The New England Patriots scored three rushing touchdowns in Week 8 against the New York Jets, but the offense’s overall performance on the ground was once again inconsistent as the Patriots failed to regularly gain positive yardage when handing the football off. This is nothing new for the team, however, as it ranks just 30th in the league in rushing yards per attempt (3.3) and 20th in efficiency on running plays (-6.8% DVOA).
Luckily for the Patriots, a favorable opponent awaits: the Cleveland Browns, who themselves rank just 31st in the NFL in yards per attempt (5.0) and only marginally better in DVOA (25th; -0.4%). Establishing a presence on the ground is therefore one of the keys to the game from New England’s perspective, and something that Chris Pokorny of Dawgs By Nature also pointed out when talking with Pats Pulpit about the upcoming game.
“Run the ball all day long,” said Chris when asked about how New England should attack Cleveland’s defense. “The Browns are allowing 5.05 yards per carry, which is ranked 31st in the NFL. The biggest disappointment I’ve had about Cleveland’s defense this year is the expectations I had for the defensive line, and yet week in and week out, I never see them ‘winning’ the push at the line of scrimmage.”
“Also, no one on this team seems to ever be able to stop a running back in his tracks and drive him backward,” he continued. “Every time there is first contact to the running back, Cleveland’s defense still allows about two to three more yards before bringing them down. A healthy dose of passing should be mixed in too, typically with crossing routes. Throwing the deep ball isn’t something that has worked against the Browns.”
As inconsistent as Cleveland’s run defense has been this year, not all is as bad as the numbers and the 2-4 record on the year suggests. After all, the team has considerable talent on both sides of the ball and features one of the league’s most productive pass rushers: Myles Garrett, a player the Patriots need to find a way to neutralize on Sunday — something that Chris also pointed out when speaking about the Browns’ defense.
“I love Garrett, and for him to have nine sacks in six games, he is definitely doing a lot of things right,” he said. “However, the thing I make clear in these Q&A sessions is that Garrett has not been a player who is such a physical force that he is generating pressure every snap of the game. To compare, when I watched the 49ers’ defense a few weeks ago and saw some of the individual efforts those players were having, my jaw was to the floor.”
“Where Garrett excels, which is still a huge asset for an NFL franchise, is that he strikes at an unexpected time,” Chris continued. “In other words, imagine that the entire first half has gone by without any noise from Garrett. Then, all of a sudden near the two-minute drill, Garrett gets his shoulder low and quick enough around a tackle, pokes the ball out from the quarterback, and now the Browns have a chance to do some damage.”
“The good thing is that the ceiling is still growing for Garrett each week, and I believe one day he will be the type of dominant player I am referring to,” he added. While Garrett has been the Browns’ best defender — and arguably best player overall — so far this season, he is not the only member of the unit worth keeping an eye on. After all, the Browns’ secondary also has seen some solid stretches of play through the season’s first seven weeks.
So far, however, inconsistency both in terms of personnel and performance has been a problem for a pass defense that ranks 21st in the NFL with a DVOA of 10.6%. “Both man Denzel Ward and Greedy Williams have missed over a month of action due to suffering hamstring injuries at the same time during practice (within ten minutes of each other). Fortunately, Cleveland had Terrance Mitchell and T.J. Carrie as their backups, both of whom are at least average-level starting cornerbacks,” said Chris.
“Ward and Williams are expected to return, which is great, but then I think back to the first two games of the season where Ward looked a bit lost in zone coverage (his strength last year was man coverage), and that Williams is still an unproven rookie,” he continued. “While the cornerback position could be a fantastic help for this defense, we’re not jumping up and down about it yet until we see more proven results.”
Ultimately, however, the key to the Patriots’ success will be the running game and taking advantage of Cleveland’s issues in this area: “If the Patriots stick with their simple, fundamental offense that I usually see from them, it should hurt Cleveland,” said Chris about what New England should try to do. Don’t be surprised if Bill Belichick and company therefore try to do just that — and finally get their ground game going.