The New England Patriots and Cleveland Browns are quite similar. Both are 2-3 entering their Week 6 matchup; both will be led on their backup quarterbacks; both will rely heavily on their ground game; both have struggled defending the run; both will be missing their No. 1 cornerbacks.
Needless to say that their meeting should be an intriguing one, and possibly a close affair. The odds reflect that, with the Patriots currently listed as 2.5-point underdogs (via DraftKings Sportsbook). Given that home field advantage is usually worth around three points, however, one can see that the two clubs are viewed as relative equals heading into Sunday’s battle at Cleveland’s FirstEnergy Stadium.
That point of view was also shared by Bill Belichick earlier this week.
“We’re going to have to play good team football and have discipline,” the Patriots’ head coach said. “We’ll have to be as fundamentally sound as they are with good communication and awareness for 60 minutes because they can hit you on any play. They’re a very talented team. They’ve been in every game. They lost a couple games but they’re all close games. Every game has been close one way or the other, so it’s probably what we should expect.”
What can the Patriots do to come away victoriously, though, and improve to 3-3 on the season? Looking at the Browns’ film from the first five weeks, here is our best-guess estimation.
Patriots offense vs. Browns defense
The Patriots will likely be without starting quarterback Mac Jones for a third straight game, and instead give rookie Bailey Zappe his second career start. Based on that alone, it would not have been a surprise to see New England rely heavily on its ground game yet again; the team did just that last week versus the Detroit Lions and the approach served it well.
This week, however, another factor has to be added to the equation. The Browns’ run defense has not been particularly good this season.
The unit ranks near the bottom of the league in yards (691; 28th), yards per attempt (5.3; 30th) and touchdowns (8; 29th) given up on the ground. It also ranks dead-last in both expected point added by run play (0.191) as well as DVOA (20.5%).
Even with lead-back Damien Harris no guarantee to play due to a hamstring injury suffered last week — he did make the trip and is a game-time decision — the Patriots attempting to pound the ball down Cleveland’s throat should be expected.
The teeth of the the Browns’ run defense has been a major vulnerability so far this season. The interior defensive line led by Jordan Elliott and Taven Bryan has been too easy to move off its spots, which in turn makes it easier for blockers to climb and take on the relatively undersized off-the-ball linebackers. As a consequence of those mismatches down the field, tackling attempts have also been thwarted quite regularly.
The interior line has been the major issue, but unfortunately for the Browns the team’s run defense has not been great on the edge either. Teams have used misdirection, crack blocks, and double teams on edge defenders to get runners outside into space. Adding to those issues is the fact that one of Cleveland’s starting edges — former first overall draft pick Jadeveon Clowney — has been ruled out for the game against the visiting Patriots.
Additionally, the linebacker level has also struggled. While the trio of Jacob Phillips, Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and Sione Takitaki has had its moments, its aggressiveness has oftentimes been its undoing; it left them in no-man’s land on several occasions and only exacerbated the problems up front.
On this play, for example, defensive tackle Perrion Winfrey (97) gets blown off the ball to open a lane for Pittsburgh’s Najee Harris (22) to exploit. Furthermore, Owusu-Koramoah (28) overruns his gap and subsequently gets pushed back to prevent him from make a tackle in the hole.
The Patriots will likely not try to reinvent the wheel against Cleveland, but rather simply try to out-execute their opponent; more often than not teams have had success doing that this year. That said, they might still call their fair share of toss plays and outside zone runs this week to take advantage of the issues on the edge and in the off-ball department.
The gist of all of that is this: a patient running back like the Patriots’ Rhamondre Stevenson plus a physical offensive line capable of climbing to the second level could make this a long day for the Browns defense versus the run.
As far as the passing game is concerned, it will likely feed off of those Cleveland weaknesses versus the run as well. While the Browns did not have quite as many coverage breakdowns the last couple of weeks as they have had earlier in the season, run-fakes have been a consistent issue.
