W2W4: New England Patriots (3-1) at Cleveland Browns (0-4)

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is back. Mandatory Credit: Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports
New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is back. Mandatory Credit: Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports /
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New England Patriots Passing Defense vs Cleveland Browns Passing Offense

New England Patriots
New England Patriots cornerback Logan Ryan has had a tough 2016 to date. Mandatory Credit: Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports /

One of the biggest surprises last week was the substandard play of cornerback Logan Ryan against the Bills’ wide receivers. While a clearly hobbled Malcolm Butler was solid in coverage, Ryan seemed to have open receivers in front of him the entire game. Part of that was the game plan (way too much weak zone defense giving the receivers too much cushion) but part of that was Ryan seeming a half-step slow and not driving back to the ball.

Ryan and Butler are much better in press man-coverage and last week’s game plan may have had as much to do with Butler’s ankle as with the mobile quarterback style of Tyrod Taylor. The week prior, both Ryan and Butler (and even nickel cornerbacks Cyrus Jones and Justin Coleman) were fantastic playing press-man on Houston’s wide receiver group. If healthy, they need to get back to that aggressive, swarming defensive style.

The Patriots face Cleveland’s rookie quarterback Cody Kessler in just his third start. Kessler is accurate and intelligent and has completed 67% of his passes so far this season. With presumptive starters Robert Griffin and Josh McCown out, Kessler has had to step into the role ahead of schedule. For two weeks, Kessler has held his own.

He has a few weapons on offense who are sneaky good: wide receiver Terrelle Pryor has blossomed into the top wide receiver. While veteran Andrew Hawkins and rookie Corey Coleman have been inconsistent opposite Pryor, Duke Johnson has been excelling as the third down back. While he has not been the consistent contributor he was last year, Gary Barnidge is sneaky good at wide receiver.  

Pryor–like Julian Edelman in New England–has transformed from a college quarterback to a wide receiver. Pryor has polished route running for such an inexperienced receiver and excellent athleticism. Pryor has strong hands and speed to get deep. His biggest asset is his brain as his knowledge from the other side of the pass has helped him tremendously.

Browns quarterbacks have been sacked 11 times in four games, but the offensive line has some solid pieces. Left tackle Joe Thomas is the best blocker in the NFL and guards John Greco and Joel Bitonio are solid but Greco has to move to center. Center Austin Reiter tore his ACL and is likely lost for the season just weeks after he was signed to replace center Cameron Erving who is out with a bruised lung.

With Greco at center, the Browns have to move Alvin Bailey to right guard. Bailey was being disciplined for an off-field arrest but rookie Spencer Drango struggled at guard last week and Bailey “coincidently” had his punishment end this week.

The Patriots will be without impressive rookie defensive tackle Vincent Valentine and had to promote rookie Woodrow Hamilton from the practice squad. Hamilton is not a pass rusher so expect defensive end Jabaal Sheard to move inside on passing downs to rush the passer. With Rob Ninkovich back second-year pass rusher Trey Flowers and veteran Chris Long can bring fresh legs on the edge on passing downs and revitalize the pass rush.

The Browns will have a difficult time getting the ball downfield with a healthy Malcolm Butler at cornerback and a bounce-back week from Logan Ryan, the Patriots should be in position to confuse the rookie quarterback and create a few turnovers.