The trend of the Browns’ disappointing season continued on Sunday in New England. The unbelievable sequence of 3 turnovers on 3 straight offensive plays led to two Patriots touchdowns and the absence of one potential Browns touchdown. That’s a 21-point swing in a matter of minutes in the first quarter of a game in Foxborough. The game was all but decided right then and there. Penalties, missed opportunities, and plenty of other mistakes ensured there would be no comeback by the Browns.
That being said, Cleveland did have a good plan on offense for attacking the best defense in football, despite Odell Beckham Jr.’s post-game comments. The Patriots’ greatest strength is in their cornerbacks’ ability to play smothering man coverage. They are strong just about everywhere else too, but if you are going to avoid targeting an area of the defense, that would be it. This is exactly how Freddie Kitchens approached New England.
The Browns instead attacked the Patriots with their running game, featuring successful plays off of bunch-crack toss (the 44-yard Nick Chubb run and fumble), outside zone, power, and counter. They went big. They went small. They condensed the defense and they spread them out. They gave varying looks and mixed in misdirection nicely as they always try to. This resulted in 159 yards on 22 carries.
Through the air, Kitchens set out to attack New England’s linebackers and safeties in coverage, an area they deemed to be a weakness (or at least one of the Patriots’ lesser strengths).
On the Browns’ lone touchdown of the day, they were able to isolate tight end Demetrius Harris on linebacker Dont’a Hightower. You can see the play below.
First, focus on the formation. The Browns aligned with Odell Beckham, Jr. and Jarvis Landry to one side, and two tight ends to the left. The Patriots dedicated cornerbacks Stephon Gilmore and J.C. Jackson, as well as safety Devin McCourty, to Beckham and Landry. There were no cornerbacks to the other side of the field. It was clear that this would likely be some version of man coverage.
To the other side of the field, the key thing to note is that Cleveland’s more athletic tight end, Demetrius Harris, aligned inside of tight end Pharaoh Brown. This alignment got Brown matched on Patrick Chung, and Harris in a 1-on-1 with Dont’a Hightower. The matchups are shown below, denoted by color.
This created more of an athletic mismatch, where Harris had Hightower covering him instead of a safety. Hightower also had run responsibility inside, forcing him to pause for just a quick beat after the snap. This gave Harris leverage in addition to the athletic advantage he had over Hightower. The result was Cleveland’s only touchdown of the afternoon.
The Browns had other opportunities to get this game within striking distance despite their terrible start, yet they were not able to capitalize. Trailing 17-7 on their first drive of the 2nd half, the Browns used a similar concept to try and create a big play. This time, the Browns went with “13” personnel (1 RB, 3 TE). The Patriots matched up in man free coverage. You can see below that the more athletic Harris was aligned inside of Pharaoh Brown once again.
This got Harris on Patrick Chung and Brown (who didn’t even run a route on this play) accounted for by a cornerback.
Cleveland did a good job of setting up this play given the situation of the game. It was first down, they were in a big-personnel formation, and they had been running the ball well to that point. They used play-action to put the finishing touches on this run look. Patrick Chung had run responsibilities inside and ended up biting on the play fake just long enough to let Harris slip by him.
Mayfield missed this throw. From the sideline angle, you can get a better view of just how open Harris was. That ball has to be completed, especially against the Patriots.
Just a few plays later, on 3rd-and-4, Baker Mayfield took a sack that forced the Browns to settle for a field goal. Below, you can see that he moved unnecessarily to the left and into the pressure. There was no need to move left given that there was no pressure coming from his right side. Mayfield didn’t need to buy time or anything.
Sometimes, quarterbacks lose discipline and move towards the direction of the throw instead of staying on the center line. It looks like that is what happened here. The result was that Mayfield found the pass rush, lost his feet, and lost his downfield focus. He missed the opportunity to hit his running back, who was right in front of him with a step on his defender.
Baker Mayfield has gotten into some bad habits this year. The maturity he exhibited in his game as a rookie last season has deteriorated into sloppy technique and a seeming lack of attention to detail. This play was a good example. The Browns had to settle for a field goal to cut the score to 17-10. They never got any closer.
This isn’t to say that all of Cleveland’s poor performance was self-inflicted. They were playing against a very good defense. The Patriots are the best-coached team in the league, and their disguises are tough to decipher. The execution of the players on the field is second to none.
The below near interception is a great example of what makes the Patriots Defense so tough. This was 3rd-and-13. At first glance, the Patriots appeared to be playing man free coverage, with Stephon Gilmore matched up on Odell Beckham, Jr. and Jason McCourty on Jarvis Landry.
At the snap, the deep middle safety rotated over top of Beckham and Landry’s side. All 3 defensive backs to that side played with a “trail technique” after the snap, making sure to stay underneath their respective receivers and play to their safety help over the top. This appeared to be 2-man.
A great way to attack 2-man is with lateral-breaking routes. Below, you can see that this is exactly the route concept that Cleveland was utilizing.
Mayfield wanted the inside route to Landry, thinking he would be able to run away from his defender towards the sideline. But a closer look reveals that both Gilmore and McCourty were not just blindly following their receivers. Both saw the other’s route breaking toward them.
They broke off of their man coverage and passed off their routes to each other.
Gilmore was able to undercut the throw and nearly intercept it.
Whether this was Gilmore and McCourty both reacting in sync with each other, or if this was an intended disguise (we used to see this with Asante Samuel all the time), that type of execution is tough for an offense to anticipate and execute against. Especially one that is as undisciplined as Cleveland’s is.
Freddie Kitchens has shown the ability to dial up some great plays during this still young 2019 season. We like his approach, his use of misdirection, and the way he has shown that he can break down even great defenses. But the responsibility for the lack of discipline that is plaguing this team resides firmly on his doorstep. If he doesn’t get these issues corrected soon, the Browns’ poor start will turn into another disaster of a season.
The Patriots, on the other hand, are the epitome of a disciplined team. That discipline allows them to use all sorts of disguises and concepts on defense that make it difficult for offenses to overcome. The one caveat here is that they have not been challenged by a good offense yet this season. They have their first tough test of 2019 this Sunday night against the Ravens. Will Baltimore be able to crack the Belichick code? They have as good of a shot as any team out there.
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