FOXBORO — For the third time in franchise history, the Patriots are undefeated through eight games following a 27-13 victory over the Cleveland Browns at a rainy Gillette Stadium.
The Patriots prepared for heavy rain during the week by soaking practice football in water buckets to simulate the conditions.
In his 300th career win, including the postseason, head coach Bill Belichick reminded the Browns what a prepared and fundamentally sound football team looks like on Sunday.
As a result of their preparation for the weather, the Patriots were a plus-three in turnover margin against the Browns with Cleveland coughing the ball up three times in the first quarter.
From there, Baker Mayfield and company did make it a one-score game in the second half, but behind a 17-0 first-quarter lead, New England was in control the entire way.
Here are ten things we learned as the Patriots improved to a perfect 8-0 on the season:
1. Patriots Defense Forces Three Turnovers on Three-Straight Browns Possessions
To build an early lead, the Patriots defense forced, and in one case was gifted, three takeaways on three consecutive possessions by the Cleveland offense.
On the first Cleveland giveaway, Pats linebacker Dont’a Hightower returned a Nick Chubb fumble for a touchdown. The Patriots have a rule defensively: if there’s nobody around you on, you scoop-and-score, but if you’re in a crowd, that’s when you fall on the rock. Hightower has a clean shot at the ball, so he picks it up and runs it back for six.
The next turnover was the play of the game by a wide margin, but we’ll cover it here and feature a runner-up later on instead. The initial tackling on the zone rollback scheme that springs Chubb was horrible, but Pats cornerback Jon Jones eclipsed 20 miles per house to catch Chubb from behind and strip the ball. Jones’s closing speed and acceleration when he sees Chubb run through Devin McCourty was flat out ridiculous.
“Once I saw the ball when I was running, I knew I had to go for it,” Jones told me. “I saw him holding it out, and it [the ball] was saying ‘come get me.’ It was just a hustle play.”
The final turnover in the sequence was a shovel pass gone very wrong for Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield. Mayfield wants to pitch the ball to the receiver but instead throws it directly into the mitts of Lawrence Guy.
Behind Hightower’s touchdown and the following two turnovers, the Patriots built a 17-0 lead and never looked back.
2. Tom Brady Drops Dimes on the Browns
On initial viewing, Brady set a new highwater mark this season for “big-time” throws with four in the contest against Cleveland. The Pats quarterback only completed 55.6 percent of his passes, but the level of difficulty on some of the throws saved the Patriots offense on several occasions.
Let’s start with a beauty up the seam to fellow elder statesman Ben Watson. The Pats ran play-action from a “nub” formation, meaning there was nobody outside the tight end to Brady’s left. After the fake, both Watson and Tomlinson release vertically down the field against man coverage with Watson on the seam and Tomlinson on a double move. The Browns are in man coverage with Watson on a linebacker, and Brady makes a throw that Watson described as “stupid” for a 26-yard completion.
“Whenever you’re against man [coverage] going down the seam like that, that’s the place you can put it,” Watson said. “Based on the coverage, the man was coming from the inside, you can either go over the top or the back shoulder, so it’s likely one of those two things. He’s one of the best at putting it in the right place where the receiver can get it.”
Along with dropping downfield dimes to the likes of Watson and Phillip Dorsett, Brady’s excellent pocket movement was on full display on his two touchdown throws to Julian Edelman.
On Edelman’s second touchdown catch, Brady felt Myles Garrett coming around the edge, so he stepped up and around right tackle Marcus Cannon’s block and got outside the pocket while keeping his eyes downfield. As he rolled to his right, Edelman was perfectly in-sync with his longtime QB and got open for the score. The chemistry between those two is off the charts.
In my review, I’ll expect to see some errant passes from Brady that stood out watching the game live, but he made several high-level quarterback plays behind a shaky offensive line.
3. Mohamed Sanu Makes His Patriots Debut
The debut for new Patriots wide receiver Mohamed Sanu had some growing pains, but that was expected in his first appearance.
On initial viewing, Sanu was on the field for 37 plays on Sunday, which is a lot considering he arrived in Foxboro on Tuesday. Of those 37 snaps, Sanu was in the slot for 24 plays and out wide on 12. He ran mostly routes over the middle with a sit route in-between zone coverage as his most common pattern, but also ran a few fades and was targeted on a comeback route.
