Cleveland, OH – The formula continues to add up for the Patriots as they rolled to a 38-15 victory over the Cleveland Browns at FirstEnergy Stadium on Sunday.
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick tied the great George Halas for the second-most wins all-time in classic Belichick fashion. New England outclassed the Browns by sticking to a blueprint that now has them on their first winning streak of the 2022 season: play superb defense and efficient offense with fewer turnovers to play the game on their terms.
Cleveland came into Sunday's action as the NFL's top rushing team in most statistical categories. However, the Pats using a jumbo base defense, shut down the Browns rushing attack in the first half, giving its offense time to build a lead, and eventually, the game script forced Cleveland to go away from Nick Chubb and the running game. There's no way the Browns wanted to drop back 52 times and only hand the ball off 18 times. But that's what happens when you get down on the scoreboard.
As the Fever continues to grow, rookie quarterback Bailey Zappe is pushing all the right buttons. Zappe doesn't necessarily "wow" you with downfield dimes, but it's encouraging how often he's getting to the open receivers in the progression and how clean his overall process is each week.
Zappe's competent play for a first-year quarterback that entered the season third on the depth chart is something we shouldn't undersell. Although the Browns and Lions aren't elite defenses, Zappe is making it look easy compared to his counterparts around the league.
The only negatives in the game for the Patriots were 11 penalties, sloppy pre-snap management on offense, and three key injuries that we'll monitor moving forward (Barmore, Bourne, Davis).
Here are eight observations as the Patriots now have an even 3-3 record this season:
1. Powerful Play of the Game presented by Enel: Rhamondre Stevenson's 31-Yard Touchdown
The Patriots had never rushed for a touchdown on third-and-ten or longer in the Bill Belichick era until Stevenson took a well-timed handoff against a Brown blitz to the house.
After asking around in the post-game locker room, Stevenson's touchdown was a called running play in the huddle that was well-timed by the coaches. The Browns had a stunt-blitz called in a passing situation, where safety Grant Delpit added to the rush while others on the line dropped out. The Pats had the perfect play call, with tight end Hunter Henry working across the formation on a split-zone scheme that hit perfectly right at the blitz, and Stevenson did the rest.
Giving credit where credit is due, unofficial play-caller Matt Patricia deserves a hat tip for that one.
2. Patriots Run Defense Shuts Down Browns Top-Ranked Rushing Attack
Entering Sunday's action, the Browns were the top-ranked rush offense by both Football Outsiders' DVOA metric and expected points added per play. Before the game script forced the Browns into passing the ball, the Pats defense held Cleveland to a 31% success rate and -0.52 expected points added per play in the first half, which is elite run defense.
New England stopped the run out of an odd front (3-4) base defense with three safeties and one cornerback on the field rather than a traditional two corners in the secondary. The bigger package, combined with more "Eagle" fronts where the D-Line plays straight up over the offensive line rather than tilted to one side, kept the Browns ball carriers in check. Although he didn't register a sack, defensive leader Matthew Judon made a noticeable impact along with the interior defenders by setting the edge and penetrating the line of scrimmage for a TFL.
After struggling to start the year against the run, the Patriots run defense has righted the ship with the game plan focusing on stopping two top-ranked rushing attacks in consecutive weeks.
3. Patriots QB Bailey Zappe is Starting to Make Things Interesting in New England
As most know, we've consistently vouched for Mac Jones here and believe that the second-year quarterback should retain his job when he returns from injury. Although Zappe's efficiency numbers are off the charts (+0.32 EPA per play), it's still more of a layups offense with the first-year QB operating in the short and intermediate passing (6.4 average target depth) and primarily off of play-action to generate explosive plays (ten play-actions on live charting).
Style points may speak to the offense's ceiling against an elite defense with Zappe, but when you outscore your opponent's 67-15 in two starts, there's no denying the kid can play. Regardless of the opponent, this stat line is impressive: 24-of-34, 309 yards, two touchdowns, and zero interceptions.
Zappe's best plays on tape come off under center play-action. For example, he maneuvered the pocket nicely to find clean air, waits for Tyquan Thornton to clear the underneath zone defender, and put the ball on his fellow rookie for a 21-yard gain. Above, he finds Jakobi Meyers on a "read it" route for a big gain off play-action as well.
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick will continue to get peppered with questions about who his starting quarterback will be when Jones is eventually cleared to play by the medical staff.
4. Patriots Defense Tees Off on Browns QB Jacoby Brissett
With the Patriots accomplishing their goal of putting the game in Jacoby Brissett's hands, this was a more aggressive approach by the Pats pass defense. New England typically relies on its five-man pass rush package in passing situations but added a few cover zero blitzes in this one to rush Brissett into poor decisions and errant throws.
The Patriots got a free runner through the left side of the Browns offensive line with an all-out rush. With linebacker Ja'Whaun Bentley providing the unblocked pressure, Brissett's throw falls well short of the intended target, and Jalen Mills reads it for an interception.
As the season progresses, the "exotics" are increasing for a Patriots defense that's dealing right now.
5. Patriots WR Tyquan Thornton Building Momentum in Two-Touchdown Performance
Let's not call it a breakout performance yet (six touches, 53 yards, two touchdowns), but second-round pick Tyquan Thornton's talent is evident the second he steps on the field. The Pats rookie's speed is a game-changer; drawing coverage, challenging corners on vertical routes, stretching the field horizontally, and using his quickness to uncover in the red zone.
Thornton's shiftiness to lose defenders at the line of scrimmage and get open inside the five-yard line, as he did on a two-yard slant touchdown, is an added bonus to his vertical speed. Thornton was also open at least once downfield on a go route, but the safety shaded in his direction, forcing the ball elsewhere, while he cleared out coverage for Hunter Henry's touchdown. Overall, it's exciting to see Thornton impacting the game.
6. Patriots Tight Ends Come Alive in Third Quarter Touchdown Drive
Most were understandably puzzled by the lack of production from the Patriots two big-ticket tight ends, who had a combined 16 catches for 153 yards and zero touchdowns in the first five games of the season. The two almost matched that yardage total in one game, really one drive, combining for 122 yards and a touchdown on Sunday.
The highlight came when tight end Jonnu Smith broke free from the Browns defense for his biggest gain as a Patriot and New England's longest play from scrimmage of the season. Smith ran the seam off play-action, and after Zappe back-shouldered the throw to shield him from the incoming safety, Jonnu bounced off two Browns defenders and ran for a 53-yard gain. After signing a big free-agent deal two offseasons ago, that was a play two years in the making.
The Patriots must keep getting their tight ends involved, especially in the red zone.
7. Other Patriots Rookies Contribute as 2022 Class Emerges
In another positive sign, Zappe and Thornton weren't the only members of the rookie class who contributed on Sunday. First-year corners Marcus and Jack Jones were also in the mix on defense (and Marcus on returns), while DL Sam Roberts filled in for an injured Christian Barmore (knee) in the pass-rush package, and running backs Kevin Harris and Pierre Strong got their feet wet. We'll see how it all looked on film, but it was encouraging to see them out there.
8. Browns DE Myles Garrett is a Handful, Isaiah Wynn Benched
After getting beat clean around the corner by Garrett on a strip sack, the Patriots essentially benched Wynn for Marcus Cannon at right tackle. Wynn did rotate back later in the game. Garrett is an advertised monster. He forced multiple false starts with guys jumping out of their stances to block him, was held, had a strip-sack, and did his best to keep Cleveland in the game. The dude is a game-wrecker.