On Sunday, the Cleveland Browns’ take on the New England Patriots. To help preview a few topics from the Patriots’ perspective, we reached out to Bernd Buchmasser from Pats Pulpit and exchanged five questions with him. Enjoy!
Chris: “The Patriots haven’t faced prolific offensive teams to this point, but still, allowing an average of 6.9 points per game in the NFL? I don’t care who you’ve faced -- that type of consistency is awe-inspiring. As a Browns fan, I’m looking for any shred of optimism that Cleveland could capitalize on: if there is any hint of a weakness on New England’s defense, what is it?”
Bernd: “Bad news first: the Patriots defense has actually allowed only 3.9 points per game – 21 of the 48 scored against them came courtesy of the offense (one fumble by Tom Brady and one pick-six by his backup, Jarrett Stidham) and of special teams (a muffed punt by return man Gunner Olszewski).
That being said, there are some defensive weaknesses and they actually align with what the Browns are doing well: running the football. Relying on the passing game to consistently move the ball against this Patriots defense I would not – I repeat: NOT – do. Running, however, is the one part of the defense I can see Cleveland trying to exploit. While no other team in the NFL has faced fewer rushing attempts (that’s what happens when you jump ahead by 10+ points each week), New England is giving up 4.2 yards per run which ranks the unit 15th in the league. Is this bad? Of course not, but it is still better to try running against the Patriots than throwing versus a secondary that has given up one touchdown through the air while registering 18 interceptions.
There is just one problems here: If I know this, Bill Belichick sure as heck knows it as well. He will force the Browns to win by throwing the football and invest resources into stopping the run and making them one-dimensional. Nevertheless, the team should try to stick to its ground game if it does want to stay competitive against New England’s defense; it really is the best chance Cleveland has and as an added bonus would keep Tom Brady on the sidelines as well.”
Chris: “Jamie Collins’ reign in Cleveland is over, and he is back to New England. His time with the Browns can best be summarized by saying, “man, it looks like the guy could be a huge difference maker, but he doesn’t seem very inspired most of the time to take on that role.” And yet, back in New England, he is getting all of the accolades in the world. Tell us about how he, and former Browns cornerback Jason McCourty, have played this year.”
Bernd: “When Collins re-signed with the Patriots there were little expectations attached to him after how his last tenure in New England came to an end. However, he quickly picked up where he left off when he was traded to Cleveland in 2016 – and more, to a point where he is now a major difference-maker on this defense. Over the first seven games, he has played 77% of the Patriots’ defensive snaps and registered 4.5 sacks, three interceptions, two forced fumbles, and one recovery. Oh, and he’s Pro Football Focus number one-ranked coverage linebacker. All in all, he has looked like a serious Defensive Player of the Year candidate, and is a cornerstone on the league’s best defense.
So, what has changed compared to the last two years or his first stint in New England? Essentially two things:
1.) He no longer has to be “the man” next to defensive signal caller Dont’a Hightower, and is instead one piece on one of the deepest linebacker corps in all of football (alongside Kyle Van Noy, Elandon Roberts and Ja’Whaun Bentley).
2.) He is freed up to play all over the formation, with the team taking advantage of his athleticism and versatility. While he was more of a traditional inside linebacker when originally joining the Patriots, he now spends almost half of his snaps on the outside.
As for Jason McCourty, he has also been very good this season as a starter in New England’s secondary. Playing 78% of the team’s snaps, he has surrendered 16 receptions on 34 targets for 162 yards and an interception. While Stephon Gilmore is getting most of the headlines as the NFL’s best cornerback, McCourty has been no less impressive in his second year in the system and is a valuable presence as a press-man corner in a secondary that also includes his twin brother Devin.
There is actually a third former Brown playing for the Patriots defense as well: Danny Shelton, and his impact cannot be underestimated either. After a pretty pedestrian 2018 season with the Patriots, he has taken the second-year jump in 2019 and even beat out free agency signing Mike Pennel for a job – for good reason: Shelton has been stout at the point of attack and also looked good when asked to rush the passer (something that was never really the case last year). He’s developing into an important member of the defensive tackle rotation.”
Chris: “The Patriots were only in one close game this year, coming against the Bills in a 16-10 win. Why did the Patriots’ offense struggle mightily in that game?”
Bernd: “The Bills have a very good defense, arguably one of the top three in the NFL this season alongside the Patriots’ own and the San Francisco 49ers’, so seeing the Patriots have a hard time was not unexpected. Buffalo is good, especially at home.
With that in mind, I would point at three main issues that plagued New England that day:
1.) The Patriots’ ground game was ineffective, a problem that has existed ever since starting left tackle Isaiah Wynn was placed on (temporary, as is expected) injured reserve after Week 2.
2.) Tom Brady threw an ugly end zone interception while the Patriots were looking to extend their 13-0 lead in the second quarter. Had Brady thrown a touchdown there or at least not turned the football over, we might see a different ball game.
A lot has changed since Week 4 – Edelman is now at better health than he was in Week 4, Gordon is no longer a part of the equation since getting placed on IR earlier this week, Mohamed Sanu was acquired by the Patriots – and some of the problems, especially in the running game, remain. If the Browns can exploit them and play physical coverage against New England’s receivers, the team could find it hard to generate consistent positive yardage on the offensive side of the ball.”
Chris: “You’ve seen the Patriots acquire new receivers before. They coughed up a pretty hefty price (a second round pick) for Mohamed Sanu this week. Given past examples, what are your expectations for how much action Sanu will see against Cleveland?”
Bernd: “At this point in time, the Patriots’ receiver situation is somewhat difficult to dissect with Sanu now in and Josh Gordon out. I think that Sanu will get his fair share of snaps, though, but that they obviously will still have him build some chemistry with Tom Brady before making him an every-package receiver. Realistically, I think he will be on the field for around half of the team’s offensive snaps as a third target alongside Julian Edelman and Phillip Dorsett. In this role, he would share snaps with undrafted rookie Jakobi Meyers as a slot/Z-receiver hybrid.
Now that I have said it, however, he will probably play every offensive snap from Gordon’s old X-position and lead the team in all of the statistical categories...”
Chris: “Tell us about one player on offense and one player on defense who Browns fans might not be familiar with, but who could make a nice contribution for this week’s game.”
Bernd: “On offense, one player to keep an eye on is the aforementioned Jakobi Meyers. The former undrafted free agent has taken advantage of his opportunities through seven games this season and is actually one of the most productive rookie wide receivers in the entire NFL. While he won’t wow you with his athletic skill set or raw talent, he has developed a nice rapport with Tom Brady and has shown some good hands in contested situations. Will he be a game-changer on Sunday? Probably not, but it would not be a surprise to see him register a few catches and gain 50ish yards through the air.
Defensively, there are a lot of players to choose from but I would go with Lawrence Guy. A veteran player that originally joined the Patriots as a free agent in 2017, he sees considerable action at defensive tackle alongside Danny Shelton and Adam Butler and is actually one of the NFL’s most consistent players at his position – despite rarely jumping off the page with his statistics or big plays. Guy simply does his job, and he does it at a very high level. On Sunday, and with the Patriots probably trying to make Cleveland one-dimensional, he could be in for another big performance as a run-stuffer up the middle.”
Thanks again to Bernd for taking the time to answer my questions.