Browns vs. Patriots: Breaking Down Cleveland's Game Plan

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Browns vs. Patriots: Breaking Down Cleveland's Game Plan
Jason Miller/Getty Images

The Cleveland Browns are in a very unique situation. Heading into their game against the New England Patriots, they have no idea who their starting quarterback will be. Whichever less-than-favorable quarterback option they choose to start will heavily dictate the game plan for Sunday.

If they choose to go with Caleb Hanie, whom they just signed on Tuesday, they will be starting a quarterback who has not played a regular-season NFL snap since 2011.

If they go with Alex Tanney, whom they signed off the Dallas Cowboys' practice squad nine days ago, they will be starting a quarterback who has never played a regular-season NFL snap.

There is still an outside shot Brandon Weeden or Jason Campbell could play. According to Nate Ulrich of the Akron-Beacon Journal, they both have been cleared for activity but not for practice.

So the Browns will prepare to face a 9-3 divisional leader on the road with no clue who their starting quarterback will be. This should be splendid.

Patriot’s head coach Bill Belichick is a master of defensive schemes so whoever gets the nod will certainly have his work cut out for him. New England has the second-best turnover differential in the AFC at plus-eight.

The unknown Browns starter will need to stay away from turnovers and find a way to get the ball into wide receiver Josh Gordon’s hands. This will be easier said than done.

 

The Competitive Edge

Quarterback

I stopped laughing just long enough to give this advantage to New England. Tom Brady is one of, if not, the best quarterbacks to ever play the game.

The Browns could combine Jason Campbell, Brandon Weeden, Hanie and Alex Tanney, and it wouldn’t make half the signal-caller Brady is.

Edge: New England

 

Running Back

While they have had fumbling issues, the Patriots' backfield has been very solid this season. You know you have depth when you can make Stevan Ridley inactive, like they did last week, and not think twice.

Ridley would start for the Browns right now. He and LeGarrette Blount have combined for nearly 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground this season.

Edge: New England

 

Receivers

Browns breakout wide receiver Josh Gordon has taken the NFL by storm. His record-breaking last two games have put the entire league on notice.

As good of a year as Julian Edelman has had, with 711 yards and four touchdowns, he still does not come close to Gordon’s caliber.

Edge: Browns

 

Tight End

There were questions before the season as to whether Rob Gronkowski would ever return to his former self as a Patriot. The answer is a resounding yes.

In just six games, he has amassed 560 yards and four touchdowns. Brady’s favorite target is rounding into form at just the right time.

Edge: New England

 

Offensive Line

It is pretty sad that the Patriots' middle-of-the-pack offensive line is the better unit in this game, but that’s just the way it is. They have allowed 32 sacks this season and are 15th in the NFL at 4.2 yards per carry, but that’s still better than the Browns.

The Browns have also had three different quarterbacks go down due to an injury. While that is not totally their fault, it does reflect poorly on them.

Edge: New England

 

Defensive Line

The Browns' defensive line had been one of the better units in the NFL for most of the season, but its production has fallen off dramatically in the past few weeks.

On Wednesday, the Browns also announced that Desmond Bryant has an irregular heartbeat and would be placed on the injured reserve/non-football injury list.

 

 

 

 

Edge: New England

 

Linebackers

The Browns are battered and bruised at the inside linebacker position and getting very little production from the outside. Both Craig Robertson and Tank Carder returned to practice Wednesday, but neither is 100 percent.

While the Patriots do not have the best linebackers in the league, they are solid, and they are healthy. Brandon Spikes did miss practice on Wednesday, but the injury report listed it as a non-injury absence.

Edge: New England

 

Defensive Backs

The Browns placed Chris Owens on injured reserve this week with a knee injury, so rookie Leon McFadden will see increased playing time. While this would have been a scary notion a few weeks ago, McFadden has played very well in his few opportunities.

Joe Haden will look to bounce back from two forgettable weeks where he was roasted by Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown and gave up a game-winning touchdown to Cecil Shorts III against the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Edge: Cleveland

 

Special Teams

The Patriots have the second-ranked special teams unit in the NFL, and their kicker Stephen Gostkowski is the No. 2-ranked kicker.

Last week he banged through a 53-yard field goal to defeat the Houston Texans. They are as good as it gets in the NFL.

Edge: New England

 

Browns Offense vs. Patriots Defense

The Browns offense could not be at more of a disadvantage come Sunday. They were able to move the ball and score last week, but that was against the Jaguars, and they are one of the worst defenses in the NFL.

The Patriots are notorious for taking away their opponents' best option. That forces teams out of their comfort zone or at the very least someone else has to step up.

