With their roster set and their practice squad in place, the Patriots can now focus on the task at hand, which is stopping the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday at Gillette Stadium.
The first step is coming up with a starting lineup on defense, particularly at linebacker and in the secondary. The Patriots have some serious question marks as to who will start opposite Tully Banta-Cain at outside linebacker and who will man each cornerback position against Cincinnati's dangerous wide receivers.
The offensive workload figures to be split between the running backs and tight ends, primarily with Laurence Maroney, Sammy Morris, Fred Taylor and Kevin Faulk seeing significant time.
With some uncertainty about who the No. 1 back will be, expect to see the likes of Faulk and even Morris catching passes out of the backfield. The Patriots' short-yardage passing game could serve as its running game with the execution of screen passes coupled with downfield blocking.
GAME PLAN: What the Patriots need to do is generate some sort of pass rush against Carson Palmer to take some of the stress off their young secondary.
This is a transition year for the Patriots on defense, and while they have plenty of talent in the defensive backfield, this group has yet to jell. Facing Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco is a tough first test for any secondary, let alone one with so many moving parts.
The Patriots have question marks regarding their pass rush, so this would be a big boost if the front seven is able to make a dent in Cincinnati's offensive line to force Palmer to rush his throws.
Offensively, the Patriots' biggest weapon is still their passing game, but they might favor quick strikes underneath in lieu of big plays over the top. Controlling the clock should be a priority, and running the ball or executing screen passes would be the most effective way to keep Cincinnati's offense off the field.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Patriots CB Darius Butler vs. Bengals WR Chad Ochocinco -- Butler's presence at one spot is the only definite right now. Since he's New England's top cornerback, he'll cover Cincinnati's No. 1 receiver. This is a tough matchup for any cornerback even though Ochocinco has lost a step over the years. Butler is a tough corner and should be able to wear down Ochocinco if he starts out playing physical from the opening kickoff.
Bengals RB Cedric Benson vs. Patriots LB Jerod Mayo -- Surprisingly, the Bengals weren't the big-play passing team on offense last year that we've grown accustomed to. Instead, they relied primarily on defense and a ball-control offense, spearheaded effectively by Benson with the running game. Mayo needs to step up big because the Patriots might have trouble generating a pass rush. If Benson gets some yards early, it could be a long day for this secondary.
Bengals DT Tank Johnson vs. Patriots LG Dan Connolly -- As we all know by now, Logan Mankins is a no-show while he sits and stews over his contract, so Connolly is the likely starter at left guard. Johnson is a tough tackle to keep under wraps. Connolly will have his hands full holding his own, which is an important job considering his ability to block could mean the difference between a long afternoon for Brady or a glorious passing performance.
INJURY IMPACT: LB Jermaine Cunningham (ankle) returned to practice Wednesday, indicating he'll be ready to play Sunday and contribute significantly as the Patriots try to set the edge in their pass rush.
--CB Kyle Arrington (groin) practiced Wednesday and will likely open Sunday's game as a nickel or dime back on New England's sub defense units.
--DL Ron Brace (ankle) also returned to practice Wednesday, which is beneficial for the Patriots as they continue to shuffle linemen in the wake of Ty Warren's season-ending injury. Brace can play tackle in a 4-3 setup or substitute on the end on various downs.
--T Nick Kaczur missed practice with a back injury. [Kaczur is OUT] The Patriots will go with second-year pro Sebastian Vollmer.
--RB Laurence Maroney missed practice with a thigh injury. The Patriots have plenty of running backs to fill the void. [Maroney is OUT] Sammy Morris and Fred Taylor should carry the load while Maroney is unable to play.
The biggest area to watch in terms of changes will be on special teams. Adam Jones is listed as the No. 1 punt returner, but the Bengals could mix it up and put Quan Cosby and Jordan Shipley back there too.
On kick returns, Bernard Scott is still listed No. 1, but Jones, Cosby and Shipley will see time back there also.
On the depth chart, Andre Caldwell is listed as the No. 3 receiver behind Terrell Owens, but for all purposes it should be Jordan Shipley, who has been lining up in the slot with the first team.
-- RB Brian Leonard practiced for the first time on Thursday since injuring his foot in the Hall of Fame Game on Aug. 8. He is still doubtful though for Sunday.
--WR Andre Caldwell did not practice on Thursday due to a hamstring injury. If he does not go, Jerome Simpson would be part of the game-day 45-man roster.
--DT Antwan Odom could be facing a four-game suspension for using performance enhancing drugs. It is currently in the appeal process with no announcement imminent.
--OT Andre Smith, who is the backup to Dennis Roland at right tackle, is also backing up Bobbie Williams at right guard. The move is mainly for versatility.
--WR Chad Ochocinco needs 48 yards to reach 10,000 for his career.
--DE Jonathan Fanene was listed as full participation in practice and should be ready to go on Sunday.
--DT Geno Atkins was listed as full participation in practice after being limited on Wednesday due to a knee injury.
GAME PLAN: On offense, the Bengals must be balanced and attack the Patriots young secondary. On defense, their goal is to make the Patriots one dimensional and make them have to run the football.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Bengals DE Antwan Odom vs. Patriots OT Matt Light. Odom had eight sacks in the first three games last year before suffering a season-ending Achilles injury in Week 6. The defensive line needs to establish pressure early and not give Tom Brady all day to throw to Randy Moss and Wes Welker. The Bengals' starting D-line did not get a sack during the preseason while the Pats' offensive line allowed just 18 sacks last year which was a team record.
Bengals WR Terrell Owens vs. Patriots CB Devin McCourty -- Owens is licking his chops over this matchup. McCourty has potential but he is young. Last year in the opener in New England with the Bills, Owens had one of the more frustrating games of his career with just one catch. With him facing an athletic but very young cornerback, it could be time for revenge.
INJURY IMPACT: Leonard is listed as the first string fullback but he will not be ready to return for this game. Without a true fullback, they will use tight ends Reggie Kelly and Dan Coats on some plays to block.
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