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Keys to the Starting Lineup presented by Carmax: Patriots vs Browns

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The 7-0 Patriots return home to face the 2-4 Cleveland Browns with a chance to close out the first half of their season undefeated while giving head coach Bill Belichick his 300th career victory.

After an offseason where they were much-hyped, the Browns have failed to live up to expectations, but they are still a capable offense, having put up 500 yards on the Ravens and 400 on the Seahawks two weeks ago. If they play their best game and don't turn the ball over they have the potential to give the Patriots defense a real rtest for the first time this season.

But it's a tall task being on the road with no obvious weakness to target and the Patriots will continue to throw a variety of aggressive pressures that force mistakes.

As for the Patriots offense, they'll once again be assimilating a new piece into their attack. With Josh Gordon moving to IR and the arrival of Mohamed Sanu, the evolution of the 2019 offense continues. Last week against the Jets, they incorporated two new tight ends, produced points on each of their first four drives and the game was never in question.

Now, with Sanu, and potentially the return of N'Keal Harry next week against the Ravens, we may finally be locking in on the group New England will take to the playoffs. Cleveland's defense is below average in every major statistical category but still has enough talented pieces, starting with Myles Garrett, to give the Pats some problems, especially if their run game continues to look stagnant.

Here are the keys for the Pats to get their eighth win of the season by knocking off the Browns!

What's New, Sanu?

If the Patriots are going to make a Super Bowl run there's a good chance that new acquisition Mohamed Sanu will play a critical role. With just four days of preparation can Sanu instantly step in and contribute? It might be asking a lot, Josh Gordon chipped in with two catches in his 2018 Pats debut on a similar schedule.

Sanu can do a lot of different things, but where he's needed most is in the slot, where it's a game of inches. One wrong step and a receiver will be well off where Tom Brady wants him to be, unlike an outside receiver where there are less post-snap decisions to be made and a more basic route tree. So perhaps we should temper our expectations until after the bye week, when Sanu will have a chance to really immerse himself into the offense without the pressure of a game hanging over him.

But again, the Pats need him and the sooner he can contribute the better. A couple key catches would go a long way to re-building the excitement around the offense that took a hit with the loss of Josh Gordon.

Patriots.com's Mike Dussault shares his players to watch during the Patriots Week 8 matchup against the Cleveland Browns at Gillette Stadium on Sunday, October 27, 2019.

Start Fast

The Patriots opened Monday Night Football with their best drive of the season - a 16-play, 78-yard, 8:47 touchdown-scoring masterpiece that effectively left the game never in doubt. They incorporated everyone, showing the kind of balance they've been chasing for most of the year.

If there's one thing we've learned it's that the 2019 Patriots are at their best with the lead and they've only trailed against Washington after falling behind 7-0. They'd retake the lead at 10:39 of the second quarter, meaning the 2019 Pats have trailed for a grand total of 15 game minutes on the nose this season, one quarter. That's it through seven games.

What kind of team are they in a two-score hole? We don't know yet, they've played 96 percent of the season from a position of strength. How they react to playing from behind could tell us a lot about who this Patriots team really is and they could find themselves in that position if they don't start fast.

Prevent Explosive Plays

Cleveland ranks fourth in explosive rushing plays and 10th in explosive passing plays per Sharp Football Stats, while the Patriots defense ranks second and first respectively against those kinds of explosive plays. Nothing can alter the tenor of a game quicker than a big scoring play and the Browns will have the chance to expose the aggressive Pats defense if Mayfield can process the blitzes and get rid of the ball quickly and accurately.

The opportunities will be there, but until now no quarterback has been able to make the Pats defense pay for their attacking style that often leaves no deep safety. The front seven pressure is simply too well disguised and gets into the backfield too quickly to get them burned. Perhaps with the speed of the Browns receivers and Mayfield's arm the defense will choose a less aggressive approach, but making sure the Cover-0 play calls don't get them in trouble will be a key point of emphasis.

Contain Chubb

If the explosive plays aren't there for the Browns offense, it will be up to Nick Chubb to keep them on time with manageable down-and-distances. Chubb is a throwback workhorse with 114 rushing attempts and 20 receptions to go with his six touchdowns. He's going to be a focal point of the Browns attack and will put pressure on the Patriots defense that has preferred light boxes.

Teams have had occasional success running the ball against the Patriots defense, but never consistently enough to actually affect the outcome of the game. Both the Bills (135) and Redskins (145) had solid days on the ground but much of that was due to the design of the Patriots defense focusing on stopping the pass. The Pats run defense is *just* 8th in DVOA.

Two keys that have helped the Pats overcome the offensive inconsistency has been their time of possession (34:30 avg - 3rd in NFL) and starting field position (32.93 - 2nd in the NFL). Those numbers are an interesting contrast to their plays-per-drive (16th) and yards-per-drive (20th), giving us a sense of how much the defense is aiding the offense.

Chubb can be a big key by keeping the offense moving and clock running. If the Browns can do that they'll have a fighting chance.

Prediction

After seven games of total defensive domination how can we expect anything else when facing a Browns team with the third-most turnovers in the league? If Cleveland suddenly plays their first clean game of the season and have success with Chubb on the ground it could be interesting, but that's expecting a lot given the circumstances.

Offensively, the Pats might finally be on the road to figuring themselves out. The next few weeks will be a bit more transition as Harry and Wynn potentially re-enter the mix, but from there it should be full speed ahead toward the playoffs.

Patriots 31, Browns 10

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