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Notebook: Hightower eyes trench battle vs. Browns

Despite some uncertainty with the Browns' top running back, the Patriots defense is expecting a tough battle along the lines on Sunday.


Despite the uncertainty surrounding the running back position for both the Patriots and the Browns, New England's defenders kicked off the start of Week 10 by stating the obvious -- that Cleveland has one of the most potent ground games in the league and it's not just about their stable of running backs.

"The hogs in front of them make a lot of that stuff go," said Dont'a Hightower of the Cleveland offensive line, one that has seen two of their blockers, Joel Bitonio and Wyatt Teller, both handed contract extensions this week. "Whenever they're clicking on offense, [the ground game is] a big problem.

"Very good running team," said Bill Belichick. "They've really dominated the running game for most of the season, which has let them dominate time of possession, field position and so forth. It's been a major edge for them."

Figuring out a way to dull that edge will be the challenge for Hightower and the Patriots front this week. In recent games the defense has been coming on, especially against the run, turning things around from 2-4 to now 5-4. After a down year in 2020, the Pats run defense has gone from the 32nd-ranked DVOA run defense to the 17th-ranked. This week's matchup against the top-ranked DVOA rushing offense should be a good barometer for the improved unit.

"Here in New England as a culture you always want to pride yourself on being able to stop the run and being good in that aspect," continued Hightower. "Since Week 1 we've harped on it, it's been something we've attacked each week, and each week we see more and more improvement."

Davon Godchaux was a big part of New England's success against the Panthers last week. The veteran defensive lineman was part of a heavy, throwback 3-4 defensive alignment that Godchaux called his favorite front because of the flexibility it allows. The Browns should expect to see more of it with Godchaux being moved around to exploit different matchups.

"Gotta bring our hardhats and that starts today, on Wednesday, execute our fundamentals and techniques and get after it," said Godchaux.

"It's gonna be a battle of the trenches," said Hightower. "And I think the game is probably going to be one where, whether it's us making it tough for them and forcing them into tough passing situations. Or whether they come out and are able to run the ball and get four or five yards [per carry], you know it's going to be a long day for us."

Practice & Injury Report

The Patriots got to work on their preparations for the Browns on Wednesday and it was a noticeably lighter group of attendees with Damien Harris, Rhamondre Stevenson and Gunner Olszewski all not spotted after suffering concussions in the team's win over the Panthers. Also not spotted were Jamie Collins and Matthew Judon, but Judon posted earlier in the day from the hospital where his wife had just given birth to their third child. Collins was listed with an ankle injury on the initial Injury Report.

The was also a sizable return to practice with Trent Brown back on the field for the first time since going on Injured Reserve last month. Brown could help provide a boost to the offensive line, though the line has found a bit of a stride in recent weeks, settling on a starting five that has helped the team win three-straight games.

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