If the Patriots take away Josh Gordon, things could get very ugly on Sunday. The Browns have had no one else show up offensively since the first four games of the season when Jordan Cameron was considered an up-and-coming tight end in the NFL.

With either an inexperienced quarterback with their system or a guy who is not 100 percent running the offense, they will need to be able to run the football. That has been the weakest point of the offense this season.

The Patriots are prone to giving up points. Opponents have scored 31 against them in three of their last four games. It will take some serious creativity for the Browns to reach that mark on Sunday, however.

 

Browns Defense vs. Patriots Offense

For most of the season, the Browns defense was in the elite category. After a slew of injuries, they have been quite the opposite as of late.

The defense has lost linebackers Quentin Groves, Robertson, Carder and now cornerback Chris Owens and defensive lineman Desmond Bryant.

Over their last eight contests, they have allowed 28 points per game to opponents. That does not bode well for a road trip to Foxborough.

Owens being placed on the injured-reserve list means the Browns are now severely shorthanded at cornerback. Tom Brady is famous for finding young players and exploiting their weaknesses.

Because the Patriots play out of a three-wide receiver set as a base offense, rookie cornerback Leon McFadden will play a majority of the game and will need to play well. If he doesn’t, Brady will make him pay.

In years past, you did not have to worry about the running backs on New England, but that is not the case this season. Not only are they dangerous on the ground, but they also catch the ball out of the backfield more than most teams in the league.

If the Patriots backs were combined into one, they would have 56 receptions, which would be fourth in the NFL at their position. Shane Vereen is Brady’s favorite threat out of the backfield and has led the team in targets the last few weeks.

 

Special Teams

Scott Halleran/Getty Images

The Patriots enter the game as the second-best special teams unit in the NFL. The Browns have a top-third coverage unit, which has not allowed a touchdown this season.

The Browns also have a very good punt-return unit so these two should cancel each other out.

The big advantage for New England is its kicker, Gostkowski. He has a big leg and is the second-most accurate kicker in the league at 93.3 percent.

He is 8-of-9 from the 40-49-yard range and 4-of-5 from 50-plus. He is as good as it gets.

 

What They’re Saying

“As far as our quarterback situation goes, it’s a very fluid situation, unique, one that I haven’t necessarily been around.”

—Browns head coach Rob Chudzinski on their uncertainty at quarterback

“It’s no different than how I feel, honestly, about the Colts or the Lions or the Broncos; I feel differently about the Jets. We won’t put them in that category.”

—Patriots head coach Bill Belichick on if he has an affinity for the Browns organization

 

Browns’ Wednesday Injury Report

Did not participate: Quarterback Jason Campbell (head) and quarterback Brandon Weeden (head, knee)

Head coach Rob Chudzinski said on Wednesday both quarterbacks have been cleared for activity but not practice. He did not elaborate.

At this point, it seems like somewhat of a pipe dream for one of these quarterbacks to get cleared, practice and be ready with the game plan by Sunday. Crazier things have happened, but the safe money is on either Tanney or Hanie starting this game.

 

Limited: Tight end MarQueis Gray (hamstring), linebacker Tank Carder (knee) and linebacker Craig Robertson (hamstring)

Matt Sullivan/Getty Images

Robertson and Carder returning to practice is huge for the Browns. The Patriots attack the inside linebackers more than just about anyone else by isolating them on the running backs and tight ends.

If Robertson can play, he is by far the best of the bunch in coverage. Even if neither of these two can start, they will serve as emergency depth behind Darius Eubanks.

 

Full Participation: Running back Willis McGahee (knee), punter Spencer Lanning (knee), offensive lineman Mitchell Schwartz (toe) and outside linebacker Paul Kruger (finger)

These were the exact same names that were listed as full participation last Wednesday as well. They all played on Sunday so they should also be ready to go in New England.

 

This Week’s Game Stats and Facts

Josh Gordon broke his own Browns record with 261 receiving yards on 10 receptions (26.1 avg.) with two touchdowns vs. Jacksonville.

Gordon has a team-leading 1,249 receiving yards, the second-most by a Brown in a season and only needs 41 yards to pass WR Braylon Edwards.

According to Stats LLC, DBs Joe Haden and Buster Skrine are tied for the league lead with 17 passes defensed.

Offensive linemen Joe Thomas (108), Alex Mack (76), Mitchell Schwartz (28) and John Greco (22) have started the past 22 games together for the Browns.

 

All quotes and observations obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Game stats and facts are courtesy of the Browns and Bengals communications departments.

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