NEPD Editor: Matthew Jones
It took a dramatic second-half rally, two last-minute touchdown drives, and a successful onside kick attempt, but the New England Patriots improved their record to 10-3 on the season after Browns kicker Billy Cundiff’s fifty-eight yard field-goal attempt fell short. The win is bittersweet, however, as tight end Rob Gronkowski appeared to be lost for the season after Browns strong safety T.J. Ward drove his helmet into the side of Gronkowski’s knee. Read on for five observations from this week’s nail-biter.
1. Patriots win game but lose star tight end Gronkowski to serious injury
As if things couldn’t get any worse for the Patriots, the team lost tight end Rob Gronkowski midway through the third quarter, as Browns strong safety T.J. Ward delivered a helmet to the side of Gronkowski’s knee while the tight end’s leg was planted. Gronkowski’s reaction to the hit indicated that the injury was serious, and he was not able to put any weight onto the leg afterwards, being helped onto a cart after suffering what looks like a season-ending injury, possibly a torn ACL. Gronkowski’s loss is the latest in a strong of crippling injuries the team has had to deal with this season, some of the other notable losses being offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer, defensive tackles Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly, and linebacker Jerod Mayo. Losing Gronkowski, coupled with Michael Hoomanawanui being held out of the game, meant that the Patriots were left with only one tight end, third-stringer Matthew Mulligan; the team released D.J. Williams earlier in the week, making him a logical candidate to return. Fullback James Develin also played some tight end after Gronkowski left.
2. Receivers struggle early, come on strong after Gronkowski’s injury
Although the Patriots had their top three receiving options – Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman, and Danny Amendola – at their disposal this week, the team struggled mightily with drops, with Gronkowski botching what would have been a short completion early in the game and two deep throws hitting Edelman in the hands but resulting in incompletions. Shane Vereen dropped a pass later, and Josh Boyce failed to bring in a screen pass on a third-down play, resulting in a Patriots punt. With Rob Gronkowski seemingly having been lost for the season in the third quarter of this week’s contest, New England needed their receivers to contribute significantly more, and were rewarded with a significantly more productive second half, with touchdown catches from Julian Edelman to cut the lead to five with just over one minute left, and another from Danny Amendola with thirty-one seconds left to take the lead; Josh Boyce also caught three passes for forty-nine yards, then drew a long pass interference call to set up New England on the one-yard line. The Patriots are undoubtedly hoping that they’ll have the services of wideouts Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins before long, both of whom were listed as inactives this week.
3. Running backs star, with Vereen making most significant contributions
With the Patriots down by sixteen points and the third quarter winding down, Tom Brady lofted a pass down the left sideline to running back Shane Vereen, who had burned Browns inside linebacker Craig Robertson downfield, bringing in the pass for a fifty-yard gain. On the next play, Brady found Vereen for sixteen yards on a route over the middle, bringing New England to the six-yard line and setting up a Vereen touchdown run on the next play. Brady found Julian Edelman in the end zone on a successful two-point conversion attempt that cut the lead to eight points. Vereen converted two consecutive first-downs through the air on New England’s next drive of the game, finishing the game well ahead of any other Patriots receiver with his twelve receptions for 153 yards. New England also received some contributions from LeGarrette Blount, who started the game and gained seventy-four yards on nine touches, while Stevan Ridley carried the ball eight times for thirty-five yards in his return, the most notable play being an explosive twelve-yard first-down conversion.
4. Gordon gets the best of Talib in much-anticipated matchup
After being sidelined in recent weeks with a knee injury, Patriots cornerback Alfonzo Dennard was active for this week’s contest, although rookie Logan Ryan drew the start opposite Aqib Talib. However, Dennard was forced from the game midway into the first quarter with what the team revealed was a shoulder injury, being held out until after halftime; on the subsequent play, Ryan bit on a double move by Greg Little on what would have been a long touchdown if not for an overthrown pass by Browns quarterback Jason Campbell. Aqib Talib held his own against Josh Gordon in the first half, allowing a twenty-yard completion late in the second quarter but otherwise keeping him in check, making a tackle on third-down to force a Browns punt. Gordon also converted a third-down pass on a crossing route versus Talib with less than a minute left in the half to prevent the Patriots from running a one-minute drill. However, Gordon was able to separate from Talib on a slant and take it the distance, extending Cleveland’s lead to a discouraging sixteen points. After a thirty-four-yard reverse, Gordon separated from Talib late in the fourth quarter on a crossing route, giving the Browns excellent field position with just over three minutes remaining.
5. Cameron repeatedly brings in sideline routes to torture Patriots defense
We mentioned earlier in this week’s Ten Keys preview that the Browns favor sideline routes when they target Jordan Cameron; he caught a fourteen-yard pass down the right sideline after Steve Gregory stumbled on the team’s first drive, bringing the Browns into field goal range, and converted another first down the left sideline with Gregory in coverage later in the first quarter to give the Browns a first down on New England’s twenty-one, having caught another fourteen-yard throw versus Gregory earlier in the quarter. He added another big throw deep down the left sideline in the third quarter with Jamie Collins trailing in zone coverage, bringing Cleveland back into Patriots territory, then fellow Browns tight end Gary Barnidge capitalized on a collision in the secondary (later flagged as illegal hands to the face against Aqib Talib) to score a long touchdown. Cameron resurfaced with just over three minutes left in the game down the sideline, gaining sixteen yards and bringing Cleveland to New England’s six-yard line, then bringing in the eventual touchdown which at the team seemed as though it would seal the deal. With under thirty seconds left, Cameron ran for the sideline again and gave the Browns another critical first-down, and somehow brought down a thirteen-yard pass while being hit by two defenders to offer Cleveland one last field goal attempt. Clearly, the Patriots did not prepare for the types of routes that Cameron would run against them in this game, as he was consistently open on out routes to the sideline.