Here are ten things worth keeping an eye on in Sunday’s Patriots-Browns game:
Special teams remains a focus, particularly when Cleveland is kicking off to New England. The Patriots, led by return man Brandon Tate, are fifth in the league with 26.8 yards per return, while Cleveland’s kickoff coverage has allowed just 18.6 yards per return (second-best in the league). In addition, the Browns are one of five teams that have yet to allow a return of 40 or more yards. Overall, the Patriots have the best average field position after a kick return in the AFC — they have started on average at the 31.1-yard line. Meanwhile, Cleveland is tops in kick coverage — they have held opponents to a starting position of the 22.9-yard line, also best in the AFC.
While the Patriots have gotten outstanding production from rookie punter Zoltan Mesko (his net average of 40.6 yards per punt is third-best in the league), the Browns have also gotten good play from punter Reggie Hodges, who pulled a fake punt against the Saints and ran for 68 yards. In addition, Hodges leads the league with nine punts inside the 10-yard line.
What to do with Josh Cribbs? While the Cleveland kick return numbers aren’t all that impressive (the Browns are last in the league in kickoff returns, averaging just 17.5 yards. In addition, according to Nuggetpalooza, 61 percent of their returns have gone for less than 20 yards), that’s just a small part of Cribbs’ game. Cribbs has 13 carries for 53 yards (good for third- and fourth-best on the team, respectively). He also has 14 catches for 185 receiving yards and a touchdown, and his versatility is a big part of Cleveland’s gadget packages — he occasionally lines up at quarterback in the Browns’ version of the Wildcat, referred to as the “Flash” package after the Kent State Golden Flashes.
“They run it a handful of times in each game,” Belichick said of the personnel package, which has also resulted in a pair of completed passes from Cribbs this year. “Those kinds of offenses — the empty formations, the unbalanced lines, the wildcats, things like that — teams that have them, sometimes you can get a little bit of it, sometimes you can get a lot of it. That just varies from game to game. You’ve got to be ready for it, and how much they give you usually is a function of how successful it’s going.”
If the Browns have the ball in a third-and-one situation, chances are good they’ll be giving the ball to running back Peyton Hillis. The Arkansas product is 6-for-6 on converting first downs when carrying the ball in third-and-one situations, the best rate in the NFL. However, it doesn’t really matter the distance to the sticks — Hillis is a very good all-around third-down option: he had six rushing first downs against the Saints two weeks ago to increase his overall season total to 38, ninth-best in the NFL. In fact, the 24-year-old Hillis is one of the best things going for the Cleveland offense this season — through seven games, the 6-foot-2, 250-pounder has 104 carries for 460 yards (good for an impressive 4.4 yards per carry) and five rushing touchdowns. He’s also second on the team with 27 receptions.
Keep your eyes on Chansi Stuckey. Slot receivers have absolutely eaten up the Patriots this season. Whether it’s been Miami’s Davone Bess (9 catches, 93 yards, 1 touchdown), Baltimore’s Derrick Mason (8 catches for 100 yards) or Minnesota’s Percy Harvin (6 catches for 104 yards), the Patriots have had major struggles when it comes to slowing down slot receivers this season. Cleveland utilizes Stuckey in that role and the former Jet has had some success this season with the Browns, catching 32 balls (third on the team) for 213 receiving yards (good for second on the team). Stuckey has always been something of a minor irritant to the Patriots — he has nine receptions for 83 yards and one touchdown in three career games against New England.
How does the Patriots passing game continue to evolve without Randy Moss? Last week against the Vikings, Tom Brady was 16-for-27 for 240 yards and one touchdown against one of the tougher pass defenses New England will face all season. The Patriots won, but the overall passing game continues to evolve in the post-Moss era. Against Minnesota, Deion Branch was still bothered by a nagging hamstring issue that limited him to one catch, while Wes Welker continues through a bit of rough patch as opposing secondaries continue to make stopping him their top priority. (He had just three catches and 24 yards against the Vikings, his lowest output of the year.) In addition, the rookie tight end combination of Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski had just three catches on the day, the second-worst output of the year for the combination. If Branch continues to struggle with the hamstring and Welker is again the focus of opposing pass defenses, this could be a big bounce back game for Hernandez and Gronkowski.