In his very first game as Patriot, Sanu already showed some of his headiness as a route runner, and that he’s paying attention to coaching from Tom Brady.
Sanu told me after the game that Brady walked him through the exact scenario that occurred on his fourth-down conversion in the second quarter. Brady told his newest weapon that if the Browns blitzed with the Patriots in this particular formation that the ball was coming his direction. Sanu remembered Brady’s instructions, saw the blitz coming, and quickly turned around at the sticks to complete the pass.
Later on, Sanu hauled in a 19-yard reception on an over route from the slot. The Pats ran play-action, and Sanu crossed over the field, beating man coverage. In the route, you see Sanu’s physicality and ability to attack leverages in his release, which allow him to get open despite possessing average speed for an NFL receiver.
Sanu was also featured as a blocker and it looks like the Patriots valued his physicality in that regard. He didn’t set the world on fire in his first game with the Patriots, but Sanu’s performance was encouraging.
4. Patriots Make ‘12’ Personnel Their New Fullback Formation
The Patriots tinkered a bit with some of their personnel groupings and continue to transform a 12-personnel package into more of a 21-personnel look. Without a fullback on the roster, their two tight end packages feature either tight end Eric Tomlinson or Ben Watson in the fullback spot in the backfield. The Pats also used an 11 personnel formation where they put the tight end at fullback rather than lining him up on the line of scrimmage. As far as Sanu goes, he mostly played in three and four-receiver packages. Some three-receiver calls featured Jakobi Meyers, while others had Sanu in the game with Edelman and Dorsett. We’ll see if Sanu starts running out of more personnel groupings in the coming weeks.
5. Patriots Defense and Playing With Good Leverage
The word leverage gets thrown around a lot in football, but what does it mean? Leverage can mean different things in different situations. In the trenches, leverage is about pad level and momentum. In the secondary, it’s about establishing sides and body positioning.
The Patriots defense is one of the best units in the NFL at playing with proper leverage in the secondary to limit yards after the catch. By maintaining proper leverage, defensive backs and linebackers can funnel ball carriers to help defenders, avoiding one-on-one combat in space.
Here’s a great example from Sunday’s win. The Browns are in second and a mile, so they try to throw a quick screen pass out to a flexed out running back. Jamie Collins stays outside the blocker while Jason McCourty holds his ground inside the runner, which gives the ball carrier know where to go, and they make the tackle for a short gain.
“On a day like today, it’s really important because of the conditions that were out there. Not only the conditions but you mix that with the type of athletes they have on their side, you have to play with good leverage. Guys are slippery, and it’s hard to make tackles. From a teammate standpoint, if I’m outside and somebody is coming inside, they can guarantee that he isn’t getting outside of him, so I can go ahead and shoot my gun,” Jason McCourty said.
On a wet day in Foxboro, the Patriots stressed fundamentals to avoid slipping off of ball carriers and clumsy turnovers playing with a wet ball, and that was the difference in the game.
6. Odell Beckham, Jr. Gets Introduced to Gilly Lock
One can often determine what Bill Belichick thinks of an opponent based on how he game plans for them. For instance, if Belichick thinks highly of a star receiver, he’ll deploy double teams against him all game long. Think Kansas City’s Tyreek Hill in last year’s AFC Championship Game.
On Sunday afternoon, the Patriots put top cornerback Stephon Gilmore on Odell Beckham, Jr. one-on-one with safety help in the middle of the field (post safety), and Gilmore held the three-time Pro Bowler in check. Save a late 31-yard reception, Beckham finished the game with four catches on six targets for 21 yards, and his longest reception was only seven yards.
Gilmore spoke about working off of his post-safety help from Pats safeties Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon, and how it helps him cover a talented receiver like Beckham.
The ultimate sign of respect from Belichick is when he trusts his All-Pro corner to lock down one of the games best all on his own, and Gilmore has earned that trust from his head coach.
