10 things for Patriots-Browns

Updated: November 6, 2010, 4:47 PM ET
By Mike Reiss |

Here are 10 areas that project to be crucial in Sunday's game between the New England Patriots and Cleveland Browns at Cleveland Browns Stadium (1 p.m.):

1. Recognition in pass protection: The Browns vary their defensive pressures under coordinator Rob Ryan, running the gamut from two-man rushes to all-out blitzes. Recognizing what is coming immediately after the snap, and having every offensive player working off the same script, will be crucial for the Patriots. Running back Danny Woodhead's role as a pass-catcher could be big for the Patriots, with him releasing out of the backfield in situations in which the Browns drop eight or nine defenders.

[+] EnlargeColt McCoy
Derick E. Hingle/US PresswireThe Patriots' defense will try to confuse Cleveland's rookie quarterback Colt McCoy.

2. Peyton Hillis' production: The 6-foot-1, 240-pound Hillis is one of the biggest running backs the Patriots will face this season. He leads the Browns in rushing (460 yards, 104 carries) and is second in receptions (27), so it makes sense to think the Patriots will look to take him away and force the Browns to beat them in other areas.

3. Special-teams fireworks: The Browns rank third in the NFL in punt-return average, second in kickoff coverage and second in punt coverage. That's impressive production in three of the "Big 4" areas, although the Browns do rank last in kickoff return average. They can win games on fourth down, and the Patriots -- who have tailed off on special teams in recent weeks -- must answer the challenge.

4. Deion Branch's effectiveness: The veteran receiver was limited by a hamstring injury last week, taking himself out of bounds on a 21-yard screen play when there was more yardage to be gained. He has been limited all week in practice, putting his availability in question. If he's limited again, Brandon Tate and Julian Edelman figure to see more opportunities.

5. Confusing Colt McCoy: The Browns' rookie quarterback is expected to make his third career start. While the defensive plan figures to be straightforward on early downs, third downs are when the Patriots can dial up some creative wrinkles in an attempt to make it harder for McCoy to diagnose what is coming. Still, the Patriots rank 32nd in the NFL on third down and 31st overall in first downs allowed.

6. Joe Thomas vs. Jermaine Cunningham: The Browns' best offensive lineman is left tackle Thomas, the 2007 first-round draft choice out of Wisconsin. While the Patriots can flip their outside linebackers, there will be times when rookie Cunningham is matched up against Thomas in a one-on-one battle to monitor, specifically in the running game.

7. Patrick Chung's likely return: The second-year safety worked out on the field before Sunday's win over the Vikings, testing his injured knee, but couldn't pass the test. One would think Chung will be back this week, which puts him in the mix to be covering Browns tight end Benjamin Watson, who leads Cleveland with 30 catches and can threaten the deep part of the field down the middle.

8. Riding momentum in the red zone: The Patriots are coming off a solid red zone performance with three rushing touchdowns in the win over the Vikings. The Browns have been stingy in this area, ranking ninth in the NFL in holding opponents to nine touchdowns in 22 trips inside the 20-yard line.

9. How the Browns match up with Aaron Hernandez: The Patriots have morphed from a three-receiver offense into more of a two-tight-end attack, in part because rookie tight end Hernandez provides receiver-type flexibility. If the Browns stay in the base defense, rookie safety T.J. Ward (the Browns' leading tackler) could draw the tough assignment.

10. Battle of the kickers -- Phil Dawson vs. Stephen Gostkowski: Two of the NFL's better kickers square off in Cleveland's Dawson and New England's Gostkowski. Dawson actually spent time in New England in the late 1990s, learning under the guidance of Adam Vinatieri. Cleveland can be a tough place to kick because of the unpredictable wind.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPN Boston. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter