A regular-season game between Chad Ochocinco’s Bengals and Bill Belichick’s Patriots would bring a torrent of good-natured trash-talking. When these two teams met in 2007, there was a nice back-and-forth between the two -- when the receiver (who was then known as Chad Johnson) asked the Patriots to cover him one-on-one, Belichick responded in kind.
“Tell him we’d cover him one-on-one all the time, but he pushes off more than any receiver in the league,” the coach said with a grin. “He must be paying off the officials not to call it, so we’re going to have to double-cover him some. ... Not that he can get open.”
Alas, there was none of that this week. But even though there was no pregame woofing between the coach and the always-quotable wide receiver this time around, there are still several good reasons to watch Thursday’s Patriots-Bengals preseason game:
The 4-3 defense. Was it a one-off thing for New England? Or is it the wave of the future in Foxborough? Probably somewhere in between. The Patriots used a lot of it in the preseason opener against the Eagles, but several players, as well as Belichick, indicated this week that New England will not stick to a simple base defense, but instead will offer up multiple defensive packages this season depending on the opponent.
“We have the versatility to play in a lot of different fronts, a lot of different packages, whatever is gonna give our team the edge,” defensive lineman Richard Seymour said earlier in the week. “Whether it’s a 3-4 or a 4-3, whatever is going to give us the best chance to win -- that’s what we’re going to do.”
It’s also important to remember that many of the 4-3 looks the Patriots offered against the Eagles weren’t traditional 4-3 looks. Instead of four down linemen with their hands in the dirt operating in a traditional one-gap system, New England appeared to use three traditional down linemen, each of them with their hands on the ground, as well as a defensive end lined up off the edge where an outside linebacker would be, but still starting out with his hand in the ground. If there is more 4-3 this week, look for it to follow the same mold.
Tom Brady. In his first game back on the field since Bernard Pollard crashed into his left knee last September, No. 12 appeared to be in fine football shape. He went 10-for-15 for 100 yards with a pair of touchdowns and one interception. The mistakes he made -- namely, the underthrown ball to Randy Moss that resulted in the pick -- were not caused by a knee injury. Instead, they were the usual rust any quarterback may have encountered in his first preseason game.
“I need the work -- we all need the work,” Brady said after the game. “You can’t duplicate this on the practice field.”
That being said, it will be interesting to see how much run he gets against the Bengals. In the days leading up to Thursday’s game, he did not get the usual amount of reps with the No. 1 offense he did in the days leading up to the preseason opener. In fact, there were several times during the Sunday, Monday and Tuesday sessions at training camp where Kevin O’Connell, Andrew Walter and Brian Hoyer were running through situational drills with the offense, while Brady was either off to the side watching or working on timing routes with other receivers on the second practice field.
My guess? He plays, but considerably fewer minutes than almost the full half for which he was in there against the Eagles.
The tight ends. Benjamin Watson has to be getting a little nervous. Without him, the Patriots got impressive tight end play in the preseason opener against the Eagles. Chris Baker caught a pair of touchdown passes in the red zone, while Dave Thomas showed a flair for versatility by lining up at fullback and Alex Smith got work as a blocker when New England went to three tight end sets. Heck, even Tyson DeVree was on the field in special teams.
Watson gave almost no indication he’ll be on the field Thursday against the Bengals -- he did not participate in a single padded practice all week, usually an indication he won’t suit up for the game. He feels bad about it, but it remains to be seen what it’s done to his chances to have any sort of impact on the Patriots’ offense in 2009.
“Any time you’re not out there, it’s tough,” Watson said last week in a rare appearance at a padded practice. “The important thing is to realize it’s only been ‘x’ amount of days. But in camp, everything feels so long. [I’m] just trying to do the best I can in the training room and get back out there. That’s my main goal.”
Joey Galloway. After an inauspicious debut in the preseason opener (zero catches on two balls thrown in his direction), the veteran wide receiver was targeted an awful lot this week in camp, getting plenty of reps with the No. 1 offense and appearing to have several balls thrown in his direction.
Look for him to have an increased role Thursday night. We say that for several reasons, not the least of which was the sequence described here, where he worked in an individual setting with Brady, Wes Welker and Randy Moss for an extended stretch, trying to get a handle on timing patterns involving the deep ball. (It will be interesting to see if that extra work pays off this week -- watch to see how many times Galloway is a primary receiver when New England does try and go deep.)
After coming off a series of spring practices where it appeared he might walk away with the No. 3 receiver's job, he now faces a serious fight with fellow veteran Greg Lewis for that spot -- he confessed as much to reporters earlier in the week.
“I figured it would be tough, it would be complex, and I figured it would take a lot of work to get it down,” Galloway told reporters who asked him about the Patriots’ passing game. “I’m a long way to get it down.”
Julian Edelman. Will he continue to trend upward? It’s looking more and more like Welker will play against the Bengals. (“I feel good,” Welker said. “Of course, I want to play.”) That will likely make a serious dent in Edelman’s reps with the New England offense, but he continued to get a lot of reps this past week as a punt and kick returner, and will continue to get every opportunity to win at least one of the return jobs.
Edelman isn’t just giving the media lip service when he says he wants to get better. More often than not throughout training camp, he has been the first one on the field, either shagging for punter Chris Hanson or taking punts from the JUGS machine, courtesy of special teams coach Scott O’Brien.
“Julian [has] worked hard. He’s been out there every day,” Belichick said. “He’s caught punts. He’s caught kickoffs. He’s caught a lot of plus-50 situational balls, directional punts [and] so forth. There are a lot of things for him to work on. He’s worked at them.
“He’s obviously getting very well-coached by Scott. I don’t think anybody could help a player tell or tell a player anything in a kicking game than Scott could, so I think that’s been a big benefit to him as well.”