FOXBORO, Mass. — The Browns run a West Coast offense that is all about timing and rhythm, and the Patriots’ defense knows it can exploit some weaknesses due to the youth of rookie quarterback Colt McCoy.
McCoy has played well in two starts, no doubt, and he’s got a strong arm and scrambling ability to keep a play alive. But the Patriots can do two things to rattle McCoy: jam Cleveland’s pass catchers at the line of scrimmage, and collapse the pocket to force McCoy to make a quick decision and, maybe, a mistake.
The Patriots have done an excellent job of drilling receivers at the line, whether it was Miami wide receiver Brandon Marshall in Week 4, Baltimore tight end Todd Heap in the second half in Week 6, San Diego tight end Antonio Gates through three quarters of Week 7, or Minnesota wide receiver Randy Moss in Week 8. By forcing Cleveland’s route-runners to fight to get off the line and slow down their timing, the Patriots will hinder McCoy’s chances to succeed.
This week, the Patriots might spend most of their time focusing on Cleveland tight end Ben Watson, who leads the team in every receiving category. The Browns’ passing game works from the inside out, focusing on tight ends and running backs, and then spreading out to the wide receivers, who aren?t overly impressive as a whole.
Watson is going to be one of McCoy’s primary reads on a very high percentage of plays, and when Watson isn?t producing statistically, McCoy will struggle because it’s going to take longer for the rookie to trust his next reads. For example, Watson only caught one pass against the Saints, and that was the worse performance of McCoy’s two starts.
Josh Cribbs is the guy to be wary about, and he’s a dynamo who can completely take over a game on offense and defense. Cribbs only has 14 receptions — they’ll try to get him the ball on quick screens, for the sake of letting him just try to make a play — but he is also a threat to run the ball and lead the Wildcat offense. If the Patriots can limit Cribbs’ gimmicky plays, they’ll be at a huge advantage against Cleveland’s standard offense.
Running back Peyton Hillis is a north-south bruiser who is tough to tackle, but he’s slow and isn?t a threat to bounce anything to the outside. If the Patriots attack him with the same north-south mentality, it’s hard to imagine Hillis having a big impact, especially with the way the Patriots have limited running backs Ray Rice, Ryan Mathews and Adrian Peterson in recent weeks. Because the Patriots’ inside linebackers are so stout against the run, Hillis shouldn?t get many chances to do work where he’s most effective, running straight ahead at a smaller defensive back.
Defensively, the Browns seem to tackle well, but that?s about it. They’re 19th against the run and 26th against the pass, and they’ve got a decent mix of veterans — linebackers Scott Fujita, Chris Gocong and Matt Roth, and cornerback Sheldon Brown — and youngsters — linebacker Marcus Benard, safety T.J. Ward and cornerback Joe Haden.
But that side of the ball is very much a work in progress. The Patriots should have the ability to do what they want on offense, whether it’s control the game with the rushing attack or spread it out and move down the field through the air.
Also, since this game carries a little extra significance for Browns head coach Eric Mangini, who has his team coming off a bye week, the Patriots can expect some wrinkles on Cleveland’s defense. However, the Patriots can offset that uncertainty by being the aggressors themselves and running the no-huddle. And since the Browns also do well with their bend-don’t-break approach, red-zone efficiency could go a long way in determining Sunday’s outcome.