New England Patriots

INGLEWOOD, CALIFORNIA - OCTOBER 10: Austin Hooper #81 of the Cleveland Browns at SoFi Stadium on October 10, 2021 in Inglewood, California. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Now that Odell Beckham Jr. has a new NFL residence in Los Angeles and his jersey likely hangs on the discount racks in Cleveland, the Patriots won’t have to account for a “13” on the field in Sunday’s encounter with the Browns.

But they’ll still have to defend against his old number. Thirteen. As in, one back and three tight ends. It’s a personnel grouping the Browns employ far more frequently than anyone else, using it on a fifth of their offensive plays (21%), according to Sharp Football Stats.

More important than the sheer frequency of Cleveland’s three-tight-end usage is its flexibility.

On its own, as Bill Belichick reminded recently, a tight end can help create formation versatility more than any other position. Putting three of them out there at the same time, whether stacked side-by-side to form an unbalanced front to run behind or detached as very eligible receivers, allows the Browns to manipulate and exploit matchups.

Which, naturally, creates a conundrum for defensive coordinators. Counter with big bodies in your base defense to contain the run, you can suddenly find yourselves trying to cover the pass. Go light with extra defensive backs, you can be sure they’re going to run it right at you.

An excellent look at the Browns’ effectiveness out of 13 packages can be found on the team’s website, compliments of one of its all-time greats, Joe Thomas.

  • “They do a lot of things with it,” says Belichick, whose coaching counterpart Kevin Stefanski calls Cleveland’s offensive plays. “They don’t just sit there and line up everybody right next to each other. Well, they’ll do that some. Some of those close formations they can go from one open to two open to three open to five open, so you have to be ready across the board. All their tight ends can run and catch.”

    That last line, regarding the individual similarities of the Browns’ tight ends, is why safety Devin McCourty believes they pose a different — and more difficult — collective challenge than previous 13 sets the Pats have seen this year.

    “Three different guys that can do a lot on the field,” McCourty says. “They run a lot of 13 personnel with all three tight ends in there, and whether it’s (David) Njoku, (Harrison) Bryant or (Austin) Hooper, all of those guys in the passing game can hurt you vertically. They all can run, they all can catch.

    “They run 13 personnel, we just don’t see that a lot. I think they do a good job running out of that and then going empty. Now you’ve got to cover and deal with guys who are good athletes and can make plays.”

    CINCINNATI, OHIO - NOVEMBER 07: Baker Mayfield #6 of the Cleveland Browns throws the ball during the first half against the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium on November 07, 2021 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images)

    CINCINNATI, OHIO – NOVEMBER 07: Baker Mayfield #6 of the Cleveland Browns throws the ball during the first half against the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium on November 07, 2021 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images)

    Njoku, a first-round draft pick in 2017, leads Cleveland with 21 receptions. Hooper, a former Falcon whose early touchdown grab helped Atlanta build its 28-3 lead in Super Bowl LI, is tied for second on his current team with 20 catches. Bryant, who’s more apt than the others to line up in the backfield, has 11 receptions.

    Considering that all are good blockers in a run-dominant offense, their skillsets make them interchangeable. Which makes Cleveland’s trio unusual.

    “It’s a very interesting thing when you’re talking about whether it’s coaching or playing or scouting that position,” McCourty explained. “I would say across the league (tight ends) look totally different depending on who you’re playing. I think tight ends have a lot of versatility, but each tight end is so different that you have to know what they do well (and) how the team uses them. That’s when you can start to put things together from a game plan standpoint and how you’re going to defend them.

    “That’s what makes Cleveland a little different…All of those guys can do some similar things, where sometimes you play against a group of tight ends where you kind of know, ‘Alright, this is the guy that’s going to split out. This is the run-blocking guy.’”

  • Speaking of run-blocking...

