The game was out of reach, but Peyton Hillis was running.
Of course, this was really nothing new. Hillis had been running all day — over, around and through the Patriots run defense. He was the primary reason the Browns were rolling over the Patriots to this point, taking a 27-14 lead late into the fourth quarter. On Cleveland’s final drive, he had accounted for all 25 yards, bringing the Browns down to New England’s 35-yard line.
With Cleveland facing a second-and-6, Cleveland quarterback Colt McCoy did what he did best — handed the ball to Hillis, who swung around right end. Patriots outside linebacker Rob Ninkovich, charged with setting the edge, was blown off the line. And when a Cleveland blocker trucked safety James Sanders and Brandon Spikes was similarly left in the dust, Hillis was just about gone.
Hillis kept running and running. The only New England defender within striking distance of Hillis was Jerod Mayo, but Hillis delivered a stiff-arm that knocked Mayo to the ground around the five-yard line. With that, he was into the end zone for his second touchdown of the day. Ballgame over. Thanks for coming. Browns win, 34-14 (click here for the complete recap).
Hillis was fantastic, but the Patriots were never in this game, falling behind early in the contest and being outplayed in all three areas of the game.
“We didn’t do the things we need to do to win, to really be competitive, and that was the result of the game,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “Obviously, we have a lot of work to do. We’re a better team than we showed today but we weren’t today. Certainly hats off to them, they did a good job. [They were] clearly the better team.”
Those of you who had Peyton Hillis in the “Which opposing running back will break 100 yards against the 2010 Patriots first?” pool, come on down and collect your prize. Hillis ended up with 29 carries for a career-high 184 yards and two touchdowns. It was the most impressive output for a running back against the Patriots since LaDainian Tomlinson ran for 217 yards against New England on Sept. 29, 2002.
“He’s a good player, runs hard,” Belichick shrugged when asked about Hillis. “We’ve seen him do that. They did a good job. They did a better job than we did.”
The amazing thing about Hillis’ performance was not just in the numbers. It was how he became a different back for different situations. He’s known as a big, physical runner, and did a lot of pounding the football Sunday against the Patriots. When he needed to be, he also ran away from guys like a lighter back. At the appropriate time, he was a traditional between-the-tackles guy. Whatever the Browns needed him to do, he did. He even jumped guys — on his first play from scrimmage, he actually leaped clean over Sanders on the way to an 18-yard gain that pretty much set the tone for the entire game.
For the Patriots, the most damning indictment on the afternoon was in the fact that even when they knew what was coming, they were powerless to stop it. Hillis touched the ball 32 times (29 carries and three receptions) and had only one play with negative yardage. And holding a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter and looking to run out the clock, the Browns kept giving it to Hillis, who ran the ball nine times for 70 yards in the fourth quarter, an astonishing average of 7.8 yards per carry down the stretch.
Belichick sought him out after the game
“He said ‘Congrats,’ and that he was impressed,” Hillis said. “And when you get a compliment like that from a great coach, it means a lot.”
For all the talk of taking a stand and a return to the days of bend-but-don’t-break defense, it was a rude awakening for a run defense that had managed to string together a series of impressive physically charged performances against backs like Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson.
“This was very disappointing. Coming in, we felt pretty good about our run defense and [Hillis] just came out with their offensive line and did a great job and ran the ball hard,” said linebacker Jerod Mayo. “It was an awakening. [Sunday] was disappointing, but at the same time, if we can learn something from this, then it was worth it.”
Here are nine other things we learned on Sunday in Cleveland:
RIGHT NOW, THE PATRIOTS DON’T HAVE A WHOLE LOT OF DEPENDABLE OPTIONS IN THE PASSING GAME
After a first quarter where he was 1-for-6 for 10 yards (and the New England offense was 0-for-3 on third-down conversions early), Patriots quarterback Tom Brady actually finished with decent numbers — 19-for-36, 224 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions.
But the New England offense was uncharacteristically out-of-sync much of the day: Brady was throwing to empty spaces, and appeared not to be on the same page with many of his receivers. At one point, after a busted second-half play involving Danny Woodhead, the running back came back to the huddle with palms upraised as if to wonder what happened.
He wasn’t the only one. For a team that came into the contest averaging 29 points per game, it was a shocking turn of events. The Patriots didn’t cross into Cleveland territory until there was 11:42 left in the second quarter, and didn’t have a single play on the Browns’ side of the 50-yard line in the third quarter. The running backs averaged just 3.4 yards per carry, and the New England running game was just 3-for-11 on third-down conversions.
