By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — As hard as Bill Belichick and the Patriots tried to downplay the return of Tom Brady, nothing was going to stop No. 12 from being the biggest topic on everyone’s minds. As the Patriots head to Cleveland, on paper it certainly looks like a win for the 3-1 Pats over the 0-4 Browns – but don’t expect this game to be easy as you think.
First, Brady has not played in real game action since the fourth week of the preseason. He hasn’t played meaningful football since January. He’s only been back with the Patriots since Monday. To expect Brady to come out and throw six touchdowns with a 158.3 passer rating is a little unreasonable and unrealistic.
As great as Brady is, he will need time to work off some rust. Maybe he only needs one series to do that, maybe he needs one quarter, maybe he spends the whole game working it off. The Browns do have enough weaknesses in the defense that Brady will probably make some plays and put points on the board, but at the very least, his timing with all of his receivers can’t be reasonably expected to be perfect right out the gate.
As for the Patriots defense, they face the league’s top rushing attack (149.3 rushing yards per game) with one of the more talented offensive lines in the game. They also have to deal with the 6-foot-4 Terrelle Pryor catching passes down the field. Rookie quarterback Cody Kessler may have trouble with what Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia throw at him, but the Browns do have players, contrary to popular belief.
As for the intangibles … Belichick sounded as angry as ever after the Patriots turned in easily their worst performance of the season, and perhaps one of the worst home games of the Belichick era, last Sunday against the Bills. The Patriots often follow up such dismal performances with big-time bounce-back statements, most recently in the famous “On to Cincinnati” game that followed up a 41-14 blowout loss with a 43-17 drubbing of the Bengals. No matter how the Browns end up performing on the field on Sunday, expect the Patriots to be sharp and play well.
With that out of the way, let’s dig a little deeper with what to watch for as the Patriots take on the Browns …
What Will The Offense Look Like?
With Jacoby Brissett under center for the Patriots for two-and-a-half games, including some time with an injured thumb, it was painfully obvious that Belichick and Josh McDaniels did not trust Brissett to run the Patriots offense the way it’s capable of being run. With Brady back, it’s obviously time for the playbook to open back up.
As mentioned before, Brady’s execution could be a little bit off as he works off whatever rust there may be and gets his timing back. It helps that the Browns don’t feature any dominant pass-rushers on their defense, so Brady may not have to treat the ball like a hot potato in the pocket. But No. 12 is bound to run the offense the way you’re used to seeing for the past decade-plus.
Expect a lot of no-huddle and hurry-up with Brady calling and changing plays at the line of scrimmage, finding or creating mismatches, exploiting weaknesses, and spreading the ball around. Expect the Patriots receivers to look as good as they’ve looked all season. Brady may be slow to get back to executing plays well, but the offensive game plan will certainly be much more complex than anything you’ve seen from the Patriots in recent weeks.
Is Gronk Ready To Break Out?
It’s possible that the Patriots are ready to unleash the full Gronk against the Browns. He will have some juicy mismatches against linebacker Demario Davis and the Browns’ suspect safeties. The Patriots didn’t think they needed the “real” Gronk to go at least 3-1 to start the season, and they were right. Now, with Brady making the throws, it’s time for Gronk to be Gronk.
I strongly believe that the Patriots avoided putting Gronk in harm’s way with seam routes or passing plays over the middle of the field with the rookie Brissett throwing the ball. Brady won’t hang Gronk or any receiver out to dry like a less experienced quarterback would. Expect the conservation of Gronk to pay off, and for Martellus Bennett to benefit from the attention he will draw as a pass-catcher.
If Gronk doesn’t produce like he’s expected to with Brady under center, perhaps his hamstring injury is worse than imagined. No matter the result, Gronk’s usage and performance in whatever role he has on the field will be one of the biggest things to watch.
Will The Defense Rebound?
The Patriots defense has had exactly one good game in 2016, in Week 3 against the Houston Texans. In their other three games, they have been inconsistent at best and sloppy at worst. Missed tackles, soft coverage, and a lack of pressure on the quarterback doomed them against the Bills as the defense had trouble getting off the field all day long. This means that literally the entire defense is in a spot where it needs to bounce back.
Everyone needs to tackle better. The corners need to cover better with Terrelle Pryor catching passes down the field. The defensive line needs to step up against the Browns’ talented offensive line and not get manhandled at the point of attack. The Browns may be 0-4, but have largely competed well in their games. Containing Isaiah Crowell and Pryor will not be an easy task.
With a quarter of the season in the books and the early-season evaluation period wrapping up, it’s time for the Patriots defense to take a step forward. Yes, it may be Cleveland, but the challenge for them on Sunday is greater than you think.
Can Belichick Bounce Back?
The Patriots had questionable game plans and poor execution in all three phases of the game last week against the Bills. When a team has that bad of a performance up and down the lineup, at home, you inevitably have to go back to the coaching staff. Belichick, McDaniels, Matt Patricia and the Patriots coaches simply did not have their guys ready to play against Buffalo. Expect pretty much the complete opposite against Cleveland.
One of the hallmarks of Belichick’s tenure as Patriots head coach has been not to ride the highs or lows of the season too hard. Yes, the loss to the Bills was ugly, but it’s never a reason to panic. You could tell that the Patriots, per usual, quickly turned the page and shifted their focus to Cleveland, but it surely came after a lashing from Belichick, who no doubt found that whole game against the Bills utterly unacceptable.
There’s a reason you never see the Patriots go into a tailspin after a loss and rarely have emotional letdowns after big wins. They don’t overreact to the previous game. But there’s no doubt that Belichick reacted to the Bills loss and he was not happy about it. He won’t let last week happen again, and as a result of this week’s preparation, expect Belichick to have the Patriots ready to go this time around.
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.