New England Patriots Game Preview: Defensive Strategy Game Eight vs Cleveland Browns

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MIAMI, FL - SEPTEMBER 15: Stephon Gilmore #24 of the New England Patriots smiles after returning a touchdown in the fourth quarter against the Miami Dolphins at Hard Rock Stadium on September 15, 2019 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Eric Espada/Getty Images)

The New England Patriots defeated the New York Jets last Monday Night with a dominating 33-0 victory over the overmatched division rival at MetLife Stadium. The Patriots’ dominant defense had quarterback Sam Darnold seeing ghosts while Tom Brady led the offense to four consecutive scoring drives to open the game.

New England jumped out to a 24-0 lead early in the second quarter and went into cruise control. At halftime the Patriots had outgained the Jets by a 210 to 78 margin and Darnold was six for 13 for just 34 yards and two interceptions. Things got worse for the Jets’ young quarterback in the second half as he finished just 11 for 32 passing for 86 yards and four interceptions (all statistics from Pro-Football-Reference.com unless otherwise noted).

Sony Michel had a tough time finding space to run the ball with the Jets’ strength their interior defensive line. Although he averaged 2.2 yards per rush, finishing with 42 yards on 19 carries, he did find the end zone three times. The New England defense had no problems suffocating the Jets from start to finish in another dominating performance.

The Patriots made a pair of big moves at wide receiver heading into their week eight match-up with Cleveland. First they plucked wide receiver Mohamed Sanu from the Atlanta Falcons for a second-round draft pick. They also added underperforming wide receiver Josh Gordon to injured reserve with the intention of releasing him when healthy.

On defense, big-name acquisition Michael Bennett was suspended for the game last week and shipped to Dallas for a late round draft pick. His diminished role highlighted the depth and talent on defense. With his disruptiveness in the locker room more than his disruptiveness on the field, Bennett leaving should be considered addition by subtraction.

Now at 7-0, the Patriots play at home in the 4:25 pm window facing the preseason media darlings, the Cleveland Browns. While the Browns have floundered under head coach Freddie Kitchens, Bill Belichick and the Patriots continue a strangle-hold they have had at the top of the NFL food chain for almost two decades. 

This week the 2-4 Cleveland Browns–who are coming off a bye week last week–desperately need to turn their season around to meet their playoff aspirations. The Browns should be motivated and rested and looking for a big win on the road.

This week’s game will be broadcast by CBS and can be seen locally on WBZ-TV Channel 4 and WPRI-TV Channel 12 in Providence. The top announcing team for CBS will be at Gillette Stadium Sunday afternoon. Jim Nantz will handle play-by-play duties with Tony Romo as the color analyst. Tracy Wolfson will work from the sidelines.

On the radio, Sunday’s game will be broadcast on 98.5 The Sports Hub is the flagship station for the Patriots Radio Network and all of the network’s 38 stations carry the game live. Play-by-play broadcaster Bob Socci is back to call the action along with former Patriots quarterback Scott Zolak, who provides his own unique color analysis.

Each week the game comes down to the match-ups. These are the top match-ups on offense that will determine if the Patriots are the team which emerges victorious.

The New England defense continues to be downright dominant approaching the midpoint of the 2019 NFL season. Through seven games, opponents have scored 48 points (first in the NFL). However, three of those six touchdowns came when the defense was on the sidelines (a fumbled punt, a pick-six and sack and fumble scooped and scored). 

The dominant New England Patriots unit has allowed just three touchdowns and two field goals in seven games. Two of those touchdowns were “big plays”: a broken tackle filled wide receiver end around for 65 yards by Steven Sims and a 64 yard touchdown pass (Jonathan Jones actually got his hand on the football but Golden Tate pulled it in and broke a tackle to get in the end zone).

The Patriots have allowed opponents 300 or more total yards only twice in seven games and allowed just 1,562 yards, (number one in the NFL), just 1,039 passing yards (second-best) and 523 rushing yards (second-best). New England also has created 22 turnovers (first), allowed only 88 first downs (second), and just 0.29 points per drive.

The Patriots have allowed just 12 third down conversions in seven games for a ridiculous 14.3% conversion rate. Opponents have reached the red zone just six times in four games and scored just one red zone touchdown in the entire season.

How do the Patriots plan to continue their strong defensive momentum in 2019?

 

Key Match-ups: 

 

Cleveland’s Offensive Line vs Patriots’ Defensive Line:

The Browns made a number of big moves in the offseason to shore up their offensive attack, but went with the “less is more” philosophy when it came to the offensive line. They traded away starting guard Kevin Zeitler to the Giants and stood pat for the most part. Despite tying up over $30 million in salary cap space to pay Odell Beckham Jr. and his LSU teammate Jarvis Landry, the offensive line has not allowed quarterback Baker Mayfield time to get the ball to them consistently.

The Browns leaked news that starting left tackle Greg Robinson–who has been dreadful since  being the number two overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft–was going to be benched. Kendall Lamm–who has missed the last five games with a knee injury–or Justin McCray could get the start. Either could start at right tackle as Chris Hubbard has been nearly as bad. Former Buffalo Bills guard Wyatt Teller could replace the struggling Eric Kush at right guard, but he has only played on the left side. At least center JC Tretter and left guard Joel Bitonio have been solid.

