NEPD Editor: Matthew Jones
After getting off to another lethargic start and being forced to make a comeback against the lowly Houston Texans, the New England Patriots will host the 4-8 Cleveland Browns, who currently rank in the top five against both the run and the pass. Will last week’s scare prevent the Patriots from slipping into complacency? Read on for ten keys to this week’s contest.
1. What can the Patriots do in order to disrupt Jason Campbell in the passing game?
Due to a combination of injuries and ineffective play, the Browns have changed their starting quarterback four times already this season, and this week will mark the fifth occasion, as Brandon Weeden, who had started the past two games, throwing for 370 yards and three touchdowns last week against the Jaguars, has been ruled out with a concussion, clearing the way for Jason Campbell to return to the field to make his fifth start of the season after recovering from a concussion of his own.
Campbell actually put together two impressive performances to begin his starting tenure, bringing the Browns within six points of defeating the then-undefeated Kansas City Chiefs in a 293-yard, two-touchdown performance, then led Cleveland past the divisional rival Baltimore Ravens with 262 yards and three touchdowns, but was disappointing in losses to the Bengals and Steelers. Incredibly, Campbell has completed just eleven passes on throws traveling more than ten yards downfield, representing 12.6% of his throws, a figure which does not conform with offensive coordinator Norv Turner’s preference for pushing the ball downfield; consequently, the Patriots should plan on attempting to take away short passes by flooding that range of the field with defenders, forcing Campbell to try some longer passes.
It’s also worth noting that Campbell isn’t a particularly good passer even when given time to throw, as he is completing just 60.6% of his passes for 5.9 yards per attempt in those situations. When opponents have blitzed Campbell, his completion percentage falls to 53.2% and his yards per attempt fall to 5.6, so that remains an option as well, particularly if the team can’t create pressure with a four-man rush.
2. Do the Browns have the running backs to take advantage of a weak run defense?
Ever since persuading the Colts to trade a first-round draft pick for opening day starter Trent Richardson, who has already been benched by his new team and is averaging just three yards per attempt on the season, the Browns have been working with a two-back committee, starting Willis McGahee, who was signed immediately following the Richardson trade, while working in Chris Ogbonnaya, primarily in passing situations.
McGahee is averaging just 2.8 yards per carry over his 124 attempts, with his longest run of the season coming in at sixteen yards. However, it is premature to dismiss him as a threat, considering he boasts a respectable success rate of 48% according to Football Outsiders, and turned in a respectable 102-yard performance against the Patriots on nineteen combined touches last season as a member of the Denver Broncos. Clearly not a home-run threat at this point in his career, McGahee will be attacking the middle of New England’s defense, where the team has struggled to stop the run all season, allowing 4.81 Adjusted Line Yards per attempt on rushes up the middle, ranking the team thirty-first in the league.
Ogbonnaya doesn’t carry the ball much, but he is averaging 5.7 yards per attempt over his thirty-eight carries and boasts an equal number of receptions. Given Jason Campbell’s tendency to rely almost exclusively on the short passing game, Ogbonnaya may be asked to run plenty of routes into the flats on passing downs, where McGahee has hardly been utilized.
3. Who will win the projected battle between Josh Gordon and Aqib Talib?
Although Cleveland’s offense lacks a quality quarterback, the team is currently ranked thirteenth in the pass thanks in large part to the contributions of second-year wide receiver Josh Gordon, who sat out the first two games of the season but nonetheless has caught sixty-four passes on the season for a staggering 1,249 yards and seven touchdowns, averaging 19.5 yards per catch. A true deep threat who also possesses outstanding size at 6’3” and 225 pounds, Gordon projects as the next star wide receiver Patriots left cornerback Aqib Talib will grapple with this season.
Last week, Talib’s highly-anticipated matchup against Andre Johnson didn’t happen, as New England’s gameplan against the Texans was predicated upon a shift back to the team’s nauseating zone coverages of years past, an approach which proved disastrous as Case Keenum, now the backup quarterback on the worst team in the league, was able to throw for 272 yards, averaging 9.1 yards per attempt. This week, hopefully the Patriots have recognized that their secondary is at its most effective when asked to line up in man coverage, which would likely lead to Talib shadowing Gordon all game.
Gordon has made a splash play in every game this season aside from one, with most of them coming on intermediate throws in which he gains yards after the catch. Although Talib may be good enough to cover him alone, given Gordon’s explosiveness it may be beneficial to bracket him for the majority of the contest, possibly with free safety Devin McCourty, who has been incredibly effective in deep coverage.
