy to tackle. He’s quick, he’s fast, he’s got good vision, finds holes. He’s a hard guy to get on the ground. He’s a dangerous player.
Q: Would you say speed is his number one asset?
BB: No. He has good speed. His number [one] asset I’d say is his quickness and his balance. People get shots at him, but he avoids them or makes them miss or finds a way to get by them. I mean, he runs well. I’m not saying that. But it isn’t like he outruns everybody ‘ people get shots at him. They have a hard time getting him though.
Q: When your players say they have to do their job, does doing your job translate into excelling at your job? Has that been an issue?
BB: In this case, in preparing for a team like Cincinnati, doing your job means making sure that you have your job done first before you try to do something else. If you’re responsible for a gap, you have to control that gap before you do something else. If you’re responsible for a combination block, you have to make sure you get the first guy before you go to the second guy ‘ that type of thing. It’s making sure you take care of what you have to do before you try to extend beyond that so that we don’t have an issue with the priority of what that job is.
Q: Have you had problems taking care of that first part before not even getting to move on?
BB: I think you want to try to do everything you can do. It’s not that they don’t want to do it. It’s just make sure that the priorities are the priorities. Look, you can’t stop everything. We could stand up here and list 50 things we have to stop for Cincinnati. We can’t have a guy thinking about 50 things, so what is one, two and three? Alright, let’s take care of one, two and three and we’ll get to the other ones when we get to them. But let’s make sure we take care of first things first. I’d say in doing your job, you have to start at the top. You have to prioritize what those things are and make sure you get those done first before you try to start talking about 48, 49 and 50.
Q: What kind of problems do the Bengals pose? You mentioned their toughness. What problems do they pose at the line of scrimmage on both sides?
BB: They have a lot of variety in their running game. They run power schemes, they run spread schemes, they run space schemes. They have multiple backs. They have some good perimeter plays as well with their receivers, which are kind of part of the running game. Defensively, they’re big and strong up front. Their linebackers run well. They have real good team speed. The secondary tackles well. I’d say all those are issues.
Q: How much has A.J. Green evolved since coming to the NFL and what challenges does he present?
BB: Everything. He’s really good. Good route runner, got great leaping ability, go up and take the ball away from defenders. Good runner after the catch with the ball in his hands. Excellent quickness, burst out of breaks. He can play at all three levels and excel at all three levels. He’s one of the best receivers in the league.
Q: Going into Cincinnati, how are relationships and chemistry inside the locker room?
BB: I mean, everybody needs to do a good job preparing this week and go out there and play well to win. That’s what it’s about. That’s what we need to do.
Q: Do we make too much of when it’s a short week or you have extra time to prepare or is it really a tangible advantage or disadvantage?
BB: Well, I mean, look, all 32 teams in the NFL have the same schedule. So, with every long week is a short week; with every short week is a long week. It all evens out in the long run. So, take advantage of whatever your time is and do the best you can with it, whatever it is. If it’s a bye week, if it’s a Thursday night game, if it’s whatever it is in between, try to use the time as efficiently as you can, get the most out of it. Some weeks you have the same amount of time as your opponents. Some weeks you have more; some weeks they have more. But in the end, you can only control what you can control and that’s your opportunity. So, that’s what we can control. We’ll make the most out of what we have this week.
Q: Does the fact that Gio Bernard is paired with a 240-pound back in Jeremy Hill make it especially difficult because you’re defending two backs who are pretty different from each other?
BB: Well, I mean, there’s some of that. You don’t get that all the time by any means. There’s a lot of 11 personnel where he’s the only back in there.
Q: I don’t mean necessarily on the field together, but with them rotating in and out.
BB: Oh, you have to know who is in the game, no question. Yeah, you have to know who the backs are in the game. No doubt about that. I mean, they’re both good and they have different styles and different tendencies I would say. But yeah, they have good players. Just like the receivers, they have a lot of good receivers and they move them around and you’re not always sure which ones are going to be in the game. But you need to know who you’re defending because they’re not all the same. They’re good, but they’re not all the same.
Q: Hue Jackson said he wanted to use more of a running game to take the pressure off Andy Dalton. Are you seeing more use of two backs than you did last year?
BB: Well first of all, Marvin has talked about the running game for years and years. I don’t think that’s any news breaking story. They’re really a 12 personnel team that with the injuries that they’ve had, are now less of a 12 personnel team, but there’s still the same emphasis of the game that there was. It’s just different personnel groups.