This Sunday, the Cleveland Browns are back at home but face an uphill battle as Tom Brady returns for the New England Patriots. To help preview the Week 5 contest, I reached out to Rich Hill from Pats Pulpit and exchanged five questions with him. Enjoy!
Chris: “The Patriots started 3-0 without Tom Brady, and many, including me, just assumed that Belichick's genius would continue and that New England would tear apart the Bills last week. Instead, the Patriots were shut out at home. What happened?”
Rich: “The Patriots were victim of a rookie quarterback playing like a rookie quarterback. Jacoby Brissett completed just one pass to a wide receiver all game, the fewest in the Bill Belichick era, as Bills head coach Rex Ryan did a good job taking away his first read. Brissett also fumbled the ball inside the red zone. Add in a handful of untimely penalties by the offensive line, a missed field goal, and running back LeGarrette Blount re-injuring his hip and you have the recipe for a failed offensive day.
On the other hand, the Patriots allowed just 16 points on defense, so it wasn't a total disaster of a day.”
Chris: “Rob Gronkowski has been back for two games now, but he only has 1 catch for 11 yards. I'm sure getting Tom Brady back will help everyone's productivity on offense, but is there something deeper to Gronk's lack of an impact through two games?”
Rich: “To be fair to Gronkowski, he only played 14 snaps in week 3, two of them on kneeldowns, and ran just one route so he wasn't really a part of the game plan as anything more than just a blocker. He wasn't 100% last week, either, but his lack of production was more head-scratching because he wasn't as limited. He ran roughly the same number of routes as fellow tight end Martellus Bennett, but Bennett posted more than 100 receiving yards on the day.
I want to chalk it up to Brissett's inability to go through his reads, but it was a curious ghost performance by Gronkowski. I don't think anyone in New England is panicking, though, so it appears Gronkowski is still working his way back from a hamstring injury. If he remains unproductive with Brady at quarterback, that's when we start worrying.”
Chris: “Tell us about the strengths and weaknesses of the Patriots' offensive line.”
Rich: “The Patriots offensive line is infinitely better than what it was last year. Rookie left guard Joe Thuney has been a standout and is much better than last year's starters OJ Trafficcone and Wet-Paper Bag.
In all seriousness, the line is adequate. They get the job done in pass protection, which is important. Left tackle Nate Solder and left guard Joe Thuney are clearly the strength of the line and are good at both pass and run blocking. Center David Andrews is undersized as a run blocker and can be manhandled by nose tackles (hi Danny Shelton), but he's a capable pass blocker. Right guard Shaq Mason is the opposite; he's a fantastic run blocker that is still learning the ropes as a pass blocker after coming out of the Georgia Tech triple option. Right tackle Marcus Cannon has been awful as a pass blocker, but he's been serviceable in the run game.
The Patriots really struggle to produce on runs in between the tackles, but they excel when they runs to the outside since both Mason and Thuney are excellent pulling guards. Look for Tom Brady to get rid of the ball quickly to negate any deficiencies in the pass blocking.”
Chris: “What would you say is the most vulnerable starting position on the Patriots' defense?”
Rich: “I don't think there is really a weak position since the Patriots have high quality starters at each position, but I think there are clear schematic ways to beat the team.
Whenever the Patriots face a young quarterback in their first or second year as a starter, the coaching staff loves to mix in a lot of zone coverages to try and catch the quarterback off guard and to force a few turnovers. It usually works, but if the quarterback can get into a rhythm, then they can walk down the field.
The Patriots also saw failures across the board last week when it came to stopping the stretch runs by LeSean McCoy, and they have struggled against outside zone runs for the longest time. Perhaps Hue Jackson can draw up some chunk plays for Isaiah Crowell.”
Chris: “The Patriots did just release John Hughes before he could even play a game for the team, but there are several other former Browns on the roster: DE Jabaal Sheard, OLB Barkevious Mingo, and RB Dion Lewis. We're pretty familiar with each of their statuses or utilization rates right now, but from a Patriots fan's perspective, how do you view their roles, either presently or as the season moves along?”
Rich: “Sheard was dealing with an MCL sprain in the preseason and he finally looks like he's back to his old consistent self as the Bills actively ran away from him for most of the game. He's a great starter and he's a perfect Patriots-type consistent producer. He doesn't have the same ceiling as some other edge defenders, but he has an extremely high floor. It remains to be seen if the Patriots will be able to sign him to an extension, but I think most would want him back.
Mingo leads the team in special teams snaps and I have a sneaking suspicion that he's around to serve as a hedge in case Jamie Collins or Dont'a Hightower leaves in free agency. He hasn't done anything on defense yet, but he stood out in the preseason and he'll likely see more time as the season progresses.
Lewis hasn't returned, but Patriots fans are excited to see how he'll fit into the two-tight end offense since he's the perfect threat as a runner, receiver, and blocker. Blount is a strong runner, but he can't catch or block, so Lewis would add a whole separate element to the offense.”
Thanks again to Rich for taking the time to answer my questions.