By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
The Cleveland Browns offense may not be ready to do what it takes to solve the Patriots defense. But they definitely boast the deepest arsenal of weapons that the 2019 Pats have prepared for so far.
For a defense that is on a historic pace, the easiest way to slow down the Browns’ offensive attack is probably to sever the head of the snake with quarterback Baker Mayfield. So you may see an aggressive approach similar to what they did to disrupt Jets QB Sam Darnold. Can they make Mayfield see some ghosts?
But at the same time, the Patriots’ linebackers and secondary have their hands full with covering not just dynamic wideout Odell Beckham Jr., but slot receiver Jarvis Landry, running back Nick Chubb, and tight end Ricky Seals-Jones as well. It’s not like they can just key on taking away one guy. More than any other game this season, it’ll take a total team effort.
That won’t necessarily stop them from being aggressive. Because the defense’s most important quality this season is their trust in each other and cohesiveness as a unit, which allows them to make the right call on any given snap.
“I think even with calls, if it’s an aggressive call, that doesn’t mean that there’s nobody there protecting for a big play,” said cornerback Jason McCourty Friday. “That still doesn’t mean that you’re not going to have people there to gang-tackle. I think when going against an outfit like [the Browns] with so many talented skill positions, the main thing is going out there and competing, knowing that everybody’s at the point of attack.
“I think, from an awareness standpoint – ‘Alright, here’s the call, OK how can they get us in this call? What guys can threaten us deep? How do we find out? Who’s responsible for that? How can we help him?’ I think that’s the main thing, having awareness of what our weak spots on what any given defense could be.”
Well, there’s pretty much no weakness. McCourty and the rest of the Patriots’ deep secondary is playing as well as any in Bill Belichick’s entire tenure as head coach, thanks in large part to being firmly on the same page. At the same time, a short memory is essential. They know, especially with Cleveland, that they can get burned for a big gain on any given snap. Taking it one play at a time becomes even more important. But what this defense has also done so well is adjust from drive-to-drive, which has allowed them to roll with the punches and dominate for 60 minutes. It helps to have their level of experience and time playing together.
“I think with so many veterans, that’s the one thing we do a good job of,” said McCourty. “When we get to that sideline, no matter how the series went, we’re going over the surface [tablet]. We’re talking about ‘Would you get backside on this route,’ drawing up the routes over on the sideline. Just trying to continue to work there. ‘OK, I think he was kind of open on this, I think they’re going to come back to it.’ Just always doing that throughout the game, I think, helps us stay on our toes and adjust.”
The Browns offense may present the biggest challenge yet for the Patriots defense, but the same is true on the other side. One big question is which Mayfield will show up. He struggled mightily against the 49ers in Week 5, but lit up the Ravens for 342 yards and a touchdown in Week 4. Both games came on the road.
So while it’s possible the Patriots get the best version of a talented quarterback and his weapons, their defense remains as locked in as any unit in the NFL on either side of the ball. On Sunday, like it has all season, it will come down to trust. And they have oh so much of that.
More notes from Foxboro ahead of Sunday’s matchup with the Browns…
Brady-Sanu connection already has plenty of ‘juice’
Mohamed Sanu seems like a perfect Patriots kind of receiver. He’s a hard-nosed pass-catcher who works the middle of the field, a willing blocker, a versatile weapon who can hit you with a double-pass if called upon. Tom Brady had an interesting word choice when describing what made his first week with Sanu a good one.
“I think it’s his willingness to embrace this opportunity,” said Brady. “He brings a lot of juice, so it’s good to have. It’s good to see someone that’s competitive. If you watch him play, he plays with an attitude. He’s got a little chip on his shoulder, too, so I think we can relate to each other. And he can relate to a guy like Julian [Edelman], because he was often overlooked in his career, and I think he plays that way.”
Juice? Sanu one-upped Brady on that one.
“I mean, I feel like I bring the juice and the squeeze.”
Whatever that means. It sounds like a good thing? Sure seems like the two are quickly building a connection, which could mean the arrow is firmly pointing upward for the Patriots offense.
What Deatrich Wise learned from Michael Bennett
The Patriots may have traded Michael Bennett to the Cowboys, ostensibly due to his unwillingness to adapt to what was a decreased role for him in a defense that he didn’t necessarily fit. But the 33-year-old Bennett did do something valuable while here: he helped make Deatrich Wise a better player.
“He was one of my good friends in the short time that I knew him,” said Wise. “He had a lot of information and a lot of good knowledge. I wish him the best.”
The third-year defensive end explained how Bennett’s experience helped him refine the smaller details of his game.
“[Bennett] plays across the whole defensive line, so he plays outside, inside,” said Wise on Bennett. “He’s a great person. I learned pretty much how to set up moves and make them more efficient.”
No matter who helped make it happen, Wise has played some of the best football of his career despite playing just 15.7 snaps per game. He’s racked up a sack, forced fumble, and six QB hits in six games. And Bennett probably could have learned something from him: to listen to the coaches and put in the work that’s asked of you, regardless of your role or playing time.
Even though Bennett couldn’t do what it takes to stick around and make it work, at least he passed on some knowledge to Wise. You can at least argue that Bennett helped the defense that way.
Justin Bethel adjusting quickly to Patriot way
Special teams ace Justin Bethel quickly signed with the Patriots after the Ravens released him before the trade deadline, deciding without much deliberation. But in his excitement he left himself with a slight … equipment problem.
“And I was like ‘Yeah, OK, we’re signing with them – oh, I don’t have any clothes,'” Bethel quipped Friday, describing his initial reaction to heading to New England. “‘So, let’s get to it.’ And, uh, you know, I’m definitely very excited. And, you know, this this team has a very strong foundation and a very, very good past record. So I know I’m excited to be here and hopefully be a part of the next big thing.”
The addition of Bethel could prove more important than it seems on the surface. Despite already having one of the best gunners of all time in Matthew Slater, the Pats are still giving up an average of 27.3 yards per kick return. Having basically two Slaters should help tighten that up.
Bethel noted that his role really is what it is and the adjustment is minimal. He should be able to make plays for the Patriots’ coverage units right away, especially as part of a dynamic duo with Slater.
“I mean, a lot of it is just run down, you know, keep what you gotta do and make your plays when they come to you,” said Bethel. “So for the most part, I would say there are some things that you can always – that are always different from team to team. But for me, I think it’s not ever too – they kind of let me stick with what’s gotten me here.”
LaCosse, Izzo out vs. Browns
The Patriots will have only two tight ends at most to choose from for Sunday’s active roster. Ben Watson and Eric Tomlinson are likely to play after making their season debuts for the Pats on Monday night, but Ryan Izzo (concussion) and Matt LaCosse (knee) have already been ruled out.
Clearly the Pats value LaCosse enough to continue to carry him on the main roster, since placing him on injured reserve would effectively end his season. Izzo continues to battle through a concussion he apparently suffered during practice last week.
On offense, the Patriots looked as sharp as they have all season at times. Playing with two tight ends and moving them all around the field was a major component of that. But it’ll be interesting to see what the team does once all four tight ends on the roster are healthy. It’s unlikely they all stick around in the long-term.
More Notes from Foxboro coming on Monday, after the Patriots take on the Browns at Gillette Stadium…
Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at email@example.com.