Dolphins vs Patriots: Week 1 Preview

Dolphins ATB preview the key matchups, expectations and keys to success ahead of their NFL regular season opener against the New England Patriots.

Patriot Dolphins
Mandatory Credit: Gillette Stadium
  • Date: Sunday September 11
  • Time: 13:00 ET (18:00 UK Time)
  • Venue: Hard Rock Stadium, Miami FL
  • TV: CBS and Sky Sports NFL

The wait is over, the 2022 NFL regular season is upon us.  After a long offseason fueled by excitement and high expectations, the Mike McDaniel era in Miami has arrived. First up, a familiar foe in the New England Patriots — for the third straight year.  Dolphins ATB preview the key matchups, expectations and keys to success ahead of their NFL regular season opener against the Patriots.

Expectations for Week 1

Expectations are certainly high for the 2022 Miami Dolphins. However, having gone back to last year’s Week 1 preview article, the narrative is shockingly similar…

“After years of mediocrity Dolphins fans are somewhat bemused about what to expect, going into a season a strong favorite as a playoff contender. Gone are the days of Chan Gailey’s archaic play-calling, with the new era of George Godsey and Eric Studesville bringing excitement over the possibility of a modernized attack. Last season the Dolphins thrived when they played up-tempo. The additions the Dolphins made this offseason highlight how speed will be an integral part of the 2021 Dolphins offense.”

2021 Season Week 1 Game Preview: Dolphins @ Patriots

Everything said in the above quote can be said about the 2022 Dolphins. Whether you call it delusion or insanity, us fans fixate on what our destiny could be and with high expectations for what the season may bring. Despite years of being let down by the team, I have no choice but to fall back into the trap of thinking “this could be the year” or “things are different this year”.

As to the present, I do expect the Dolphins to have the edge this game. The Patriots’ offense appears to be a ship without a captain, with Matt Patricia and Joe Judge attempting to fill the play calling void left behind by Josh McDaniels. While I expect the Patriots’ pass rushers to cause the offensive line difficulties, I feel that Miami’s weapons will prove to be a matchup nightmare against New England’s secondary.

As to what I expect from the Dolphins, I expect a rather conservative game, trying to establish the run early and gain rhythm and consistency on the short and intermediate passes. Do not expect the long balls early, those will come with time. While this offense and Tua may feel they have a point to prove, they first have a game to win. Starting the season with a winning record is far more important than seeing a Tua-to-Tyreek 75-yard touchdown pass on the opening play.

Keys to Success

1. Establish the Run

The Dolphins have had mixed success in running the football against the Patriots in recent years, with a lot of Miami’s success in establishing the run coming later on in the season.

Over their past two regular season openers against the Patriots, the Dolphins have averaged 80 yards from 25 carries and 3.2 YPC.

In the second meeting between the two teams, the Dolphins have managed to average 222 yards from 42 carries, which equates to 5.3 YPC.

The Dolphins have struggled so far during camp, and the pre-season, to establish the run. Nevertheless, with a vastly improved backfield and renowned running game expert in Mike McDaniel calling the plays, the Dolphins will be hoping that the new zone running scheme will signal the end of Miami’s early season troubles in rushing the football.

2. Pressure Up Front

Play to your strengths. Miami has one of the strongest defensive lines in the league. However, with Byron Jones currently on the PUP list until Week 5, Miami’s “Amoeba” defense is likely to be hamstrung with out one of their lockdown corners.

It is therefore essential that Miami’s defensive line can keep sustained pressure on Mac Jones. Jones, a traditional pocket passer, achieved a 71.9 percent completion rate when he had a clean pocket in 2021. When under pressure, that completion percentage dropped drastically to 54.3 percent.

While New England’s receiving corps is nothing to write home about, if Jones is allowed time in the pocket, Miami’s depleted corners may struggle to lockdown the likes of Devante Parker, Nelson Agholor, and Jakobi Meyers. It will be interesting to see which receiver will line up opposite Xavien Howard.

The DL will also be key to containing the Patriots’ backfield that totaled 2,151 rushing yards and 24 TDs in 2021, behind a strong offensive line.

3. Discipline

Under Brian Flores, the Dolphins were one of the least penalized teams in the NFL. This early in the season, there is inevitably going to be some teething problems for all teams. A key to the Dolphins’ success will be keeping those mistakes to a minimum to prevent beating themselves.

