The New England Patriots went into Week 8 against the toughest opponent they have faced since the Buffalo Bills four weeks earlier. The Cleveland Browns presented a tougher roster challenge than New England had faced all year long with two studs at wide receiver in Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry, and a rising star at running back in Nick Chubb.
For the most part, Cleveland did what it had done all year. The team ran the ball well with Chubb, who had 131 yards on 20 carries, and it threw the ball to Landry and Beckham who combined for 117 receiving yards. But, of course, that came with plenty of mistakes that cost the Browns any chance at winning this game.
On offense, meanwhile, New England continues to try find its identity as a team that no longer has their trusty fullback and center and has dealt with all kinds of changes at receiver throughout the season. However, the Patriots ultimately made enough big plays in the passing game against man coverage that led them to victory.
Let’s go to the film room and look at my three takeaways from this game.
1. Cleveland wanted to take away the Patriots’ short/intermediate passing game
Cleveland did three things to limit New England’s passing game and all three carried out this overall theme that the Browns prioritized taking away the short stuff, even if meant giving up the deep ball:
- Press man coverage
- Double coverage against James White/Julian Edelman when in man
- Aggressive safety play in both man and zone
Press man coverage
Of New England’s 36 pass attempts on Sunday, I counted 21 (58%) that the Browns countered with man coverage, and it was mostly press man across the board with only one safety to help deep. On those snaps, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady went 9 of 21 for 195 yards. While that yards number is high, the 9-of-21 stat is a bit more accurate of a representation of how the Patriots consistently struggled against man coverage and the Browns’ aggressive defensive strategy.
Cleveland got up on the line and jammed the receivers, disrupting their releases and throwing the timing off of their routes. This is somewhat of a recurring theme this year, as the Patriots are currently not the same man-beating offense without the automatic mismatch, Rob Gronkowski. However, with Mohamed Sanu getting more comfortable in this offense and N’Keal Harry expected to return from injured reserve, the passing game should have more success in beating man coverage going forward.
Of the 36 pass attempts Brady had, Cleveland played man coverage on 21 of them and the Patriots receivers struggled to create separation before Brady was pressured. Brady went 9/21 vs man coverage pic.twitter.com/srAv4H9uZG— HP Football (@HPFootball3) October 30, 2019
Double coverage against James White/Julian Edelman when in man
When the Browns were in man coverage, they also paid extra attention to James White and sometimes Julian Edelman underneath. Usually, White is the quick and easy option versus man, so the Browns countered with a double team on him or a safety who was much less of an athletic mismatch than having a linebacker guard the running back. With Phillip Dorsett and the recently acquired Sanu being the only two other receivers on the field, the Browns seemed to not fear these two beating them deep, although they eventually would.
Another way they carried out this strategy was by doubling White/Edelman underneath pic.twitter.com/CZUXGDHFYN— HP Football (@HPFootball3) October 30, 2019
Aggressive safety play in both man and zone
The Browns also had their safeties play shallow and jump routes in order to carry out this defensive strategy. The Browns played a zone scheme in which both safeties came down aggressively, they played man with no help deep, they did all kinds of things in combination with a strong pass rush that led to a lot of incompletions and throwaways from Tom Brady.
It seemed like Cleveland's priority was taking away the short/intermediate options of the Patriots passing game even if it meant giving up the deep ball.— HP Football (@HPFootball3) October 30, 2019
One way they carried out this strategy was by having their Safeties play shallow and jump routes pic.twitter.com/2uaR4ebQWb
These three tactics combined with the good pass rush mentioned above meant that even if something opened up deep late, which it often did, Brady had either gotten rid of the football already or was scrambling out of the pocket where he couldn’t see the whole field.
Fortunately, it wasn’t all bad in the passing game, as those nine completions New England’s quarterback had against man coverage went for 195 yards, so the Patriots did ultimately get some huge plays against man coverage, especially in the second half — something that was expected given how aggressively the Browns were playing. Brady got the time in the pocket needed to make these throws that he didn’t get for most of the night, and Dorsett, Sanu, Edelman, and even tight end Benjamin Watson all had big plays against man that sparked the Patriots’ scoring drives.
