- Everyone knows the story when it comes to New England: Tom Brady makes his triumphant return in Week 5 against the Browns. Deflategate is finally over, and Cleveland has to fall victim to whatever he’s been waiting to unleash.
- Is it possible that Brady is rusty? I guess it’s possible, but we’re talking about one of the best quarterbacks of all time in his 17th year in the NFL and who has won four Super Bowls. He’s also part of an offense that, except for last week’s “shove it under the rug” performance against the Bills, had gotten a fair amount of productivity under guys like Jimmy Garrapolo and Jacoby Brissett. My impression is that with all of his experience and one week of practice in a systematic offense, how much rust should we really expect?
- If something is going to stop Brady, it won’t be rust, but rather “diminishing skills.” I’m not predicting that he will decline, but he’s 39 years old. One of these years, he’s going to lose some of his zip or mobility — enough to turn him from a superstar to a mere mortal. Could that be in 2016, or are we still a few years away from that happening to the seemingly ageless wonder?
- Cody Kessler will make his third consecutive start for the Browns, and with another decent performance, we’ll have to start asking whether he should just remain the starting quarterback once Josh McCown is ready-to-go again. It would boil down to the same reason Robert Griffin III started the season over McCown. Yes, McCown is currently the better quarterback, but Kessler, even if he’s not the answer, has a better chance of being a long-term option simply due to his age.
- I point at Kessler not pushing the ball downfield as his primary weakness, and it’s not something I really see changing. Even though Terrelle Pryor has been a solid receiving option in the regular season, he’s had trouble getting separation on routes down the sideline. None of the team’s other healthy receivers can get open much downfield either. We might have to wait until Corey Coleman returns before Kessler can take some legitimate shots downfield.
- New England’s starting running back is LeGarrette Blount. If the Browns’ defense thought the 227-pound Matt Jones was a load to bring down last week, how are they going to fare against the 250-pound Blount? The big back is averaging 4.0 yards per carry, but has 4 touchdowns and has shown the ability to be a workhorse back. In the first three games of the year, he had 22, 29, and 24 carries. He is not a threat to catch passes.
- Blount has been limited with a hip injury in practice this week, which is something we’ll definitely monitor leading up to gameday. That could effect the amount of touches he’s able to withstand in the game. While Dion Lewis is still out with an injury, their complimentary back is James White. He has 12 carries for 47 yards (3.9 YPC) on the season, but is utilized more as a receiving back, where he's caught 13 passes for 102 yards.
- The running back stats are not always about who has the better stats, otherwise I would be giving the Browns’ group the advantage every week. I look at the general effectiveness of the team’s backs — do they fit the system? Are they complimentary to each other? The answer is “yes” when it comes to the Patriots. However, due to Blount and backup Brandon Bolden appearing a bit banged up, I am giving Cleveland the edge.
- Isaiah Crowell has 394 yards rushing and a league-best 6.5 YPC through four games. That average is bound to go down even with some good games, but it's still an impressive stat to brag about. The carries for Duke Johnson have increased over the past two games — he’s had 10 and 8 carries, respectively, and is averaging 6.2 YPC on the season. Incredible!
- The big negative last week was depth utilization and fumbles. I don’t want to ridicule Hue Jackson too much for Malcolm Johnson fumbling on his first carry. However, that’s a spot that I’d really prefer to see a running back in, and with the top two backs out, George Atkinson is on the roster. There aren’t enough kickoff returns these days in the NFL to need a kickoff return specialist — that should be a side job. If Jackson thinks Atkinson wasn’t ready for that spot because he hasn’t carried in a regular season game, then get him ready. I know Crowell and Johnson have been doing well, but find a spot to work him in for a play here and there, even it’s just a predictable draw play handoff on a 3rd-and-forever. If the confidence in his ball security isn’t there based on things seen in practice, then they might as well bring Terrell Watson back up to the active roster.
Wide Receiver / Tight End
- Everything you’ve seen statistically about the Patriots’ receivers and tight ends can go out the window, because Tom Brady is back.
- The Patriots' starting receivers are Julian Edelman and Chris Hogan. Each of them will see around 80% of the snaps in the game. Edelman is a quick-and-tough receiver who sees a lot of action from the slot but his Brady’s favorite receiver — even more so than Gronk — and a quality No. 1 receiver in the NFL.
- Hogan is less known. Coming over from the Bills, he has 8 catches for 122 yards on the season, but expect an uptick in those stats with Brady back. Malcolm Mitchell, the team's fourth-round pick, and Danny Amendola will also see reps at wide receiver. Amendola is only seeing about 15 snaps per game, but has been making the most of his opportunities.
- The area where New England is really scary is at the tight end position. Rob Gronkowski has been back for two games in a part-time role and only has 1 catch for 11 yards to show for it. Raise your hand if you think that’s going to change with Tom Brady back under center. Their other tight end is Martellus Bennett, and we’ll see the Patriots run a lot of sets with both tight ends in the game at the same time. Bennett has 15 catches for 247 yards and 1 touchdown this season.
