The Cleveland Browns will face the undefeated New England Patriots this upcoming Sunday in Foxboro, Massachusetts- a place the Patriots haven’t lost since October 1, 2017 (16-straight home wins). The Browns are coming off of a much-needed bye week, whereas the Patriots won in dominating fashion versus the New York Jets on Monday Night Football, making quarterback Sam Darnold look like Emmett Kelly, only completing 11 of 32 pass attempts for 86 yards, zero touchdowns, and four interceptions.
Just how good have the Patriots been in 2019? Their 175 point differential is the most through a team’s first seven games in football history. Simply put: they are the best team in football (yet again) and are the epitome of “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” They are well-coached (understatement), disciplined, and efficient.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Patriots are a controlling force reminiscent of the Roman Army, wherein there were no competitors of equal strength for hundreds of years. Per Pro Football Focus (“PFF”), The squad has posted the following statistics and ranks on a season-to-date basis:
One trademark of this franchise is Cover 0 or “zero blitz.” Cover 0 is a man-to-man defensive scheme with all defensive backs lined up close to the line of scrimmage with specific play responsibilities. Cornerbacks will use inside leverage on wide receivers in order to use the sideline as an “extra defender” since they are on an island with no safety help in the middle of the field. The goal of this defensive scheme is a heavy pass rush that puts pressure on the quarterback in order to force quick throws and to disrupt the natural progressions of the passing game. The Patriots are masterful at this concept, as evidenced Monday night versus the Jets:
Anothaaa one! Devin McCourty nabs his 5th INT of the year.
— PFF (@PFF) October 22, 2019
The effectiveness of man coverage for the Patriots defense is further enhanced by, arguably, the best cornerback duo in the league in Stephon Gilmore and J.C. Jackson:
20 receptions on 45 targets for 266 yards and a 36.0 passer rating (3rd-lowest in the league, minimum 100 coverage snaps)
Stephon Gilmore continued his dominant play in coverage, allowing a 0.0 passer rating when targeted as the nearest defender for the 2nd straight game.
— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) October 22, 2019
8 receptions on 23 targets for 96 yards and a 12.2 passer rating (lowest in the league, minimum 100 coverage snaps)
J.C. Jackson led all qualifying cornerbacks in passer rating allowed during the 2018 regular season with a 42.0.
— PFF NE Patriots (@PFF_Patriots) October 17, 2019
Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield has struggled mightily versus pressure thus far in 2019, completing only 22 of 58 pass attempts for 286 yards, one touchdown, five interceptions, and a 24.1 passer rating. The second-year quarterback is going to have to play not only his best game of the season, but the best game of his career in order for the Browns to be victorious. Mayfield and the Browns offense will have to make the Patriots defense pay for their aggression via quick slant and crossing routes in order to create big plays and take advantage of the yards-after-catch (YAC) ability of wide receivers Odell Beckham, Jr. and Jarvis Landry. As a group, the Browns wide receiver corps averages 5.4 YAC, which is tied for the third-most in the league. Winning one-on-one match-ups versus man coverage will be pivotal for the overall effectiveness of the offense.
Where the defense is moderately susceptible (I use that term lightly) is against the run. Per PFF, through Week 6, the defense had allowed 3.4 rushing yards after contact per attempt (2nd-most), while facing a league-low 126 rushing attempts, mostly due disadvantageous game scripts. It just so happens that Browns running back Nick Chubb is 4th in the league in yards after contact per attempt (3.49). Funneling the offense through Chubb (with play action to boot) and controlling the game-clock/flow of the game will be a key factor in Sunday’s match-up.
On the offensive side of the ball, the Patriots are methodical, controlling, and play generally mistake-free football. The passing game focuses on short to intermediate routes (Brady ranks 26th in average intended air-yards per Next Gen Stats) and play-action (Patriots have used on the fifth-most quarterback dropbacks). The running game predominantly funnels through Sony Michel, who is tied for the seventh-most rushing attempts (119).
The Browns defensive line matches up pretty well versus the Patriots offensive line. One of the key match-ups will be Browns edge Myles Garrett versus Patriots offensive tackles Marshall Newhouse and Marcus Cannon1, who have surrendered a total of 28 pressures per PFF. Garrett will look to be a disruptive force and build on his fifth-ranked pass-rushing productivity of 10.9 (PFF).
The Browns are well-rested and motivated coming into the Week 8 match-up. Limiting the habitual self-inflicted wounds will be paramount versus a Patriots team that leads the league in turnover differential (+14). As Landry said during Thursday’s media session, “We can’t beat ourselves. We can’t make mistakes at critical times. We have to match…I would not even really say match their intensity or match what they are doing. I would just say we can’t beat ourselves. That goes for any game no matter who you are playing. You can’t beat yourself.”
We have seen the flashes of potential at some point in almost every game this season. Those moments when the offense was firing on all cylinders and the defense was constantly placing the opposing quarterback under duress. The Browns need to put together a complete game in all facets in order to claim victory on Sunday. To win in Foxboro would change the trajectory of this season and the ever-declining narrative surrounding this ball club: