Every week of the season, Mike Reiss and Tedy Bruschi break down the New England Patriots' upcoming game. This week's breakdown is on Sunday's game between the Patriots and Browns at Cleveland Browns Stadium.
Mike: I'm not sure too many people, looking at this time of year, would have predicted the Patriots to have the best record in the NFL at 6-1. True to form, however, coach Bill Belichick and players have said this week that six wins won't get them where they ultimately would like to be and that more work needs to be done. So that will leave the big-picture talk to us, Tedy.
Tedy: One of the things they needed to have happen to have success is the development of younger players. That's starting to happen. Last week, you saw players like Ron Brace, Myron Pryor and Brandon Tate come through for them. You look around the NFL, and it's not surprising that the Patriots have the best record. In today's NFL, there are a lot of teams lumped together. There is a lot of talent, and, in the fourth quarter of a lot of these games, it's going to be close. Players that execute in those situations will win, and what you need in those situations is good coaching. Coach Belichick has his players knowing what to do in those situations.
Mike: Speaking of Belichick, we've had another eventful week from a news perspective -- with Randy Moss' return to town as a Viking, then his surprising release. Logan Mankins has returned to the team. How does Belichick keep the players shielded from the news and focused on the task at hand?
Tedy: It starts with his credibility. It's untouchable in terms of what he has accomplished throughout his career, so when he speaks in front of the players, he has their ear because players know he knows what he's talking about. When you have things like the Moss trade, and the Deion Branch arrival, and the Mankins return, Belichick would get in front of us and say "This is the situation, and this is the way we feel as a team." When you hear that, you know what you have to do to portray a united front, and that's very important to do. Coach Belichick does a great job with that, as well as getting everyone on the same page, with the same mantra. Players believe it because it's Coach Belichick and it works.
Mike: As for Mankins, this is like a contending baseball team adding a stud player at the trade deadline. What are your thoughts on the two-time Pro Bowler returning to the team this week?
Tedy: I think he's ready. Enough is enough, and he wants to play football and be with his teammates. It's who he is and who he wants to be. It's a showing of good faith for him to get in early and wanting to get in shape. It's saying "Let bygones be bygones, I'm ready to play." The offensive line is one of the tightest units on the team, and it will welcome him back with open arms.
Mike: As for Moss, we now know he's headed to the Tennessee Titans. On the surface, it looks like a good fit for him. Would you agree?
Tedy: You can say all you want about Randy Moss taking a safety out of the box and Chris Johnson having one less defender to deal with in the running game. That can be said if Moss were to go to any team. I want to look at this from Randy Moss' perspective. He has got to realize this could be his last shot. The Titans were the only team that made a claim on him. He's running out of chances. He has to make the most of his opportunity in Tennessee. A random thought I had was, with the poor treatment Randy was given by the Minnesota Vikings this week and his obvious strong feelings he had for his time in New England, when Randy Moss goes into the Hall of Fame, will he go in as a Patriot? I think he should.
Mike: Another area to touch on this week is that the Browns are coming off their bye. We often point to that as an advantage -- the Patriots are 8-0 after the bye in the past eight years -- so that's something going in Cleveland's favor.
Tedy: A lot of it depends on who the head coach is when it comes to bye weeks. The New York Jets came off their bye last week and got shut out. I believe Rex Ryan gave them six days off, which is a lot of time during the season. Eric Mangini has a little bit of Bill Belichick in him when it comes to defensive schemes. Everyone talks about how, if you give Bill Belichick two weeks to prepare, that's dangerous for the other team. Well, if you give Mangini two weeks to prepare, also, he can pull some things out that could give you problems.
Mike: As we do every week, we'll answer a fan question each week at the end of the mailbag. We received some great submissions through the Patriots mailbag on ESPNBoston.com. At this point, though, let's take the time to detail one technical aspect of the game, and the suggestion comes from Nick, of Santa Cruz, Calif. He is hoping you could explain some of the pre-snap movements by the offense and defense and what is going on when they do that?
Tedy: Nick, pre-snap movement by the offense can be as complex as the offensive coordinator wants it to be. It can be a simple across-the-ball motion by a receiver or a shift where every skill-position player moves. After that shift, you then can get motion by receivers or backs. It can get very confusing when you're watching at home. The reason offenses do this is to make the defenses adjust. In the Patriots' defensive scheme, for every shift and motion, there can be a possible adjustment. So when there are multiple movements by the offense, most of the mental lifting is done by the linebackers and the safeties. They must relay the adjustments to the entire defense and get everyone on the same page. A simple key to look for can be if a receiver goes in motion across the ball and a defender follows him throughout the movement, this can be a tip to the quarterback that the defense is in man-to-man coverage. Defensively, movement is used to disguise coverage. Quarterbacks are usually the smartest players on the offensive side of the ball, but even Peyton Manning can sometimes be fooled. Giving the illusion of one defense when you are actually playing another can give your defensive line more time to get to the quarterback while the quarterback is trying to figure things out post-snap. Also, when you see all of the defensive lineman standing around the line of scrimmage before the snap of the ball, that is used to confuse the protections the offensive line must execute. It's gamesmanship at its finest.
Patriots defense vs. Browns offense
Mike: The Browns rank 31st in the NFL in points scored, so this isn't an explosive offense that will keep opposing coaches up at night. The offensive coordinator is Brian Daboll, the former Patriots receivers coach.
Tedy: Their offense starts with running back Peyton Hillis, who is a big, strong guy and is on pace for about 1,000 yards and is second on the team in receiving. It's rare to see a big, strong guy like that playing every down. He does it all: He can catch it, he can run it. I think their offensive game plan will be filled with a lot of Hillis coming at you.