- Nothing has changed when it comes to the Browns at the receiver position. After Josh Norman did a good job on Terrelle Pryor in the second half of last week’s game, the hope is that Pryor can rebound for a 100-yard type of performance that is impactful throughout the game, and I think we’re more likely to see the return of him taking snaps at quarterback this week.
- Cleveland’s other options continue to look to be Andrew Hawkins, Ricardo Louis, and Gary Barnidge. There’s nothing extraordinary to expect from them when Cody Kessler is limited in getting the ball down the field. Last week, I did ponder if we might see Pryor connect with a backup tight end (Randall Telfer) on a pass play. The Browns shelved those plays last week, but if they return this week, I’ll be waiting to see if newly-promoted tight end Connor Hamlett gets in on the action.
- The Patriots' offensive line consists of LT Nate Solder, LG Joe Thuney, C David Andrews, RG Shaq Mason, and RT Marcus Cannon. The strength of the line is on the left side, where Solder and Thuney are both solid in pass protection and run blocking. Thuney was a third-round pick in this year’s draft.
- At center, our Patriots affiliate says Andrews is “undersized as a run blocker and can be manhandled by nose tackles,” which plays to the strengths of Danny Shelton, who has began the 2016 season with a lot of run stops. Mason and Cannon are pretty similar to the right side of the Browns’ offensive line: pretty stout against the run, but not-so-good in pass protection.
- Cleveland will be forced to re-shuffle the offensive line this week after C Austin Reiter tore his ACL last week. I know it was only Reiter’s first game so there wasn’t a ton of tape to go by, but he seemed to have done a fair job before the injury.
- After last week’s game, Hue Jackson indicated that the team would likely shift John Greco back to center this week, and that Alvin Bailey’s one-game “punishment” was in the past and that he’d return to right guard.
- The Browns did promote center Anthony Fabiano from the practice squad. He is up as an insurance policy to Greco again (i.e. you need someone with center experience on the roster besides the starter).
- The Patriots run a 4-3 defense. Their starting defensive line consists of DE Chris Long, DT Alan Branch, DT Malcom Brown, and DE Jabaal Sheard. Those four guys will play a much higher percentage of snaps than you’d see Cleveland’s front three/four play. Each guy will be in for around 60-80% of the snaps, with DE Trey Flowers seeing a good amount of action as a rotational player.
- Sheard leads the Patriots with three sacks and is their best pass-rusher. The Patriots couldn’t retain Chandler Jones this offseason, but they nabbed Long on a one-year deal. They were able to get him for so cheap because knee and ankle injuries had derailed him the past couple of years, but he’s off to a productive start to 2016. Brown was the No. 32 overall pick in the 2015 draft and is a good run defender.
- One big factor for the Patriots is the fact that DE Rob Ninkovich is returning from his four-game suspension this week too. It’s unclear how quickly he’ll be worked into the mix, but he’s historically been a solid pass-rusher for New England.
- The big jolt for Cleveland on the defensive line this week comes in the form of DE Carl Nassib. Although he’ll be limited in some aspects with the club on his hand, a lot of his game is based on his non-stop motor, effort, and general awareness. Nassib’s return might have been part of the reason the team dropped DT Gabe Wright back to the practice squad.
- As I mentioned earlier, NT Danny Shelton will have some more opportunities to make some plays against the run this week. DL Stephen Paea has been receiving solid grades from PFF on a weekly basis now. The defensive line has somewhat quietly become probably the most stable position on defense, which is something no one could have expected after the injury to DE Desmond Bryant before camp.
- The Patriots' starting linebackers are OLB Jamie Collins, ILB Dont'a Hightower, and OLB Jonathan Freeny. Collins and Hightower will each play the majority of the game, but the other outside linebacker spot is fluid between Freeny and OLB Shea McClellin.
- Collins has two interceptions on the season, but the linebacking corps has just one sack. Despite that, Collins and Hightower are one of the best duos in all of football at the linebacker position. Hightower had missed two games with a knee injury, but returned last week vs. Buffalo.
- Besides using his length to bat down some passes, I am getting a “Nate Orchard”-feel from Emmanuel Ogbah. Both players were drafted primarily for their pass-rushing skills, but through four games, we haven’t seen Ogbah have much of an impact in that department.
- Christian Kirksey and Demario Davis overachieved in their first three games of the season before having below average performances against the Redskins this week. They need to find redemption this week. From a tackling perspective, they should be up to the task. From a coverage perspective, there’s no reason to expect Davis to suddenly get better in coverage, which is bad news against the Patriots’ tight ends.
- Cam Johnson stays on the roster for Cleveland after showing nice closing speed on his two sacks a week ago. Don’t expect Tom Brady to be as oblivious as Kirk Cousins was in those situations a week ago, though.
