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Sunday Patriots Notes: How New England will beat the Browns in Week 10

Related: 4 matchups that could decide the Patriots’ game against the Browns

New England Patriots Vs. Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Stadium Photo by Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

The 10th Sunday of the NFL’s 2021 season has arrived, and there is a lot going on around the New England Patriots and the rest of the league. Let’s use this forum right here to go through some of the stories that have emerged over the last few days: time for our Sunday Patriots Notes.

1. How the Patriots will beat the Cleveland Browns. The Patriots return home in Week 10, trying to improve their record at Gillette Stadium to 2-4. Standing in their way, however, is a Browns team that is also 5-4 and right in the middle of the AFC playoff race.

In order to get a clearer picture about New England’s opponent and how the Patriots might be able to best it to move to 6-4, we spoke with Chris Pokorny of Pats Pulpit’s sister site, Dawgs By Nature. The focus lies on two questions: What does New England have to do to find success on offense? And: What does New England have to do to find success on defense?

Patriots offense vs. Browns defense

Let’s cherry pick the Browns’ last seven games. In five of those games, the defense has played very well, allowing 6, 7, 14, 15, and 16 points. Sandwiched in between that were games against the Chargers and Cardinals, where the defense allowed 42 and 37 points. Those two games need to be separated from the others because of the major liability in them: the miscommunications at the safety position. There were several plays in each game in which the miscommunication was so bad that a wide receiver caught a pass without a defender within 20 yards of them, and the play would go for an easy 50-yard touchdown. Since that happened, I’ve been telling our opponents’ fanbases that it was the biggest problem with the defense. However, now we’ve had three weeks in a row without it being an issue, so have they ironed it out? Maybe, but it’s something I still think about because of how bad it was during those two games.

The Browns’ run defense has been solid, a category they rank third in the NFL in for rushing yards allowed. You won’t see a game in which Cleveland’s run defense only allows 20 yards rushing total for the game, but they generally do a good job being disciplined in that department. Besides that, the strength of the Browns’ defense is the pass-rushing threat of Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney. Teams have been wise to chip Garrett for the entirety of a game, but even then, he finds a way to generate some pressure. The rush up front helps speed the passing game up, allowing the cornerbacks to be more aggressive. The success against Cleveland’s defense can best be had against the team’s linebackers in coverage. I should note that rookie linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, a defensive rookie of the year candidate at linebacker, could return this week from injury, and his coverage ability has been good. But overall, finding a way to attack Cleveland’s linebackers is the best way to attack our defense right now. Another area that Cleveland has struggled in is stopping short yardage situations with regularity. When a team lines up on 3rd-and-2 or less, I basically assume the chains are getting moved unless there is a penalty.

Patriots defense vs. Browns offense

Cleveland’s offensive line is full of very talented players, including two guards who were just given hefty contract extensions this week. Our starting right tackle, Jack Conklin, is out with an injury, and Blake Hance has been filling in for him. Hance has been a Swiss army knife for this team, and I think it’s doing an admirable job filling in. However, he is the weak link on the offensive line, so the Patriots should try to take advantage of his side.

New England should also try to stay disciplined for the play action bootleg that Baker Mayfield will run to his left side. He usually does it 2 times per game, and the timing of it often leads to a wide open receiver for a 20-yard catch-and-run. However, a few defenses have actually read it well this season, forcing Mayfield to throw the ball in the dirt. Cleveland relies on some of those bread-and-butter plays throughout a game, so it’s a bit disheartening when they don’t work.

Nick Chubb being out this week to Covid-19 hurts, but D’Ernest Johnson will start for him. Johnson had an incredible game running the ball three weeks ago against the Denver Broncos, when he had to start with Chubb and Kareem Hunt out. I wouldn’t call it a weakness, but Cleveland will only have one running back available who has had significant practice reps with the team. Between keeping him fresh and presumably giving some reps to a practice squad call-up, ball security and communication issues seem like they’d have a higher probability of occurring. Who knows, though — maybe Kevin Stefanski will use the running back situation to be a bit unpredictable and go with an aggressive passing attack for his game plan. We haven’t quite seen that unleashed in 2021, but in 2020, there were at least two games in which Stefanski went pass-heavy, much to the surprise of the opposition.

2. Will Trent Brown see the field after his activation? The Patriots made a series of roster moves on Saturday, including the activation of nominal starting right tackle Trent Brown. Accordingly, Brown is now eligible to play in the game against Cleveland. The question is: Will he?

