New England Patriots punch clock, Cleveland Browns, 34 – 17

New England Patriots improved to 5-0 by beating visiting Cleveland Browns, 34-17. Patriots seemed to employ a game plan in the first quarter that was designed to keep the score down. When that resulted in a 20-0 halftime lead the offense pretty much just stopped playing altogether in the third quarter, allowing the Browns to catch up a bit and ultimately come away with a nominally non-humiliating 17-point loss.

New England Patriots took to the field with their fourth starting offensive line combination of the season: Left tackle Matt Light, left guard Logan Mankins, Russ Hochstein in for center Dan Koppen, right guard Stephen Neal and right tackle Nick Kaczur. Throughout the game the line did a terrific job of protecting quarterback Tom Brady. Light and Mankins are ridiculously well-synched on the left side. They double, peel, pick up blitzes and loops, and what not like nobody’s business. Hochstein played very well as fill-in center.

Patriots started off with a shotgun formation with runningback Sammy Morris in the backfield, tight end Kyle Brady and wide receivers Randy Moss, Wes Welker and Donte Stallworth. Brady got off to a rough start when he failed to hold his block, limiting Morris to three yards. Then Moss got flagged for false start. Tom Brady got the drive back on track with passes to Brady and then Moss to give the Patriots a first down at New England’s 41-yard line. From there Patriots mixed hard-fought runs, short passes and a 20-yard fade route to Moss to get a 1st and goal at Cleveland’s 3-yard line. That’s where things broke down. Patriots tried a quick pass left to Stallworth, but it was batted down at the line of scrimmage by a defensive back who blitzed the gap between Mankins and Light. Mankins blocked down, Light blocked out, and runningback Kevin Faulk couldn’t get in position fast enough to prevent the bat down. On second down the Patriots tried a run to the right, but it was chased down from behind when Light failed to cut block the right defensive end. On third down Browns’ defense managed to confuse the well-protected Brady enough to make him throw a pass into double coverage. Stephen Gostkowski kicked the field goal that put the Patriots up for good.

Patriots’ first touchdown came one play after cornerback Asante Samuel picked off a pass that had been tipped by inside linebacker Adalius Thomas. A well-protected Brady threw a short pass to Stallworth who broke a tackle and raced to the end zone for a 34-yard touchdown.

The second touchdown was a well-designed play-action pass out of a fourth-receiver set that lured Cleveland’s linebacker to the line of scrimmage. Brady tossed a soft pass left to tightend Benjamin Watson who easily scored a 7-yard touchdown.

The third quarter was a dreary mess offensively for the Patriots. The receivers would run one route and Brady throw something else. I think Brady went 3 of 8 passing in the quarter. The best play of the quarter was an end round with Watson carrying out of the Power-I right. Fullback Heath Evans drove former Patriot Willie McGinest into the ground. What surprised me a bit on was that no one was keying on Evans, even though he normally is the lead blocker in that formation. You’d think somebody would follow him to the ball, so to speak, but I guess not.

The offensive line did an excellent job blocking in the third quarter, as it did throughout the game, but Brady and the receivers just weren’t in synch.

After Cleveland pulled to 20-10 the offense got going again, albeit with a halting drive that included a fourth-down conversion. On the subsequent play Patriots had a two-tightend set and split Evans wide right and Moss wide left. I think that was the first time the Patriots have used that formation this year and you’d think the Browns would have called a time out to get an appropriate personnel group or defensive alignment on the field, but instead they let Patriots snap the ball and Brady hit Watson – who was covered by a lone safety – deep over the middle for a 25-yard touchdown.

Browns did a good job of taking Moss out of the game (meaning he caught a mere 3 passes for a middling 46 yards), but Stallworth and especially Watson punished them for doing so. Stallworth grabbed four balls for 65 yards and also ran once for 12 yards and a first down. Unfortunately he also got flagged for holding in that third-quarter from Misery, and he also dropped a third-down pass tht would have been good for a first down in the second quarter. Watson had six catches for 107 yards and two touchdowns.

The Room For Improvement play of the game was a whiffed block by Hochstein on a third-and-goal situation in the middle of the second quarter. A defensive tackle blew right by Hochstein and stopped Morris for a loss of three. Mankins had a lineman facing him and couldn’t have helped Hochstein, but you’d think Neal would have helped Hochstein secure the lane before peeling off to block a linebacker. Alternatively, Hochstein could just have made the darn block.

