J.D. Bagley, @jdbagley5
Following a much-needed bye week, the Browns will travel to Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts where they will take on the undefeated New England Patriots. Before the season began, this was looked at as the finale of a brutal 5 game stretch for Cleveland prior to the schedule softening up in the 2nd half of the season. The good news being that Weeks 9-17, the Browns opponents hold a (.322) winning percentage compared to (.659) that their Weeks 1-8 opponents boasted. 2-4, on the brink of 2-5 was not the situation this team had in mind. But here they are. Cleveland must dig themselves out of this hole if they want this season to be considered a success.
While the Browns have had extra time to prepare for this one due to the bye week, the Patriots will have a short week after coming off of a 33-0 rout of the Jets on Monday night. Head Coach Bill Belichick had some awfully nice things to say about Cleveland to reporters on Tuesday, “We have 5 days to prepare for a very good Browns team. They’re way ahead of us… extremely well-coached & a talented team.” Not sure how many Browns games he’s happened to catch this year, but I’d assume Bill would like to retract that statement after this week’s film sessions. With the NFL trade deadline less than a week away, rumors have been circling the Browns and GM John Dorsey, who are in desperate need of offensive line help. A couple of names to monitor throughout the next week are Trent Williams of the Redskins, Nate Solder of the Giants, and Halapoulivaati Vaitai of the Eagles. I am all for finding offensive line help via trade, but parting ways with high draft picks is something that needs to be taken very seriously and the future of this franchise has to be considered.
The key for the Cleveland offense this week is pretty obvious, and that is to heavily feed Nick Chubb. With the Patriots defense as good as it has been this year, especially the secondary if the Browns go down early and have to play from behind this game could get ugly. New England leads the NFL with 18 INT’s this season. For reference, the next closest team has 8. Stephon Gilmore may currently be the top cornerback in football allowing a 41.3% catch rate, the best in the NFL. It’s safe to say with Baker Mayfield leading the league in INT’s (11), the Browns would like to lean on the run as much as possible Sunday. Chubb has been nothing short of spectacular this year and has been the MVP of the offense through 7 weeks. He’s averaging 5.3 YPC, 4th in the NFL in rushing yards and T-5th in rushing TD’s, even with the bye week. It’s not just the New England secondary that has been outstanding, they are also 2nd in the NFL with 26.0 sacks right behind Carolina with 27.0. Now, some of these stats may be inflated due to the fact that the Patriots opponents this year are a combined 12-32. Regardless, this defense is elite and will give the Browns trouble this week in every facet. Tight end David Njoku remains on IR, but we should finally get a look at Rashard Higgins for the first time since Week 1. He was active two weeks ago vs Seattle but never saw the field. This was likely to make sure the coaching staff didn’t make the same mistake that they made with Antonio Callaway vs San Francisco, where he simply wasn’t ready to play.
Flipping over to the defensive side of the ball, it’s the front 4 that needs to get after Tom Brady if they want to give themselves a chance in this game. The Browns defensive line has the type of talent to take over a game, they just need to put it all together on game day which has yet to happen this year as a collective unit. Myles Garrett still among the top of the NFL in sacks, was limited in practice on Thursday but will be ready to go Sunday barring any setbacks. One situation that has Browns fans scratching their heads this season is the absence of Genard Avery. The former 5th round pick out of Memphis had 4.5 sacks as a rookie but has only played 2 defensive snaps so far this year. Coming into the season many thought he’d fit in as a solid rotational player for this Browns defense but there’s been virtually no sign of him. DC Steve Wilks was asked about Avery this week, where he said: “...we’ll see who’s up and if he is, I’m sure he’ll make a major impact in the game.” This statement just makes the whole situation even more confusing. On another note, the Patriots made some news this week as they sent a 2020 2nd round pick to Atlanta for WR Mohamed Sanu. This trade came in the wake of news that New England was placing WR Josh Gordon on IR, likely ending his time with the Patriots. Gordon claims his injury isn’t season-ending but it sounds as if the Patriots are deciding to move on from the ‘Josh Gordon Experiment’. Julian Edelman, Phillip Dorsett, Jakobi Myers, and newcomer Mohamed Sanu will get a chance to face both Browns starting corners who are seeing the field for the first time since Week 2. After going down with hamstring injuries in the same day, Denzel Ward and Greedy Williams return to the lineup looking to make life more difficult than it has been recently for Brady and Co. Defending this offense is one of the toughest tasks in all of football because they are such a well-coached and disciplined team. One game they can run the ball 30 times and another game they can throw it 50 times. Bill Belichick does an incredible job of adjusting his game plan based on his opponent’s strengths and weaknesses, which is why this dynasty has yet to derail 20 years in.
The Browns are staring 2-5 in the face. This means they will have to play near-perfect football the rest of the way if they want to be talked about as a potential playoff team come December. But, as I mentioned earlier, the 2nd half of the schedule definitely lightens up and there is a real possibility they could win 6 or 7 of their last 8 games. In order for that to happen, they need to eliminate the mistakes that have cost them multiple games here in the 1st half of the season. Browns players should obviously go into Foxborough with the intention of winning, but for fans, a more realistic goal for this week is to see competent football with minimal mistakes. This isn’t a game the Browns should win, but making improvements off the bye week is a must if this team is going to try to make a late-season push.