4. Will New England’s linebackers be able to defend against Jordan Cameron?
Aside from Josh Gordon, the Browns lack a dangerous wide receiver, but they do possess one effective option in third-year tight end Jordan Cameron, who has caught sixty-three passes for 704 yards and six touchdowns this season, bringing in 66.3% of his targets, with 55.6% of those going for first downs. His output has been largely limited over the past month, catching fourteen passes for 108 yards and no touchdowns, but his athleticism could present a challenge for a Patriots linebacker corps which is not considered particularly effective against opposing tight ends.
The Browns like to throw Cameron passes down the sidelines, where thirty-two of his catches this season have come, and he isn’t often targeted on throws over the middle, with just nine receptions for sixty-nine yards in that area. He is most frequently targeted on short throws, catching forty-four passes on passes traveling ten or fewer yards downfield, but the team does throw him some passes on intermediate routes as well, where he’s caught fifteen balls.
The Patriots were effective at limiting Texans tight end Garrett Graham’s output last week, holding him to three catches on ten targets, but Cameron will provide more of a challenge. The nature of New England’s zone coverages last week meant that eight different players were used in coverage on Graham, but responsibilities should primarily fall on the linebackers. Starters Brandon Spikes and Dont’a Hightower are probably a bit too slow to run with Cameron.
5. Can any of New England’s pass rushing options create pressure this week?
Mentioned earlier was that Browns quarterback Jason Campbell doesn’t perform well under pressure, but it is unclear exactly how the Patriots will create that pressure this week, as starting right end Chandler Jones, who has accounted for 10.5 of New England’s sacks this season, is going to have a difficult time rushing against All-Pro left tackle Joe Thomas, who has hold opponents to just one sack on the season, meaning that other players will likely have to step up.
On the other side of the line, right tackle Mitchell Schwartz has allowed ten sacks, so Patriots left end Rob Ninkovich, who has five sacks thus far, may represent the biggest threat to Cleveland’s pocket this week. Left guard John Greco is a decent player, and center Alex Mack is among the top players in the league at his position, but right guard Shawn Lauvao is a major liability. Patriots defensive tackle Chris Jones has amassed five sacks, most of them coming earlier in the season, so he may be another option should he line up opposite Lauvao.
If those two players are unsuccessful, New England may have to resort to sending additional rushers in order to reach Campbell, although, as discussed earlier, Campbell is an ineffective passer versus the blitz and that option should remain on the table regardless. Another option would be to flip the defensive ends and line up Jones against Schwartz, where the Patriots may be able to create more pressure, with Ninkovich trying his hand against Thomas on the other side.
6. Is this the week Stevan Ridley returns to the field after sitting out at Houston?
Two weeks ago, running back Stevan Ridley was removed from the game after just five snaps when he fumbled away his third ball in as many weeks; last week at Houston, he was a surprise inactive, watching from the sidelines as a predominantly two-back rotation of LeGarrette Blount and Shane Vereen combined to rush for eighty-two of New England’s eighty-eight yards on the game, scoring one of two touchdowns the team scored on the ground (the other coming via fullback James Develin’s tough one-yard rush), with Vereen adding five receptions for thirty-seven yards and a touchdown.
However, the team needed twenty-seven attempts to gain those yards on the ground, averaging just 3.3 yards per attempt against a team currently ranked twenty-second against the run by allowing an averaging of 118.5 yards per game; additionally, the longest run of the game went for fourteen yards. Given that Ridley currently ranks third in the league in Success Rate as measured by Football Outsiders, it feels as though the Patriots are squandering one of their most dangerous offensive weapons by keeping their most explosive runner sidelined, with listing him among the team’s inactives an extreme measure.
This week, we’ll see whether or not Ridley’s punishment will continue, or whether he’ll be given another opportunity to contribute. New England doesn’t desperately need his services, but the offense is at its most dangerous when he’s on the field. As of the composition of this article, Ridley is currently being projected to play, although to what extent he will be integrated into the offense remains unclear. It would come as something of a surprise if he were included in the starting lineup, though.
7. Will the Patriots have success running the ball against a stout Browns defense?
Despite having played against highly-paid runners such as Ray Rice (on two occasions), Adrian Peterson, C.J. Spiller, Reggie Bush, Jamaal Charles, and Maurice Jones-Drew, the Browns are currently ranked fifth in the league in run defense, allowing just 98.9 yards per game on the ground despite playing from behind on a regular basis. Their outstanding run defense begins up front, where nose tackle Phil Taylor and left end Ahtyba Rubin, weighing a combined 665 pounds, have been effective two-gap defenders. They were previously joined by talented right end Desmond Bryant, but Bryant recently underwent a heart procedure which will sideline him for the remainder of the season.
The loss of Bryant could be a big blow, as Cleveland was previously allowing just 2.36 Adjusted Line Yards on rushes behind an opponent’s left tackle, the third-best figure in the league; however, the Browns have been rotating in three other effective run defenders: John Hughes (304 snaps), Billy Winn (157), and Ishmaa’ily Kitchen (111.) Of the three, Hughes is the best run defender, but it appears as though Winn may earn the start.
