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

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Credit: Patriots Wire
Sony Michel and James White are set to anchor the Patriots backfield this year.

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 Patriots’ offense has been far from perfect in 2019. However, through seven weeks they remain number one in the NFL with 223 points scored (31.8 points per game). Yes, the defense and special teams has helped with both points and field position, but the are tenth in the NFL in yards, fifth in passing yards, and although they are 22nd in rushing yards, they are number one in the league with a dozen rushing touchdowns.

The balanced offensive attack of last season remains off-kilter as the Patriots have struggled to run the ball due to injuries on the offensive line, fullback and tight end. That disciplined and effective running game from last season has been missing. However, New England has stayed committed to running the football no matter what in 2019 to set-up the play-action passing game.

The New England Patriots offense faces a Cleveland Browns defense with a number of individual stars who have not been able to put any consistency together due to injuries and inconsistency. Myles Garrett is one of the most disruptive forces in the NFL with nine sacks in just six games in 2019. At cornerback, Denzel Ward–when healthy–has been one of the best young cover corners in the league.

How does the New England Patriots’ offense get back on the right track in 2019 against the Cleveland Browns’ defense? 

 

Key Matchups:


Patriots’ Offensive Line vs Cleveland’s Defensive Line:

The Patriots face a team in the Browns who have almost 50% of their sacks coming from one young superstar. Myles Garrett has two forced fumbles and nine sacks and has picked up the slack of his underperforming veteran teammates. 

Defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson ($9.66 million cap hit in 2019) and defensive end Olivier Vernon ($15.5 million cap hit in 2019) have combined for one sack with the season nearing the half-point. 2017 third-round draft pick defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi (three sacks) has outperformed Richardson while back-up defensive end Chad Thomas has the same number of sacks as Vernon.

Tom Brady has been sacked just ten times in seven games, but his quick decision-making has helped keep that number low. He has taken a number of hits and was under a lot of pressure last week as Jets’ defensive coordinator Gregg Williams (last season’s interim coach in Cleveland) dialed up blitz after blitz.

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New England has key offensive lineman Shaq Mason listed as questionable. The guards (Mason and Joe Thuney) have been the glue of the offensive line in 2019. With tackles Marcus Cannon and Marshall Newhouse struggling in pass protection and run blocking, the loss of Mason on Sunday would be a big hole in the offensive line.

Myles Garrett has the ability to take-over a game. New England will not be able to block him one-on-one for many pass plays. Expect a tight end or running back to be finding him regularly to assist in the protection packages. Vernon (Dolphins) and Richardson (Jets) are well known to the New England coaching staff and will not be overlooked on Sunday despite their lack of production. 

 

ADVANTAGE: New England

 

Patriots’ Running Backs vs Cleveland’s Linebackers:

The New England Patriots have been trying to get their running game on track all throughout 2019. The run-based attack that carried the team through the last quarter of the 2018 season and playoffs has been nowhere to be found.

This week the Cleveland Browns and their 30th ranked run defense travels to Foxboro. The loss of Christian Kirksey (placed on injured reserve after week two) has been huge for the Browns. The defensive alignment has been with a light front with extra defensive backs for the most part, leaving them vulnerable to the run. 

Rookie linebacker Mack Wilson and former Wisconsin Badger Joe Schobert have received all the playing time as the Browns roll through three or four safeties on the field depending on the down and distance. Starting safety Damarious Randall–one of the better blitzers and run-stoppers in the secondary–has already been ruled out on Sunday after not practicing all week with a hamstring injury. 

The lack of heavy fronts for Cleveland should be a welcome look for New England running back Sony Michel. Michel has just 390 yards rushing through seven games (55.7 yards per game) and a paltry 3.3 yards per attempt average. 

Forget about blaming the injuries on the offensive line–Michel has lacked the decisiveness and decision-making of last season. Rex Burkhead (questionable with a foot injury) has not played after getting hurt early in week four against Buffalo but his return could give a big boost to the run game. 

The team that cannot stop the run (Cleveland) faces off against the team that struggles to run the ball (New England). This is one of those match-ups that does not get talked about with big names like Tom Brady, Baker Mayfield, Odell Beckham Jr. and others, but the Patriots being able to run the ball or not could be the difference between another blowout or a game that allows the Browns to get New England off the field.

 

ADVANTAGE: EVEN

 

Patriots’ Pass Catchers vs Cleveland’s Secondary: 

The New England Patriots have had plenty of media glare on the wide receiver position in 2019: From the Antonio Brown saga to the Demaryius Thomas drama to the recent Josh Gordon maneuvering. Add in injuries to Phillip Dorsett and Julian Edelman and first round draft pick N’Keal Harry on injured reserve, undrafted rookie free agents Jakobi Meyers and Gunner Olszewski have been forced into larger roles than expected.

With Edelman looking healthier and Dorsett back in the fold, the New England passing attack looked improved on Monday night. A trade this week brought in wide receiver Mohamed Sanu from Atlanta and have a new weapon to add to their passing attack. With N’Keal Harry a week or two away, the passing offense could be very different–particularly in the red zone– for the second half of the season.

The Browns get some relief in the secondary with back-up cornerbacks T.J. Carrie and Terrance Mitchell moving to reduced roles (they’ll still get plenty of playing time) as rookie Greedy Williams and former first-round draft pick Denzel Ward return to the line-up after their bye week. Carrie is most likely to draw the short straw and have to try to defend Edelman in the slot. 

In the secondary, Damarious Randall is out but the Browns are still deep at safety with Jermaine Whitehead, Morgan Burnett and Justin Burris. 

The Cleveland secondary has a few big names returning from injury also a few weak links. With some anticipated assistance from the running game, Tom Brady and the Patriots should be able to get back to normal with their passing offense. Expect the Patriots to use play-action to set up some big plays against an inconsistent Cleveland secondary.  

 

ADVANTAGE: New England 

 

The New England offense faces a defense that is still finding its footing as they start to get healthy. Cleveland is 22nd in points and yardage allowed. They have been alright in limited passing yardage but teams have had little resistance getting into the end zone and interceptions have been few and far between.  If Cleveland cannot find a way to create turnovers and slow the running game, it could be a long afternoon for the Browns. 

 

NEW ENGLAND EXPECTED POINTS SCORED: 27

-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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