- The Patriots' starting cornerbacks are Logan Ryan and Malcolm Butler with Justin Coleman, an undrafted free agent from 2015, operating as the nickelback. If you’re looking for an absurd stat from last week’s game, here you go:
Logan Ryan's 17 combined tackles and assists against the Bills were the most for a CB in the last 15 years— Mike Renner (@PFF_Mike) October 3, 2016
- Ryan and Butler are both quality cornerbacks who will sometimes look to be aggressive in making plays on the ball, although neither has an interception this year.
- New England’s starting safeties are Devin McCourtey and Patrick Chung. Backup Duron Harmon will also see some action in nickel situations. Harman is basically a shut-down coverage player in the sub-packages he is used in, and McCourtey and Chung are a great duo. If a team is going to beat New England’s defense, it’ll be on scheme, not because they have individual holes at positions.
- The Browns’ safeties are going to have their hands full trying to defend both Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett. If they (along with the inside linebackers) were overmatched by one tight end against Baltimore and Washington, then how do they expect to cover both of them?
- Ibraheim Campbell is expect to return this week from his hamstring injury. Will he be in the starting lineup ahead of Derrick Kindred? I think he should be.
- At cornerback, Tramon Williams is questionable for this week’s game, but I’d rather see the team just continue on with players like Briean Boddy-Calhoun and Jamar Taylor to see what they have from them. Besides guessing wrong on a few chances this season, Taylor has made some good plays against the run and has a couple of interceptions.
- K Stephen Gostkowski has been one of the best kickers in the entire NFL. Not only does he have a very good career percentage, he attempts a lot of kicks, many of them from long-distance. He has missed two field goals through two games, though, which is a bit of a culture shock to Patriots fans. It shouldn’t be a long-term issue.
- Cleveland should actually get some kick return opportunities this week. Gostkowski is perfectly capable of booming the ball for a touchback, but New England is taking the strategic approach: kick it high and short and tackle the return man shy of the 25 yard line. So far, it’s been effective for New England.
- P Ryan Allen is among the league leaders in punting, and he punts with his left foot. Cleveland says they are prepared for the nuances of fielding the lefty punts, but as if New England didn’t have enough strengths, they’ve even got them on special teams.
- WR Cyrus Jones, a second-round pick, is handling kickoffs for the Patriots. Both Jones and WR Danny Amendola are handling punt returns. Ball security has been a bit of an early-season issue for both players.
- K Cody Parkey looked good-as-new for the Browns last week. Until he does it for an extended period of time, though, fans will have a tough time trusting him. RB George Atkinson or CB Tracy Howard will get some return opportunities this week, but ball security must remain the top priority.
This year, we are listing predictions for multiple staff members here at DBN.
Chris Pokorny: “One narrative that I don’t buy in to is the fact that the Patriots are going to blow out the Browns because Tom Brady is pissed off and ready to unleash all of his frustration. You don’t just come in and say, ‘I’m having a good game because I want to stick it to the NFL.’ Brady will be effective because of how great a quarterback he is and the great system in place in New England.
The Browns have been competitive each week, and they’ll continue to do the same this week. Remember that in their only other home game, they got off to a hot 20-0 start. They’ve also given New England fits in the past; not many of the players from those games are still here, but there’s something about the stigma of Cleveland that could come into play, much like it did with Peyton Manning when he’d face the Browns. New England will come out on top with clearly the better-played game, but the Browns will continue to earn brownie points for their effort and gameplan.” Patriots 27, Browns 20.
Matt Wood: “Tom Brady being back and pissed is not good. The Browns have almost no shot unless the Pats turn the ball over 5 times (being honest here). Think Hue tries to shorten the game but the defense just can't hang. 50 is a possibility.” Patriots 45, Browns 17.
rufio: “Brady presses in his return, giving us some INTs but scoring a decent amount despite the turnovers. Browns finally don't blow it by doing something stupid and convert the TOs in to just enough points, but blow the #1 overall pick in the process.” Browns 27, Patriots 24.
Josh Finney: “I predict that I'll be ready for the Indians game to start by halftime.
The pats are TEN POINT road favorites despite Gronk being limited and being shut out by Buffalo the week before. That's nuts! I get it, though; the Browns bye and large haven't made any QB uncomfortable besides Ryan Tannehill, and the Pats are just engineered to do things the Browns struggle with. (Quick hitting offense that punishes with underneath routes and Misdirection....and a defense that crashes the middle and forces backs to win on the edges versus very fast and talented linebackers).
Definitely a kitchen sink game for Hue, and I expect some creativity. Just don't think they'll be able to score enough.” Patriots 33, Browns 17.
Dan Lalich: “Tom Brady is rusty? He stayed up too late watching baseball? Andrew Miller suits up for the Browns? I don't know, having a hard time justifying this one.” Browns 11, Patriots 5.
Who do you think will win, Browns fans? Let us know in the comments section below!