By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Last week’s matchups didn’t go so well for yours truly.
I posited that the Patriots would look to eliminate the Buffalo Bills’ LeSean McCoy and Jerry Hughes in order to make Rex Ryan’s team play without their most important players. Not only did they not eliminate McCoy, he feasted. McCoy totaled 108 yards on 25 total touches and especially torched the Patriots in the passing game, catching all six targets for 38 yards and an early touchdown. Hughes, meanwhile, wasn’t as dominant as his teammate Zach Brown but did bring down Jacoby Brissett for a key sack at the end of the second quarter that dropped the Patriots back 14 yards and derailed any chance they had at scoring on that drive. Hughes made it through untouched on that play.
Perhaps I’ve been jumping the gun pinpointing who the Patriots would eliminate on defense and exploit on offense – especially when they have the ball, as in case you haven’t noticed they’ve been without Tom Brady for the first four weeks. But now that No. 12 is back under center, it’s time to take a deep dive into the matchups you’re likely to see on Sunday as the Patriots take on the Cleveland Browns.
In general, expect a similar defensive game plan as last week. The Patriots, as expected, put Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor in a spot where he had to complete short-to-intermediate passes and complete long drives for scores, and for the most part, Taylor answered the call. While Browns rookie quarterback Cody Kessler is not the threat that Taylor is to escape the pocket and take off for big runs, he’s still a rookie making his third career start. The likelihood is that the Patriots make him beat them with long, sustained drives without making mistakes. Is Kessler up to the challenge?
As for when Brady and the Patriots have the ball, it’s anyone’s guess as to how they will look after two-and-a-half games of a stripped down offense. If Brady is fully unchained and playing like his usual self, he will spread the ball around like he always does and find weak spots in the Browns defense to be able to attack. As the Patriots likely saw in their preparation, there are some glaring holes in the Browns defense that we will examine here.
Enough with the summaries. Here’s a deeper look at the matchups that the Patriots will look to eliminate on defense and exploit on offense.
ELIMINATE: Browns WR Terrelle Pryor. A year after having a workout with the Patriots as a free agent, the 6-foot-4 Pryor has emerged as the top receiving threat in the Cleveland offense. Expect the Patriots to do what they usually do with large, playmaking receivers. They will take away deep passing plays to Pryor and commit a double-team to him at all times, likely using Logan Ryan and Devin McCourty.
Ryan had a bad time last week against the Bills as Tyrod Taylor picked on him all day. It would speak to Belichick’s confidence in him to turn it around if the coach goes back to Ryan with the task of stopping Pryor, but the fourth-year corner is certainly in a spot where he needs to have a big bounce-back week. The last thing Belichick wants is for Pryor to burn him deep.
ELIMINATE: Browns RB Isaiah Crowell. Believe it or not, the Browns lead the league with 149.3 rushing yards per game, and Crowell is at the forefront of that with a league-leading 6.5 yards per carry. Needless to say, the Patriots will need to play better against Crowell than they did against LeSean McCoy, but Crowell is a different back. He’s more of a power runner with straight-ahead explosiveness that will make him tough to bring down if he makes it to the second and third levels of the defense.
Dont’a Hightower will be crucial in this game when it comes to limiting Crowell on between-the-tackles running plays, and interior defenders like Malcom Brown and Alan Branch will need to have a season-best effort to limit Crowell on the ground.
EXPLOIT: Browns nickel cornerbacks. Pro-Bowl cornerback Joe Haden is off to a good start in 2016 with an 83.3 coverage grade (“above-average”) according to Pro Football Focus. Jamar Taylor has also been solid. But the third cornerback spot so far has been a disaster for the Browns.
Don’t be surprised if the Patriots force the Browns into nickel coverage and take advantage of favorable matchups against whoever plays the nickel corner spot, be it Tramon Williams (42.2 grade) or Briean Boddy-Calhoun (55.9). It’s likely that Haden gives the hobbled Julian Edelman trouble, but whoever lines up in the slot in three-wide receiver sets could be in for a big day.
EXPLOIT: Browns LB Demario Davis. Browns linebacker Christian Kirksey is a player to avoid in coverage, as he’s graded a 79.0 in that department according to PFF, a solid mark for an inside ‘backer. But Demario Davis has had significant trouble in coverage all season long with a dismal 46.2 grade and hasn’t fared much better against the run (41.3) or at rushing the quarterback (51.9) either. If Rob Gronkowski is about to break out, it’s likely he does it against Davis.
Martellus Bennett has been the Patriots’ most consistent weapon at any position all season, but if the Patriots really are ready to unleash Gronkowski, the combination of the two could prove deadly if the Browns are forced to cover them with Davis over the middle of the field.
VERDICT: I think the Patriots defense again has a little trouble containing the top playmakers on the other team, as Pryor and Crowell will likely make some plays in this game. But Kessler does not have the experience against the Patriots that Taylor had, so expect a struggle for the quarterback to string drives together, while Brady will likely pick on the weak spots in the Browns defense all day long. Final prediction: Patriots 31, Browns 23
Matt Dolloff is a writer for CBSBostonSports.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect that of CBS or 98.5 The Sports Hub. Have a news tip or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.