BOSTON (CBS) – Like any other week of the NFL season, New England Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels will start out Sunday with a well-crafted idea of how to attack the Cleveland Browns defense.
But since neither McDaniels nor any other offensive assistant possesses the clairvoyant powers of ‘Tonestradamus’ — a.k.a. the Houston Texans’ Antonio Smith — his game plan can only be based on what Cleveland has shown in the past.
However, it will come with contingencies to counter what the Browns do in the present. Adjustments will begin almost immediately and continue after each ensuing series. If necessary, the most profound changes will be implemented during the break between halves.
“I think every team, including ourselves, makes some adjustments at halftime to things that may have either hurt them in the first half, or makes an adjustment to something that they see that they may be able to take advantage of in the second half,” McDaniels said on a late-October conference call.
Tale of the Tape: Patriots vs. Browns
Back then, it seemed McDaniels was stating the obvious. Who knew, more than a month later and following another New England rally to beat Smith’s Texans, that his words would prove so prophetic.
Or, put another way, so Tonestradamus-like.
“I think our process has really been the same in terms of trying to look at what we’ve done, what the defense has played us like, what their calls by personnel or situation may be, and try to make sure that we put out a game plan for the second half, just like we do in the first half, accordingly,” McDaniels explained. “Some teams make a lot of adjustments, some teams don’t.”
For those who do, none do it better than the Patriots. That’s the opinion CBS analyst and WFAN host Boomer Esiason shared Monday on 98.5 The Sports Hub’s Toucher & Rich.
“It’s one of the reasons why they’ve been so successful over the years,” he said.
Supporting Esiason’s assertion is the NFL’s longest current streak of winning seasons, which the Patriots extended to 13 by outscoring Houston, 27-14, in the final 30 minutes last Sunday.
Contrary to Smith’s innuendo of espionage and skulduggery — he later claimed to be joking — New England did it against the Texans, in large part, by varying personnel groups and manipulating match-ups in the second half.
For example, as radio analyst Scott Zolak observed in Houston, the Patriots often employed ‘regular personnel;‘ featuring a running back, fullback, tight end and two wide receivers. With Shane Vereen as the running back and James Develin as the fullback, both were able to line up in different formations, sometimes emptying the backfield altogether.
“Defensively, you’ve got to back off because you’re in regular personnel,” Zolak commented, between a pair of Tom Brady completions to Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola on a third-quarter, go-ahead drive. “Now, of all a sudden, Brady’s in the (shot)gun and you’ve got that nickel (defense) mindset. But you don’t have the personnel in the there to defend it.
“It’s a nice job of New England taking advantage of the match-ups.”
The following morning, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick expounded on Zolak’s point.
“Let’s say defensively when you’re facing a team that uses a lot of personnel groups, it’s hard to have a lot of things ready for a lot of different groups,” said Belichick, whose team varies personnel packages as much as anyone in the NFL. “It’s just hard to have a game plan where you have eight or nine different calls against seven, eight groups. You just run out of time to practice it and time to work on it.
“So, I think Josh was able to get a good handle on how they were matching our different personnel groups and what they were trying to do against them. When you get it down to two or three things and Tom can recognize by formations what the defenses are, that can get you into a good play or give you a quick indication of where to go with the ball.”
The opportunity to immediately recognize mismatches allowed Brady to beat Houston’s pass rush with quick throws to open receivers.
In the aforementioned series, after he hit Edelman and Amendola, Brady went back to Edelman twice before finding Vereen for a score. While two of the completions netted 17 (Amendola) and 25 (Edelman), the sum of all five covered the final 70 yards en route to a 21-17 lead.
“We didn’t have to hold it, we could get it out there quick and find the receivers that had the best match-ups,” Belichick continued. “Again, kind of a combination of all those factors. The different personnel groups, I think, ended up being helpful for us in terms of getting good plays, or plays that we felt comfortable with, matched up against what the Texans were doing.”
It can take a lot of early probing before establishing and identifying those favorable match-ups.
“Sometimes it takes a little while to figure out how they’re going to match you,” Belichick said. “Again, that’s a little bit of a chess game sometimes. If a team is trying to match you, what’s triggering the match? Is it a certain guy? Is it multiple receivers? Will they match multiple tight ends if a certain tight end is the trigger guy?
“Is it a guy? Sometimes it’s just down and distance. Sometimes you’ll see a team that will just send their sub group on there if it’s 2nd-and-8; it doesn’t matter who you have in the game. Sometimes figuring that out, when you use different personnel groups offensively, takes a little bit.”
Sometimes the so-called trigger guy is a multi-dimensional running back who exploits defenses as a rusher and receiver, like past Patriots Kevin Faulk and Danny Woodhead. And, as Sunday in Houston showed, current Patriot Shane Vereen.
“Shane’s got a lot of versatility with what he does,” Brady says. “He can run the ball if you put him in the backfield. He does a good job as a receiving back. There’s no question that he’s a big part of our offense.”
“Going back, there were times when teams, as soon as they saw Kevin Faulk come in the game, they would go sub just in anticipation of whoever the other people were, (if) it was more of a passing-type of down,” said Belichick. “Then hopefully when you see that, you would try to put him in there with a group that you feel like could give you a good running matchup against a team. We hit a couple sub runs on Houston in that situation.”
Especially in the second half. After three carries for 12 yards and two receptions for eight yards before the break, Vereen rushed seven times for 26 yards and caught three passes for 29 yards the final two quarters.
One of those second-half catches set up Develin’s one-yard touchdown run. Another was a nine-yard score by Vereen himself. Each was made in the flow of a game plan always under revision. Even after the game begins.
There’s nothing fishy about that.
- Although the Browns concluded Wednesday’s practice with their quarterback situation still “fluid” according to head coach Rob Chudzinski, whoever starts Sunday in Foxborough will stand behind a static offensive line. Four of the five have linemen started the last 22 games together. Among them is left tackle Joe Thomas, a six-time Pro Bowl pick who’s opened all 108 career appearances and lined up for the last 6,669 plays. Another is center Alex Mack, a 2010 Pro Bowler, riding a string of 76 straight starts and 4,744 snaps. As a group, they’ve allowed the Browns to convert a league-high 13-of-26 (.500) fourth-down attempts. Says Belichick: “They lead the league in short-yardage, which I think echoes the toughness and the determination that they have getting a yard when they need it; being good on the goal line and short-yardage situations.”
- Just a month ago, following a 24-18 win over Baltimore, Cleveland was a playoff contender — albeit at just 4-5. Turnover at quarterback, and turnovers period (!) have since fated the Browns to three consecutive losses and the resulting sixth straight losing season. Cleveland committed 11 turnovers the last three weeks. Overall, the Browns are tied for 27th in the NFL with a minus-nine differential. Their defense has only 14 takeaways, more than only four other teams. Meanwhile, Cleveland has started three different quarterbacks this season and 20 overall since 1999.
- “Again, I feel like every week I’m about to talk about a Top 10 defense,” Brady remarked early in his press conference on Wednesday. Brady knows all too well of what he speaks. Leaving the podium for the pocket, he’ll soon go against the only NFL team ranked in the top five in rush defense, pass defense and total defense. In addition, the Browns are the only team yet to allow both a 100-yard individual rusher or a 300-yard passer in a game this year. Also, a league-high 15 different players have sacks for Cleveland in 2013.
Bob Socci is in his first season as the radio play-by-play voice of the New England Patriots. You can follow him on Twitter @BobSocci.
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