    CLEVELAND, OHIO - AUGUST 22: Linebacker Oshane Ximines #53 of the New York Giants misses the tackle on running back D'Ernest Johnson #30 of the Cleveland Browns during the first quarter at FirstEnergy Stadium on August 22, 2021 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)

    CLEVELAND, OHIO – AUGUST 22: Linebacker Oshane Ximines #53 of the New York Giants misses the tackle on running back D’Ernest Johnson #30 of the Cleveland Browns during the first quarter at FirstEnergy Stadium on August 22, 2021 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)

    When the Browns were without Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt in Week 7, just as they are against the Patriots in Week 10, D’Ernest Johnson stepped in to make his first NFL start. Then he high-stepped his way to 146 yards on 22 carries to help defeat Denver, 17-14.

    That Cleveland could overcome the absence of two of the league’s best running backs by inserting an undrafted free agent who initially went to work out of college as a fisherman can’t be attributed to any single factor.

    Certainly, it’s a credit to Johnson, who became the career all-purpose yardage leader at the University of South Florida before his post-collegiate days of fishing for mahi mahi off the coast of Key West. And partly, it’s a by-product of a rushing scheme tied to a long track record of success as it evolved out of the imagination of Gary Kubiak.

    But as much as anything, if not mostly, it’s a testament to road graders paving Johnson’s paths through the Broncos’ defense.

    “The hogs in front of them make a lot of that stuff go,” says Patriots linebacker Dont’a Hightower. “They’re able to pull the center and pull the frontside guard on certain plays that some (teams) might not do. Whenever they have that versatility and capability to do it and do it well, it just makes those running holes and gaps a lot harder to get to and a lot easier for guys like Chubb to take advantage of. And when he takes advantage of it, you definitely can tell when he does.”

    CLEVELAND, OHIO - OCTOBER 21: Running back D'Ernest Johnson #30 of the Cleveland Browns runs with the ball after making a first quarter pass against the Denver Broncos at FirstEnergy Stadium on October 21, 2021 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

    CLEVELAND, OHIO – OCTOBER 21: Running back D’Ernest Johnson #30 of the Cleveland Browns runs with the ball after making a first quarter pass against the Denver Broncos at FirstEnergy Stadium on October 21, 2021 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

  • Ditto for Johnson.

    “They’ve got gap plays,” Belichick says of the Kubiak-inspired attack utilized by Stefanski. “They’ve got zone plays. They’ve got the midzone plays, outside plays.”

    Executing it all is one of the game’s best offensive lines, in which the Browns have invested heavily and are intent on keeping intact. This past week, they extended guards Joel Bitonio and Wyatt Teller through 2025. In all, according to Jason Fitzgerald of overthecap.com, Cleveland’s spending on its offensive line is $68.3 million per year.

    When they establish the run first, the Browns become much more dangerous when they throw it.

    “They do a really good job of marrying that all together,” Hightower said. “Take the play-action and the boot game with (quarterback Baker) Mayfield and (receivers) Jarvis (Landry) and (Donovan) Peoples-Jones and all these other guys that they have and it just creates a really, really big problem. Whenever they’re clicking on offense, they’re a big problem.”

  • It's Official

    NFL referee John Hussey speaks with New England Patriots linebackers Roosevelt Colvin (59) and Mike Vrabel (50)  against the New York Jets during an NFL Wild Card playoff game Jan. 7, 2007 in Foxborough.  The Pats won 37-16.  (Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)

    NFL referee John Hussey speaks with New England Patriots linebackers Roosevelt Colvin (59) and Mike Vrabel (50) against the New York Jets during an NFL Wild Card playoff game Jan. 7, 2007 in Foxborough. The Pats won 37-16. (Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)

    Sunday’s game will be officiated by the same crew that adjudicated the Pats’ Week 3 game against New Orleans, headed up by referee John Hussey.

    Overall, through nine weeks, Hussey’s crew has averaged 10.3 penalties per game. However, in the Patriots-Saints pairing, there were just six accepted penalties for 45 yards.

    Only three teams have been flagged more frequently than Cleveland (64 times) and none have accrued more penalty yards than the Browns (602).