Patriots vs. Browns preview: Tight ends take center stage in old-school matchup

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Perry's Pats-Browns preview: Why TE play could be the difference-maker originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

It all started in Detroit.

That's where Bill Belichick served as an assistant in the mid-1970s when he helped devise a game plan for the Lions that featured the simultaneous use of two tight ends against the heavily-favored Patriots. Charlie Sanders and David Hill were both talented pass-catchers, and they provided quick-hitting options in the passing game against New England. 

"Look," Belichick told Lions offensive coordinator Ken Shipp, according to Ian O'Connor's book, Belichick: The Making of the Greatest Football Coach of All Time. "I know we haven't ever used this formation, but, you know, I studied this formation when I was at Baltimore last year. I think this is really going to give the Patriots a problem. Can we take a look at this?"

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The Lions did more than take a look. Hill and Sanders combined for three touchdowns in the game and the Lions came away with an upset win, 30-10. 

It wasn't the first two-tight end set in league history by any means, but the Lions performed so well that day that they helped birth a name for that particular package that endures today: "Detroit." That's what Patriots coach Chuck Fairbanks termed the one-back, two-tight end grouping that gave his team so much trouble. And it stuck.

This weekend's matchup between the Patriots and Browns will function as a bit of an ode to that October day in 1976 when multi-tight end sets took the spotlight and "Detroit" in football nomenclature became something other than where the Lions play their home games. 

An argument could be made that there isn't a team in the league that appreciates tight ends as much as New England and Cleveland.

The Patriots, of course, have shown their love with the checks they've written lately. After signing Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith last offseason, no team in football has more money committed to the position over the next three-and-a-half years. 

"If you have them, they give you more formation versatility than any other position," Belichick said this week. "If you don’t have them, you can’t manufacture them. It’s a hard position to find, but if you have them, they create formational problems and they create mismatches in the running game and the passing game. 

"They give you a lot of formation options, a lot of protection options, a lot of play-action options, a lot of blocking combinations, schemes. Even on zone plays, there’s still an extra guy there. He builds another gap, however you form it. I doubt there’s too many offensive coaches that couldn’t use a good tight end or wouldn’t use them."

The Patriots had trouble finding a good one once Rob Gronkowski retired, coming up empty in 2019 and 2020 in their search for a replacement in free agency and the draft. But they believe they have two now.

The Browns, meanwhile, use more personnel packages with multiple tight ends than any team in football other than the Falcons and Dolphins, both of whom feature tight ends (Kyle Pitts and Mike Gesicki, respectively) who are typically deployed as big receivers. With David Njoku, Austin Hooper and Harrison Bryant, Cleveland features multiple tight ends on 44 percent of its offensive snaps. 

According to Sharp Football Stats, the Browns run the relatively unusual combination of one back, three tight ends and one receiver on a whopping 21 percent of their plays. That's more than double the rate of the next closest team (Atlanta, 9 percent).

"That’s their lead formation," Belichick said. (The Browns, like most teams, run a great deal of 11 personnel with three receivers. Per Sharp, it's their chosen package 46 percent of the time.)

"Sometimes it plays like 13 [personnel]," Belichick continued. "Sometimes it plays like 12. Sometimes it plays like 21. Sometimes it plays like 11. There’s a decent amount of empty [formation] out of it. They do a lot of things with it. They don’t just sit there and line up everybody right next to each other. Well, they’ll do that some. 

"Some of those close formations they can go from one open to two open to three open to five open, so you have to be ready across the board. All their tight ends can run and catch. They use some fullback in there, call it 22, but sometimes 13 plays like 22 with Bryant in the backfield. Lot to get ready for."

The Browns average 9.1 yards per pass attempt with more than one tight end on the field, and they rush for 5.2 yards per carry. With their tight-end heavy attack, they rank 13th in the NFL in points scored. No team rushes for more yards per carry (regardless of the personnel package) at 5.3, and they're seventh in the league in yards per pass attempt (8.1) despite being the only team in football without a wide receiver who has 20 receptions to his name. Jarvis Landry leads Browns wideouts with 19.

The Patriots haven't been quite as efficient out of their "Detroit" package. But they average 7.0 yards per pass attempt out of 12 personnel and 4.7 yards per carry. And they're one of five teams in the top-10 in scoring this season that has more than one tight end on the field for over a quarter of their offensive snaps. 

It wasn't all that long ago that the scoring explosion in the NFL was explained in part by offensive play-callers getting speed, speed and more speed on the field offensively. 

But the tight end position is experiencing a little resurgence.

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For teams like New England, Cleveland, Dallas and Tennessee, having the versatility that comes with talented players at that spot has allowed them to light up scoreboards in a different way.

"We're trying to make it come back, especially," Henry said this week. "It's a cool position. It's a fun position, too, because we're asked to do so many different things on the field. Behind quarterback, I feel like it's definitely one of the toughest jobs on the field. All that we're asked to do, there's so many different things in a span of a game that I'm gonna have to do. Just so many different plays. 

