COMMENTARY | The real health of the Cincinnati Bengals heading into Week 5 may have less to do with injured players than it does with the anemic Week 4 performance of the Bengals' offense behind quarterback Andy Dalton, but if the offense can recuperate just enough to sustain some drives and establish an effective running game, the real difference in Week 5 against the New England Patriots may come down to the health of the Bengals' primary pass defenders.
The return of Bengals' free safety Reggie Nelson from the hamstring injury that kept him out of Week 4 action will have more impact on the Patriots' offense than the return of either injured cornerback, Leon Hall or Dre Kirkpatrick. With his ball hawk instincts and hellbent intent for a collision course, Nelson is a one-man wrecking crew in the Bengals' secondary. His return to action will instill an awareness among the receivers who come across his path that there will be contact consequences for venturing past the second level of the Bengals' defense.
Although the Bengals must have Nelson against the prolific Tom Brady passing attack, the return of slot corner Leon Hall sure would help the Bengals' cause. Last week, Brandon Ghee played instead of the injured Hall (hamstring) and showed some promise, but Ghee is likely to have more issues with the complexities he confronts against the Patriots than he faced against the Browns.
In addition to CBs Terence Newman and Adam Jones, Hall completes an outstanding trio of cover corners, who have the versatility to defend both speed and size. Hall was a no-go for practice to start the week.
Like Hall, CB Dre Kirkpatrick also missed practice at the start of the week with a hamstring injury that kept him out of Week 4 action. The 2012 first-round draft pick Kirkpatrick adds depth at this point in his career, but suspect play during the preseason and limited game action make Kirkpatrick a prime candidate for a depth-chart drop if Ghee continues to build upon the playing time he received in Week 4.
Linebacker Vontaze Burfict is to the Bengals' second level what Nelson is to the defensive backfield -- a seemingly ubiquitous enforcer. Burfict sustained a neck injury during Week 4 but missed only a few plays before returning. The injury limited Burfict for practice at the start of the week, and the loss of Burfict for any length of time during Week 5 puts the Bengals' defense at a disadvantage because his weakside coverage skills are unmatched by any other Bengals' LB.
The Bengals signed veteran Michael Boley this week to challenge for the weakside backup role behind Burfict -- as well as potential playing time in nickel coverage -- but provided Burfict is full strength and speed for Week 5, Boley will likely be inactive.
Franchise player and defensive end Michael Johnson did not practice at the start of the week due to concussion symptoms sustained in Week 4. As important as the Bengals' secondary and linebackers are to the success of the Bengals' pass defense, perhaps no single Bengals' defender is more important than Johnson, whose relentless pass rush and height at the line is formidable for all quarterbacks facing the Bengals.
Overall, the signs point to a relatively healthy Bengals' defense, which will most definitely be needed against Brady but also even more important if Dalton is unable to direct a considerably more productive offense than the one he stalled to a grinding stop in Week 5.
Robb Hoff has worked as a freelance researcher for ESPN's production and news departments for more than five years. He posts his NFL draft predictions each year at footballnostradamus.com.
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