Uninspiring performance from Patriots: Dropped passes. Missed blocking assignments. Substitution issues on the sideline with the coaching staff and players that lead to 12-men-on-the-field penalties and general confusion. Simply put, it’s been uninspiring football from the Patriots. At the same time, credit also goes to the Browns in some areas (e.g. D'Qwell Jackson's range on an interception of a throw that was forced), who certainly haven’t quit after last week’s loss to the Jaguars.
Not as much about adjustments as execution: Unlike last week, when the Patriots altered their offensive plan at halftime, this game doesn’t strike us as much about being adjustment-based. It’s more about execution. There are opportunities there if they can make the plays. The Patriots looked like one of the NFL's worst teams in the first half.
Charting Ridley’s usage: The Patriots have eased running back Stevan Ridley back into the mix after he was a healthy scratch last week because of ball-security issues. He played five snaps in the first half.
Siliga’s presence highlights focus on interior rush defense: One of the areas prioritized defensively during the week of practice was the Browns’ inside running game. Along those lines, the Patriots started nose tackle Sealver Siliga (6-2, 325) over Joe Vellano (6-2, 300), electing for more bulk and power (and choosing Siliga over veteran Isaac Sopoaga to provide it). That was a notable personnel shift, and the results have been good. The inside running game, outside of the first few plays of the game, hasn’t been a big factor.
Closer look at cornerback usage: The Patriots started Aqib Talib and Logan Ryan at cornerback in the base defense, with Talib shadowing receiver Josh Gordon all over the field. When the Browns go to a three-receiver package, the Patriots are taking Ryan off the field and adding cornerbacks Alfonzo Dennard and Kyle Arrington as the fourth and fifth defensive backs. Something different, with Talib and Ryan two of the bright spots in a half with few of them.
Patriots open the half with ball: After winning the opening toss and deferring the choice to the second half, the Patriots will receive the opening kickoff of the half.
1. Talib shadowing Gordon. There's been no hotter receiver in football over the past two weeks than Browns wideout Josh Gordon, who has surpassed 200 yards in consecutive games. Thus far, Aqib Talib has held Gordon without a catch. That's a matchup worth watching all day.
2. Hightower strong early. After a recent stretch of play that included struggles against the Texans, linebacker Dont'a Hightower started strong against Cleveland. He's wearing the green dot on the back of his helmet, meaning he is the on-field point of communication for the defense, and he has stepped up in both pass and run coverage early on. He already has seven tackles.
3. Blount starts at running back. Though Stevan Ridley is active after sitting out last week, LeGarrette Blount was on the field for the first play of the game. Blount figures to sustain the workload he picked up last week in Ridley's absence, with Shane Vereen continuing to play a prominent role when the team goes to its up-tempo attack. Ridley has not yet played.
4. Brady picked by Jackson. The slow start for the Patriots offense has continued, as after a poor opening drive, quarterback Tom Brady was intercepted by Browns linebacker D'Qwell Jackson on the team's second drive. Brady has been intercepted in the first half in consecutive games.
5. Penalty box. The following Patriots were flagged for penalties during the first quarter: team defense (12 men on the field).
Dennard appeared to be rolled up on at the conclusion of a running play. After receiving attention from the medical staff on the field, Dennard was able to get up on his own power before heading to the locker room for further evaluation.
He was listed as questionable to play in this game due to a knee injury that had cost him two of the previous three games.
UPDATE: Dennard was back on the field midway through the second quarter.
The team announced its final five inactives -- wide receiver Aaron Dobson and offensive tackle Marcus Cannon had previously been ruled out -- which includes running back Brandon Bolden, who was listed with a non-injury issue but probable to play, and rookie wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins (hip), who was limited this week in practice.
Starting cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, who has missed two of three games with a knee injury and was listed as questionable, will play. Veteran wide receiver Austin Collie, re-signed this week, is active and will play. With Dobson and Thompkins sitting, Collie could be in line for reps as the team's third or fourth receiver.
Below is a full list of Patriots inactives:
LB Steve Beauharnais
DE Jake Bequette
RB Brandon Bolden
OT Marcus Cannon
WR Aaron Dobson
TE Michael Hoomanawanui
WR Kenbrell Thompkins
Below is a list of Browns inactives:
WR Josh Cooper
OL Reid Fragel
OL Garrett Gilkey
TE Keavon Milton
QB Alex Tanney
OL Martin Wallace
QB Brandon Weeden
After being deactivated last week against the Houston Texans following three straight games with a fumble, New England Patriots running back Stevan Ridley will play Sunday against the Cleveland Browns.
