I have been absent from DBN since the Saints game. It turned out that the bye-week matched up well with a couple weeks of an absurd lack of free time for me. Anyway, the Browns are back and so am I. It looks like Colt McCoy will get his third career start, each against elite teams in the NFL. This week's opponent is the New England Patriots. First, i should point out that this is a ridiculous name. It'd be like calling us the Midwest Browns. Second, the Patriots have Bill Belicheck, probably the best coach in the league and Tom Brady, a top 5 quarterback in the league.
McCoy has looked acceptable, making throws that NFL QBs need to make and avoiding mistakes. I don't know that I see elite talent, or even above-average talent. But, average talent and top end preparation and composure can turn you in to a very good quarterback. The Patriots represent another great challenge for the growth of our young colt.
Let's see what the numbers say about the match-up.When the Patriots have the ball
The first image of the Patriots offense under Tom Brady is their dominance in 2007. 16-0. 50 TD passes. Add that to the multiple Super Bowl Championships and Brady is often considered the best QB of his generation. And maybe that is fair. I tend to think he is a little overrated, but you can't deny that he is really damn good. This year, he is 6th in DYAR and 4th in DVOA, about 28% above average. Overall the Patriots have the best overall offense, 32.4% DVOA and best passing offense. They also have the second best running offense. The Browns defense is 20th overall, just 3% worse than average.
Brady and the Patriots spread offense makes for one heck of a passing attack. The impact of losing Randy Moss is not exactly clear yet, but Belicheck's approach has always seemed to paper over the loss of individual talent with great schemes, unmatched preparation and demanding the very best from seemingly endless depth. The Browns have struggled against the pass. 16.6% worse than average, good for the 25th best pass defense. Sure, they made Drew Brees look bad at times in the last game, but he was still able to make way too many big plays in the pass game. #1 and #2 WRs still give the Browns the most trouble, as do TEs. We are actually pretty decent against #3 WRs and RBs out of the backfield. But again, its the big plays that have killed us.
None of the WRs on NE have had great years. That includes Moss and Welker (who is a freak to even be playing, he should still be rehabbing his knee from last year). Welker has been below average on a per play basis and is just the 36th most valuable WR so far this year. He is still catching the quick outs and slants (71% catch rate), but he isn't getting the YACs and first downs to make those plays as successful. But Brady and the scheme is so dangerous, partially because there isn't a clear #1 WR to key on. They'll make Deon Branch or Brandon Tate look amazing on any given play. Also look out for TE Aaron Hernandez, the rookie is the 5th most valuable TE in the league so far this year.
The Patriots running doesn't have a big name leading it. Actually, that's not true. BenJarvus Green-Ellis is literally a big name at 20 characters. And he has been used really effectively. 29% better than average on a per carry basis, taht's good for 3rd in the league. He only averages 4.4 YPC, but he leads the league in success rate at 61%. If he keeps that up, he will be just the third player in the last 5 seasons to have a success rate over 60%. (Joseph Addai in 06, Pierre Thomas in 08). He has 6 TDs and 0 Fumbles. The Browns have been tougher to run on (12.6% better than average, 11th in the league).
The Patriots will score. But expect a lot of Rob Ryan blitzes on the statue-esque Tom Brady. Maybe Brady will pick us apart, but we can probably get to him a couple times (NE gives up an average amount of sacks, we sack the opponent an average amount of times) and I don't think they have the WRs to make us pay with deep balls down the sideline consistently. Though Hernandez splitting the seem worries me.
When the Browns have the ball
The Browns have the 21st best offense overall in the league, about 4% worse than average. On a per-play basis, our passing game (17th in the league, 15.6% DVOA) actually has been much better than our running game (30th in the league, -14.4%). The Patriots defense hasn't been too good 11% worse than average, 27th in the league. Their pass D has been downright bad, 22% worse than average. Their run D is about average.
McCoy still doesn't qualify for Football Outsiders' league leaders, as he still hasn't dropped back to pass more than 50 times, less than Seneca Wallace and Jake Delhomme. But if he did qualify, his 3.8% DVOA would rank him a respectable 24th in the NFL, ahead of notables like, Mark Sanchez, Derek Anderson, Jimmy Claussen, and Sam Bradford and vets Brett Favre, Donovan McNabb, and Jay Cutler. This is despite not having a WR in the top 60 in DVOA (Cribbs 62, Stuckey 65). Though he does have two very good TE targets in Evan Moore (#2 in DVOA for TEs) and Ben Watson (#18). The Pats struggle against TEs and RBs out of the backfield, so look for a lot of targets to these two and Hillis (10th most valuable RB as a pass-catcher).
Speaking of Peyton Hillis, he is the 12th most valuable runner in the league. If he can continue to stay away from fumbling, that will continue to improve.
The Browns should score some points too. Though I wouldn't look for a huge day from Hillis on the ground.
The Browns continue to inch their way up the Special Teams ranking. Currently, we are 9th in the league, about 4% better than average. This doesn't count Reggie Hodges fake punt against the Saints, but it does count the Cribbs to Wright return play. The Browns special teams continue to be led by their outstanding coverage units (5th in kick coverage, 3rd in punting/coverage), but Josh Cribbs and the kick return unit remain the glaring weakness. In a word, he is due.
The Patriots special teams are good. They are lead by the second best kick return unit in the league. So look for strength vs. strength when the Browns are kicking off.
Thoughts and Conclusions
I like Rob Ryan. I respect Eric Mangini. I think they get out-coached by Belicheck though and the Pats do what they do best: take away our strengths, while exposing our weaknesses. In a battle between good RBs and TEs with limited WRs, the difference at QB will likely be the difference. I like our D a little better, but I expect Brady to find the soft spots... soft spots that certainly exist.