3TFO: Browns @ Patriots, Week 14
With four games left in the 2013 season, the Cleveland Browns and New England Patriots find themselves in opposite situations. While Cleveland is in last place in their division, and likely playing for 2014 and beyond, the Patriots lead the AFC East. New England holds the second seed in the AFC, and winning the rest of their games would give them the chance to take the AFC’s top seed if Denver loses just one game as the Patriots hold the tiebreaker between the two teams after beating them two weeks ago.
Josh Gordon vs. Aqib Talib
Wide receiver Josh Gordon has continued to establish himself as one of the NFL’s elite receivers this season. He currently ranks 14th among receivers with a +10.5 grade, despite missing the first two games while he was suspended. Gordon is second among receivers with 2.80 Yards per Route Run; only Calvin Johnson (2.85) has a higher mark. Gordon’s production is even more impressive given the lack of talent at quarterback in Cleveland. Between Brandon Weeden (-6.8) and Jason Campbell (-9.3), the Browns have one of the NFL’s most inept passing offenses. Nonetheless, Gordon is an elite talent that is capable of making plays at every level, and will most likely be the focus of New England’s gameplan this week.
New England used more zone coverage last week than we can remember seeing from them all season, and Andre Johnson capitalized with one of his most productive games of the year. This schematic change is likely due to injuries in the secondary, as Alfonzo Dennard missed the game, and Aqib Talib and Kyle Arrington were questionable to play. This pass defense has been at its best when its corners have played an aggressive press man scheme, so it should not be surprising that they struggled in a zone heavy look last week. Talib has proven this year that he is more than capable of locking down elite receivers when healthy, currently ranking third among corners with a 55.6 passer rating against. It would seem that the Patriots best strategy would be to have Talib shadow Gordon this week, but injuries in the secondary may change the game plan again.
Patriots Rushing Offense vs. Browns Run Defense
With Stevan Ridley benched last week due to continual fumbling issues, the Patriots have chosen to turn elsewhere for rushing production. While not exceptional, New England’s running backs held their own against a strong Houston run defense last week. LeGarrette Blount took the majority of the snaps as the “big back,” and continued his solid season. Blount leads the Patriots backfield with 2.51 yards after contact per attempt, and tied a season high by forcing 3 missed tackles last week. Regardless of who takes the snaps at running back, the Patriots will be best served spreading the field and forcing the Browns to defend the run in a sub defense, as Cleveland is very difficult to run against in its base defense.
Though it has been another tough season in Cleveland, the team’s run defense has been among the league’s best. The unit ranks fifth in rushing yards allowed, and yields just 3.5 yards per carry. The group ranks eighth in our run defense grading, and has an excellent defensive line. Defensive ends Ahtyba Rubin (+14.5) and John Hughes (+13.5) rank seventh and ninth, respectively in run defense among 3-4 defensive ends. Safety T.J. Ward leads all safeties with a +9.9 run defense grade, and lines up in the box on more than 60% of his snaps. It will be difficult for the Patriots to move the ball on the ground without spreading the field to keep Ward out of the box.
Joe Thomas vs. Chandler Jones
Tackle Joe Thomas has been one of the league’s best and most consistent tackles since he was drafted in 2007, and he has put together another tremendous campaign this season. He has allowed just one sack, and ranks sixth among tackles with a Pass Blocking Efficiency of 96.4. His worst grade of the year was a -0.7 score vs. Kansas City, a score that reflects the three penalties called against him more than his blocking in the game. Though Thomas has been an average run blocker in recent years, there are few tackles (or linemen) that protect their quarterback as effectively.
While he has not yet become the dominate, every down pass rushing threat that he was drafted to be, Chandler Jones is New England’s best pass rusher, and leads the team with 12 sacks. Jones’ finest work this season has actually been in the run game; he ranks second among 4-3 defensive ends with 39 run stops, and holds a +5.5 grade in that department. He lines up at right end more often than not, so his battles against Thomas will be one of the best individual matchups on display in this game.