Statistically speaking, there are few areas in which the Cleveland Browns’ defense is truly standing out: the unit of coordinator Steve Wilks currently ranks 23rd in the league both in points allowed per game (24.2) and in defensive DVOA (5.4%), and has had inconsistencies against the pass while also struggling mightily to defend the run. Add it all up and you get a defense that can best be described as average seven weeks into the season.
There are exceptions, however, and the biggest might very well be former first-overall draft pick Myles Garrett. The 23-year-old is taking another major step in his development in his third year in the league, and now finds himself among the most productive edge rushers in all of football: through six games, he has registered 9.0 sacks — tied for most in the NFL — and was also credited with four quarterback hits and 17 hurries by Pro Football Focus.
“I wish we didn’t have to play against him. He’s pretty much impossible to block,” said New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick during a conference call with Cleveland media earlier this week when speaking about Garrett (via Cleveland.com’s Mary Kay Cabot). “They put him in a lot of different places so you don’t always know where he’s going to be. But wherever he is you better find him and block him or he’ll ruin the game.”
Needless to say that Belichick’s team will have its collective hands full when the Patriots host the Browns on Sunday. While their offensive line needs to work in unison in order to successfully pass protect not just against Garrett but the rest of Cleveland’s rushers as well, two players in particular will be tasked with slowing down the impressive youngster: starting left tackle Marshall Newhouse and his right-side counterpart, Marcus Cannon.
The duo has performed well at times this season, but both Newhouse and Cannon have also had their fair share of up-and-down play over the last few weeks as a look at the numbers shows: Newhouse has surrendered 16 quarterback pressures since taking over for an injured Isaiah Wynn in Week 2 (4.0 sacks, seven hits, five hurries); Cannon has given up 12.5 (1.5 sacks, five hits, six hurries) during the six games he played in this year.
Now, the two linemen will go up against a player that is arguably the most talented they have faced so far this season — one that regularly switches sides during games, as the Browns’ coaching staff is trying to create favorable matchups for him. But no matter where Garrett eventually lines up, he will be a challenge for New England’s pass protection due to the elite skill set that Belichick quickly broke down earlier this week.
“Plays with a lot of power, he’s certainly not a finesse player,” he said. “He’s a very explosive, powerful guy that is also athletic enough to do very rare things. He can close ground in a hurry and get off blocks with his strength, quickness and explosiveness and instincts. He’s a smart player. Finds the ball, finds it quickly. He impacts the games defensively, and you better be able to handle him on any play or he can ruin a game for you.”
So, what can the Patriots do in order for Garrett not to ruin their game and the team’s quest to improve to 8-0 for just the third time during the Tom Brady/Bill Belichick era? In essence, the same thing they did in Super Bowl 49 against the Seattle Seahawks when it came to slowing down Michael Bennett: the powerful pass rusher, who started the 2019 season in New England before getting traded to Dallas yesterday, was made an offensive priority.
Back then, the Patriots knew that they needed to block Bennett in order to successfully and consistently move the football down the field through the air, and they need to do the same with Garrett this week. There are multiple ways to achieve this, from Brady getting the football out quickly — the main reason why Bennett’s impact in Super Bowl 49 was comparatively limited — to having tight ends in to help block him on double-teams, to using running backs to chip when releasing out of the backfield.
No matter what New England ultimately opts to do, the execution needs to be on point as Garrett is simply too talented to be met with sloppy or inconsistent technique. Newhouse, Cannon and the rest of the offensive line, meanwhile, have to bring their A-game against a Browns defense that has not necessarily stood out so far outside of Garrett but fields considerable talent still capable of making life hard for Brady and the rest of the offense.