Ridley, the team's leading rusher, has struggled with fumbles throughout his career (he's lost four this season), and the team turned to Shane Vereen, LeGarrette Blount and Brandon Bolden in his absence last week.
Bolden was inactive for Sunday's game against the Browns.
After fumbling on the team's opening drive in a Week 12 victory against the Denver Broncos, Ridley was sent to the bench and has not played since. Ball security concerns during his rookie season in 2011 led to Ridley being deactivated in the AFC Championship Game and then not playing a single offensive snap in the Super Bowl that season.
What remains unclear is how big of a role Ridley will play Sunday. He politely declined to speak to reporters throughout the week, though Vereen gave Ridley a vote of confidence.
"Stevan is a great player," Vereen said. "We're there when he needs us. But he knows what he has to do and we fully expect him to do that."
In 10 games played this season, Ridley has 135 rushes for 576 yards and seven rushing touchdowns, all team highs.
ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter contributed to this report.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Welcome to Gillette Stadium, where the Patriots host the Browns (1 p.m. ET):
Weather conditions: Temperatures are in the high 20s to low 30s and there are minimal winds and no precipitation expected. A cold, crisp day and about what one would expect at this time of year in New England.
Faded paint in the end zones: Viewers might notice that the paint in the end zone which spells out "Patriots" is faded. That is a result of six high school state championship games being played at Gillette Stadium on Saturday.
Boger gets the call: Jerome Boger has been assigned to referee today's game. Boger was the referee for the Patriots' overtime loss to the Jets on Oct. 20.
Ninkovich on GameDay cover: Defensive end Rob Ninkovich, who was promoted to the defensive captaincy along with Devin McCourty after Vince Wilfork (Sept. 29) and Jerod Mayo (Oct. 13) were lost to season-ending injuries, is on the cover of the GameDay magazine sold at Gillette Stadium today.
Television switch on CBS: Bill Macatee, who was assigned to call today's game alongside Steve Tasker, had weather-related travel issues out of Dallas. Don Criqui will be on the call for CBS.
National Anthem: Performed by Shaun Soho from the Boston-based band Crash Midnight.
Color Guard: University of Massachusetts Police Department Honor Guard.
2. When it comes to their potential role on game day, Patriots players are often kept on edge by the coaching staff during the week. The idea is that they should all prepare as if they will be front-line contributors, which hopefully leads to a sharpened focus. That’s how this past week has unfolded for running back Stevan Ridley, who after running into issues hanging onto the ball was a healthy scratch last Sunday in Houston. As the Patriots came off the practice field for the final time Friday, Ridley was still unsure if he’d be on the 46-man active roster today. Our educated guess is that he will be on the 46-man game-day roster as part of an overall plan to ease him back into the mix -- probably not as a lead back but more as part of a pure committee.
3. Since tearing his ACL on Oct. 3, quarterback Brian Hoyer hasn’t traveled with the Browns to road games. That changes today as Hoyer, the former New England backup (2009-2011), will be at Gillette Stadium for the Browns' contest against the Patriots. When the 2013 season began, and Hoyer envisioned the possibility of winning a starting job in Cleveland (he eventually did and provided a winning spark), this was naturally a game he had circled on the schedule. He has fond memories of his time in New England and the trip, in addition to helping his Browns teammates, provides a rare in-season chance to catch up with several former Patriots teammates and coaches.
4. The average time of a Patriots game this season is 3 hours and 14 minutes, which continues a theme we’ve seen in recent years of longer-than-we’re-used-to games. We used to think of NFL contests as fitting in a nice three-hour window, but only four of the Patriots’ 12 games this season have come in under the three-hour mark. The length-of-game thought was sparked because the Patriots are coming off a stretch in which they sandwiched their two shortest games (2:51 vs. Carolina and 2:54 vs. Houston) around their longest game (3:53 vs. Denver). The Patriots’ overall average is skewed, in part, by their two overtime games -- against the Jets and Broncos.
5. In a storyline that might fascinate me more than others, it’s been interesting to watch from afar how Mike Lombardi has transitioned from a visible media role at NFL Network in which he was regularly conducting insightful radio interviews (such as on Boston sports radio station WEEI) to “undercover” Browns general manager. Lombardi has hardly spoken with the Cleveland press this year, only doing so for an introductory news conference, pre-draft news conference, and once in training camp. He’s essentially disappeared from a media perspective after being ever-so-visible. Part of it could be that Lombardi is a lightning-rod of sorts in Cleveland from his previous tenure with the team, and this is part of a go-undercover-to-help-rebuild-the-image approach.
