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: “I’ve only had the chance to watch one of Mac Jones’ performances in full this season, and that came against the Buccaneers obviously. Tell us the broader picture of how Jones’ rookie season has gone, and particularly what area he has struggled with the most.”
Bernd: “First things first: the Mac Jones of that Week 4 game against the Buccaneers is not the same Mac Jones the Browns will face on Sunday. He obviously did not suddenly turn into Tom Brady 2.0, but he has developed nicely over the last few weeks and appears to be more comfortable running the show in New England. This, in turn, has allowed the Patriots coaching staff to put more trust in him – while he himself also appears to be more confident.
All in all, the team and its fans can therefore be very happy with Jones so far. You want to see a rookie – especially at the quarterback position – develop gradually through his first year in the league. Jones is doing that, and while the experience is not always perfect he is taking strides weekly.
As for an area he has struggled with, I would point to turnovers. The Patriots are not good enough offensively to keep giving the ball away, but Jones has done just that throughout the season. On the year, he has thrown seven interceptions and lost two fumbles. Sure, those fumbles have not necessarily been his fault – both happened on quick strip-sacks – but the fact remains that he has not turned the ball over in only four of nine games this year.”
Chris: “What has been the best part about New England’s defense in 2021?”
Bernd: “If you had asked me before the season what I would see as the best part I would have said the depth in the secondary. Well, one Stephon Gilmore trade and one season-ending Jonathan Jones injury later that outlook has changed quite a bit.
[puts on his Boston accent] HOWEVAH!
The defense as a whole is still performing well outside of the occasional breakdown (see: Week 6 against Dallas). The main reason for that — and my answer to your question — has been the unit’s ability to play structurally sound football while also disguising its intentions well. That means that the secondary and a deep front seven are working in unison to not give away their intentions before the snap.
Heading into this week’s game, Baker Mayfield and company have to be aware of that. New England will show blitz before backing out, faking or bringing overload pressure, moving between man and zone, and so forth. Being able to dissect the unit has proven difficult recently, and the Browns have to be aware that what they see is not necessarily what they will get.”
Chris: “Which spots are the strength and weakness of the Patriots’ offensive line?”
Bernd: “New England’s O-line had a rough start to the season after losing right tackle Trent Brown seven snaps into the preseason opener. However, the unit has since found its groove with a lineup consisting of LT Isaiah Wynn, LG Ted Karras, C David Andrews, RG Shaq Mason and RT Michael Onwenu.
The group has played some quality football over the last three weeks, and has shown some tremendous chemistry and the continuity it had been missing earlier during the year. That chemistry is on display especially in the running game: the group has been very good at paving the way for Damien Harris and company; combo blocks are on point, pulls work as planned, and the overall execution has been sound.
If there is one weakness, though, it has been the pass protection especially on the left side. Former first-round draft pick Isaiah Wynn has had his ups and downs, and while he too has improved as the season went along he is not a top-tier tackle just yet. The thought of him blocking Myles Garrett one-on-one is, well… yikes.”
Chris: “How have the Patriots operated their running back rotation this year?”
Bernd: “After trading Sony Michel to the Rams — the go-to team for former first-round picks, it seems — but especially following James White’s season-ending injury, New England had to adapt its rotation. It now looks like this:
Damien Harris: The lead back who will see most of his action on early downs and in short-yardage situations. He is New England’s number one ball-carrier, but as of Friday morning still in concussion protocol after leaving last week’s game against Carolina.
Brandon Bolden: Primarily a special teamer for most of his 10-year career, Bolden has taken over White’s role as the receiving back. He will enter the field on third downs and in up-tempo situations, but will also see the occasional carry.
Rhamondre Stevenson: The fourth-round rookie has looked promising this season after a rough start (he lost a fumble in his Week 1 debut). His emergence has allowed the team to part ways with Michel, as he has taken over the 1B role alongside Harris. He is used a bit more in the passing game, but is a powerful runner as well.
J.J. Taylor: A shifty second-year man, Taylor will be activated in place of Stevenson if New England face defenses who have weaknesses versus the passing game. It’s either him or Stevenson on the game day roster, although that could change if Harris is indeed out on Sunday.
All in all, the Patriots have moved their running backs in and out of the lineup based on the situation. Even without Harris that is not expected to change.”
Chris: “Tell us about one player who Browns fans may not have heard of, but who could have an impact on this Sunday’s game.”
Bernd: “I’m going to the defense and taking Ja’Whaun Bentley. Primarily an early-down off-the-ball linebacker, Bentely has played some solid football this season after a disappointing 2020 campaign. With Dont’a Hightower back in the lineup and the overall linebacker depth much improved, he has been moved into more of a specialized role again.
This, in turn, has allowed him to become a key part of New England’s much-improved run defense. With the Browns putting a heavy emphasis on running the football out of heavy formations, Bentley could be a key player for the Patriots this week.”
Thanks again to Bernd taking the time to answer my questions.