Browns vs. Pats feature Gordon vs. Talib
New England quarterback Tom Brady directs his teammates during the Patriots' 24-20 loss to the Carolina Panthers on Monday night. (Streeter Lecka / Getty Images / November 18, 2013)
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NFL Team Report - New England Patriots - INSIDE SLANT
The New England Patriots' pass defense is in an uncomfortable situation heading into Sunday's matchup with the Cleveland Browns at Gillette Stadium.
There are three key reasons the Patriots (9-3) are uneasy about facing the Browns (4-8).
First, New England's secondary is littered with injuries.
Second, the Patriots are unsure which quarterback the Browns will foist on them, which has been a recurring theme for Cleveland opponents. This time a concussion last week by one-again-off-again starter Brandon Weeden is the cause for confusion.
Third, regardless of how healthy the Patriots are or which quarterback they face, Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon is on a hot streak of historic proportions.
Five of the Patriots' top six defensive backs are dealing with some sort of injury, and are limited to varying degrees, but the biggest concern is a cornerback Aqib Talib's balky hip. Until last week, when the Patriots used more zone coverage while playing the Houston Texans, Talib was assigned weekly to shut down the opponent's top receiver.
If he is able and if the Patriots return to their previous defensive approach against the Browns, Talib would be destined to take on Gordon. Even if the defensive approach is mixed, Talib would be expected to keep close company with Gordon, inasmuch as that is doable.
Weeden, Cleveland's second-year, opening day starting quarterback, threw for 370 yards and three touchdowns last week against Jacksonville but it was later determined he was concussed and is going through the NFL protocol this week. Backup Jason Campbell is still recovering from a concussion from a week earlier in a loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Third-stringer Alex Tanney, out of Division III Monmouth, has never played an NFL snap. And the team added veteran street free agent Caleb Hanie on Tuesday.
Neither Weeden nor Campbell has been cleared for practice action. Browns coach Rob Chudzinski may have to wait until Sunday to even name a starter.
Regardless, Gordon will be somebody's weapon of mass destruction if he continues on his current pace.
The second-year player is suddenly a dominant playmaker, including becoming the first receiver in NFL history to record consecutive games with more than 200 yards receiving.
Despite playing with three different starting quarterbacks throughout the season, and missing the first two weeks to an NFL suspension due to the league's substance abuse policy, Gordon leads the Browns with 64 receptions for an AFC-best 1,249 yards and seven touchdowns. He is averaging 19.5 yards per reception and shows the ability to make plays all over the field.
"He's played good all year," coach Bill Belichick said, meaning he played well, but choosing not to focus simply on the recent 200-yard efforts.
"You see the same things all year. The plays he's made the last couple weeks are the same plays he's made all year. He's a great player. He can attack all three levels of the defense. He can run through them, he can take the short plays, catch-and-run plays, crossing patterns, look patterns, plays like that, quick three-step drops and break tackles. He's very good on the intermediate routes, the in-cuts, the crossing routes, comebacks, stop-routes, things like that that attack the middle levels of the defense. He's a complete player that can run fast, catch, big target and make a lot of yards on his own after the catch with his speed, size and running ability."
Gordon is on his way toward his first Pro Bowl season. Talib has been matching up with Pro Bowl-caliber opponents for most of the year. That stopped last week when New England played more zone against Andre Johnson and the Texans.
But if Talib's problematic hip is up to it, look for New England No. 1 corner to spend some time matched up with the 6-3, 225-pound Gordon. The question is whether Talib can hold Gordon in check as he did previously this season with the likes of Vincent Jackson, Julio Jones, Jimmy Graham and A.J. Green.
Gordon is looking forward to the matchup.
"It seems like he is a real fiery kind of guy," Gordon said of Talib. "He wants to go out there and prove, I guess, he's physical and it seems as though he wants to establish himself as one of the top tier cornerbacks, and that's great and good for him. They have a great defense and he's a great player. At the same time, I have to go out there and do what I have to do regardless of who I line up against, but there is a lot of credit for what he's done this season."
Talib at least sounds ready for his latest challenge. He compares it to the challenge corners face with Detroit's Calvin Johnson, the only guy with more receiving yards this season than Gordon.
"He reminds me of one of those names, the Calvin Johnsons, the Andre Johnsons, a bigger guy with little-guy quickness," Talib said. "He can turn an eight-yard curl into a touchdown in a heartbeat."
Talib sees that rare size/speed combination that Gordon brings to the field as the biggest factor in the young receiver's success.
"You're getting a guy who's 235 pounds and runs like he's 35 pounds. That's definitely a challenge," Talib added.
But that's only a challenge if Cleveland fields a quarterback who is capable of getting Gordon the ball. New England's pass defense has been battling through injury in recent weeks. If someone can get Gordon the ball, as the Browns passers have done at a record-setting level in recent weeks, Talib and Co. have their work cut out for them.