Those 9 completions against man coverage though went for 195 yards so when they did connect against man, it was a big play.— HP Football (@HPFootball3) October 30, 2019
You can see on these clips that Brady gets the necessary pass protection and clean pocket that he wasn't getting for most of the game. pic.twitter.com/9k6wN0DOr8
2. New England really focused on getting to the edge on the ground
New England continues to try to find its identity in the running game in 2019. Last season, the team relied on the fantastic blocking of Rob Gronkowski at tight end and James Develin at fullback combined with a strong and healthy offensive line to pound the rock consistently and move the chains. This year, the Patriots are of course without Gronkowski and a fullback for the whole season, while also having a banged-up offensive line.
Naturally, this ground game is not the same it was in 2018. However, that doesn’t mean the Patriots are not still producing. The since-released Eric Tomlinson actually fit in quite well at fullback, and the Patriots are running the ball to the edges more. Against Cleveland, New England’s runners finished with 27 carries. 18 of them were variations of an outside zone or toss play, two of the most wide runs out there (one was a jet sweep too).
It wasn’t a great day on the ground (27 total attempts for 79 yards equals 2.9 yards per carry) but it was enough to get the win and move the chains on a few scoring drives:
Patriots really attacked the edges on the ground vs Cleveland. Of their 26 total carries, 18 of them were variations of an outside zone or toss play.— HP Football (@HPFootball3) October 30, 2019
Eric Tomlinson continues to fit in well at Fullback for the second week in a row. pic.twitter.com/C7p5WdqUZN
3. Big plays on defense created by the front seven
The Browns’ mistakes on offense were really what lost the game for them. They obviously had those three ugly turnovers to start the contest and then continued to get penalty after penalty that put them in third-and-way-too-longs against this Patriots defense — one that feasts on third downs: the Browns had 13 penalties for 85 yards, and that took them out of so many drives.
However, these penalties were not all just self-inflicted mistakes. The Patriots’ defensive force certainly caused a lot of the calls going against Cleveland, especially the front seven. Kyle Van Noy, Lawrence Guy, John Simon, Dont’a Hightower, Jamie Collins Sr. and Adam Butler all made great plays up front that collapsed and broke down the Browns’ weak offensive line.
Let’s take a look at some of the big plays on defense created in the run game where the Patriots set the edge well and got great penetration up the gut to create negative plays for Cleveland:
New England's front 7 created a ton of problems for the Browns offense.— HP Football (@HPFootball3) October 30, 2019
On the ground, the Pats set the edge well and got great penetration, leading to some negative plays by Cleveland's O pic.twitter.com/NoXWFTqIge
In the passing game, the Patriots used stunts to create good pass rushing angles. Adam Butler continues to excel in these rushes by using his quickness and strong hands. Kyle Van Noy, meanwhile, also got a great rush against the Browns’ backup left tackle, Justin McCray. Van Noy also continues to grow and excel as a prototypical Bill Belichick hybrid linebacker who can set the edge, rush the passer, and cover in space.
Awesome pass rush here from Van Noy as he dips his entire body underneath the tackle's hands for the quick sack.— HP Football (@HPFootball3) October 30, 2019
The Patriots also got sacks using stunts where Adam Butler excelled by getting great penetration and Hightower won an easy mismatch against Chubb 1 on 1 pic.twitter.com/dD4lyPbuPF
This was a great test for New England overall, as the team hadn’t been playing very tough opponents so far this season. The Patriots handled the Browns’ star power on offense, finally made Odell Beckham Jr. complain about his lack of targets, and made some big plays against a strong secondary. Most of the talk about this historic defense has been on the impressive play of the Patriots’ secondary, headlined by shutdown cornerback Stephon Gilmore, so I wanted to highlight how this front seven also creates havoc for opposing offenses.
Overall, the rush and coverage go hand-in-hand: the front seven collapses the pocket quickly with stunts and screaming linebackers off the edge, which allows the Patriots to play aggressive defenses that lock their talented defensive backs up in one-on-one situations in Cover 1 and Cover 0 looks where they can plaster on the opposing receivers as good as anyone in the league.
On offense, the Patriots are still trying to find out who they are and are struggling a bit on the ground. However, Tom Brady and Josh McDaniels seem to always adjust and find ways to attack whatever the defense is trying to take away in the passing game, and the running game should improve over time as the offensive linemen — see: Isaiah Wynn — get healthier and more experienced playing as a unit.
On to Baltimore...