Mike: Their leading receiver is Benjamin Watson, the former Patriots tight end, who has 30 receptions. He was No. 84 in New England, but he now wears No. 82.
Tedy: I think this is one of those situations where a fresh start can be good for a player. For him to get out there in a new environment, and maybe to have that feeling that he has something to prove, he's taken that challenge to heart and is putting up good numbers.
Mike: The Browns have had instability at quarterback because of injuries -- Jake Delhomme, Seneca Wallace and Colt McCoy. On Wednesday, it was McCoy who took the first-team snaps and it looks like he'll start Sunday.
Tedy: This is not a big-play offense. They have had only 16 plays of 20 yards or longer. Sometimes you're preparing for a team, and you might say 'These guys can score in one play.' The Browns aren't one of them, and part of it is that they don't have players to do it, or a quarterback to deliver the ball to the receivers for 30, 40, 50 yards. So what do they do? They come at you with running the ball with Hillis, and with Watson in the passing game, and they try to put drives together.
Mike: Although there are few players who really stand out on this offense, left tackle Joe Thomas, the former first-round pick, is highly regarded. Because of the talent discrepancy, I think this could be the type of game where the Browns throw a lot at the Patriots, although you make a good point on why that might not be easy to do.
Tedy: If they start McCoy at quarterback, which looks to be the case, you don't want to put too much on his plate. You just want him to learn the system. Mike Holmgren might be cautious with how he handles the development of his young quarterback, and you don't want to stunt that growth. McCoy played well against the Steelers but was not as good statistically against the Saints, so you want to provide him with a game plan that further develops him as a quarterback.
Patriots offense vs. Browns defense
Mike: Patriots quarterback Tom Brady will see a familiar-looking defense as the Browns have some Patriots-like qualities. This is a 3-4 defense that is somewhat stingy, ranking in a tie for 12th for fewest points allowed in the NFL.
Tedy: This defense reminds me of the early stages of the 3-4 defense that was played here in New England, the two-gapping, being physical, being aggressive, man-on-man, winning one-on-one battles. One player who stands out to me is Scott Fujita, whom they signed in the offseason via New Orleans. I think he has brought some championship attitude to the team, veteran leadership, and he's out there making plays. He wasn't a big two-gapping 3-4 guy before coming to Cleveland, and it looks as if he's made a nice transition. When they went into New Orleans two weeks ago, they came away with four interceptions against Drew Brees; they are making big plays, and sometimes that can be contagious.
Mike: The Browns used quite a few different looks in their upset win over the Saints two weeks ago. At one point, when we reviewed the action, we saw a two-man rush with nine players dropping into coverage. Other times, it was more of a true blitz, with six rushers.
Tedy: This is a team that will make the quarterback think two-man, three-man rush at times. Then, right when you think they might be showing a three-man rush, they'll bring seven. They show different looks and disguise coverages, and that's something Mangini always stressed in defensive meetings: "Don't tell the quarterback what you're about to do; don't give him the answers pre-snap." That was a Mangini mantra when he was Patriots defensive coordinator and as defensive backs coach.
Mike: What do you see as the Patriots' best approach in terms of attacking this defense?
Tedy: The offensive staff will look at this defense and wonder what they're going to get. It's not black and white when it comes to the Browns' defense. They know Eric Mangini, and they know he'll have a wrinkle in there, so they will gauge it within the first two series. Whatever works early in the game, that's what this offense will do. The Patriots don't run plays just to run them. They stick with what is successful. That's why you see some of the playing time vary each week for certain players. Whoever has the hot hand will be there at the end of the game.
Mike: The Browns made some big plays on special teams in their win over the Saints. Their special-teams coach is Brad Seely, who Bill Belichick previously said was one of the best coaches he's ever worked with. This looks like an area where the Browns can win a game, behind Josh Cribbs, who is a huge threat. It has to be a concern for the Patriots, who have had the action taken to them a bit on special teams the past two weeks.
Tedy: He is a huge threat. Watch out when Cribbs has the ball. This guy is due to break loose one of these days. You haven't seen any big highlight reel plays from him this year … yet. Against the Saints, you saw him draw a long pass-interference penalty, and that's another way he can affect the game. But special-teams-wise, that's where he really shines, and there is usually a game where he breaks off a big one. That hasn't happened yet. Also keep an eye on Blake Costanzo and Ray Ventrone as top coverage players for the Browns.
Mike: The Browns' kicker, Phil Dawson, actually got his start in New England. That's one thing Bill Belichick and his personnel staff have had a knack for over the years -- finding kickers. All right, Tedy, before getting to our predictions, let's fire up the reader question. It comes from Drew from Pennsylvania, and he asks about the team's rookie defenders and whether they'll hit the wall at some point. What do you think?
Tedy: They will. I did as a rookie. Week 10 was when I said to myself, "Man, we've still got six weeks to go." Having said that, it didn't alter my preparation. Bill Parcells was the head coach, and there was no way I was going to let him or the team down. Bill Belichick is the head coach now, and he knows these rookies will start to feel it and will sharpen their focus. Fighting that rookie wall is part of the process of turning yourself into a professional football player. I don't anticipate it being a problem. Good question, Drew.
Mike: As for predictions, Tedy, I think this is going to be a dogfight. Or maybe I should say "Dawg fight," given that the game is in Cleveland. I see Mangini throwing everything he can at the Patriots -- from fake field goals to onside kicks to one-man rushes -- but in the end, I just think New England has too much talent. The discrepancy at quarterback tilts it in the Patriots' favor. I'll go Patriots 20, Browns 17.
Tedy: Cribbs will make an exciting play for the Browns on special teams, but it won't be enough. Eric Mangini and the Browns are trying to rebuild that organization with many of the lessons he learned in New England. They're getting better, but the Patriots are the "big boy" version. Pats 35, Browns 14.