The Patriots incorporating hard play-action would not be a surprise, especially a) with a rookie quarterback under center who has only taken 103 snaps so far this season, and b) the Browns likely being aggressive versus the run. As mentioned above, however, that aggressiveness paired with a general inconsistency against the rush might lead to issues — issues New England will likely try to exploit.
How? Run-pass option plays might be used. Play-action in all its forms. Reverses and jet-sweeps, you name it. The goal is to stress Cleveland’s decision-making off the ball, and to help keep the pressure off of Zappe as well as possible.
All that being said, the Browns defense as a whole is not as bad as it seems. Yes, it has struggled versus the run and misdirection concepts, but it still is capable of making life hard for Zappe and the passing game for one major reason: speed.
Several Patriots players mentioned the team’s speed this week, with Bill Belichick setting the tone on Wednesday.
“Defensively it’s really one word: fast,” he told reporters. “Everybody’s fast. Linebackers are fast. Secondary is fast. The D-line is fast. ... There’s a lot of speed inside. Whenever there’s space it doesn’t stay space for very long. They get it from the lineman pursuit. They get it from the linebackers. They get it from the secondary.”
Patriots defense vs. Browns offense
For as bad as the Browns are at defending the run, they are that good running the football. They are ranked first in the NFL with 192.4 rushing yards per game, and also lead the league in expected points added per run play (0.157) and DVOA (15.4%). Their lowest output in a single game this year was 171 yards, which says it all.
Cleveland’s ground game is led by arguably the best one-two punch it football, with Nick Chubb as the primary option and Kareem Hunt a dangerous package player. Chubb is the league’s leading rusher through five games and has gained 593 yards on 98 carries while also finding the end zone seven times. Hunt, who also is an able receiver out of the backfield, has received 57 carries for 247 yards and a pair of scores.
The Browns attack in a variety of ways, mixing various modes of attack from zone to power to duo. Their most explosive run play this year, however, has been outside zone with quarterback Jacoby Brissett aligned under center.
This plays into the athleticism of their offensive line — one of the best in the business — and also allows Chubb and Hunt to showcase their elite patience to let lanes develop and vision to exploit them.
Browns’ most explosive run play this year has been under-center OZ, usually vs 4-down fronts. Puts the athleticism + chemistry of their OL on full display.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) October 13, 2022
Chubb/Hunt have great feel to anticipate and hit the right lanes before dragging defenders.
Notice their signal for it? pic.twitter.com/cQ5PciC1n1
The play design is classic outside zone with the linemen moving into space and trying to create favorable angles to cut off defenders and open holes. For the Patriots, this means that they have to dust off their old zone counters.
One method of doing that is running their classic 6-1 tilt front as popularized in Super Bowl LIII against another zone-heavy rushing attack, the Los Angeles Rams’. The look worked well that day, but teams have been able to adapt and out-flank New England against the bigger personnel group on the field. As a result, New England has shifted its approach as was evidenced last week against Detroit.
New England used a 3-3-5 package to successfully slow down one of the best rushing attacks in football. Basically it was a variation of New England’s classic tite front with the nose tackle head-up on the center and the two ends aligning over the tackles:
Additionally, the Patriots used an outside linebacker — primarily Matthew Judon from a two-point stance — plus two off-the-ball defenders as well as five defensive backs, including safety/linebacker hybrids Kyle Dugger and Adrian Phillips (with Jabrill Peppers mixed in as well).
The Browns are primarily an outside zone team, but, as noted above, they are also capable of incorporating other blocking schemes. When they go with heavy groupings versus five-down fronts, for example, it is a relatively safe bet that they will be running power with left guard Joel Bitonio pulling to the outside.
They will either load up with three big bodies — often an extra offensive lineman alongside the tight ends — or have two players side-by-side with a backside skill player pulling off a formation shift. That way they can simply out-muscle the defense at the point of attack, even when going against bigger personnel groupings.