Morris had 21 carries for 102 yards. Wes Welker got lost in coverage and finished with four catches for 19 yards.
The defensive player of the game was inside linebacker Junior Seau who snagged two interceptions. He killed the Browns’ hopes of victory on Cleveland’s first offensive series. On second and goal from New England’s two-yard line, Seau stuffed the lane over the left offensive guard and in the process Cleveland’s run play. On third and goal Seau picked off a pass that cornerback Asante Samuel had batted up.

In the second quarter Seau intercepted a floating duck thrown by Cleveland’s quarterback Derek Anderson as he was hit by Patriots outside linebacker Mike Vrabel. Seau made a zig-zagging 23-yard return during which he made a celebratory two-hands in the air gesture. He’s one crazy dude, that Seau. The interception set up Patriots second touchdown of the game. Seau finished the game with four tackles and two assists.

Nose tackle Vince Wilfork also had a beast of a game, logging five tackles, one assist and a sack, and he consistently held his ground against Cleveland’s quite capable offensive line.

Inside linebacker Tedy Bruschi almost looked like the Bruschi of old, logging two crushing sacks off of well-designed delay blitzes that left uncontested lanes to the quarterback. Plays like that don’t work unless all the pass rushers execute their roles properly to engage the blockers. Beautiful stuff.

One shouldn’t forget Randall Gay who made the highlight play of the game when he stripped Browns tightend Kellen Winslow of the ball, recovered it and took it 15-yards to the endzone for the final touchdown of the game. Gay also had yet another good game tackling. Patriots seem to be much better at tackling this year than in 2006.

The best post-game quote was delivered by Adalius Thomas: “We picked a lot of humble berries today, so we’ll have a nice dose of humble pies.” (You can hear Thomas and other Patriots players talking about the game here.)

New England Patriots – Cleveland Browns game stats.

Game highlights.

Tom Brady at his post-game press conference: “We weren’t as sharp as we would have like to be.”

Monday updates:

The Boston Globe‘s Mike Reiss writes the following on his Reiss’s Pieces blog:

Watson’s fourth quarter scoring grab, of 25 yards, was one of the two plays run out of the 1 WR/3 TE/1 RB grouping, with Heath Evans serving as the third tight end by lining up on the line of scrimmage.

That’s incorrect. As I noted above, Evans was in motion towards the right sideline. Watson was the tightend (on the right side of the formation) on the line of scrimmage.

Tedy Bruschi’s second sack was opportunistic rather than planned. He was actually in man-coverage on the tight end, but when he saw him blocking Vrabel, Bruschi took off for the quarterback, according to Bruschi himself on WEEI today.

Wednesday updates:
John Tomase has a Tale of the Tape analysis of the game at BostonHerald.com.

Albert Breer, the original teller of tape tales, has moved from MetroWest Daily News in Framingham, Massachusetts, to a local daily in Texas, where he no doubt keeps yapping about how awesome zone blocking is, because nothing says football like five piles of lard who move sideways while minimizing contact with opposing players. Breer was on Mike Felger’s show on Boston’s ESPN radio station today, talking about the strengths and weaknesses of Dallas Cowboys, the Patriots’ next victim (yes, I think the Pats are going to absolutely kill the Cowboys). He also talked about how the ‘Boys differ from the Patriots, mentioning specifically how one of the Cowboys has discussed at length and in detail his injury with Breer. Breer joked that he almost felt compelled to tell the player to stop. The only thing the Patriots will ever say about an injury is “it’s in the injury report.” Sometimes Belichick will expand on that by adding a joke along the lines of “I’ll make sure you’ll be the first to get it.”

There’s been a bit of controversy around one of the last plays of the game, when the Browns spiked the ball and Vrabel set off some pushing and shoving by rushing towards the ball, knocking a Browns offensive lineman into the quarterback in the process. After the game another Browns offensive lineman, Erich Steinbach, accused Vrabel of having gone after somebody’s knees, even though the game was “over with.” I think it’s pretty clear Vrabel wasn’t going for the knees, but more importantly, if the game was over, why did the Browns spike the ball instead of letting the clock run down? [Friday update: Vrabel disclosed on the Felger's show today that he was fined by the League for the hit but is going to appeal.]