6. “So much of this is timing.” Those were words spoken by Patriots receiver Julian Edelman this week and he is one of the NFL’s shining examples of this in 2013. Edelman entered this week tied for eighth in the NFL with 70 receptions, which few projected this past offseason when he was an unrestricted free agent and drew interest from just two teams -- the Patriots and Giants. The offers were far from overwhelming -- essentially one-year deals at the minimum with modest incentives -- because the biggest knock on Edelman was that he couldn't stay healthy. He’s healthy now and also one of the NFL’s most productive pass-catchers. If he continues this pace, it seems safe to say he’ll have more than two teams interested in him after this season, because so much of this NFL business is about timing.
7a. Did you Know, Part I: The Patriots are one of five teams unbeaten at home this season, joining the Saints, Seahawks, Broncos and Bengals. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the only season in the last 80 years during which five teams went unbeaten at home was in 1973.
7b. Did you Know, Part II: ESPN’s Stats & Information points out that the Lions, with a one-game lead in the NFC North, haven’t won a division title since 1993. That is the second-longest active streak behind the Browns.
7c. Did you Know, Part III: Colts kicker Adam Vinatieri, at 40 the oldest player in the NFL, has 1,968 career points. That puts him two points shy of John Kasay for eighth place on the NFL all-time scoring list and 15 points shy of Jason Elam for seventh place.
7d. Did you Know, Part IV: The Saints, who host the Panthers tonight, are 10-0 in home prime-time games over the last four seasons.
8. The Bills have played one regular-season home game in Toronto each of the last six years, and this year’s produced the lowest attendance (38,969), raising questions on how smart it is to continue with such an arrangement. In theory, the idea of regionalized growth is a good one for the Bills, creating potential new revenue streams for one of the league’s small-market franchises. But the execution might be off, and one consideration could be playing the game earlier in the year. Four of the six Toronto games have been in December, when the Bills are pretty much out of the playoff hunt.
9. When Bill Belichick led off his Wednesday news conference by saying, “I have a lot of respect for the entire Browns organization, starting with Jimmy Haslam at the top,” it was a reminder that the Patriots coach and Browns owner have a connection that goes back some time now. We also remember that Haslam, shortly after being approved as Browns owner in 2012, spent time with Patriots owner Robert Kraft at Gillette Stadium. They’ll all meet up again today.
10. I thought it was neat to see veteran Patriots defensive end Andre Carter bring his kindergarten-aged son, Quincy, into the locker room on Friday and have a few teammates, such as LeGarrette Blount, call Quincy over as if he were a member of the team. “It’s a family-oriented type of team. Guys with kids can bring them here, and it reminds me when I was young and my dad [Rubin] played for 12 years [in the NFL] and I’d be waiting for him outside the locker room,” Carter said, in a reminder that sports can create a unique bond for fathers and sons across multiple generations.
EXTRA POINT: Best wishes to Brian Lowe of Patriots.com, whose final day with the team was Friday after 13 years. Brian, an all-around great guy, is embarking on a career in public relations and will be missed in the press room at Gillette Stadium. It was a neat gesture by Patriots Vice President of Media Relations Stacey James to allow Lowe to ask the first and last questions at Bill Belichick’s Friday news conference as part of a final send-off.
As it turns out, the Patriots used the 232nd pick in the 2009 draft to select Edelman, starting his transition from signal-caller to receiver/returner, with some work on defense along the way.
His 2013 season has been his best by far, and with his contract set to expire after this season, Edelman should be in line for a nice payday.
In a visit with The MMQB's Peter King on his podcast, Edelman dissected some of the build-up to the draft and also how close he was to not becoming a Patriot.
With the picks winding down in the seventh round, Edelman's agent began fielding calls from teams about signing a free agent contract if he were to go undrafted.
He got far enough along in the process to settle on a team.
"It was going to be the Packers, it was going to be the Green Bay Packers," he said. "I don't know why, [but] my agent thought it was the best fit."
But before Edelman and his agent could proceed with formally agreeing to terms with Green Bay, they had to let the draft process conclude.
As his agent reminded him, "You watch out, the Patriots still have a pick."
We all know what happened from there, as Edelman became yet another one in a long list of value picks made by the Patriots since Bill Belichick became the head coach.
To listen to "The MMQB Podcast With Peter King," CLICK HERE.
Simply: Should the Patriots play running back Stevan Ridley, who was benched last week after three consecutive games with a fumble?
The pros and cons of reactivating Ridley on Sunday are fairly obvious, as he is the team's most talented rusher and aids the play-action passing game. If fellow running back Brandon Bolden (non-injury related) is unable to suit up on Sunday, Ridley also provides depth.