Things got so bad they pulled Brady with 2:34 left in the game, the earliest he’s been yanked since Brian Hoyer relieved him with 5:26 remaining in the bloodbath in New Orleans against the Saints last season.
“We were out of sync a little bit,” Brady said. “You've got to take advantage of scoring opportunities. You've got to convert on third down. We just didn’t do enough to advance the ball so we've got to figure out the problems.”
There are a variety of issues plaguing the New England offense, particularly the passing game: with the trade of Randy Moss, Wes Welker is still struggling with his new position as the focus of opposing pass defenses. Deion Branch is still clearly hobbled by a balky hamstring. And there are times when youngsters like Woodhead, Aaron Hernandez and Rob Grokowski look and play like guys who only have a handful of games of experience in the Patriots’ offense. If New England is going to struggle to run the ball as it did yesterday (68 yards and a 3.4 yards per carry average), it will have to get more out of the passing game if it is to be successful.
"We've got a bunch of talented players and I'd like to think that we have guys who can make plays," Brady said. "We certainly make a lot of plays out there but we just didn't do it consistently today. That's the frustrating part. You do it right once, the next time, you just don't do it right. That's something that leads to three-and-outs and to not being able to sustain drives.
“It is Week 9 and we've got a lot of work ahead. I don't think that we are a finished product right now. We have to do things better in all areas, including the quarterback.”
FOR ALL THE OFFENSIVE WOES THE PATRIOTS SUFFERED ON SUNDAY, DON’T BLAME THIS ONE ON DANNY WOODHEAD OR AARON HERNANDEZ
While the rest of the New England offense wasn’t able to do much of anything on the afternoon, the duo of Hernandez and Woodhead was able to provide a small spark to an otherwise punchless Patriots’ attack. They certainly weren’t perfect — consider the previously mentioned busted play where it appeared Woodhead ran a bad route — but they combined for 140 total yards of offense, just under half of the 283 total yards the Patriots had on the afternoon.
Woodhead had nine carries for 54 yards rushing and two receptions for 38 yards, with his highlight coming on a second quarter drive where he hauled in a 26-yard catch to help spark a scoring drive that went 79 yards. (On the drive, Woodhead accounted for 39 of the 79 yards.) The 26-yarder represented a career-high for the Chadron State product, who had a 24-yard reception at Tampa Bay in December 2009 when he was with the Jets.
Meanwhile, Hernandez caught a team-high five passes for 48 yards and two touchdowns, the first scores of his career. His first TD catch came on what should be classified as one of his most impressive receptions of the season — from the two-yard line, Brady delivered a laser toward Rob Gronkowski, but the ball bounced off him and shot up into the air. Hernandez, standing near the back of the end zone, outjumped the Cleveland defender for the ball and had the presence of mind to come down with both feet inbounds for New England’s first touchdown of the day. His second touchdown was a little more pedestrian — it came in the fourth quarter when Brady lofted one to the far corner of the end zone over Cleveland safety T.J. Ward. Hernandez made a nice reception and fell gently after the catch, but came down with it safely inbounds for his second touchdown of the day.
Hernandez, who also had a 22-yard reception late in the second quarter, now has a reception of 20 or more yards in seven of eight games. In addition, he now has 34 receptions in 2010 to go along with his 436 receiving yards, which gets him closer to the franchise rookie records for tight ends: 37 receptions (by Greg Baty in 1986) and 636 receiving yards (by Russ Francis in 1975).
THE PATRIOTS SPECIAL TEAMS WEREN’T READY
There were early signs Sunday wasn’t going to be a good day for the Patriots special teams unit: After a 38-yard field goal from Phil Dawson to open the scoring with 11:53 left in the first quarter, Dawson kicked it short. With the ball in the air, Gronkowski called for a fair catch, but darted away from it, leaving it for running back Sammy Morris. Morris muffed the kick, and former New England defensive back Ray “Bubba” Ventrone recovered the fumble for the Browns. Cleveland scored two plays later when Hillis punched it in from two yards out to make it 10-0 with 11:11 left in the first quarter.
After the game, Gronkowski characterized the miscue as a “miscommunication,” and took full responsibility for what happened.
“We have to get that right in practice. It's not acceptable and it shouldn't be happening,” he told reporters. “[It’s] definitely frustrating, but you have to put that behind you right after and keep moving on.”
On New England’s next possession, punter Zoltan Mesko nearly had his first punt of the afternoon blocked. Long snapper Jake Ingram bounced a snap for Mesko. And kicker Stephen Gostkowski suffered a thigh injury — emergency kicker Wes Welker finished up in his absence, delivering an extra point in the fourth quarter and adding a late kickoff as well. The special teams struggles lasted all day — even when a Reggie Hodges punt with just over 20 seconds left landed on the New England two-yard line.