SERIES HISTORY: 22nd regular-season meeting. Browns lead series, 12-9. Bill Belichick has taken part in 12 of the 22 games (including postseason) played between these two franchises, having served as the Browns head coach from 1991-1995 and, now, leading New England since 2000. Belichick went 3-2 in the regular season and beat the Patriots in the postseason in January 1995. As New England's boss, Belichick holds a 4-2 record. The most recent meeting was an Eric Mangini-led upset of the Patriots as the Browns pulled out all the stops in Cleveland 34-14 in 2010 in which Peyton Hillis rushed for 184 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
NFL Team Report - New England Patriots - NOTES, QUOTES
--QB Tom Brady has been photographed plenty. He is after all a professional athlete. He's also married to the world's premiere supermodel, so the paparazzi tales him to his various locales.
But a photo the Patriots quarterback took with a couple CSC security guards last Sunday in Houston at Reliant Stadium reportedly resulted in the two being fired for violating company policy.
Brady was asked about the incident in his weekly press conference.
"I don't know," Brady responded when asked if the firing was too harsh. "I don't have any comment on that. It's unfortunate, but I don't make the rules."
--Bill Belichick was a bit more humorous during his Wednesday press conference this week than is normally the case, as the coach took a couple light-hearted shots at an NFL Network reporter in attendance as well as the rival Jets - both delivered with a somewhere rare smile.
According to Patriots QB Tom Brady, Belichick isn't the rough, gruff, serious figure through the totality of the day that the media sees during its limited encounters with him.
"I know up here he is all football and all business," Brady said, speaking behind the same dais that Belichick uses on a daily basis. "We're certainly around him a lot more than you guys are so we get different sides of him. I've got different sides of him for a long time. We've got a great relationship."
Does Brady's boss tell any good jokes?
"Can he? He's got some great jokes," Brady said. "He's got some great jokes, yes. They're not appropriate to tell my young children, but they're good jokes."
--FB James Develin has been the talk of the town in New England, at least as much as any fullback can be the talk of a team that includes superstar offensive talents like Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski. Develin scored his first career touchdown on Sunday in Houston with a tremendous effort to pick up the 1-yard score. He also had a key third-down run and a 12-yard reception on his three touches on the day.
Develin is a former defensive lineman/linebacker out of Brown who spent time on the Patriots practice squad last year. Now, he's found regular playing time on an offense that's building steam heading toward the postseason.
Clearly, the lunch pail Patriot has impressed his coach with everything he's done to help New England out in the last year-plus.
"James has a role on the team and he's done a good job of executing his role, whether it's been offensively or in the kicking game or even as it relates to the scout team in practice and things like that, helping the defense get ready," Bill Belichick said. "As far as what he's been called on to do offensively and in the kicking game, he knows what his job is, he works hard to do it well, as well as he possibly can. It's actually expanded a little bit. I don't think he's ever going to be out there for every play offensively, that's not his role, but when we do have him out there or when we have him out there in the kicking game, he works hard at what he's asked to do and he's been a good contributor for the team. He's smart, he's tough, he works hard, he's a very dependable guy and there's an awful lot to be said for that."
--TE Rob Gronkowski has now played six games this season after missing training camp and the first six games while recovering from offseason back/forearm injuries. He's already second on the team with 37 catches, second with 560 yards and tied for the New England lead with four touchdown receptions, including one each in the last four games.
"He's such a physical presence on the field," Tom Brady raved of his favorite target. "His size, his length, and his speed, his quickness. He's a tough matchup. It'd be like in other sports where you have great matchups in basketball or something like that, where it's truly a one-on-one and you have a physical advantage. Gronk always seems to have a physical advantage, it's just a matter of if the scheme can help find a way to get him open."
BY THE NUMBERS: 6 -- The number of games the Patriots have lost in the 12-pluis seasons since 2001. After last Sunday's win in Houston New England is now 46-6 in the month of December dating back to 2001, the year that Tom Brady took over as the team's quarterback under the direction of Bill Belichick.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I feel differently about the Jets. We won't put them in that category." -- Bill Belichick when talking about feeling the same way about many of his former employers in his coaching career including Cleveland, Denver, Detroit or the Colts.
NFL Team Report - New England Patriots - STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
--OL R.J. Dill re-signed with the Patriots practice squad Dec. 2. The 6-6, 316-pound rookie free agent out of Rutgers originally spent time on the New England practice squad in early September after spending the summer in training camp with the Jaguars.
-T Patrick Ford was released from the New England practice squad Dec. 2. The 6-6, 305-pound undrafted rookie out of Eastern Kentucky had joint the Patriots taxi squad on Nov. 27 and previously spent the summer in camp with the Jets.
--LB Brandon Spikes (knee) was one of three Patriots not on the practice field during media viewing on Wednesday. Spikes has been playing through the injury in recent weeks, although he's limped badly late in games. He was officially listed as having missed practice, although it was deemed as being "not injury related."
--WR Aaron Dobson (foot) did not practice on Wednesday. The rookie suffered the injury two weeks again against the Broncos and missed last week's trip to Houston.