A new look offensive line that has had limited play time together as a unit, may encounter some early difficulties as they seek to build chemistry as a group. Minimizing drive killing penalties will be key to any team wishing to start the season 1-0.

Key Matchup: Austin Jackson vs Matt Judon

With Terron Armstead solidifying the left side of the line, it is highly likely that Bill Belichick will seek to overpower Tua’s blindside and Austin Jackson.  Who better to do that than Matt Judon, who ranked 52nd on the NFL Top 100.

Judon’s acceleration and penetration make this a key matchup against Jackson, who has struggled in his early career to get his feet set — especially against speed rushers.

However, there is reason for optimism. Jackson, who has made the transition to right tackle after stints at left tackle and left guard, has impressed during camp.

“When Austin Jackson is playing right tackle, I’ve been very pleased”

Dolphins’ Head Coach Mike McDaniel

Jackson’s athleticism and intelligence gives him every chance to succeed in Miami’s new outside zone blocking scheme. However, the transition will not be an easy one, with Judon coming off a career high 12.5 sacks.

Injury Concerns

A number of Miami’s starters were limited in practice on Wednesday, however all 53 players on the roster practiced. Jaylen Waddle’s injury has officially been designated as a quad injury, with Nik Needham suffering a similar injury. Nevertheless, it is hoped that both will be fit for Sunday’s game.

As for the Patriots, Meyers (knee), OT Isaiah Wynn (back), and RB/WR Ty Montgomery (knee) were all limited during Wednesday’s practice.

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Patriots Training Camp Primer

The NFL season is almost upon us, and the Patriots are looking to return to the promised land.

Photo Credit: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The NFL season is inching ever closer, and so is the Patriots training camp. Rookies, quarterbacks, and rehabbing players have already reported for training camp in Foxborough. Full training camp kicks off on July 27. A quick recap of the team’s off-season activity shows a healthy influx of new faces at critical positions. But it is accompanied by a dearth of talent and familiarity walking out the door.

Notable Acquisitions

RB/WR Ty Montgomery

WR DeVante Parker

OL Darryl Williams

LB Mack Wilson

CB Malcolm Butler

S/LB Jabrill Peppers

Notable Departures

QB Jarrett Stidham

RB Brandon Bolden

C Ted Karras

OG Shaq Mason

LB/DE Chase Winovich

LB Kyle Van Noy

CB J.C. Jackson

LB Dont’a Hightower (remains unsigned)

As the team gears up for another season, here are five storylines to watch as Patriots training camp opens:

Development of Mac

The most important storyline of the Patriots training camp — and season — will be how second-year signal caller Mac Jones progresses. Mac had a solid rookie season finishing with 3,801 yards, 22 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions; enough to be named a Pro Bowl alternate in his debut season.

Despite ranking among the most accurate quarterbacks last year, the offense often seemed timid. Mac rarely attacked downfield in the same aggressive manner he did at Alabama. To complicate matters, the Patriots lost their offensive coordinator to the Las Vegas Raiders and haven’t exactly replaced him.

Year two is crucial for every player’s development, but even more so for young quarterbacks. Mac has put in the off season work with organized throwing sessions with receivers all across the country, all while ditching his dough-boy appearance for a leaner, meaner Mac. Last year he tore it up throughout summer activities; this year, he needs to do the same with a more aggressive approach of attack this time around.

The Pats don’t have a top-tier talent at receiver or tight end, but have a plethora of solid 1B/2A types. Adding Devante Parker gives Mac a contested ball guy who can win outside the numbers. Parker should free Nelson Agholor up to move around the formation into favorable match-ups. The Pats offense needs to add a more aggressive downfield element in year two of Mac.

Matt Judon and Who Else?

The linebacker group looked a step (or two or three) slow against the Bills late in the season. With the rest of the AFC East gaining speed this off-season (hello, Tyreek Hill), the Pats look to be shying away from their big-bodied thumpers at linebacker. Matt Judon started the season scorching hot before fading down the stretch.

The Pats are hoping to replace Dont’a Hightower, Jamie Collins, and Kyle Van Noy with a combination of Josh Uche, Ronnie Perkins, Raekwon McMillan, Anfernee Jennings, and trade acquisition Mack Wilson. The latter group features smaller bodies with a lot more speed.

The Pats desperately need at least two of these guys to become reliable starters — Wilson and Uche project to be three down players, if they develop as the team hopes. Perkins should bring a pop to the pass rush and may develop into a full-time edge defender; splitting time between DE and OLB wouldn’t be a surprise given his college production.