Cleveland’s offensive line is plenty capable of creating its own angles in the running games, but the runs where everyone is given ideal positions are dominant. And the team simply loves creating numbers advantages at the point of attack to drive defenders off the ball.
“They’re probably as good as anybody we’ll see,” Bill Belichick said about Cleveland’s offensive line earlier this week. “They really know what they’re doing. Their fundamentals and techniques are very good. We had trouble with them last year. Everybody has trouble with them.
“There’s a lot of talent up front [Jedrick] Wills Jr., and Bitonio of course. [Ethan] Pocic replaced [J.C.] Tretter at center and he’s got a lot of experience. [Wyatt] Teller, [Jack] Conklin, guys that have been All-Pros, All-Rookie, Pro Bowls, you name it. It’s just a really good group that again really knows what they’re doing and are talented.”
The Browns’ offensive line and running back group is as impressive as any in the NFL right now, and it is the key to stopping Cleveland’s offense. That is especially true considering that the unit itself is still being led by a backup quarterback.
While the Browns made a massive investment this offseason to acquire quarterback Deshaun Watson via trade from the Houston Texans, the Pro Bowler remains suspended due to allegations of sexual assault and harassment. As long as he remains sidelined — Watson is eligible to return after his team’s 11th game — the team will turn to a familiar player: former Patriots third-round draft pick Jacoby Brissett.
Since leaving the Patriots in 2017, Brissett has bounced around the league a bit. He has spent time in Indianapolis and Miami before arriving in Cleveland earlier this year. Along the way, however, he has gained plenty of starting experience: Sunday will be his 43rd start in the league (including two with the Patriots in 2016).
Brissett has been quite solid so far this season, completing 64 percent of his pass attempts for 1,060 yards, five touchdowns and three interceptions. One of the big reason why he has fared well has been the Browns’ run game forcing defenses to shift its attention away from the pass; this has set up play-action opportunities that the veteran pass has been able to take advantage of.
Frankly, Cleveland’s play-action game is as good as it gets. The team uses shifts, motion, and sometimes even pull-blockers to make runs and play-action concepts look exactly the same. Additionally, Brissett can be sneaky with his fakes and buy additional time by rolling out of the pocket.
Patience will be key for New England’s defense in this game. The off-the-ball personnel in particular will need to read its keys and make smart decisions before potentially overcommitting and opening up holes in the underneath areas of the fields — holes Brissett has proven himself capable of exploiting.
Of course, the quarterback is just one part of the whole construct. The Browns also have been able to be productive in the passing game due to their receiving personnel.
The first player to mention is tight end David Njoku. Just ask Bill Belichick.
“Njoku is a productive tight end,” he said this week. “After Ozzie [Newsome] probably the best tight end the Browns have ever had, which is saying something.”
Njoku is a legit dual-threat at the tight end position, who can move people in the running game but also make big plays as a receiving option. Standing at 6-foot-4, 246 pounds he is quite large but still fast, acrobatic, and a menace after the catch. He has caught 24 of Jacoby Brissett’s passes for 289 yards and a score, with the Browns loving getting him the ball in space and capitalizing on his frame to move the chains.
The second player worth mentioning is former first-round draft pick Amari Cooper, who might just be the best route runner the Patriots will face this season. He is impressive at beating defenders’ leverage plus shaking them at the top of his routes.
Last season, he put New England’s No. 1 cornerback, J.C. Jackson in a blender a few times. This year, he will face a different matchup — Jackson has left for the Los Angeles Chargers in free agency — which does not make him any easier to defend.
The Patriots could have used Jonathan Jones, but the veteran DB will be out due to an ankle issue. This means that one of Jalen Mills, Jack Jones, Myles Bryant and Marcus Jones will likely draw the assignment; based on his experience, Mills is the most likely matchup and might just travel with Cooper across the field.