"The tight end position is definitely getting some love. It's always good to see some tight ends around the league getting some love."

Once upon a time, Henry was set to be an offensive tackle, like his dad, when he enrolled at Pulaski Academy as a high schooler in Arkansas. But when coach Kevin Kelley saw Henry play basketball, he suggested turning Henry into a pass-catcher. Eventually, after some initial pushback from his father, Henry shifted to tight end.

But Henry doesn't look like a tackle-turned-tight-end. He looks like a basketball player, which is becoming the norm at that spot. Even though some bigger bodies will be on the field for Cleveland and New England this weekend, that doesn't mean there will be a dearth of athleticism out there.

Tight ends can bring an old-school feel to the field formationally while providing their teams some hard-to-defend traits that prove beneficial in the modern passing game.

"I think there's always a mix of the old school coming back in with the new school," Henry said. "There's definitely more [spreading] people out nowadays than there was probably back in the day. But people still like getting into 'Pro' formation and 'I' formation, get a couple tight ends in there and run the football...

"I think with our position we can go in there, we can run a big run, but we can also stay in the same personnel and do something completely different. Spread everybody out, now we have mismatches... You can mess up the defensive personnel and just kind of confuse the defense in a way with what you're going to do on each play."

There is no doubt the Browns and Patriots will both try to mess with one another's defensive looks by utilizing heavier offensive personnel packages on Sunday.

Cleveland's best bet offensively may be to run out of "Detroit" (the Patriots are allowing 4.8 yards per carry on 104 rush attempts versus that grouping) and throw out of 13 personnel (opponents are 4-for-4 with two touchdowns against the Patriots from that grouping). 

New England's best bet offensively? The Browns have eaten up "Detroit" all year, allowing just 6.2 yards per pass attempt and 3.5 yards per carry. But if Josh McDaniels wants to turn to that highly-paid grouping, using Jonnu Smith at the fullback spot might make some sense. Cleveland is allowing 11.7 yards per pass attempt to 21-personnel packages. Therefore, deploying Smith as a back -- something they've done sporadically all season -- may give the Patriots an edge. 

For Belichick and the Patriots defense, the key will be figuring out a way to force the Browns to get their tight-end centric packages off the field.

If New England's defense can survive on first and second down, one area where the Browns offense is relatively weak is on third down. In passing situations on third down -- we looked at third-and-three situations or longer -- the Browns have a 28 percent success rate this year. The only teams with a worse conversion rate in those spots are the Panthers, Bears, Broncos, Lions, Jaguars and Seahawks.

In a 15-10 loss to the Steelers in Week 8, the Browns picked up 4.1 yards per carry on first and second down (more than a full yard below their season average on all downs) and then only converted on 25 percent (3 of 12) of their third and fourth-down conversion tries.

It won't be easy for the Patriots to bottle up Cleveland's running game on early downs -- particularly if standout running back Nick Chubb can get through COVID protocol -- but it's possible. The Steelers are 20th in the NFL in yards allowed per carry (4.4), while the Patriots are ninth (4.1). The Steelers are 13th in defensive DVOA. The Patriots are fifth. The Steelers did enough to get three drive-stalling negative runs on early downs that day. The Patriots could do the same.

By winning on some early downs, including two early-down sacks, Pittsburgh forced the Browns to bail on their beloved multi-tight end sets in favor of lighter groupings that should’ve been better -- theoretically -- in obvious passing situations. But on eight of their nine third-and-three or longer plays that day, Cleveland went with three wideouts and picked up just one first down.

Just as the Steelers did, the Patriots will have to force Cleveland's best packages off the field to win. As much as Belichick may appreciate the origin story of "Detroit," he won't want to see that particular grouping from the Browns any more than he has to.

Prediction: Patriots 24, Browns 23

X-Factor: Myles Garrett

When Bill Belichick launched into his weekly for-the-media scouting report on Wednesday, he began with threat No. 1: the Cleveland defense and their pass-rushers.

"The Browns are an impressive team to watch here," he started. "Defensively, they’ve held over half their teams to under 16 points, and the two guys on the edge, it’s hard to imagine them being better than what we saw last week, but they probably are. Garrett’s about as good as they get. [Jadeveon] Clowney, we know what he is, so it starts there."

When the Patriots saw Carolina's Brian Burns and Haason Reddick, they devised the bulk of their passing-game attack around the understanding that they weren't going to be able to block those players for long. As a result, the Patriots hit the Panthers with screens and quick game throws that negated the matchups on the edge.

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Mac Jones had the ball out of his hands in an average of 2.36 seconds, his average depth of target was just 5.8 yards (fifth-lowest in football in Week 9), and he was still sacked twice. But the Patriots did enough in the way of taking care of the ball and creating the occasional explosive play in order to beat a scuffling Panthers offense.