With Pat Chung unable to go, how does that affect the safety spot for New England? Jarrad Page is already on the shelf with a calf injury he suffered a few weeks ago against the Ravens, and so last week against the Vikings, Brandon Meriweather and James Sanders went virtually wire-to-wire, with some Sergio Brown thrown in for good measure. That trio played well in the win over the Vikings, and barring an injury, the same threesome should be back there for the duration of Sunday’s game against the Browns.
The return of Logan Mankins. Mankins, who returned to practice this week after sitting out because he was unhappy about his contract situation, has been activated and is ready to go for his first game of the season. How much will he play? And what sort of impact will he have, specifically as the best run blocker on the team? (For a primer on Mankins’ ability and durability, check out this piece that our pals at Pro Football Focus did on him in August.) Unsure on both counts, but our guess is he splits time with Dan Connolly at the position on Sunday against Cleveland before taking it over on a full-time basis next week against the Steelers. (For what it’s worth, running backs coach Ivan Fears was asked for his reaction to Mankins’ return, and he could hardly contain himself. “Are you kidding?” Fears said with laugh. “The guys are jumping for joy.”)
Consistency in the New England running game. It seems like a minor detail, but the Patriots were unable to get much of anything going on the ground last week against the Vikings, rushing for nine yards on nine carries through the first two quarters. The second half was a different story, however, as BenJarvus Green-Ellis and the rest of the New England ground game came up big down the stretch. The Patriots ended up with 122 yards on the ground, including 112 from Green-Ellis. This is a good week for the Patriots running game to put together that sort of effort. Cleveland has struggled against the run this season (the Browns allow an average of 111.3 yards per game, 14th in the league). In addition, defensive end Kenyon Coleman and outside linebacker Matt Roth have been banged up lately, which could create some opportunities for big gains on the ground for New England.
Can Jerod Mayo keep up a ridiculous pace? The Patriots inside linebacker leads the league in tackles with 91, and is coming off his fourth-straight 10 tackle game after he had 14 tackles in last Sunday’s win over Minnesota. Mayo is the first Patriots player to go four consecutive games with 10-plus tackles since Tedy Bruschi had four straight games with 10-plus tackles in 2003. He’s on pace for a career high 208 total tackles, which would be the highest number in franchise history since linebacker Clayton Weishuhn had 229 tackles in 1983.
Ever since he arrived as a rookie in 2008, he has had a terrific nose for the ball — he had 139 tackles in 2008 and 114 in 2009 — but these numbers are off the charts. However, Belichick says that Mayo isn’t doing anything out of the ordinary when it comes to making tackles. He’s seizing on his opportunities.
“He’s a strong tackler. He’s got good athleticism. He can run; he’s tough. He’s got good balance, good quickness, so he gets to a lot of people and tackles them,” Belichick said. “But as far as doing anything dramatically different in his preparation or playing style, I can’t really say I’ve noticed that.
“I’d say the big thing on that, to me — I know I probably see it a lot differently than a lot of you do — but to me, it’s really opportunities. A guy’s got a chance to make five tackles and he makes five tackles, then he makes five tackles. If he has a chance to make 10 and he makes 10, great. If he has a chance to make 10 and he makes four, then that’s not good production. Even though he makes four, what about the other six? A lot of that’s opportunity — not all of it, but some of it.”
Avoid the trap. This young and developing Patriots team has been put to the test on several occasions throughout the first half of the season, and Sunday will present another challenge. With Pittsburgh and Indianapolis looming in the weeks following the Browns game, could this team take its eyes off the prize for a week try and look past Cleveland? Even though the Browns are coming off an impressive win over the Saints in New Orleans, this contest has all the makings of a classic trap game. To combat any thought of an upset, the Patriots would be wise to jump on Cleveland early and take them and the crowd out of the contest, squeezing all hope of a win from a young Browns team and putting the game out of reach in the first half.