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Attacking a weak side

Bengals are hit where they hurt on a key drive

Tedy Bruschi rises to the challenge and deflects a third-down pass by Carson Palmer in the third quarter. Tedy Bruschi rises to the challenge and deflects a third-down pass by Carson Palmer in the third quarter. (MATTHEW J. LEE/GLOBE STAFF)

CINCINNATI - The Patriots knew they had a mismatch in last night's game against the Bengals. It just took them a while to settle in and exploit it.

When a team has a dramatic linebacker shortage, as the Bengals do, there are different ways to attack that area, and the Patriots tried a little bit of everything early on, even putting running backs Kevin Faulk and Sammy Morris on the field at the same time for three snaps.

They sprinkled in a not-often-seen reverse play - with Faulk taking a handoff and then pitching the ball to receiver Wes Welker in the third quarter for a 27-yard gain - and went to the air at times with spread sets that featured three and four receivers.

But ultimately, when the Patriots needed to settle down after a rocky, penalty-filled start, the best approach turned out to be the most simple: grind it out.

The change came midway through the second quarter, the Patriots leading, 10-7, but having just given up a touchdown after Tom Brady threw an interception (the Patriots' lone turnover). The Patriots took over on their 38-yard line and put together a 12-play, 62-yard drive that chewed up 6:48.

The drive was defined by the approach.

After a run and two passes moved the ball to the Bengals' 45, the Patriots called eight straight running plays - all to Morris. The hard-charging back, who had an expanded role with Laurence Maroney out with a groin injury, grinded out gains of 6, 7, 2, 4, 5, 8, and 6 yards before he was stopped for no gain.

Only then, on third and 4 from the 7, did the Patriots go to the pass, with Brady finding Randy Moss, who made a terrific catch over cornerback Johnathan Joseph on the left side of the end zone.

For those who believe football is about attitude, it was an attitude-type sequence.

"We were ahead the whole time but the momentum definitely was on their side, after that interception," said tight end Benjamin Watson. "The crowd was kind of into it. I looked at the scoreboard and we were still ahead but it didn't feel that way.

"Any time you can get a long drive like that, it kind of wears the defense out and lets them know we're imposing our will as far as running the football."

Center Dan Koppen said the drive was key because the Patriots adjusted to the speed of the game, and played smarter without making mistakes. It also neutralized the Bengals' potent pass rush.

On the sideline, the running backs were pumped.

"We loved it, we were talking about it afterwards - as running backs, we want the ball in our hands," said fullback Heath Evans. "I know I feed off that."

The approach hit the Bengals where it hurt most. Cincinnati entered the game with just four healthy linebackers, three of whom were not with the team at the start of training camp.

Then, on the second play of the game, starting strong-side linebacker Lemar Marshall hobbled off with a left Achilles' tendon injury. Marshall, a six-year veteran who was signed in late August, was lost for the game.

So that left former Eagles linebacker Dhani Jones, who joined the Bengals last week, as the starter on the strong side. Anthony Schlegel, playing in his eighth career game and making his first career start, was in the middle. And Landon Johnson, a four-year veteran and third-round draft choice in 2004, remained on the weak side.

Midway through the second quarter, the Bengals received more bad linebacker news, with Johnson sustaining an eye injury that put him on the sideline for an extended time.

To compensate, the Bengals, who entered the game giving up a whopping 5.4 yards per rush, had to play defensive end Robert Geathers at linebacker in some alignments. They later turned to a defensive back.

At halftime, the Patriots talked about building off the momentum of their 12-play drive.

"That was real big, and we knew that of the five first-half drives [not including the final kneel-downs], the only two we got stopped on were the ones that we shot ourselves in the foot," said tight end Kyle Brady. "We reminded ourselves of that - we had a 10-point lead and we felt the only time we could be stopped was when we stopped ourselves. That was a confidence boost.

"I think guys respond when you have eight plays that are 'grind, grind, let's get down there.' That can be demoralizing for a defense, and to cap it all off you throw it to Randy and let him do what he does."

Tom Brady agreed. When assessing the game, he said after Moss's touchdown catch, "There was no looking back after that."

Mike Reiss can be reached at mreiss@globe.com

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