McMillan will most likely play alongside Ja’Whaun Bentley as primary run defenders. Any way you slice it, the Pats will be faster at the second level of their defense next season. The important thing is if they can be effective with their speed.

Who are the Corners?

J.C. Jackson cashed in in free agency with a mega-deal with the Los Angeles Chargers. Replacing him will garner a lot of attention this summer and throughout the season. The Pats brought in veterans Malcolm Butler and Terrance Mitchell while also drafting Jack Jones (fourth round) and Marcus Jones (third round). The guarantees for Butler and Mitchell are low enough that their roster spots aren’t guaranteed.

The health of Jonathon Jones bears watching. His return will help against the spread ‘em out attacks of the Bills, Dolphins, and Jets. But past him, the depth chart is anything but settled.

Speed, Speed, Speed

The Patriots were focused on speed throughout the draft. They drafted the fastest player overall while also adding speed at corner and running back. We already touched on their plan to add speed to the interior of the defense.

Perhaps most importantly, many sources within the team have highlighted a change in the offensive structure and play calling. Having fast players only matters if you allow them to play fast. By simplifying the systems, the Patriots are hoping to let their guys play fast.

Protecting Mac Jones

The Patriots have questions at arguably four of their five offensive line spots. Not great. Tackles Isaiah Wynn and Trent Brown don’t have the cleanest track records with health.

The backup tackle spot is a question mark among young players and unproven vets. First-round pick Cole Strange was viewed by many as a colossal reach, but internally is being viewed as a day one starter. Right guard will fall to third-year man Mike Onwenu, who had a stalwart rookie year but a lackluster second. For Mac and the offense to reach their full potential, he will need to be kept upright.

The Patriots Defense Has a Josh Allen Problem

The Patriots defense has a big problem on their hands. How will they work on fixing this problem before it’s too late

Photo by Bryan M. Bennett/Getty Images

Pats Can’t Stop Allen

The Patriots defense has a big problem on their hands: Josh Allen, the 6’5”, 237 lbs, has a cannon for a right arm, and wears number 17 for the Buffalo Bills.

With 13:48 remaining in the third quarter of week 14, the Patriots would see Bills punter Matt Haack for the last time. In the next 20 Bills’ possessions against the Patriots, Haack would be missing-in-action as they went without a punt against a division rival.

When the Patriots left Orchard Park that Monday night in December, they were in first place in the AFC East and controlled their destiny for the top seed in the playoffs. They would return to lose four of their next five games, including two complete dominations at the hands of the rival Buffalo Bills.

In the Bills’ next 20 possessions following that final Haack punt, they would score 11 touchdowns. Of the other nine possessions, they attempted three field goals and turned the ball over on downs twice –once at the New England 14-yard line to end the Monday Night showdown, and the other at the New England 1-yard line in the Week 16 rematch. The remaining four possessions were kneel downs at the end of a half or the end of the game.

Not good.

The Bills’ absolute bludgeoning of the Pats in the final 9 7/8 quarters against them was largely due to Allen. He was supernova hot after that final Haack punt. After Haack punted on the Bills first possession of the week 14 matchup, Allen would go 59 of 89 for 710 yards, eight touchdowns and zero interceptions, while adding 162 yards on 21 carries in the next 129:15 of game time against the Pats. The Bills would outscore the Patriots during that same stretch 83-41.

Not good.

Allen Offers Massive Roadblock for Pats

How far the Patriots go from here is largely dependent on how they can handle their Josh Allen problem. The defense requires a compete reboot to give the Patriots a legitimate chance at reclaiming the throne atop the AFC East, let alone advancing in the playoffs. The AFC is flush with talented young quarterbacks, but getting over the hump against Allen should be the Patriots’ top priority as he remains within their division. Start there before focusing on the conference.

The Patriots defense faded down the stretch, putting up clunker after clunker after the bye week. For a stretch in the middle of the season, the defense played lights out. They dominated opponents. They racked up sacks and piled up the takeaways.

After the bye, it all stopped.

Perhaps not coincidentally, this sag in performance coincided with Matt Judon also largely disappearing. Before contracting COVID-19 during the bye week, Judon had 12.5 sacks and was constantly disruptive. After the bye, he failed to record a single sack.

Recent Drafts to Blame?

The Patriots have also gotten next to no production from recent day two draft picks. Chase Winovich was taken 77th overall in 2019. The high energy pass rusher had six total tackles this year and no sacks.

