The Browns are past their bye week, refreshed and ready to hit the road once more for their Week 8 contest against the undefeated New England Patriots.
The defending champions are off to an incredible start, thanks in large part to their suffocating defense, which boasts an eye-popping 18 interceptions through just seven games. The Browns will have to play as mistake-free as possible in order to win, and fulfill a few key objectives along the way.
Here are the three ingredients for a winning mix Sunday.
Check out photos as the team travels to New England to play the Patriots by team photographer Matt Starkey
1. Pressure Tom Brady
This is first because it’s the most obvious, and the most repeated when discussing how to take down the six-time champions. After spending the week hearing a certain quote related to “ghosts” repeated — shoutout to Spooky Season — a specific game comes to mind.
In the 2015 AFC Championship Game, the Denver Broncos harassed Brady all afternoon, relying on a two-headed pass-rushing attack featuring Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware. By the fourth quarter, it was Brady who was seeing ghosts as the Broncos defeated the Patriots en route to a win in Super Bowl 50.
The Browns will need to do something similar on Sunday, and they’re equipped to succeed. With Myles Garrett, tied for the NFL lead in sacks with 9.0 through six games, and veteran edge rusher Olivier Vernon, the team has a similar duo capable of causing problems for Brady. When added with defensive tackles Sheldon Richardson and Larry Ogunjobi, they’re set up to succeed as long as they can apply pressure to the future Hall of Fame.
Cleveland will need to force New England to make some offensive mistakes that could result in turnovers and should produce punting situations. Before the Browns can attempt to control possession, they’ll first need to acquire the football, which they can only do successfully by stopping Brady and the Patriots’ offense.
“Pressure. Pressure bursts pipes, even the great ones,” Richardson said Friday when asked how to affect Brady and his ability to avoid mistakes. “It is what it is. You just have to overcome it.”
2. Shorten the offense
Much of the national media’s take on this matchup centers on one unfortunate product of the Browns’ first six games: turnovers.
Baker Mayfield’s 11 interceptions have been well documented in regards to this discussion and have been viewed by many as a reason for why they are selecting the Patriots to win this contest. The Browns can make one general adjustment in an attempt to combat such an outcome: shorten the offense.
Shortening the offense means getting the ball out of Mayfield’s hands quicker, which isn’t foolproof. One of Mayfield’s three interceptions in the Browns’ Week 6 loss to Seattle came on a quick slant to Odell Beckham Jr., which likely would have been completed had Beckham not been screened off of his route by a defender who ran into him during the play. Instead of Beckham being there to catch the pass, a defender was in the path of the ball, resulting in the interception.
But the Browns can still attempt to scheme Beckham — or others — open. Doing so quickly and taking the 4-yard gain over a 25-yard pickup should make it a more likely outcome.
If this is an issue — New England’s man-coverage strength could make it into one — there will be more of a reliance on the offensive line, which will feature a change at left tackle. Extending blocks will be just as important in these scenarios, placing more pressure on Mayfield to make accurate throws. Offensive coordinator Todd Monken explained that Thursday.
“This week is a little bit different. They will play forms of zone, but they are more of a man-match team,” Monken said. “It presents a little bit more of a challenge in terms of our guys are going to have to win their one-on-one matchups, and when they do decide to double somebody or to try and take a player away, other guys have to be able to step up. That is really what it comes down to.
“You have to, up front, your time clock and protection has to get extended because there are a lot of times when they are matching you that there are not automatic check-downs. Sometimes they get sacks off of their zero pressure. Sometimes they get sacks off of just their effort and you do not have an immediate ball to get to. You are waiting for a matchup to win and you do not win.”
The Browns will have to win those matchups Sunday if they want to come home with a victory.
3. Calculate before taking a risk
This is in relation to the second point but appears as another key because it can be the difference between a win and a loss. The Patriots do a better job of forcing game-changing mistakes than any other team in the NFL, so the Browns will have to spend twice as much effort avoiding such gaffes.
That means taking the open completion instead of taking a risk.
Now, it’ll be tough to win a game by playing it safe all afternoon. At some point, a quarterback has to take a risk. Mayfield has shown he’s not afraid of doing so when the opportunity presents itself.
But he’ll also need to accept a shorter, open, safe completion over the shot at a big play. When his guys win their one-on-one matchups, as Monken referred to this week, he’ll need to take such a risk. But he can’t force a risk just for the sake of trying to make a big play.
That’s how you’ll instead end up going turning the ball over or going three-and-out and forcing yourself to play from behind. New England is second in the NFL in three-and-out percentage at 44.6 percent of opposing possessions in 2019. And when they reach third down, they’re the best in the NFL there, too, allowing just 14 percent of third-down plays to earn a fresh set of downs.
As the Patriots’ record shows, falling behind is how you nearly guarantee a loss. New England is 97-1 at Gillette Stadium all time when leading at halftime.
“They have been a great football team for as long as I can remember,” receiver Jarvis Landry said Thursday. “That has a lot to do with it and they do not really make mistakes. You can credit their fans or whatever, but teams go on the road and win in other people’s place a lot of times and that just seems to be one place that teams do not go into and be very successful.”
A fast start and a well-balanced, realistic approach to running the offense is the best way to work toward a victory.