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Notebook: Running back uncertainty clouds Patriots-Browns matchup

With the two of the Patriots backs leaving the Panthers game and two of the Browns' entering COVID-19 protocol, there's plenty of uncertainty for Sunday.


Coming off their best defensive performance of the season, the Patriots defense will face a significant challenge against the Cleveland Browns' top-ranked rushing attack this weekend. With both teams on the cusp of the playoff seeding, these are the games that will have a major impact on the season-ending standings. This isn't a playoff game this weekend, we're still only in Week 10, but the game's importance is hard to understate.

If the Patriots want to be AFC contenders they'll need to shut down the most potent rushing attack in the league but with news breaking on Tuesday that both Nick Chubb and Demetric Felton have tested positive for COVID-19, it could add a new dynamic to the game's most critical match up.

Still, this is a dangerous group and one the Patriots must prepare for as if they'll be fully cleared and healthy.

"You can just never take a play off," said Jerod Mayo of Chubb who leads the league with eight 20-plus runs. "He's one of these guys he'll go for two yards, three yards, four yards and then all of a sudden bust out a 70-yard run on you. There's no plays off when he's in the backfield. All these backs do a good job running the ball, this offensive line does a good job working together. This is probably our biggest challenge of the year."

"They are one of the top running teams in the NFL and they do a good job of getting a hat on a hat," said defensive line coach Demarcus Covington. "You can't say enough good things about them."

The Browns are not alone with the questions at running back entering this week. Both Rhamondre Stevenson and Damien Harris left Sunday's contest against the Panthers after sustaining concussions. Running backs coach Ivan Fears could provide no clarity as to their condition or potential to play on Sunday when speaking with the media on Tuesday.

"I don't know right now," said Fears on the status of Stevenson and Harris. "We're on a wait and see program. These protocols can take a few days to figure out what they're going to do with them. It's a big question mark."

Harris has been solid all season long, netting six touchdowns in his last five games, while Stevenson is coming off a breakout effort, rushing for 62 yards on 10 carries while also chipping in 44 receiving yards on two catches.

Fears was impressed with the rookie as he continues to learn how to be a pro.

"He did a nice job," said Fears. "The kind of stuff we expected from him, that's what he's done in practice lately and it's been kind of impressive. He's growing up, he's figuring out what it is to be a pro player. It hasn't been easy for him, but if he keeps coming we're gonna like what we see."

Both offenses would credit their ground games for being their most effective way of moving the ball. So much of what Baker Mayfield and Mac Jones have done successfully this season has largely tied into the success of their running backs.

Now, with both teams sitting in unknown territory, the presence, or lack thereof, of any of the four questionable running backs could be enough to give one team the edge, in a game that will likely have significant playoff implications.

Table inside Article
Player Carries Yards Yards-per-Carry Touchdowns 20+ yard runs
Nick Chubb 120 721 6.0 6 8
Kareem Hunt (IR) 69 361 5.2 5 2
D'Ernest Johnson 37 195 5.3 2 2

McDaniels likes Jones' progress

Josh McDaniels was among the coaches to talk with the media on Tuesday and as usual Mac Jones was a major topic of discussion. After an impressive start, Jones is settling into the ups and downs of being an NFL quarterback, but his offensive coordinator continues to be impressed.

"I think Mac has made progress in basically everything we're trying to do," said McDaniels. "I know we've hit some stretches periodically and games where we've we went through a little dry in LA where we had a few incompletions that we would like to have completed. I think Mac is working really hard to try to master and improve in all levels of quarterback play."

McDaniels was quick to remind everyone, including himself, that this is just the beginning for Jones at the helm of the Patriots offense.

"I think it's important for us to keep perspective that these are his first nine games in the NFL," said McDaniels. "We ask a lot of the quarterback position, mentally we ask a lot of the quarterback position after the ball's snapped and sometimes I see a lot of progress and things that don't necessarily show up in the stat sheet. I feel like each day is an opportunity for him to grow and improve and I think it's really important that we don't measure, we're not worried about measuring him right now. I think every day and every week is an opportunity to make progress."

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