WHEN IT COMES TO STOPPING BRANDON TATE, THE BROWNS MIGHT HAVE FOUND A SOLUTION
The faceoff of Brandon Tate against the Cleveland kick coverage team was one of Sunday’s most anticipated matchups. Tate is one of the best in the league — thanks to the North Carolina product, the Patriots entered Sunday’s game fifth in the league with 26.8 yards per kick return, while Cleveland’s kickoff coverage had allowed just 18.6 yards per return (second-best in the league). In addition, the Browns were one of only five teams in the league that had yet to allow a return of 40 yards or more.
But when it came to kickoffs on Sunday, the Browns were clearly doing everything in their power to keep the ball away from Tate. They spent much of the afternoon kicking it short — in six kickoffs, Tate only handled one of them. The rest went to Dan Connolly, Morris (two each) and Alge Crumpler (one). As a result, the Patriots, who came into the game averaging 28.9 yards per kick return, averaged only 9.3 yards per return on Sunday. In addition, New England, which had an average starting field position of its own 31-yard line entering the game, had an average start of its own 24 against Cleveland. The Patriots didn’t start a drive in Browns’ territory all day, with their best starting point of the day being their own 38-yard line.
The keepaway method was an effective way of keeping the New England kick return game in check — so effective, in fact, that it wouldn’t be a surprise to see other teams try the same thing later in the season. You yield a few extra yards on the kickoff, but you also eliminate the possibility of Tate breaking one long.
A ROOKIE TIGHT END WILL OCCASIONALLY PLAY LIKE A ROOKIE
For the first seven games of his professional career, Rob Gronkowski certainly hasn’t played like a rookie. Gronkowski’s strength as a blocker and red-zone threat made an immediate impact for the New England offense. He entered Sunday’s game against the Browns with 10 catches for 101 yards, and was tied for the team lead in touchdowns with three.
But on Sunday, Gronkowski suffered through the worst afternoon of his professional career. The nightmare included multiple dropped balls, a red-zone fumble, a miscue on a kickoff that led directly to a Cleveland touchdown and an offensive holding call.
The worst infraction of the afternoon came at the end of the first half. With less than a minute to go in the second quarter, the Patriots were in Cleveland’s red zone, driving for a potential touchdown that would have cut the Browns’ halftime lead to 17-14. Brady found Gronkowski with a pass near the right sideline inside the five-yard line, and the rookie tight end was trying to get a few more yards before he was held up by Cleveland defensive back Abe Elam. The ball was knocked away and recovered by Elam. Drive over.
The next time the Patriots would get that close to the end zone would be in the fourth quarter with Cleveland holding a 27-7 lead.
“I fumbled it,” Gronkowski flatly told reporters after the game. “It shouldn’t be happening because I should have two hands on the ball. I shouldn’t be letting defenders get in at the ball like that. I have to get low and get down.”
“The tight end caught the ball and as I was coming up to make the tackle, I was going to try to strip the ball out; it was fortunate for us to even get it out and then get on the ball,” Elam told reporters. “I think it was big for our defense and big for our team. It was just instinct. I’m a football player, so I’m going out there trying to make plays every opportunity I can. I’m just thankful for being able to help my team.”
“It was a huge play,” Browns coach Eric Mangini said. “They’re driving down in typical New England fashion towards the end of the first half and I’ve had a bunch of games against them where they’ve been able to score at the end of the first half. To get that strip when we did was huge. It took points off of the board, totally changed the momentum going into the locker room and it was a pivotal play.”
Gronkowski did finish with four catches for 47 yards — including a 22-yarder that sparked New England’s only scoring drive of the first half — but it was the most forgettable game of his young professional career.
“This is definitely frustrating,” Gronkowski said. “But you have to be able to put it behind you right after the game so you can keep moving on.”
“The only thing you can do from a situation like this is learn and move on,” veteran teammate Alge Crumpler told reporters. “We have a lot of football left in this season and [Gronkowski] has a lot of football left in his career.”
THE PATRIOTS ARE GOING TO EASE LOGAN MANKINS BACK INTO THE ROTATION
No one was quite sure when Mankins — who returned to practice this week — was going to return to the starting lineup, but the Fresno State product got the call at the start of Sunday’s game in place of Dan Connolly, who manned the position while Mankins stayed away because he was unhappy about his contract. Mankins was part of a rotational system at the guard spot — Connolly spent time spelling both Mankins and right guard Stephen Neal on the afternoon — and certainly didn’t appear any worse for wear. He was part of an offensive line that only allowed one sack and two quarterback hits, and will likely see a sizable boost in his playing time next week against the Steelers.