The Patriots traded up to draft Josh Uche 60th overall in 2020, and he produced only 10 tackles and 3.0 sacks this year; all three sacks came in the first two weeks of the season.

Anfernee Jennings was taken 87 overall in 2020. He has 10 career tackles, all from his rookie campaign. Finally, there’s Ronnie Perkins, taken as a pass rush specialist this past draft at 96th overall. He was a healthy scratch for 13 games before being placed on IR.

16 tackles and three sacks for the 2020 season from four top 100 prospects over the past three years. For a defense that was completely outmatched against the Bills, this area would be a good place to start.

All four of these players are known to be fast-twitch pass rushers with high motors. While they may not be three-down players, they should be offering more value than they have. For comparison, Logan Wilson of the Cincinnati Bengals had nine tackles (three for a loss), and one pass defensed in the Super Bowl. Wilson was taken five picks after Uche in the 2020 NFL draft.

Belichick is known for shapeshifting his defensive game plan to match his opponents’ strengths on a week-to-week basis. Perhaps the complex roles and differing approaches is leaving young players lost and confused. Belichick’s best defenses have often been veteran-laden units.

However, Belichick always seems to be able to unlock players’ potential by maximizing their talents within his defensive scheme. The examples are endless. Aqib Talib. Kyle Van Noy. Akiem Hicks. Part two of Patrick Chung. The disconnect here is more than scheme fit or ability, and that is worrisome.

Offseason Plans

This offseason becomes even more important if an in-house fix isn’t available. Making the front seven a more explosive and faster unit should be priority number one. Ja’Whaun Bentley, Dont’a Hightower, and Jamie Collins are set to be free agents, and all are solid in their own respect.

Losing a leader like Hightower would shake the locker room and lead to a decrease in the on-field product. Collins should stick around on the cheap as a solid role player. Meanwhile, Bentley had a down 2020 before looking much better surrounded by increased talent in 2021, and might be tough to keep.

The Patriots should look to add in free agency and the draft to inject talent into the front seven. Moreover, free agency is littered with intriguing names. The draft is relatively deep in the first along the defensive line, but top linebackers may be in short supply. Regardless, the Patriots need to address their Josh Allen problem or there will be more disappointed offseasons in the future.

Patriots vs Titans Observations

The Patriots dismantled the Titans on Sunday to extend their league best win streak to 6 games. Observations from the game by @Colbyfau.

patriots vs titans
Photo by Billie Weiss/Getty Images

Good teams win games they are supposed to win. The Patriots did exactly that vs a depleted Titans roster on Sunday. The expectation was a feisty Titans team that wasn’t going to simply roll over for the Patriots.

The Patriots won vs the Titans in a game that somehow felt closer than it was and yet never like it was that close. They have stretched their win streak to six games. They continue to play Patriots brand football with all three phases able to pick up the team at any moment. Football season usually doesn’t start until after Thanksgiving in the Northeast and this year’s rendition of the team is trying to make that true again.

Observations

Defensive

  • A week after Kyle Van Noy put his fingerprints all over a game, it was J.C. Jackson’s turn to take the spotlight. Jackson’s forced fumble early in the third quarter was a huge momentum shifter for the teams. After that play the Titans would drift away from their dominant ground game. It was a pure hustle play by Jackson and one that could not have been timelier.
  • Jackson added an interception later in the game on a goal line stand to effectively end any chance of a Titans comeback. The interception was Jackson’s 7th of the season and 24th of his career. For how impressive the career total is only four years into his career takes a historical perspective. Jackson is now tied with Richard Sherman and Kenny Easley for the third most interceptions through a player’s first four seasons. Jackson has five more games to add to that total. His 24 career picks is a team record through four seasons, beating Hall of Fame corners Mike Haynes (22) and Ty Law (18).
  • The Pats again got a hand in the hidden yardage department on JC Jackson’s goal line pick. Had the ball been incomplete, the Patriots would’ve taken over possession at their own two. In a game that the running game was struggling, the added 18 yards from the touchback on the interception was extremely understated.
  • The Patriots continued their blistering pace during this win streak winning by 23 points. Over the six-game win streak the Pats have outscored their opponents 211-63 with an average margin of victory of 25.2 points. They have allowed opponents 26 combined points over the last four games.
  • Matt Judon added another sack on Sunday bringing his season total to 11.5. The Patriots sacked Tannehill twice and hit him five times.
  • A big key to the winning streak has been the turnover battle. The Patriots have 17 takeaways, including four more Sunday against the Titans, over the last six games against only 4 turnovers. They won the turnover battle just once during their 2-4 start.