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Michael Bennett has been traded away (one less distraction) but with impressive rookie Chase Winovich (four sacks), young veteran Deatrich Wise (a sack and a forced fumble), free agency find Shilique Calhoun (run-stuffing ability), and the surprising John Simon (three sacks and four passes defended) for depth, the defensive line has been able to stuff the run and generate pressure (a league leading 26 sacks in seven games) on a regular basis regardless of the personnel on the field. 

In the middle of the defensive line, former undrafted free agent Adam Butler (2.5 sacks) has become a force and his success was responsible for Bennett’s reduced role. Danny Shelton (two sacks) has found the fountain of youth and last year’s breakout player, Lawrence Guy, has quietly disrupted opponent’s rushing attacks all season. This defensive front has been able to make impact plays and allow the deep group of linebackers to thrive.

Cleveland’s below-average offensive line is a mess and may be forced to look for a spark by going to a weak collection of back-ups to shake things up. The Patriots’ defensive line has been dominant so far in 2019 and there is no reason to expect that dominance not to continue this week.

 

ADVANTAGE: New England

 

Cleveland’s Running Backs vs Patriots’ Linebackers:

Finally. A real test. No offense to James Conner, Le’Veon Bell, Frank Gore, Adrian Peterson, the collections of chumps in Miami and whoever filled in for Saquon Barkley for the Giants,  but the Patriots have not faced a young, impact running back in 2019.

Sony Michel’s running mate at Georgia, Nick Chubb, is the real deal. The opposite of the patient and consistent style of Michel, Chubb is a threat to break off a big play on any carry. Chubb has 607 yards rushing on 114 attempts (5.3 yards per attempt) and another 20 receptions in the passing game. Chubb plays over 75% of the offensive snaps and anytime he is on the sideline, the Browns are doing their opponent a favor.

The New England linebackers group has been lavished with praise through seven games and with good reason. This group is deep, has varied skill sets, fills multiple roles on defense, rush the passer, drop into coverage, and stuff the run. 

Jamie Collins is putting himself into the conversation for defensive player of the year with three interceptions, four passes defended, two forced fumbles, 4.5 sacks and a team-leading 31 tackles. Dont’a Hightower has a pair of sacks and 24 tackles with a pair of passes defended. Kyle Van Noy remains a key chess piece in coverage(three passes defended) and rushing the quarterback (3.5 sacks), captain Elandon Roberts has been strong against the run and impressive second-year linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley looks fast and athletic and has been a pleasant surprise in pass coverage swallowing up running backs. 

The Browns are the one team that has excelled in running the ball all season. Chubb has topped 100 yards rushing twice already in 2019 and has one game with a less than four yards per rushing attempt average. Right now, it looks like only the Browns’ weak offensive line can stop Chubb on Sunday.  

 

ADVANTAGE: New England

 

Cleveland’s Pass Catchers vs Patriots’ Secondary: 

New England’s secondary is the strongest unit on a dominant defense. The Patriots will match-up man-to-man and be physical with the Browns’ wideouts without a second thought. Although they may not run as many cover-zero jailbreak blitzes as they did that had Sam Darnold seeing ghosts, they will trust their cornerbacks. 

It all starts with Stephon Gilmore. He is likely to be all over Odell Beckham Jr. Look for the impressive Jonathan Jones matching-up against the dangerous Jarvis Landry. The Patriots will use Jason McCourty and J.C. Jackson on Antonio Callaway. Look for New England to possibly dedicate a cornerback to tight end Ricky Seals-Jones or running back Nick Chubb in the passing game.

Cleveland primarily will go with two wide receivers and two tight ends, but with Callaway back from suspension, the three wide receiver sets have become much more prevalent. New England, with those four cornerbacks, are one of the few teams which can match-up across the board. 

At safety, Devin McCourty, Duron Harmon and Patrick Chung (if he can go–he has been questionable with a chest and also a heel injury) will be responsible for the other tight end as Cleveland likes to run two-tight end looks. In addition to Seals-Jones, they will roll out Pharaoh Brown and Demetrius Harris. If Chung is out or hampered, look for impressive back-up Terrence Brooks to step in again.

The Browns will need a creative game-plan from head coach Freddie Kitchens and offensive coordinator Todd Monken to be able to move the ball through the air against the New England secondary. The Browns need big plays from Beckham and Callaway and Seals-Jones converting third-downs in the passing game.

ADVANTAGE: New England

The game plan on defense is the same as it has been for the Patriots through seven games: take away the running game early and have the pass coverage force Baker Mayfield to hold the ball and allow the pass rush to get pressure. Forcing him to make multiple progressions under pressure can create turnover opportunities and help the offense with field position–something that has happened all season long. The defense needs to make him see ghosts on Sunday.

If New England’s defense remains strong on third down, it could be a long day for the Browns’ offense. However, with some adjustments on the offensive line and an extra week to game plan, the Browns will be playing with a lot of confidence behind their brash young quarterback.

NEW ENGLAND EXPECTED POINTS ALLOWED: 13

-Hal Bent is a Staff Writer for Full Press Coverage Sports Media and covers the New England Patriots. Follow him on Twitter @halbent01

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