No NFL coach understands how to expose an opponent’s weakness better than Bill Belichick. After all, he formulated the game plan that held Pro Football Hall of Famer Kurt Warner and The Greatest Show on Turf to 17 points in Super Bowl 36. And nearly two decades later, he utilized a similar strategy to limit Sean McVay’s high-powered offense to merely a field goal in Super Bowl 53.
Of course, there are countless other examples of Belichick’s brilliance that justify his reputation as the greatest coach in league history. And even though the New England Patriots haven’t been nearly as dominant in the post-Tom Brady era, it’s safe to say their longtime leader is still capable of putting together a plan to shut down opposing signal-callers.
Unfortunately for Baker Mayfield, a brutal stroke of bad luck has officially opened the door for him to become the latest quarterback to fall victim to Belichick.
However, that doesn’t necessarily mean the Browns will head back to Cleveland with their fifth loss of the season. Just like Mayfield, Mac Jones also faces an uphill battle to put points on the board due to personnel problems.
The Patriots head into Week 10 on a hot streak of shutting down opposing quarterbacks
Coming off a crushing loss to the Dallas Cowboys in which they allowed the most total yards (567) in the Bill Belichick era, the Patriots have rediscovered their vintage form on defense. Sure, they haven’t faced a murderer’s row of quarterbacks. Still, it’s hard to overlook some of the numbers and not come away thinking New England has turned a corner on that side of the ball.
A Week 7 matchup against the New York Jets could not have gone much better for Belichick’s squad. Zach Wilson and Mike White combined to complete 26-of-42 passes for 253 yards, one touchdown, and two interceptions. Obviously, though, the Patriots had a distinct advantage given the inexperience of both players.
But any lingering doubts about Belichick’s game-planning skills quickly disappeared after Week 8.
Justin Herbert became the next quarterback to fall victim to the Patriots’ mix of coverages and blitz packages. The reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year finished the afternoon with 223 yards, two touchdowns, and two interceptions on 18-of-35 passing. Herbert’s 66.7 quarterback rating represented the second-lowest mark of his young career.
Fittingly, his worst (43.7) came in a 45-0 loss to New England in Week 13 of the 2020 season.
Belichick followed up by flexing his coaching muscles against a familiar foe: Sam Darnold. The former New York Jet threw three interceptions, including a costly pick-six hauled in by impending free agent J.C. Jackson, in a 24-6 defeat at home.
Clearly trending in the right direction, the Patriots get to face a Browns offense that looks far less imposing without some key playmakers.
A brutal stroke of bad luck has paved the way for Baker Mayfield to become Belichick’s latest victim
It’s not a good time to be Baker Mayfield.
In fact, a brutal run of bad luck has set the soon-to-be-paid signal-caller up for a potentially unpleasant day at Gillette Stadium.
First, Mayfield watched the Browns move on from his most gifted wideout. Odell Beckham Jr. certainly seemed ready for a change of scenery, and he may not be an elite player at this stage of his career, but there’s no doubt Cleveland has less talent in its receiver room without him on the roster.
As if not having to deal with Beckham didn’t give Belichick enough of an upper hand, the fact both of the Browns’ top running backs won’t suit up doesn’t bode well for Mayfield’s chances of success. Although he’s eligible to return from injured reserve, Kareem Hunt will miss his fourth straight game because of a calf ailment. Meanwhile, Cleveland ruled out superstar ball-carrier Nick Chubb because of COVID-19. The All-Pro back remains on the COVID list after testing positive earlier this week.
While the Browns boast one of the best offensive lines in football, they don’t have a truly dominant threat in the passing game. And they won’t have either of their talented running backs available against the Patriots. That should make it much easier for Belichick to scheme up ways to force Mayfield into making mistakes.
If New England doesn’t have to worry about the ground game, it can afford to get creative with blitzes, stunts, and twists designed to get the quarterback out of rhythm. Plus, Belichick can vary up coverages, which would force Mayfield to think more both before and after the snap.
Considering the Patriots completely shut him down two years ago — they held Mayfield to 194 passing yards, one touchdown, and one interception while sacking him five times — it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the 2018 No. 1 overall pick struggle. And if Belichick takes advantage of a depleted lineup to put Cleveland’s controversial QB in disadvantageous situations, Kevin Stefanski’s squad will be in serious trouble.
Mac Jones faces a tough challenge of his own to lead a New England offense that won’t have Damien Harris available
The Browns enter Week 10 short-handed at the running back spot. However, the Patriots also have depth issues at the position.
Damien Harris, the team’s leading rusher, will miss Sunday’s matchup due to a concussion. His absence leaves Josh McDaniels without a key weapon and could result in more playing time for the underutilized J.J. Taylor.
After all, it remains to be seen whether Harris’ backup can play.
Coming off an electrifying performance against the Carolina Panthers that came to an because of a concussion, Rhamondre Stevenson may miss the Browns game, too. He has yet to be ruled out, so there is hope the rookie fourth-round pick will get cleared and be able to carry the load in a pivotal matchup with playoff implications.
Still, New England’s injury issues at running back don’t bode well for Mac Jones. He has leveled off in recent weeks, but with Harris out, he can’t afford to have another lackluster performance. Can he take a step forward against a fast, aggressive Cleveland defense led by All-Pro pass rusher Myles Garrett?
Ultimately, this should be a physical, grind-it-out type battle between two rock-solid defenses and two quarterbacks who need to protect the football and not make critical mistakes.
But with Bill Belichick looking more like his old self lately, the Patriots should take care of business at home against a Browns team fighting for the No. 1 spot in the crowded AFC North.
All statistics courtesy of Pro Football Reference.