Conversely, his ball security issues are apparent, and Bill Belichick has long preached the importance of reliability among running backs.
But the question of Ridley's role isn't just about tomorrow against Cleveland, as the Patriots have three more regular-season games beyond that and are likely to make the playoffs, too.
From a philosophical standpoint, how Bill Belichick decides to proceed with Ridley will be a storyline for as long as he either remains inactive on game days or plays just a minimal role if he does dress.
We've seen players around the NFL bounce back from fumbling woes before -- longtime Giants running back Tiki Barber is among the more common references -- and Ridley has an abundance of talent that cannot be overlooked.
Quarterback Tom Brady has previously said that the team is going to need Ridley, but if LeGarrette Blount and Bolden can continue to fill-in at a respectable level, Ridley's time on the sideline could persist.
For some players, overcoming fumbling issues is as much a mental challenge as a physical one. There's no telling exactly how Ridley is approaching his current situation, or how Belichick is for that matter.
We'll find out more in less than 24 hours.
Our best guess on the list for Sunday's game against the Browns:
Steve Beauharnais: Linebacker, a seventh-round pick out of Rutgers, is on the developmental track as he's been inactive for nine games this season.
Jake Bequette: Defensive end is fifth on the depth chart and with No. 4 option Michael Buchanan hardly playing on defense, he is the odd man out, in part because of limited special-teams contributions. He has been inactive the past five games.
Marcus Cannon: Right tackle, who elevated to the starting lineup after Sebastian Vollmer sustained a season-ending leg injury Oct. 27, injured his ankle Nov. 24 against the Broncos and has already been ruled out for the second week in a row.
Alfonzo Dennard: Starting cornerback has been sidelined with a knee injury and has also missed two practices this week while in court in Nebraska for legal issues.
Aaron Dobson: Rookie receiver has already been ruled out with a foot injury for the second week in a row.
Michael Hoomanawanui: Tight end returned to practice this week for the first time since injuring his knee on Nov. 18, and could be ready to return, but with tight end Matthew Mulligan and fullback James Develin also on the roster, there might be luxury to give him another week.
Kenbrell Thompkins: Rookie receiver injured his hip last Sunday against the Texans and has been limited in practice this week.
The 226th overall pick out of the University of Illinois opened the season as the team’s top nickel rusher, a role previously held by the likes of Tully Banta-Cain, Mark Anderson and Andre Carter. While Buchanan isn’t currently playing as much on defense as he did earlier in the season, a result of Carter’s late-October return to the team, he’s still finding other ways to contribute.
“Now I’ve been asked to take on more of a special-teams role and I’m embracing that,” he said. “I want to do whatever I can to help the team win. Even to be out there on the field as a rookie is a blessing.”
One of the things that stands out with Buchanan is physical traits – at 6-foot-6 and 255 pounds, he is tall and has long arms. That’s been something that has been with him throughout his playing days, which is why he’s always worn No. 99.
“The teams I played on [as a youngster], the higher the number got, those usually went to the biggest players – and I was always tall. So 99 was the only one that fit me,” he said. “After that, it kind of stuck with me.”
Buchanan, who dons No. 99 with the Patriots, shares his “football journey”:
When he first started playing football: “I first tried in the third grade but I was too tall and didn't make weight. My mother didn’t want me to play up with the bigger, older kids. So my first official year playing was fourth grade.”
What got him started: “I was always playing sports and was always around sports when I was younger -- just playing in the streets, playing basketball, football, baseball, everything outside. After a while, my mother thought I should start doing organized sports because she saw I was pretty good at it. That’s how I got my start.”
First positions in football: “I was always a defensive end/outside linebacker. I played some wide receiver, tight end, and got to play running back for a few games.”
Favorite football teams growing up: “Being from Chicago, I was obviously a fan of the Chicago Bears and liked their defense – guys like Brian Urlacher. I was also a fan of the Eagles. I was always a Donovan McNabb fan and he’s from the area also.”
Role models growing up: “My biggest role model was my mother [Lolita Jordan]. She raised three boys, pretty much on her own. The biggest thing I learned from her was just strength and standing up for your family. I’ve seen her go through so much. My little brothers’ father weren’t really in their lives and we had our struggles growing up. She’s my rock. We had some tough times but she would never let it impact us; she wouldn’t show it and I didn’t realize it until I was older. Also, my father [Michael Buchanan Sr.]. One thing he definitely taught me was that somebody might have more talent than you, but hard work can beat talent. That’s something I’ve tried to live my life by, sports wise, always going hard and trying not to take a play off.”