Josh McDaniels may have to draw up a similar plan for Sunday, particularly with Garrett on the other side. He leads the league in sacks (12.0), he's fourth in quarterback knockdowns (10) and seventh in hurries (12).

"Power. Explosion. Speed. Instincts. He can do it all," Belichick said. "He’s got a tremendous skill set. Smart player. Very instinctive player. Reacts extremely quickly. He’s as tough a matchup as there is in the league."

While the Patriots may be limited in terms of the number of shots they're able to take down the field, they could try to take advantage of Cleveland's aggressiveness up front with screens, quick-hitters, draws and trap plays at the line of scrimmage. Jones has shown an ability to be efficient in those hurry-up-and-throw types of matchups. Arguably his best game of the season came against the Cowboys and their athletic set of pass rushers.

Number to Know: 3.1

That's how many more yards per pass attempt Baker Mayfield accumulates, on average, when working out of play-action versus all other types of pass plays. It's the fourth-largest jump in the NFL, behind only Washington's Taylor Heinicke (4.1), Tennessee's Ryan Tannehill (3.2) and Jacksonville's Trevor Lawrence (3.2). 

With a strong running game and a good offensive line, the Browns have leveraged plenty of small edges to help their quarterback's overall efficiency. Not only are they an effective play-action team, but they utilize run-pass option plays as well as short bubble throws that serve as extensions of the running game.

They also have arguably the best screen-game offense in football. They average 10.3 yards per screen play with Mayfield, significantly better than the next-best 49ers and Jimmy Garoppolo (7.8). 

"Really good screen team. Yeah. Screen to everybody," Bill Belichick said this week. "Screen to the backs. Screen to the tight ends. Probably the most tight-end screens we’ve seen. Screens at receivers... Screens, RPOs, bubble passes. Same ideas... When you combine it all, it shows up multiple times every game in some fashion."

But it's via play-action that Mayfield connects on his biggest chunk gainers. He also leads the league in yards per attempt when using some type of run action (10.8).

Browns coach Kevin Stefanski worked under Gary Kubiak -- a Mike Shanahan disciple -- in Minnesota, so he's comfortable leaning on the stretch-run-action bootleg throws that have spread like wildfire across the league. But his team has a varied rushing attack game that uses the power and athleticism of its offensive linemen and allows for the play-action game to take different forms.

The way to stop it?

"Stopping the run," Devin McCourty said this week. "They're really good at play-action passing because they run the football better than anybody in the league. The games when we stop the run, it makes play-action passes a lot easier because you can trust the guys up front to stop the run. The guys that have run responsibilities are doing it. The guys who have run-pass (responsibilities), you could check and see if it's pass first. You could play it that way. But when you're not stopping the run, it makes everyone more aggressive at stopping the run, and that opens the play-action up. 

"First and foremost it'll come down to stopping the run, and making them one-dimensional. This will be our toughest challenge of the year so far."

Ground and pound

Browns' rushing yards per game (1st in NFL)

160.2

Variation

Single

It could be especially tough to stop the run if the Patriots continue to play more zone -- particularly more zone with two high safeties as they did, for example, on J.C. Jackson's pick-six last week in Carolina. That can mean fewer bodies near the line of scrimmage to rally to running backs. 

The Patriots, as Jackson said after beating the Panthers, have played more zone of late. Through the first five weeks of the season, no defense played more man-to-man coverage. New England was matching up at a rate of about 60 percent, per PFF. But over the last three weeks, the Patriots have halved that number to about 30 percent man coverage. Over the last two weeks, they're closer to playing just 20 percent man coverage.

It's been a drastic shift since Jonathan Jones hit injured reserve. Not having one of the league's most accomplished man corners, Stephon Gilmore, on the roster also may have sparked a change.

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But perhaps this week, against a receiver group that is underwhelming from a talent perspective -- especially since trading Odell Beckham Jr. -- the Patriots may shift back to more man-to-man looks. Jackson says the team still identifies as a man-coverage group. And McCourty said another change could be coming at any time. 

"We'll see," McCourty said. "I always look back to 2018. I don't know what the statistics were but we were like 97 percent man-to-man overall. And I think we played, like, 70 percent zone in the Super Bowl. The last game of the year, when you already had 18 games of film.

"I'm sure their coaching staff was like, 'This is who they are. This is what they've done. We have this large sample size. This is what it is.' And we go out there and we literally ran a couple of different calls the whole game that we thought would be really the difference in winning the game.

"I think that's what it comes down to. Whatever our defensive staff goes in there and thinks, 'Hey, this is going to be the best way for us to win this game.' That's what we're going to do. Whether it's going to be zone or man, we'll figure it out that week. I think it's on us as players to do a good job of whatever that is. It's not easy to be in and out of things. But the more we get to rep and do different things and work on those things, I think the better we can play."

Man or zone. Couple of calls or a plethora. If the Patriots can clog up running lanes for the Browns and thereby choke out their play-action passing game, they'll have a chance to take away one of Mayfield's greatest strengths.