Recently-signed left outside linebacker Paul Kruger, poached from divisional rival Baltimore this past offseason, is also effective at setting the edge. The Browns also like to employ strong safety T.J. Ward as an in-the-box defender; he ranks as one of the best defenders in the league in that role. It would be unwise to abandon the run, but it may also prove difficult to put together a major performance on the ground this week regardless of who’s running the ball.
8. How will New England’s line hold up against Cleveland’s set of rush linebackers?
Upgrading a stagnating pass rush was clearly a priority of Cleveland’s this offseason; the team was able to lure Dick LeBeau protégé Ray Horton away from the Arizona Cardinals, installing him as defensive coordinator and signaling the beginning of a transition away from Dick Jauron’s 4-3 defense to Horton’s 3-4 zone-blitz philosophy and dedicating significant resources towards supplementing their group of outside linebackers, which at the time was a shallow unit aside from promising young pass rusher Jabaal Sheard.
On March 12th, former Baltimore Ravens linebacker Paul Kruger signed with the team on a five-year, $40.5 million contract, and in the 2013 NFL Draft the following month, the Browns used the sixth overall pick to select athletic if raw Louisiana St. pass rusher Barkevious Mingo, creating a triumvirate of edge rushers which has combined for ten of Cleveland’s forty-two sacks, a figure which ranks them behind only the Miami Dolphins, who have compiled forty-five.
Additionally, Horton, drawing on his time under LeBeau’s tutelage, also routinely rushes inside linebackers D’Qwell Jackson and Craig Robertson, with those two players having accounted for a combined 162 rushing attempts and 4.5 sacks on the season. The Patriots will have to correctly anticipate which defenders will be rushing on any given play and make the appropriate adjustments, which they were able to do successfully last week but had some trouble with at times against Pittsburgh earlier in the season, with Tom Brady being sacked three times. Last season, the Cardinals ranked fifth in the league in the rate of pressures (five rushes) and seventh in blitzes (six or more) under Horton.
9. Do the Browns have any defenders who are capable of covering Rob Gronkowski?
Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski scored another touchdown last week, his fourth in as many games, bringing in six of the twelve passes thrown his way and gaining 127 yards on the day, including a fifty-yard gain; clearly, his combination of size and athleticism was something Houston’s defense was ill-equipped to handle.
This week, he draws another favorable matchup, as the Browns tend to employ their inside linebackers in coverage, but neither D’Qwell Jackson or Craig Robertson have been particularly effective in that capacity this year, with Robertson’s deficiencies in that regard being particularly egregious, having surrendered completions on all but five of the forty-eight passes thrown in his direction, allowing an average of 9.2 yards per attempt and five touchdowns.
At 6’1” and 234 pounds, he is significantly smaller than Gronkowski, with Jackson a similarly-sized 6’0” and 240 pounds. Cleveland’s best bet may be to rely on strong safety T.J. Ward’s physicality, but although he has covered well this year, he is only 5’10” and 200 pounds, and assigning him to cover Gronkowski would mean sacrificing the exceptional benefits of letting Ward function as an in-the-box run defender. In a game where the Patriots may have some trouble throwing to their top receivers (more on that to follow), Gronkowski remains an extraordinarily attractive target for Tom Brady.
10. How will New England’s receivers fare against a pair of athletic cornerbacks?
Partly because of their effective pass rushers, the Cleveland Browns currently rank fifth in the league in opposing passing yardage allowed per game, but to credit their team’s ability to create pressure as the sole reason for their success in this regard would be to diminish the importance of outstanding top cornerback Joe Haden, the seventh overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft, who has held opposing quarterbacks to just 53.7% passing on throws in his direction, those attempts gaining an average of 5.4 yards; additionally, Haden has intercepted four passes and got his hands on eleven more. He also has the ninth-best figure in the league in terms of yards allowed per coverage snap at 0.87.
Haden isn’t infallible, having surrendered four touchdowns on the season, including one in each of Cleveland’s past two contests, but the Patriots may not have a receiver who will be able to separate from him. On the other side of the field, the Browns start third-year defender Buster Skrine, one of the most agile and explosive players in the league.
Opponents are averaging just 5.7 yards per attempt when targeting Skrine, completing 53.1% of their passes. He, too, has allowed touchdown throws in each of the past two games, and five overall, but that he has been targeted once every five coverage snaps, more than nearly any other cornerback in the league, is a testament to how much teams respect Haden rather than an indictment of Skrine’s skills. Cleveland’s third cornerback is Chris Owens, and he has been easier to throw at this season.
Final Prediction: Patriots 31, Browns 14