By: Steve Balestrieri
The New England Patriots return to Foxboro for their seventh home game of the season to take on the Cleveland Browns on Sunday. Game time is scheduled for 1 p.m.
The game will be televised locally on CBS with the announcing crew of Bill Macatee (play-by-play) and Steve Tasker (analysis) on the call. This is the first time the Patriots will have had this particular CBS announcing crew.
The referees for this game assigned by the NFL is the crew of Jerome Boger who last worked the now much ballyhooed “pushing penalty” game against the New York Jets.
We here at PatsFans.com are going to try something a little bit different this season. Our new weekly column, the “Razor’s Edge” gives a quick break down on some of the key matchups of the game and what to look for in how the game plays out.
The Patriots and Browns have met a total of 22 times with the Browns holding a 13-9 advantage in the series overall.
The Patriots playing at home are an even at 5-5 with the last meeting in Foxboro being back in 2007. The last time the teams met in 2010, the Browns crushed the Pats 34-14 in Cleveland. Head coach Eric Mangini and Defensive Coordinator Rob Ryan put together a great game plan and the Browns pulled out all the stops to give the Patriots one of its two losses in the regular season.
The Patriots’ offense has been steadily improving during the second half of the season and much of that has to do with the return of a healthy of Rob Gronkowski, Shane Vereen and Danny Amendola.
Tom Brady now has proven veteran presences in the game and players who can impact the game in a variety of ways. Gronkowski especially has added an entirely new dimension to the offense that was sorely missing during the first half of the season.
Consider this… since returning, Gronkowski leads all NFL tight ends in receptions, yardage and has 37 receptions and 560 yards in his six games back. More importantly, the Patriots offense has been scoring at the second highest rate in the league. The offense has leapt from 22nd to 6th in the past six weeks. And much of that has to do with Gronk not only receiving but clearing out spaces for the wide receivers as well.
The running game has been solid and last week the coaches decided to sit Stevan Ridley who has had fumbling issues the past three games. But Ridley should return this week and the team will need him not only down the stretch but into January as well.
Patriots RBs vs Browns Front Seven- NE 122.8 YPG, 4.2 YPC Edge Patriots
The Patriots have four options they can bring against the Browns who are quite good at defending the run allowing only 98.9 yards per game (6th in the NFL).
Phil Taylor is very stout in the middle but injuries are beginning to take their toll. This week Desmond Bryant had a minor procedure for an irregular heart-beat and was placed on injured reserve, ending his season.
Expect Ridley to return to action this week and get some limited work in, but with LaGarrette Blount, Shane Vereen and Brandon Bolden, the team will have plenty of fresh legs.
The going will be tough, but with a balanced attack, the Patriots should be able to run the ball effectively. The key will be to stay patient and keep mixing things up.
Patriots WRs vs Browns Secondary- NE 255 YPG Edge Patriots
The Patriots passing game continues to improve from week to week and perhaps the most pleasant surprise has been the outstanding season of Julian Edelman who has been the team’s most reliable receiver all year.
Edelman has 70 catches for 711 yards and 4 TDs in 2013, which is more than he had in his first four years combined. He and Rob Gronkowski have been consistently producing big games for the offense.
Cleveland has been equally as good at stopping the pass(5th in the NFL), allowing just under 208 yards per game. They’re getting a Pro-Bowl type season from CB Joe Haden and have yet to allow a 300-yard passer this season. Injuries though are beginning to pile up and the defense hasn’t been as stout as a result.
Rob Gronkowski has been outstanding since returning to the Patriots lineup.
(USA TODAY Images)
Protection is the key as usual for Brady and the OL will have to watch the edge rushers, particularly rookie Barkevious Mingo who leads the team in sacks. But as has been the case, look for Brady to use Gronkowski to attack the seams down the middle. Gronk has a distinct size advantage over safties T.J. Ward and Tashaun Gipson. Spread them out and find favorable matchups.
The Patriots’ defense closely resembles a MASH unit with all the injuries they’ve suffered this season. As a result, many of the players are playing hurt or out of their normal position (Hightower).
But the good news is that although banged up, many are still able to play and the secondary got Steve Gregory back last week, albeit in a limited role, but it bodes well for the stretch run and into January.
The weakness remains at defending the run. Rookies Joe Vellano and Chris Jones have played very well in rushing the QB but have been pushed around in the running game. Injury has forced Dont’a Hightower to weakside LB where he’s not the best fit for. Many of the league’s WLBs go in the 235 lb range; Hightower is closer to 270. Fans need to slow down with the “B” label that is being tossed about with him too frequently.