7. Patriots Survive With Multiple Backups on the Offensive Line
For those keeping score at home, three-fifths of the Patriots offensive line were backups on Sunday afternoon, and some were even backups to the reserves. Starting right guard Shaq Mason sat out the contest with an ankle injury, thrusting veteran James Ferentz into the starting lineup, and the Pats are already on backups at center and left tackle.
Games like today get extremely ugly at times with a makeshift unit. There were stretches in this one where the offense stalled completely because the group was struggling in pass protection, but ultimately, they were good enough to win the game.
The Patriots will get Mason back, and Karras is filling in admirably for Andrews, but there’s a lot at stake for this team when it comes to Isaiah Wynn returning and staying on the field,
Marshall Newhouse has physical limitations that are hard to overcome at left tackle; his foot speed isn’t good enough to play that spot in the NFL at starter-level.
Here, Newhouse can’t move his feet fast enough to stay in front of Browns pass rusher Olivier Vernon who brings Brady down for a sack. With tackle play, a good rule of thumb is that they need to force the edge rusher to at least ten yards behind the line of scrimmage. If the tackle hits that landmark, it’s on the quarterback to then step up in the pocket and drop to the proper depth. Brady drops to nine yards expecting Newhouse to do his job, and Vernon turns the corner well before ten yards.
If Wynn can stay healthy, and that’s a big if, it’ll upgrade the entire offensive line, and therefore, the offense as a whole. The importance of his return is massive.
8. Browns Running Back Nick Chubb Goes Off on Patriots Defense
If there was one chink in the armor for the Patriots defense, it was the lack of run defense against Browns running back Nick Chubb. Chubb, who is a terrific back, had 20 carries for 131 yards for an average of 6.6 yards per rush.
There were several factors at play that contributed to the shaky day for the Pats run defense.
First, let’s credit the Browns. Chubb was tremendous, and Browns head coach Freddy Kitchens knows how to design a running game, it’s his best attribute as a schemer. The Browns throw several different running schemes, both inside and outside runs, at defenses and have good players to execute the designs.
Second, Belichick also mentioned the weather as a factor, especially in the first half, when it came to tackling Chubb, who forced several missed tackles against the usually sure-tackling Pats defense.
“We missed some tackles and it’s always hard to tackle when you’re wet and the guy you’re tackling is wet and especially when he’s a good runner like Chubb, who’s strong and physical and can run through some of those tackles,” Belichick said.
And third, the Patriots are a lighter defense for the most part typically playing either with two or three defensive linemen. We’ll see on review, but my guess is that most of Chubb’s big runs came against six defensive backs.
If there are any areas that you can expose the Patriots defense, it might be on the ground, but it’s difficult to out-score Tom Brady featuring the running game. For starters, you have to play from ahead or at least keep it close, and your defense better have an outstanding game.
If a team beats the Patriots by running the football, the root cause of that victory would be the play of the defense or poor play by the Pats offense, not the running game.
9. Patriots Running Game Shows Signs of Life Through Inconsistencies
As of right now, my opinion on the Pats running game is that it’s far too inconsistent, but there are some good runs sprinkled in with the bad.
The Patriots got Sony Michel loose a few times against the Browns, as the second-year running back had two carries of over ten yards in the win.
On one of those two rushes, the Patriots ran their lead play with Eric Tomlinson at fullback. Michel ran behind a terrific double-team from left guard Joe Thuney and center Ted Karras while Tomlinson blocked the free defender in the hole. Once in the open, Michel ran through two Cleveland defenders to add some extra yards.
Michel’s 3.5 yards per rush was mediocre, and everyone, including him and his blockers, is to blame for the struggles. However, there are signs of life.
10. Play of the Game: James White’s 59-Yard Reception
A worthy runner-up to Jon Jones’s chase-down forced fumble; the Patriots got out of the shadow of their own goal posts with a well-timed screen pass to running back James White.
At the time, it was a one-score game, and the Patriots offense was sputtering and in need of a big play.
“They were in man coverage, and the linebacker got picked off going across the field on the screen, and James [White] made a great run. We had some good downfield blocking, too, that probably added another 15-20 yards. Certainly, that was a big one at a key time in the game. It obviously changed the field position,” Belichick said after the game.
As Belichick noted, it was a terrific run by White after the catch with a tremendous cut-back across the field to gain a boatload of yards.