--RT Marcus Cannon (ankle) did not practice. The backup-turned-starter missed Sunday's game in Houston with the injury suffered in the first half a week earlier against the Broncos.
--CB Alfonzo Dennard (knee) was limited in practice on Wednesday. Dennard reportedly had minor surgery on the knee three weeks ago. He returned to action a week later against the Broncos but missed last Sunday's game against the Texans.
--CB Kyle Arrington (groin) was once again limited in practice.
--CB Marquice Cole was limited on Wednesday with a shin injury.
--S Steve Gregory (broken thumb) was limited once again, although he did return to game action last Sunday in Houston.
--TE Rob Gronkowski (back/forearm/hamstring) continues to be listed as limited in practice.
--TE Michael Hoomanawanui (knee) returned to practice on a limited basis after sitting out the last two weeks.
--RT Will Svitek was limited in practice on Wednesday due to an ankle injury, this after making his first start of the season on Sunday in Houston.
--CB Aqib Talib continues to be limited in practice with the hip injury that's bothered him for nearly two months.
--WR Kenbrell Thompkins was limited on Wednesday with a hip injury suffered in Sunday's win in Houston.
--WR Danny Amendola (groin) was full participation.
--QB Tom Brady remains listed with a right shoulder injury but was full participation on Wednesday.
--WR Matthew Slater continues to be full participation despite a wrist injury.
--RB Shane Vereen (wrist) was also full participation on Wednesday.
GAME PLAN: In some ways New England's opponents this week, the Browns, is similar to a Texans team the Patriots dispatched in a tight affair last Sunday in Houston.
Cleveland has an offense that is limited but led by a high-profile receiver. The Browns defense is very impressive in terms of yards allowed, but not so much in regards to turnovers, red zone or point differential.
Tom Brady and Co. should be able to move the ball against the Browns no-name but gutty unit. New England has struggled in the first half the last three weeks, but that's been followed up be second-half explosions the last two weeks. Look for the Patriots to try to spread the Browns out and get off to a fast start in what will likely be a chilly Gillette Stadium.
Rob Gronkowski remains the centerpiece of the passing attack, either making plays or sucking in the coverage to allow others to roam free. The tight end will also be huge in the red zone, where Cleveland's defense ranks 29th in the NFL. New England's offense is now based on a short passing game with Gronkowski making plays in the middle and down the field.
The running game will once again be a secondary factor of the attack and committee approach against a Browns front that's impressively allowing just 3.5 yards per carry. Defensively the Patriots may not know which ill-prepared Browns quarterback they're going to face until Sunday.
The Browns would like to run the ball, but they can't. This is a chance for the Patriots struggling run defense to play more base fronts and slow down aging veteran Willis McGahee.
New England's banged up pass defense has more of a challenge in coverage dealing with receivers Josh Gordon and Davone Bess as well as budding tight end star Jordan Cameron.
The Browns have allowed 42 sacks in 12 games, so Chandler Jones and New England's front should get some pressure on whichever quarterback Cleveland has under center. That will help the secondary, and the fact that there such unknown at quarterback shouldn't be too much for Aqib Talib and company to deal with in the back end at thome.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Patriots Pro Bowl CB Aqib Talib vs. red hot Browns playmaking WR Josh Gordon -- Talib continues to battle a hip injury, that may have been the reason that he did not actually match up with Andre Johnson a week ago in Houston, with New England playing more zone than it had all season. Gordon is as hot as any receiver in the game, having totaled 498 yards in the last two weeks of 230-plus yard efforts as the only player in NFL history to top 200 yards receiving in consecutive games. He has more than 1,200 yards and seven touchdowns in just 10 games played. If Talib is up to it, Gordon presents another elite challenge for New England's only true high level cover corner. Otherwise it will be another group effort to stop one of the game's elite playmakers this season, a guy averaging a crazy 19.5 yards per reception.
--Patriots MLB Brandon Spikes vs. Browns aging RB Willis McGahee -- The Patriots have struggled mightily to stop the run this season, especially since Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo were lost for the season due to injury. New England gives up 4.5 yards per carry on the ground. McGahee, who joined the Browns after the Trent Richardson trade, has struggled the run the ball effectively, averaging just 2.8 yards per carry on the season. Something has to give. Spikes hasn't played as well without Wilfork in front of him and has battled a knee injury. But the hard-hitting run stuffer should have chances to make plays on McGahee and the Browns other backs in this one.
--Patriots Pro Bowl TE Rob Gronkowski vs. Browns S T.J. Ward/S Tashaun Gipson -- Gronkowski's impact on the offense in New England in the six games since his return from PUP has been remarkable. He's already second on the team in receptions and yards while tied for the team lead with four touchdown catches. He's found the end zone in each of the last four weeks. Cleveland has a pair of solid safeties in Wards and Gipson who've combined for four interceptions and 17 passes defensed on the season. They will see a lot of Gronkowski in the middle of the field in this matchup, and how they meet that challenge is one of the keys to the underdog Browns trying to hang around in this one.