The secondary play this season has been better but all three corners are nursing injuries and they’ll need Aqib Talib who has been bothered by a balky hip, to be healthy in January if they are going to make a serious run.
Bronws RBs vs NE Front Seven- CLE 82.7 YPG, 3.7 YPA Edge Browns
The Browns have had issues all season running the ball and have only 2 rushing touchdowns this season. Trent Richardson was traded to the Colts and Willis McGahee was brought in to provide a boost but he’s only averaging 2.8 yards per rush.
Look for the Browns to mix things up a bit with RB Chris Ogbonnaya who has been a bright spot averaging 5.7 yards per rush but has struggled in recent weeks. And as strange as it sounds, the Browns may opt to try to run the ball a lot this week, provided the score remains close.
With the rookies inside being pushed around the onus on stopping the run falls to the linebackers and Brandon Spikes is one of the better run stuffers in the league. He and McGahee should have a few big collisions on Sunday and McGahee a big, powerful runner represents the kind of back the Patriots have had good success against in stopping in the past.
The Browns get the nod here and should be able to run the ball effectively given how badly the Pats have struggled. However the question remains, will it be enough to tip the balance in their favor?
Browns WRs vs NE Secondary- CLE 249.9 YPG Edge Patriots
Injuries have decimated the Browns QB position all season. Former Patriots back-up Brian Hoyer was lost for the season and now both Jason Campbell and Brandon Weeden are suffering from concussion symptoms and both may be unavailable on Sunday.
This week the Browns signed Caleb Hanie off the street and he and Alex Tanney will be getting all of the snaps this week in practice. Hanie hasn’t thrown a pass in the NFL since 2011 and Tanney’s next pass will be his first in the league.
The player to watch for on the Browns is WR Josh Gordon, who has had three 100 yard receiving games in a row. Two weeks ago he had a franchise record 237 yards against Pittsburgh. He followed that up with 261 yards against Jacksonville including a 95-yard touchdown pass with less than 4 minutes remaining that gave Cleveland the lead. On the season, Gordon has 64 catches for 1249 yards and seven touchdowns. He and TE Jordan Cameron make a dynamic one-two punch.
Cameron is a big (6’5) tight end who has had very good production, including 63 receptions for 704 yards and 6 TDs. But after a hot start to the season, his production has been declining a bit but with an unfamiliar QB at the helm, he may see a lot of targeting in this game.
Even with a banged up secondary, the Patriots get the edge here because of the uncertainty at the QB position for Cleveland. With the increasing chances of both Weeden and Campbell missing the game, it will be hard for either Hanie or Tanney to come in and run the offense and score enough to keep up with Brady & Co.
Look for Belichick to shadow Gordon with Talib and over the top safety help to take away their best option and mix things up to try and force some turnovers.
Special Teams- Edge Patriots
The Patriots’ special teams units have had a very good season at the three quarter mark. Stephen Gostkowski has been nothing short of outstanding this season. Last week in Houston, he hit a pair of 53 yard field goals late in the 4th quarter to lead the Patriots to the win. He also continues to pin opponents deep with his kickoffs.
Rookie Ryan Allen continues to be a bright spot in the punting game with a 45.9 yard average. The coverage units have been solid even with a glitch on the opening kickoff last week.
The Browns have gotten a good season from veteran Bill Cundiff, who has hit on16 of 20 field goal attempts. Rookie Spencer Lanning has done a good job punting (44.1 yard average) and the Browns coverage units have been solid as well.
The Patriots get the edge in the punt return game with Julian Edelman over Davone Bess, but the Browns Fozzy Whittaker and the Pats Josh Boyce are pretty evenly matched in the kick return game.
Patriots Player to Watch- Shane Vereen
Shane Vereen is this week’s player to watch for the Browns game.
(USA TODAY Images)
Last week we had our player to watch as Rob Gronkowski who responded with 6 catches for 127 yards in the win over the Texans. This week Gronkowski will be a big focal point for the game again but as he opens up the field down the middle it will also allow other players more space in which to operate.
This week, our player to watch is Shane Vereen. Vereen has been a big part of the Patriots passing game since returning from his broken wrist. The running back is a dual-threat. He’s been getting a larger look in the running game, especially with Stevan Ridley sitting down for most of the past two games but especially in his role as a pass receiver.
In the three games since returning from the IR, Vereen has caught 21 passes for 162 yards and 1 TD. As he gets more and more comfortable within the offense watch for Vereen to get more touches. With some back-up players on the Browns defense, Vereen will be a guy to watch on screens and being isolated on linebackers out of the backfield.
Prediction: Patriots 31-13