Here are five key storylines the Cleveland Browns will be aware of as they take on their Week 14 opponent, the New England Patriots.
#1 - Gronk is Back, and So is the Passing Game: The Patriots were without tight end Rob Gronkowski for the first six games of the regular season, and during that stretch, Tom Brady struggled to find a reliable threat in the passing game. Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez, and Danny Amendola were either with another team, in prison, or injured.
Gronkowski has now played in the Patriots' last six games, and over his last four weeks, he has re-established himself as the best tight end in the AFC. That four-game stretch has Gronkowski averaging 104 yards receiving per game, and he's recorded a touchdown reception in each of those contests. Browns linebacker Craig Robertson knows the threat that Gronkowski poses, even though he's never faced him:
Craig asked me who the best TE in the league was. I said probably Jimmy Graham. He said "No, Gronkowski." #Browns— Ryan Lewis (@RyanLewisABJ) December 5, 2013
Now that Gronkowski is back, things are actually settling into place for the team's wide receivers. Julian Edelman is coming off two consecutive games of going over 100+ yards, and is the team's leading receiver. Amendola is healthy. Youngsters Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins, both of whom struggled earlier this year, are better off further down the depth chart, but where they can still make contributions. This isn't the same Patriots offense that was deprived of weapons earlier this season -- they are averaging 32 points per game over their past seven games, compared to just 19 points per game during their first five games of the season.
#2 - Fumbling Hurts, but Productivity Still Up: One of the struggles the Patriots have had this year has been fumbles from their running backs. The starter this season was Stevan Ridley, but he's fumbled four times, the most recent of which got him benched. LaGarrette Blount has also fumbled twice on the year. To compare, the Browns' running backs have lost just three fumbles this season. Despite the benching of Ridley, though, New England's running game hasn't suffered. They aren't the best team in the league at running the ball, but they are efficient. Take a look at the statistics for their backs on the season:
S. Ridley: 135 carries for 573 yards (4.3 YPC), 7 TD.
L. Blount: 94 carries for 418 yards (4.4 YPC), 3 TD.
B. Bolden: 54 carries for 265 yards (4.9 YPC), 3 TD.
S. Vereen: 35 carries for 177 yards (5.1 YPC), 0 TD.
It's hard to predict who the Browns will see on Sunday, and how often they will see them. The one thing that seems certain, though, is that Shane Vereen will be part of the offense. He recently returned from injury and is considered the team's best receiving back. Since returning for the past three games, Vereen is averaging 7 catches for 54 yards per game, not to mention he's had 10 carries in each of the past two games. With the issues our inside linebackers have had on tight ends and running backs this season, the Gronkowski + Vereen combination looks quite daunting for Cleveland.
#3 - Run Defense Has Been Attacked: The Patriots began the season with a stout run defense, but injuries to defensive tackles Tommy Kelly and Vince Wilfork, as well as linebacker Jared Mayo, have turned the unit into one of the worst run defenses in the NFL. The Patriots are yielding 138.2 rushing yards per game, which is even worse than the Jaguars were allowing heading into last week's game against Cleveland.
The Houston Texans' running game had not done much this season, but last week, Ben Tate had 22 carries for 102 yards and 3 touchdowns. The week before that, Knowshon Moreno had 36 carries for 224 yards and 1 touchdown for the Broncos. To counter their run defense struggles, though the Patriots defend the pass well and rack up sacks and interceptions. Leading the way in the pass-rushing department is second-year defensive end Chandler Jones, who has 10.5 sacks on the year. Aqib Talib, one of the better cornerbacks in the league, leads the team with 4 interceptions.
#4 - Home & Late-Season Records Favor New England: Things like home-field advantage or playing in the month of December might not be significant for some teams -- for example, there's no way I'd bet money on Cleveland winning a particular game because of either of those factors. It's different for the Patriots, though.
Over their past five seasons, the Patriots are an astounding 35-3 at home. Also, since 2001, the Patriots have a 46-6 record in the month of December, according to the team's website. What chance to the measly 4-8 Browns stand, amidst a streak in which they've lost six of their last seven games? Well, in 2010, the Browns did stun the 6-1 Patriots by a score of 34-14, although that game was in Cleveland and was not in the month of December. The Patriots have been having some issues defensively, though, winning their past two games by a score of 34-31 (over Denver and then Houston).
The Patriots should be heavy favorites, so that means the opposition (in this case, Cleveland) should be fully aware of that and be willing to take more risks as the game unfolds. As the Broncos found out a couple of weeks ago, even a 24-0 half-time lead over New England is not safe.
#5 - Special Teams Overview: The Patriots' Stephen Gostkowski remains one of the league's best kickers. He is 28-of-30 on the season, including two 53-yard field goals at the end of last week's game against the Texans to give them the win. Gostkowski also has the leg for touchbacks, averaging one on 67.1% of his attempts, which is even better than Billy Cundiff's rate.
The Patriots decided to keep undrafted free agent punter Ryan Allen over Zoltan Mesko when final roster cuts were due. Allen has been a mediocre punter as a rookie, averaging slightly better stats than the Browns' Spencer Lanning. The Patriots aren't much of a threat on kickoff returns, but Julian Edelman has been solid on punt returns, averaging 11.6 yards per return on 30 attempts. The Patriots also defend kickoffs and punts well, and are led by Pro Bowl coverage specialist Matthew Slater.