Curran's Patriots - Browns preview review

Curran's Patriots - Browns preview review
December 8, 2013, 11:30 pm
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FOXBORO – The Browns have lost six of their last seven and are out of it for 2013, but every opponent of the Patriots sees the matchup as a great opportunity to build on. Wins over the Patriots – especially late in the season when a team like Cleveland is playing for pride – are the kinds of games that can have big pull that a head coach has his team headed in the right direction. So, after a loss to the Jaguars, expect Cleveland coach Rob Chudzinski to put a lot into this game in which his team isn’t expected to be a big problem for New England.
Cleveland poured a lot into this one and, it can be argued, deserved a better fate. Although, as Will Munny said, “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.”
If the Patriots are efficient on offense, they will murder Cleveland. But early-game flatness has been an issue the last three games. Outstanding as the Patriots have been adjusting, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels needs to find a way to get the offense hitting on one thing early and pounding it. The Patriots seem as if they’re sliding back toward the “probe-to-find-the-matchup” offense that marked prior seasons’ early inefficiencies and resulted in some wasted possessions. The Browns are stiff against the run but will be missing defensive end Desmond Bryant who went on IR with an irregular heartbeat this week. The Browns also cover well at the linebacker level with D’Qwell Jackson and Craig Robertson. Their edge rusher, Paul Kruger, was very good with the Ravens last year and Joe Haden is a solid corner. What defensive coordinator Ray Horton has his group do is try to limit big plays so the Patriots will have to find the weak spot. That means more probing this week. Third-down efficiency in the first half is a big stat to watch. When teams get in the red zone against Cleveland, they get touchdowns quite often.
Down 19-3 after 43:35 of football having been played, the remedy for early-game flatness wasn’t found. In fact, it got worse. The Patriots had 129 total yards at halftime and finished with 484. The pressure on Brady (four sacks) was significant and – having fallen behind significantly – it fell to Brady to carry the offense back. Throwing 17 times to Vereen and completing 12 for 153 helped. Edelman also had a solid game with six catches for 64 and Josh Boyce – with the other two rookie receivers out – chipped in with three catches for 49 yards and drew a dicey DPI that resulted in the game-winning touchdown.
Jason Campbell, coming back from a concussion, can be a dangerous quarterback and doesn’t mind going downfield. Understandable, because wideout Josh Gordon is tearing it up with 498 yards receiving over the last two games. He’s big. He’s fast. He’s a handful and demands special attention. Tight end Jordan Cameron is a big concern as well. If the Patriots have to keep their safeties back to guard against Gordon’s downfield explosiveness, the underneath is where Cameron can chew up the Patriots linebackers. Cameron has 64 catches for 704 yards. Davone Bess is slowing down out of the slot but can still be a headache (40 catches). The Browns’ running game is not imposing. Willis McGahee is the lead back and averaging 2.8 per carry. Backup Chris Ogbonnaya is used sparingly but can tear off yards. The Patriots run defense was troublingly bad last week against the Texans.
Cameron and Gordon ended up with 16 catches on 19 targets and 272 yards receiving between them. The Patriots held the Browns running game in check with 23 carries for 57 yards from the backs. Gordon and Campbell tore off runs of 34 and 21 respectively, however. The Patriots had a rare day on which they didn’t create a turnover and Cleveland had a solid day on third down going 7 for 15.

Browns punter Sean Lanning has a sore leg and is on the injury report. No wonder. He’s punted 65 times this year. His net of 37.2 isn’t great. Billy Cundiff is a middling kicker – 15 for 20, 8 for 11 beyond 40 yards. The Browns have been mining for a punt returner since lead guy Travis Benjamin went down with an ACL injury. Jordan Poyer had a 38-yarder last week. The Patriots special teams group of Ryan Allen, Steve Gostkowski and punt returner Julian Edelman has had a very good 2013.  
Lanning had a terrific day punting, dropping five of six punts inside the 20. Edelman did little with his two punt returns. Josh Boyce is showing some promise on kickoff returns. Ryan Allen had the unusual stat line of having a bigger net than gross (40.0 and 40.2) thanks to the only punt that was returned ending up in a 1-yard loss. Gostkowski kicked another 50-yarder in the fourth quarter. Tremendous season.

OUT: Marcus Cannon, T; Aaron Dobson, WR; QUESTONABLE: Kyle Arrington, CB; Marquice Cole, CB; Alfonzo Dennard, CB; Steve Gregory, S; Rob Gronkowski, TE; Michael Hoomanawanui, TE; Brandon Spikes, LB; Will Svitek, T; Aqib Talib, CB; Kenbrell Thompkins, WR. PROBABLE: Danny Amendola, WR; Brandon Bolden, RB; Tom Brady, QB; Matt Slater, WR; Shane Vereen, RB.
Dennard injured his left arm and, while he returned, he was in and out for much of the game. Obviously, Gronkowski is the big deal here.

OUT: Brandon Weeden, QB. QUESTIONABLE: Tank Carder, LB; Marqueis Gray, TE; Craig Robertson, LB. PROBABLE: Jason Campbell, QB; Paul Kruger, LB; Spencer Lanning, P; Willis McGahee, RB; Mitchell Swartz, T.
Remember last year when Arizona Cardinals defensive coordinator Ray Horton took a victory lap after the Cardinals beat the Patriots at Gillette? Well, Horton is with the Browns now. And I’m betting the Patriots remember Ray Horton too.
There should be no gloating on the New England side about serving Ray Horton. While the Patriots were complicit in their offensive problems with drops, the Browns’ front got to Brady with pressure (four sacks, six QB hits) and the back end had three passes defensed and a pick.

Josh Gordon. Sometimes it’s hard for me to pin it down to one guy. Not this week. You put two safeties deep, Aqib Talib on Gordon and make Jason Campbell go somewhere else with the ball or risk the turnover.
It kinda worked for a while. But in the end, the player who’s suddenly become the most explosive receiver in the league ripped a hole in the Patriots secondary and went for 80 yards late in the third.
Rob Gronkowski. He’s averaging six catches and 90 yards per game since his return. The offense is, at times, revolving around him. And when it’s not Gronk-centric – it’s just a matter of time before it becomes that way. Cleveland’s awful in the red zone. Bad recipe for them.
Ummmmm… mission accomplished?
The Patriots stub their toe and lose this one. Sorry. Got no solid, airtight logic here. And not saying it’s LIKELY. Just saying that – after last week’s narrow win for the Patriots at Houston and the fact that Jason Campbell, once every few weeks, plays with aptitude it is not beyond the realm of possibility.
The flatness continued and the Patriots needed a busload of breaks to get by a Browns team that must have flown home mystified as to how they wound up in second place on this day.
“He can attack all three levels of the defense. He can run through them, he can take the short plays, catch-and-run plays, crossing patterns, look patterns, plays like that, quick three-step drops and break tackles. He’s very good on the intermediate routes, the in-cuts, the crossing routes, comebacks, stop-routes, things like that that attack the middle levels of the defense. He’s a complete player that can run fast, catch, big target and make a lot of yards on his own after the catch with his speed, size and running ability.” – Bill Belichick,  
At halftime, Gordon had three catches for 42 yards. By the time the proceedings were done, he had seven for 151 and an 80-yard touchdown that woulda/coulda/shoulda been a backbreaker.

“I understand that. I'm going to step up to the plate and handle that task.” – Leon McFadden, rookie corner, on being targeted by Tom Brady on Sunday.
McFadden, unfortunately for him, got pinched for the debatable end zone pass interference on Josh Boyce that set up the Patriots game-winning touchdown.

Patriots 31, Browns 23
Patriots 27, Browns 26