By Greg Doyle, Patriots Daily Staff
The Patriots travel to Cleveland this week in an AFC matchup against a young, but dangerous team, playing at home.
The Browns have lost some close games, three by one score or less, and beaten some tough foes like the Super Bowl Champion New Orleans Saints on the road. While I don’t usually buy into the “trap game” thing, any team is capable of beaten any other any week, if there is such a thing, its this week. The Patriots are riding high at 6-1 with the best record in the NFL. They have two huge games coming up against traditional rivals after Cleveland out on the road against Pittsburgh and back at home against Indianapolis. Cleveland is 2-5 and likely starting a rookie quarterback. If this young Patriots team has really learned how to take things one game at a time as Bill Belichick preaches, we should know this week based on how prepared they are versus Cleveland.
Colt McCoy (#12), Quarterback: McCoy is a rookie this year after coming out in the draft following a highly successful career at the University of Texas. Cleveland ended up taking McCoy in the third round and it was a fairly big surprise he went that low. Most had him at least in the second and at least possibly in the first round. McCoy doesn’t overwhelm you in any one area, but he has more wins than any quarterback in Division I history. And in the Browns last game, just McCoy’s second NFL start, he helped pull off a startling win at Super Bowl Champion New Orleans. This week against the Patriots will be his first home game. McCoy has played pretty well, all things considered, in his first two road starts accumulating a not terrible 76.5 QB rating. McCoy is a smart quarterback. He won’t force throws, he moves around the pocket and is accurate. He doesn’t have an overly strong arm, but he knows what he is doing. He’s still a rookie, so if things start going south it could fall apart for him, but on the other hand if he plays well early he is smart enough to manage the Browns to a victory over the Patriots.
Peyton Hillis (#40), Running Back: Cleveland appears to have gotten a steal in acquiring Hillis this year from Denver. Denver traded a 6th round pick in 2011, a conditional pick in 2012 and Hillis to Cleveland for Brady Quinn. So far, all Hillis has done is lead Cleveland in rushing with 460 yards through 7 games with 5 touchdowns and 27 catches on top of that. Largely used as a fullback in college at Arkansas, Hillis has shown elusiveness, speed and power that is surprising for his 6’2″ 250 lb. frame. He is a bit more of a power back than anything and generally this type of back the Patriots have historically handled better, but one place he could hurt them is out of the backfield. He has good skills in that area of his game. Hillis did have a strained calf for a couple games, but is now reportedly 100%. Containing him could go a long way towards the Patriots forcing the young McCoy to throw and really getting Cleveland out of its game plan.
Benjamin Watson (#82), Tight End: Watson, of course, is the former Patriots first round pick who never lived up to his potential in his six seasons here. A first round pick, big things were always expected of Watson, but he never reached the levels hoped for in New England. Its not that he was a horrible tight end, he did catch 165 passes and score 20 touchdowns his last 5 years with the Patriots, he just wasn’t first round level. Had he been picked in the third round, he’d probably be considered a solid draft pick. But as the last pick of the 2004 first round, he was always burdened with expectations. He occasionally had big games, such as the opener last year versus Buffalo. He is remembered for an exceptional hustle play in the playoffs versus Denver following the 2005 season. But on the downside, he’d follow up good catches with easy drops. He got dinged up a lot and was occasionally inconsistent as a blocker. He’s actually on pace for over 60 catches in his first season in Cleveland, which would easily represent his best year and what was hoped for in New England, if he keeps it up. In general, he was a pretty good soldier his time here. He seemed well liked by his teammates and gave at least an acceptable, if disappointing, six years of performance. Both sides have moved on. The Patriots have drafted young, promising tight ends who are producing and Watson seems to have fit in well in Cleveland. As a Patriots fan, I wish him well. Just not this week.
Scott Fujita (#99), Linebacker: Fujita came over to the Browns from New Orleans this offseason as a big acquisition and a defensive captain on a Super Bowl Champion. So far, he has produced for Cleveland with 44 tackles, 4 sacks, 1 interception and 2 forced fumbles. Those are very solid numbers for a linebacker thru 7 games. Cleveland has utilized Fujita quite a bit on the edge in their 3-4 defense and there is talk he could be headed to his first Pro Bowl season. Fujita is a good player who has some speed as an edge rusher. As the Patriots have occasionally struggled versus these types of players, Fujita is someone the Patriots will have to find a way to help out on should either tackles struggle containing him early.
T.J. Ward (#43), Safety: Another rookie, Ward has developed into one of the harder hitting safeties in the NFL already. He has made a big impact for the Browns as a second round choice. He played his college ball at Oregon where he was teamed with Patriots safety and his friend Patrick Chung for a time at safety. Ward and Chung are a lot alike, good athletes, tough, physical, smart and energetic safeties who are going to punish receivers if given the chance. Mike Holmgren seems to have done a good job in the draft his first year in Cleveland and Ward was certainly a find at safety. One that may eventually end up matched up again someday with Chung in the Pro Bowl. For this week, Patriots receivers should be wary, because he’ll be looking to make a play and sting them if he can’t.