Rob Gronkowski Opening up Middle for Tom Brady, Aqib Talib Blanketing Josh Gordon Among Keys for Patriots-Browns

Aqib TalibThe last time the Patriots and Browns met, back in 2010, Rob Ryan‘s aggressive tactics caught the Patriots’ offense off guard and Cleveland ran away with a 34-14 win. Bill Belichick is trying to avoid a similar fate this season.

The Patriots are a much more well-rounded team this time around, and Tom Brady‘s reemergence as one of the NFL’s most efficient quarterbacks should offer some added confidence as the Browns visit Foxboro. On the other side, the Browns are reverting back to Jason Campbell to run their offense on Sunday, just two weeks after he suffered a concussion against the Steelers.

Campbell should be an upgrade over the turnover prone Brandon Weeden as well as Alex Tanney, who was roaming the lonely free-agent streets just a few weeks ago. No matter who is throwing the ball, the Patriots will need to keep an eye on some of the Browns’ talented young receivers, especially Josh Gordon, who has two straight games of 200-plus receiving yards.

Even at 4-8 on the season, the Browns present a tough test for the Patriots this week. New England better not be looking ahead to the divisional showdown with the Dolphins next week, or they could get caught in a similar trap as the one they faced in 2010.

With plenty of good storylines heading into this one, let’s take a look at some of the keys for the Patriots against the Browns in this week’s Patriots Three and Out.

1. Slow the roll — The Patriots have had the ball run down their throats for much of the past six games. They actually boast the league’s worst run defense, which shouldn’t come as a major surprise considering two of the NFL’s best run defenders, Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo, are sidelined for the year. But they need to figure out some way to slow the roll on the ground. Rookie Joe Vellano had arguably his best game of the season on Sunday in Houston, looking more confident and focused on shutting down Ben Tate last week. The Patriots will need more contributions from Vellano, Chris Jones and Brandon Spikes against the run to continue building on that success. A backfield of an aging Willis McGahee and inconsistent Chris Ogbonnaya isn’t exactly thunder and lightning, but the Patriots will still need to be wary of letting the duo run wild.

2. Shut down Gordon — Lord knows who will start at quarterback for the Browns on Sunday, but, whoever it is, they’ll undoubtedly be looking Josh Gordon’s way quite a bit. Gordon has been a monster this season, leading the NFL in receiving yards per game at 124.9. He continues to torch opposing corners on a weekly basis and he’ll give Aqib Talib one of the toughest challenges he’s faced all season. Whether it’s Jason Campbell, Alex Tanney or the third-string waterboy slinging the rock, Talib will need to be on top of his game to shutdown Gordon on Sunday, and it won’t be an easy task by any standard.

3. Attack the middle —Setting aside his late-game gaffe against the Jaguars last week, Joe Haden is as good a cornerback as there is in the NFL today. The third-year corner has quickly developed into a legitimate shutdown corner, which should cause problems for Danny Amendola or Julian Edelman — whoever he so chooses to blanket. Buster Skrine, who lines up opposite Haden, is an underrated talent on the outside as well, leading the league with 18 pass breakups through 12 games — Haden is second with 17. Tom Brady may need to look to the middle of the field for some relief if he hopes to get the passing game going early on Sunday. Fortunately, Rob Gronkowski has been incredibly effective since returning to the field and Brady should be able to exploit the mismatch with Gronk over the middle for much of the afternoon, which in turn should open things up on the outside a bit.

Have a question for Luke Hughes? Send it to him via Twitter at @LukeFHughes or send it here.

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