Saturday, October 8, 2016

Brady, rust and losing

There are so many juicy story lines for Sunday’s Browns-New England Patriots matchup, picking out one and dwelling on it would be a study in futility.

There’s the return of Tom Brady, the coaching genius Bill Belichick, what’s wrong with Rob Gronkowski, the ex-Brown Jabaal Sheard, the Patriots’ surprising hot start and the humiliating loss they suffered last Sunday at home.

The biggest story obviously is the return to active status of Brady, the Patriots’ quarterback who sat out the first four games of the season while serving a suspension for being a bad boy in the infamous Deflategate scandal.

Let us begin there. Many questions revolve around that return.

For example: Will Brady, who maintained his innocence before final giving up and accepting the suspension, take out his revenge my making his 2016 season a mission of retribution?

Does his four-game suspension serve as a motivator for the rest of season? “I was motivated 17 years ago and I am motivated today,” he told a national radio audience Monday night. “I’m motivated to win for my teammates. I am motivated to go out there and represent our city well.”

Sounds like the answer is yes.

And will he be sharp out of the gate, coming into Cleveland Sunday and performing as if he had never missed he first four weeks of the season? That wouldn’t surprise those who believe the future Hall of Famer can do just about anything he sets his mind to.

Or will he come out and spend most of the afternoon chipping away the rust he accumulated while he watched his teammates win all but one of its games in his absence?

After all, offense is all about timing and rhythm, two attributes that cannot be ignored. How long will it take Brady to sync up with his receivers? How long will it take to feel comfortable handing off to his running backs? Even after 17 seasons, this is not rote territory. It’s not like getting back on a bicycle after you have fallen off.

Brady over the years has experienced great success against the Browns, winning five of six games, including two in Cleveland.

In his first three games against the Browns, though, he threw for only 634 yards, just one scoring pass and three interceptions. In the last three games, he compiled 929 passing yards, six touchdown strikes and four picks. The Browns sacked him 14 times along the way.

The last time these teams met three years ago in Foxboro, the Patriots overcame a 26-14 deficit with 2:43 left in regulation, scoring a pair of touchdowns in 30 seconds (thanks to a successful onsides kick) to pull out a 27-26 victory. Brady was 32-of-52 and threw for 418 yards in that one.

One receiver he hopes to be looking for against the Browns Sunday is Gronkowski, who has been nearly invisible this season with only one catch. The All-Pro tight end, who has scored 65 touchdowns in his first six seasons, missed the first two games of the season with hamstring issues and has been limited in the last two outings.

Martellus Bennett has taken most of the snaps in Gronkowski’s absence, but it is clear Brady would much rather look for his favorite target. If healthy, Gronkowski poses a huge problem for the Cleveland secondary even though he has caught only six passes for 79 yards in two games against the Browns.

Despite the absence of Brady and Gronkowski, the Pats still managed to win their first three games to the surprise of many veteran observers who believed they would be lucky to split the first four games prior to the veteran quarterback’s return.

With backup Jimmy Garoppolo, who was injured in game two, and rookie Jacoby Brissett, who was placed in injured reserve Friday, they managed to eke out victories over Arizona and Miami before thrashing Houston on a Thursday night.

Then came the embarrassing 16-0 home loss to the Buffalo Bills last Sunday, giving Belichick, one of the great motivators in the National Football League coaching ranks, all the psychological ammunition he needs for his return to Cleveland.

What made the Bills loss so galling, it came at the expense of Buffalo coach Rex Ryan, who has been a verbal thorn in Belichick’s side for many seasons. And the fact it took place in Foxboro and was a shutout just added to Ryan’s glee.

The ex-Browns factor in Sunday’s game boils down to Sheard and outside linebacker Barkevious Mingo. And Belichick, of course.

Sheard was an immediate plug-in for the Patriots after signing as a free agent last year. He fell into disfavor with Cleveland coach Mike Pettine after posting only two sacks in 2014, well off the 21 he had in his first three seasons in Cleveland..

Shifted to his more natural position of defensive end after playing linebacker for the Browns, he registered eight sacks last season. This season, he owns three of New England’s seven sacks.

Mingo, traded to the Patriots in August, is still learning the Pats’ system and is currently backing up weakside linebacker Jamie Collins.

The New England defense permits 365 yards a game, but only 101 of those on the ground, where the Browns have been surprisingly potent this season. This one very well could be determined on who wins the line of scrimmage when the Browns have the football.

The Patriots’ pass rush has suffered somewhat due to the absence of Rob Ninkovich, who is scheduled to return from a four-game suspension for violating of the league’s PED policy. A torn triceps injury suffered a couple of months ago might delay that return. The veteran has 42 career sacks, including 30½ the last four seasons

The Pats need him pronto because their pass rush has been relatively non-existent, which adversely affects the secondary, which gives up 275 yards a game and allows opposing quarterbacks to complete an astounding 66% of their passes. And yet, the Pats own the NFL’s second-best per-game points-against average, 15.25.

On offense, Brady takes over a group that averages 346 yards a game. For the first time in a long time, Belichick has leaned on only one running back to carry the load in the running game. LeGarrette Blount has responded with 352 yards and four touchdowns.

Brady’s main targets Sunday will be former Kent State quarterback Julian Edelman, Bennett, Danny Amendola and Chris Hogan, none of whom can stretch the field. All of which means most of Brady’s work most likely will be in the short- to middle-range areas.

The big challenge for the Browns’ offense Sunday will be to continue controlling the line of scrimmage in the running game, as they have most of the season, and give rookie quarterback Cody Kessler a conservative game plan in an effort to minimize any big mistakes and keep Brady and his guys off the field..

The offensive line, which seems to get better by the game (at least in the ground game), will see another personnel switch due to injury. John Greco returns to the pivot and Alvin Bailey, who didn’t play last Sunday due to off-the-field problems, most likely will be at right guard.

Right now, Cleveland, believe it or not, leads the NFL in rushing yards with 149.2 a game. Isaiah Crowell has pounded out 394 yards, which is third in the league behind Arizona’s David Johnson and Ezekiel Elliott of Dallas.

The last time these teams met in Cleveland in 2010, and the only time Brady lost to the Browns, running back Peyton Hillis bulldozed his way for 184 yards and two touchdowns in a bravura performance to spark a 34-17 rout of the Patriots, controlling the ball for 38 minutes.

There won’t be any such rout this season by either team. Brady will, indeed, be rusty after the long layoff, but his defense covers for him and shuts down the Browns’ run game, forcing Kessler to throw the ball. He is sacked five times and throws a couple of interceptions to slam the brakes on promising drives.

Brady, meanwhile, rediscovers his magic in the second half and delivers scoring strikes to Edelman and Hogan after Blount softens up the defense, which plays well in the low-scoring first half.

The Browns manage just one touchdown, by Crowell midway through the fourth quarter. It won’t be pretty, but Brady’s return is a success. The Pats are 10½-point favorites. That sounds about right. Make it:

Patriots 26, Browns 13

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