Offensive

  • Mac Jones threw for a career high 310 yards while adding 2 touchdowns and no turnovers. He continues to be accurate, completing 71.9% of his passes. One area that Jones can improve is his identification of second level threats. A week after struggling against blitzes from the defensive secondary against the Falcons, the Titans utilized similar concepts with success against the rookies. The Pats have faced eight or more defenders in the box on 46.7% of their runs.
  • Titans safety Kevin Byard had some words for Mac Jones leading up to Patriots vs Titans: “(Mac Jones) can dink and dunk it as much as he wants. If they don’t get in the red zone, we’ll be good. We’ll try to take away some of those options and some of those deep balls from him so he can keep checking down to running backs and stuff like that.” Jones responded on the field Sunday with completions of 41, 38, 22, 21, and 20 yards. He went right at Byard for the first touchdown of the game.
  • Kendrick Bourne had himself a game catching 5 passes for 61 yards and 2 touchdowns. When Bourne caught the ball on his 41-yard touchdown the play had a 0.3% of resulting in a touchdown according to Next Gen Stats. Bourne added 29 yards after the catch than expected.
  • Jonnu Smith enjoyed his best day as a Patriot totaling 58 yards on 4 touches. The Patriots’ attack is balanced and multifaceted before Smith gets involved. They could become a “pick your poison” offense to defend if Smith’s role continues to grow.
  • As for offensive efficiency on Sunday? 10 drives, 1 punt. While the bye is right around the corner, Jake Bailey has enjoyed a couple light weeks recently.
  • Mac Jones joins Russell Wilson as the only rookie QB’s to win three straight games by 20 or more points. Seems Mac finds new good company to keep every week.

Overall Notes

  • Incredibly the Patriots are 4-0 when the opponent rushes for more than 250 yards. The games are the Patriots 36-13 victory vs the Titans on Sunday (270), the 24-point comeback in 2013 against the Broncos [Pats won 34-31] (280), a 2011 41-23 beatdown of the Tebow-led Broncos (252), and a 2002 27-24 victory against Miami (256).
  • The Patriots came into the game having rushed for 120-yards in seven straight games and holding opponents to under 100 yards rushing in three straight and five of their last seven. Both streaks would come to an end against the Titans. The Patriots would rush for 105 yards while the Titans racked up 270.
  • Looking ahead at the Patriots remaining schedule: at BUF, at IND, vs. BUF, vs. JAX, at MIA. The next four weeks will settle much of the debate surrounding current AFC playoff seeding.
  • A note from the “Patriots always get advantages from the league office” department. The Patriots head into their bye after a Monday night game against the Bills, already cutting the usual 14-day bye to 13 days. The NFL then flexed the following game against the Colts to a Saturday night prime time affair, trimming the Patriots bye week to twelve days. The Patriots already had the latest bye possible and now are losing valuable rest days. For comparison’s sake, the Bills are getting a scheduled ten days off between their Thursday night game against the Saints and their Monday night showdown with the Patriots. This on top of their full 14-day bye week earlier in the season. Nothing to be done about it but just an astute observation.

Patriots vs Browns Preview

Preview of the Patriots upcoming game against the Cleveland Browns. Both teams enter 5-4 hoping to cement their place in the playoff picture.

patriots vs browns preview
FOXBOROUGH, MA – OCTOBER 27: Baker Mayfield #6 of the Cleveland Browns is sacked during a game against the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium on October 27, 2019 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Billie Weiss/Getty Images)

The Browns visit Gillette Stadium on Sunday with both teams looking to firmly assert their positions in the AFC playoff picture. The Patriots have recovered from a sluggish start to the season having won 4 of their last 5, including three in a row. With a win, the Patriots would stay a half-game back of the Bills for the division lead. While continuing to send shivers through the rest of the NFL.

The Browns are 2-3 in their last five and currently sit ninth in the AFC playoff picture. The Browns are hoping they righted the ship in a 41-16 thrashing of the Bengals last week. A win for them on Sunday would legitimize their aspirations of being a threat for the postseason and help wash away the taste of an inconsistent start to the season.