WES WELKER HASN’T FORGOTTEN HOW TO KICK
The wide receiver has been called on to kick a few times in his career, most notably on Oct. 10, 2004, as a member of the Dolphins. That afternoon at Gillette Stadium against the Patriots, Welker was the first player in NFL history to have a kick return, a punt return, a field goal, successful PAT and kickoff in same game. It wasn’t a colossal surprise — Welker was an avid soccer player from age four through high school while growing up in Oklahoma.
He got the call again on Sunday against the Browns when Stephen Gostkowski went down early with a thigh injury. He didn’t have to worry about any field goals, but he delivered an extra point after New England’s fourth-quarter touchdown, and also handled kickoff duties on the ensuing kickoff, where he delivered a 45-yard boot to the Cleveland 25-yard line.
“Obviously that came up, [and] unfortunately, and you try to make due with what you've got,” Welker told reporters.
As for Gostkowski’s immediate future, that remains a question mark. For what it’s worth, he hasn’t missed a single game because of injury since he arrived as a fourth-round pick in 2006 out of Memphis. However, it wouldn’t be terribly surprising to hear about the Patriots working out a few kickers this week.
“His leg tightened up in the game; obviously he wasn’t able to finish and kick,” Belichick said when asked about the kicker. “So, we’ll have to see. But he wasn’t able to finish the game.”
IF YOU ARE LOOKING FOR DEFENSIVE POSITIVES, THE ONE AREA THAT WASN'T AWFUL WAS THE NEW ENGLAND SECONDARY
While the front seven was unable to slow down Hillis or get any sort of pass rush on McCoy (the rookie quarterback wasn’t hit, according to the stat sheet), the secondary actually had a decent afternoon. McCoy was very accurate (14-for-19), but had only 174 total passing yards. The New England secondary was able to guard against the big play through the air — the majority of sizable gains that came in the Cleveland passing game came because of yards after the catch.
And the finest defensive play of the game for the Patriots came as the result of the secondary, when roughly midway through the first quarter cornerback Devin McCourty, who had six tackles, stripped Hillis at the end of a long run. The ball was knocked away and Brandon Meriweather (who also had six tackles) came away with it.
In addition — and in the grand scheme of things, it’s pretty minor, but still worth mentioning — in a season where the Patriots have been scalded by slot receivers, they were able to slow down Browns slot receiver Chansi Stuckey, holding him to two catches for six yards. Jonathan Wilhite looked good keeping Stuckey in check — in the first quarter, he made a nice breakup on a pass intended for Stuckey on the goal line, which forced the Browns to settle for a field goal. Wilhite also had an impressive third-down tackle on Stuckey early in the second quarter that forced a Cleveland punt.
All of that was little comfort to Sanders, who (because of the knee injury suffered by Pat Chung) was paired with Brandon Meriweather at safety for most of the afternoon.
“I just know that we didn’t play well today,” he said. “In all three phases of the game, they were the better team. They executed and made the plays that they had to make to win and we didn’t.”
A BAD WEEK OF PRACTICE USUALLY MEANS A BAD GAME
Several players, including Brady and defensive lineman Vince Wifork, told reporters after the game that the Patriots had a poor week of practice — including an apparently miserable outing in Friday’s session, which ran much longer than anticipated — and that was certainly reflected in the final score.
“It’s hard to say. Every week, some days you have good practices and some days you have bad practices. We just didn’t play well today,” Brady said when asked about the idea of a bad week of practice. “I think that’s what it comes down to. We just didn’t execute the way we needed to execute on a down-by-down basis. We all have to do a better job, the quarterback has to do a better job and each group has to do a better job. That’s the only way that we are going to do better.”
”Practice wasn’t great, the game wasn’t great, and it showed out there,” Wilfork said. ”Every phase of the game, it’s like we didn’t know what they were going to do, when we knew what they were going to do. It played out the way we knew it was going to play out. But hey, we lost. We have to learn from this one.”
”One thing I can tell you, I don’t like the feeling. I’m pretty sure everyone in this locker room don’t like this feeling,” Wilfork said. ”So what can we do about it? Go to work [Monday], make the corrections and learn from it, get ready for the Pittsburgh Steelers. But we got to learn from this. We’ve got a lot of learning that’s going to be on this film.”