The New England Patriots (6-1) come to Cleveland Browns Stadium on Sunday afternoon on a five-game winning streak and are in first place in the AFC East Division with nine contests remaining in the regular season.
The Patriots have forced 13 turnovers and drawn opponents into committing 39 penalties for 319 yards. They are plus-seven in the turnover battle and have returned two interceptions for touchdowns.
“The first thing that stands out with them is what a good job they do at not beating themselves,” said Browns coach Eric Mangini. “They’ve done it historically where they just don’t make those mistakes that cost them the game and they’re very good at capitalizing on mistakes that other people make.
“You look at the San Diego game. Whether it was the ball the rookie receiver put on the ground or the backward pass that they returned, things like that, consistently, they don’t make those mistakes and they take advantage of their opponents when they do,” he continued. “The focal point is doing whatever they need to do on that Sunday to win the game.”
In addition to the team’s nine interceptions, they are sound in getting to the quarterback. Reserve right defensive end Mike Wright has a sack in four consecutive games and leads the team in that department. Linebacker Jerod Mayo has made 94 total tackles, more than double the amount of the Patriots’ second-leading tackler, Brandon Spikes (46 total stops).
As a team, the Patriots have limited opponents to an average of 101.6 rushing and 282.4 passing yards-per-game.
“Defensively, I’d say that like the other two phases, it’s game plan-specific,” Mangini said. “We’ll see some things that other people didn’t see. It’s very sound in the running game and the passing game. They don’t give up big plays.
“Vince Wilfork is a real force at the defensive line; they move him around some,” he added. “Jerod Mayo has done an outstanding job. He’s got a tremendous amount of tackles, especially compared to the next-highest guy on the roster. The secondary is young, but they’ve done a good job overall.”
From an offensive standpoint, quarterback Tom Brady has completed 147-of-225 passes for 1,602 yards and 12 touchdowns against four interceptions this season. Brady has connected with 13 different receivers, including Wes Welker, who has a team-leading 40 receptions after returning from off-season surgery.
Tight end Aaron Hernandez has 29 catches for a team-high 388 yards and Rob Gronkowski, another tight end, leads the Patriots with three touchdown receptions.
“He’s just so good at identifying what the defense is and then taking advantage of the defense,” Mangini said of Brady. “He’s a complete, equal-opportunity quarterback. It doesn’t matter who he’s throwing to; he’s throwing to the open guy. He can defeat the scheme and keep moving the ball down the field.
“They have some young tight ends that have really produced for them,” he added. “They’re a challenge and they’re going to do whatever it takes to move the ball. They do that each week and they do it well.”
The Patriots average 9.5 yards-per-punt-return and 26.8 yards-per-kickoff-return. They have limited opponents to 6.1 yards-per-punt and 24.6 yards-per-kickoff return in coverage.
Wide receiver Julian Edelman has returned seven punts for 83 yards, an average of 11.9 yards-per-return, including a 34-yarder. Second-year wide receiver Brandon Tate has returned 25 kickoffs for 723 yards and two touchdowns, including one from 103 yards.
Twinsburg High School product Zoltan Mesko handles the punting duties. He has 25 punts for 1,097 yards and has pinned opponents inside their 20-yard line seven times.
“They’ve done a nice job of taking advantage of the opportunities. They had the blocked punt and a blocked field goal against Miami,” Mangini said of the Patriots’ special teams units. “They had the kickoff return for a touchdown against Miami. They’ve produced some other good plays in coverage and they’ve got a range of guys that can return the ball and do it well.”
WOODHEAD STILL IMPRESSES
At one point in his football career, Danny Woodhead was the NCAA’s all-time, all-division leader in rushing yards. Though Woodhead’s mark was broken by Mount Union’s Nate Kmic, the 5-foot-8, 195-pound running back has found a way to succeed at the NFL level.
Woodhead, who originally played for the New York Jets under Mangini, was a free agent at the beginning of the year and signed with the Patriots on September 18th. Since joining the team, he has rushed for 178 yards and two touchdowns on 36 carries. He has made 14 catches for 136 yards and one touchdown.
“Guys, when they come in the league, they can grow; they can change; they can evolve and if you get guys with good work ethic that are smart and have talent, and then you give them the tools to get better, they’re going to take advantage of them,” Mangini said. “They become really good players. Sometimes, it’s about giving them an opportunity and then spending time with them to help them learn.
“Danny Woodhead is a great example of that,” he concluded. “We talked to him after the Draft and got him to come to New York and he played a little bit, was on the practice squad and now, he’s getting the opportunity. He’s got a great work ethic. He just keeps committing to his craft and it shows up.”