Going into the Game

The Pats put themselves in a poor spot early in the season and have been climbing out of it ever since. Every game has felt like a big one as the Pats face top teams week in and week out. They announced their return two weeks ago against the Chargers and ground out a hard-fought win last week against a feisty Panthers team. Another win Sunday would cement their status as an AFC top dog.

Offensive Questions

Despite the recent winning streak, the Pats are still facing questions. Outside of the two games against the Jets, the Pats offense is averaging 21.5 points which is further inflated by two defensive touchdowns over the past two weeks. Counterpoint? The Chargers and Panthers feature two of the best pass defenses in the NFL. Both rank in the top six in passing defense DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average).  

Defensive Questions

The Pats defense has also feasted on weaker competition thus far this year. Against teams with 1-4 wins, the defense is allowing 12.8 points per game, 298.8 yards per game, averaging 2.4 takeaways per game, and have an opposing passer TD:INT ratio of 5:10. Against teams with 5 or more wins the numbers paint a different picture; 26.5 points per game, 392.3 yards per game, on average a single takeaway per game, and a TD:INT ratio of 7:3. While troubling, the defense has been jelling as of late and playing top-level ball since facing off against TB12 on Sunday Night Football.

Injuries

However you want to slice this game, injuries will play a part. Both teams will likely be missing key contributors. Running backs on both sides may be absent as Patriots Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson deal with concussions. The Browns will be without top backs Nick Chubb (COVID) and Kareem Hunt (IR-calf). The Browns are also facing injuries along their offensive line with starting RT Jack Conklin on IR. Starting C JC Tretter a late addition to the injury report this week with a knee ailment. In a repeat of previous weeks, this will be a knock ‘em down and drag ‘em out affair that promises to be low scoring and bring fans back to a brand of football rarely seen in today’s pass-happy league. Without further ado, the breakdown is presented in “Who has the advantage when…” format.

Patriots Pass the Ball

It’s been mentioned many times in this column but the Patriots’ passing game starts with protecting Mac Jones. Last week his play fell off as the Panthers got pressure. Successful defense starts with the marriage of pass rush and coverage and the Browns are exceptionally good at getting pressure. They have the second-best pressure rate in the league despite blitzing on only 20.8% of opponents’ dropbacks. Myles Garrett continues to be a complete force, pacing the team with 12.5 sacks. The team totals 27 sacks, also good for second in the league despite the next highest single sack total belonging to Jadeveon Clowney with 3.5 sacks.

The passing attack sputtered last week against an aggressive and fast front seven. The task doesn’t get any easier against a similar group in Cleveland. The Pats will be able to take advantage of the Browns’ aggressive linebackers in coverage with screens and play action. Multiple times against the Bengals last week, the Browns’ LB’s vacated the short intermediate middle field on hard play action. That is Mac’s comfort zone and if he can get cooking there, the offense will have success through the air. The Browns feature primarily zone coverage, something Mac and the Pats’ offensive concepts usually exploit. None of it matters if the hog mollies upfront doesn’t keep Mac upright.

Advantage: Patriots

Patriots Run the Ball

The Pats face a challenge before even stepping on the field Sunday as the health of both Harris and Stevenson is questionable for the game. If the two lead backs can’t go, the Pats would be left with Brandon Bolden and JJ Taylor to shoulder the load. According to reports, Stevenson has a better chance at returning than Harris. If the Pats do enter the game with only two active backs on the roster, it would not be surprising to see Jonnu Smith getting snaps out of the backfield ala Cordarrelle Patterson 2018.

The Browns feature the third-best run defense according to DVOA. The Pats rushing game had its best single-game output last week against a similar style defense. The Browns feature much more talent along their defensive front, which may make having success on the ground a much different task. The Pats would be wise to utilize some misdirection plays and counters with pulling guard action in hopes of taking advantage of the Browns’ aggressive style. This has the makings of running to keep the defense honest and set up play-action rather than running due to success.

Advantage: Browns

Browns Pass the Ball

It all starts with the tight ends in the Cleveland passing game. The two leading receivers in terms of catches on the Browns roster are tight ends David Njoku and Austin Hooper. This grouping is the engine that drives the Browns passing game. The Browns also utilize “13” personnel (one running back, three tight ends) at an absurd rate. They lead the league with 129 plays ran from “13” personnel, the next closest team, the Titans, has 52. Belichick has also been harping on the fact the Browns are one of few teams that regularly run tight end screens throughout the game. The Patriots are uniquely set to defend this grouping with utility safeties Kyle Dugger and Adrian Phillips skill sets provide the defense favorable matchups. Not many teams roster hybrids of this pedigree, something the Browns have been able to take advantage of but probably stops this week.