Top football memories of Homewood Flossmoor High School: “One of the top memories was being elected captain of the team my junior year. The reason that was impactful to me was that we had a number of highly recruited seniors. The whole team was pretty much made up of seniors and for me to be a junior and a captain was pretty big. Also, my junior year, we made a run to the playoffs. We got to the game right before state.”
Why attending Illinois was the right choice: “For a number of reasons. First and foremost, it’s my home state. I definitely wanted to stay in state and represent where I’m from. It was good for me to go there because I’m the oldest of four and I wanted to be close to home to be around my little brothers and sisters. Also, because I was obviously a big fan of Coach [Ron] Zook at the time he was there. He told me I would come in and play and by my second year I would be starting. That ended up being true.”
Top football memories at Illinois: “Back-to-back bowl games. That was something Illinois had never done before.”
Expectations entering the NFL draft: “I really didn’t know. I heard a number of different things, but what I knew for sure was that I was given – somehow, somewhere – an opportunity to play in the NFL. That’s all I really cared about.”
Reacting to being selected in the seventh round by the Patriots: “To be in this organization, you’re blessed. From top to bottom, this is one of the greatest organizations in the NFL. I knew I would be given a fair opportunity to show my talents. I was really excited when I got that call.”
What he loves about football: “The intensity of it. If you make that big play, that sack, there is no other feeling like it. I just love being able to play a game when 11 guys are on the field at the same time and working towards a common goal.”
Lessons from the game of football: “You have to be consistent. Week in and week out, play after play after play, you can never get relaxed. You have to approach every single moment you have like a professional.”
Summing up his football journey: “It’s a journey that is yet to be completed. Still a long journey to go.”
The Patriots can capture their fifth consecutive AFC East division title with a win against Cleveland and a Dolphins loss to the Steelers. They can also qualify for the playoffs by beating the Browns and having the Ravens lose to Minnesota.
But the Cleveland Browns stand in the way, and though the team’s record suggests a struggling season (they’re just 4-8), we saw last Sunday that the disparity in talent across the NFL is much narrower than records often suggest, as the then 2-9 Texans gave the Patriots all that they could handle.
And with that in mind, here’s the five things we’ll be watching for as the Patriots host the Browns this Sunday afternoon at Gillette Stadium.
1. First half efficiency. One of the themes of the week in talking to Patriots players has been the need to start faster against Cleveland. In the past two weeks, the Patriots have trailed by an average of 17 points at halftime. Though those leads have not proved insurmountable -- they’ve overcome each of them -- the Patriots fully understand they cannot sustain this pattern of slow starts and expect to win every week. Pinpointing specifically what has gone wrong has not been easy, as the consensus appears to be that the Patriots simply need to execute better and avoid first-half turnovers.
2. Return of Ridley? After sitting out last week because of fumbling issues, will running back Stevan Ridley be back in the mix? That’s one of the biggest questions surrounding this Sunday, as the third-year back continues to be a player of note. The Patriots were able to run the ball effectively enough to win in Ridley’s absence last Sunday, but he’s their most talented rusher and a potential game-changer. If he sits again, one could wonder if he’ll become part of the running back rotation at any point this season, barring an injury. If he returns, how much will he be utilized?
4. Run defense. Injuries have dramatically impacted the Patriots’ ability to stop the run, as they’ve slid down to 31st in the NFL in rushing defense, allowing more than 138 yards per game. The Broncos and Texans each had their way on the ground against the Patriots, and they’ll need to tighten the clamps this Sunday against Cleveland. If there was ever an opponent to help the team get back on track, the Browns are one of the candidates, as they rank fifth-worst in the NFL at just 82.3 rushing yards per game, including just 3.7 yards per carry. They have a rotation of backs that includes veteran Willis McGahee and capable pass-catcher Chris Ogbonnaya. The Patriots must slow whoever takes the lead role on Sunday.
5. Keeping Brady upright. New Browns defensive coordinator Ray Horton has roots with the Pittsburgh Steelers and a pressure-oriented front that he brought with him to both Arizona and now Cleveland. While serving as the Cardinals' coordinator in 2012, Horton schemed up perhaps the best game plane to slow down the Patriots that they saw all season, as Brady was sacked four times (he was sacked just 23 times in the other 15 games) and the Patriots were held to a season-low 18 points. The personnel is different in Cleveland, but Horton has some of the same elements at his disposal, and finding a way to slow down this attack much more effectively than they did a season ago will be critical for the Patriots on Sunday.