New England found a capable starting lineup with Isaiah Wynn, Ted Karras, David Andrews, Shaq Mason and Michael Onwenu in Brown’s old spot. Going against as talented a defensive front as the Browns’ the Patriots might therefore prefer not to tinker with this formula just to get Brown back onto the field — a move that would likely send either Onwenu or Wynn to the left guard spot and Karras back to the bench.

“Trent’s all-in every day,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said about the veteran offensive lineman on Friday. “He does what we ask him to do. He’s been a little bit limited at times, but he’s tried not to let that effect what he can do, and he continues to work on things that he can do. Sometimes, it’s limited, but he’s made good progress. We’ll just take it day-by-day here, see where we are today, evaluate his week, and we’ll go from there.”

3. Rhamondre Stevenson and J.J. Taylor face a big opportunity. With Damien Harris ruled out against the Browns due to a concussion sustained last week, the door appears to be open for rookie running back Rhamondre Stevenson and second-year man J.J. Taylor to take on more prominent roles in the New England backfield. The pair has been in and out of the lineup so far this season, but with Harris out it should join veteran receiving back Brandon Bolden in the three-man rotation.

Stevenson in particular will be a player to watch. The fourth-round rookie has looked promising when on the field and is coming of his best game as a pro. Like Harris, he was placed in the concussion protocol after exiting that contest, but there is some optimism he will be cleared for the Cleveland game. If so, he will be New England’s RB1.

4. Bill Belichick aiming for his 250th regular season win with the Patriots. The most successful coach of his era is heading into Sunday as the owner of 249 regular season wins with the Patriots. Now he has the chance to move into 250 against his old club — and thus become just the fourth coach in league history to reach that mark with one team.

Belichick would tie Tom Landry (250 with the Dallas Cowboys) with a chance to reach Don Shula (257 with the Miami Dolphins) later this season. George Halas’ record 318 wins with the Chicago Bears will be more difficult to reach.

5. Patriots vs. Browns will be big for New England’s playoff outlook. Now at 5-4, the Patriots have moved into the NFL playoff picture for the first time all season. Sunday’s game against Cleveland could go a long way towards the team staying there: according to ESPN’s Brian Burke, New England has a postseason probability leverage of 32 percent this week — the highest such number in the league.

What does it mean? That the Patriots’ playoff odds look 32 percent better with a win rather than a loss: New England’s odds would jump to just under 70 percent if the team beats Cleveland, but would drop to roughly 37 percent in case of defeat.

6. Devin McCourty is no fan of a 17th regular season game. The NFL’s decision to expand its regular season from 16 to 17 games is a controversial one. While the players’ union did vote to adopt the switch as part of the 2020 Collective Bargaining Agreement, not everybody is happy about it.

Veteran players in particular are opposed to the new 17-game season. Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady recently voiced his displeasure, with his former Patriots teammate Devin McCourty also critical of the format introduced this year.

“You like the 16. You split the season 8-8, split it in quarters. Now at the end of the season, we have four [playoff] games plus one, if that makes sense,” McCourty said.

While his comments about a lack of symmetry were only half-serious, the main issue for the veteran defensive back is a different one: player safety.

“You get one more beating,” McCourty said. “Who wants that?”

7. Kyle Van Noy shares his thoughts on the NFL’s controversial taunting rule. The move to a 17-game regular season is not the only novelty introduced this year that was met with some resistance. The NFL also put an emphasis on taunting, resulting in a spike in fines and penalties.

Patriots linebacker Kyle Van Noy is also not a fan of the rule, but he and his team know that they can only control what they can control:

8. Mac Jones does not get fined for his ankle twist against Brian Burns. The Carolina Panthers were not happy after their Week 9 game versus the Patriots. Not only did they lose 24-6, they also accused New England quarterback Mac Jones of what they called a “dirty play.”

Jones had grabbed the ankle of Brian Burns following a strip sack, with the Panthers linebacker getting injured while trying to free himself. He did later return to the game, but neither his teammates nor Burns himself were happy about the play. The defender himself later demanded an apology from New England’s rookie QB and wished fellow defensive linemen “happy hunting” against him.

The NFL, however, did not evaluate the action as worthy of a fine. Not only was Jones not penalized immediately following the play, the league also did not see any action worthy of punishment during its review process.