When the Browns do go outside in the passing game it isn’t big-name Jarvis Landry making the plays of late, it’s been second-year man Donovan People-Jones. All three of the Browns passing touchdowns to a wide receiver have been to People-Jones. Over his last three games, People-Jones has caught 11 of 14 targets for 257 yards with an average depth of target of 21 yards. He adds the explosive element to this Browns passing attack. My bet is J.C. Jackson draws People-Jones in man and zone coverages.

The loss of Chubb is also felt in the passing games as Mayfield’s numbers drop-off significantly without the talented back. Mayfield’s completion percentage is 73.5% with a TD:INT ratio of 4:0 with Chubb on the field. Without those numbers read 63.6% and 4:3. The loss of Chubb may have disastrous effects throughout all levels of the Browns offense.  

The health of the Browns offensive line is something the Pats should look to take advantage of. If Tretter can’t go, rookie Christian Barmore will very much be in line for another disruptive game. The loss of veteran Conklin places a lot of pressure on backup Blake Hance. Hance famously entered a playoff game a year ago after signing earlier in the week. That led to QB Baker Mayfield commenting on their introduction in the locker room before kickoff. While Hance may have had a nice introduction to Mayfield and the team, he may be in for a long introduction to Matt Judon. The Pats will want to bring pressure while keeping Mayfield in the pocket. The advantage here lies with the stellar front seven of the Pats and the veteran savvy of their defensive backfield. The Pats will look to capitalize on the inevitable interception.

Advantage: Patriots

Browns Run the Ball

It wasn’t long ago that the Patriots’ run defense was being lambasted for poor effort. Some may have wondered if Hightower had lost a step in his year away. Since, the Pats have held the Jets, Cowboys, Texans, and Panthers under 4 yards per carry. This improvement has revolved around the stellar play of Hightower and fellow linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley. The loss of Chubb provides a more significant challenge for the Browns offense against a suddenly surging Patriots defense.

Earlier in the year, the Browns found themselves in a similar situation against the Broncos. All third-string running back D’Ernest Johnson did in that matchup was run for 146 yards on 22 carries. The Browns continue to lead the league with 160.2 yards per game and 5.2 yards per carry on the ground. Both are video game numbers. The game will come down to this matchup. If the Pats can limit the Browns rushing attack, their offense will be stuck in the mud throughout Sunday afternoon.

The Browns enjoy motioning a tight end or fullback into the backfield for a late numbers advantage. The Pats will need their big boys up front to eat up blocks without yielding ground to keep their linebackers clean to make the play. The Pats opened the game a week ago with a heavy 3-4 front that featured Lawrence Guy (315 lbs.), Carl Davis (320 lbs.), and Davon Godchaux (311 lbs). Expect the Pats to stay here while occasionally adding Barmore (311 lbs for those wondering) for jumbo packages.

Advantage: Patriots

Special Teams

The Pats have been rounding into form after a rough start to the season on special teams. Return man Gunner Olszewski is set to miss the game with a concussion. Last week this forced WR Jakobi Meyers into action on punt returns. JJ Taylor may be in line this week to field kicks.

The Browns have had an inconsistent season from their special teams’ units thus far.  K Chase McLaughlin has been solid but the Browns punting units have had issues. P Jamie Gillan ranks last in the league with a 41.8-yard average. The loss of core special teamer Demetric Felton (COVID) may lead a lane open for the Pats to exploit in the return game.

Advantage: Patriots

Coaching

Browns Head Coach Kevin Stefanski was in elementary school when Belichick was head coach of the Cleveland Browns. Join that with the lights-out play calling of Steve Belichick (lip licking aside) and Mayfield might not be the only one confused on Sunday. McDaniels has been calling smart and safe plans of late, something that should continue against a Browns defense that doubled their takeaway total last week against the Bengals.

Advantage: Patriots

Prediction

This game may be in the running for the quickest game played Sunday as long as the refs don’t get too involved (the Browns were flagged 10 times last week, average 7 per game). If there was ever a game to bet the under, it’ll be this one. Both teams will look to establish a healthy ground game without much luck while having to play small in the passing game. This is going to be a physical “do your job” 60 minutes and I’ll take Belichick’s boys every day of the week in that kind of matchup. Pats win 20-17.