By: Russ Goldman
Each week I am hoping to bring a view of the upcoming game from a writer who covers the Patriots opposition, and this week we have Nate Ulrich, who is the Browns beat writer for the Akron Beacon Journal.
Nate was nice enough to take some time to answer my questions about Sunday’s game, and it’s always interesting to get some insight from someone who covers the opposing team on a daily basis.
Here are my “Five Questions About The Upcoming Browns Game with Nate Ulrich Of The Akron Beacon Journal.”
1. Patriots fans are very familiar with Eric Mangini. What type of impression has he made so far with fans out in Cleveland?
I can’t speak for all the fans here. In general, though, I think most of them lament several of the choices Mangini made in 2009 when he acted as a general manager, but they also respect him as a coach. Now that the Browns have restructured their front office by adding President Mike Holmgren and General Manager Tom Heckert, Mangini has become more comfortable and more personable. He’s being himself this year instead of putting up a wall, and I think he has grown on a lot of Browns fans as a result. Still, there are many, many fans who fantasize about Jon Gruden or Holmgren coaching the Browns next season.
2. The Browns might be 2-5, but they have played many teams close including an upset win over the Saints recently. Where have the Browns improved the most from last year’s club?
They have improved in nearly every facet of the game in part because they were so awful last season. They started the 2009 season with a record of 1-11. Several games were virtually over by halftime. Their quarterback situation has been a disaster this season because of injuries, but it’s still better than it was in 2009. There are only a couple of areas in which they haven’t made significant strides: Their wide receivers still don’t produce nearly enough, and special-teams ace Josh Cribbs hasn’t had a spectacular return yet.
“I expect Tom Brady and his receivers to overpower the Browns’ defensive secondary.” – Nate Ulrich, Akron Beacon-Journal
3. What are the strength and weaknesses of the Browns defense?
The strength of the Browns’ defense is its front seven. The linebackers, especially Scott Fujita and Matt Roth, have consistently played well this season. Nose tackle Ahtyba Rubin is a young, emerging force. Fellow lineman Shaun Rogers is out of shape and has been battling injuries this season, but he played well in Week 7 against the Saints and is extremely dangerous when he’s healthy and focused. Reserve linebacker Marcus Benard is a good pass rusher who leads the team with 4.5 sacks. The two cornerbacks, Eric Wright and Sheldon Brown, have been disappointing this season. They’re often left on islands when defensive coordinator Rob Ryan sends blitzes (he sends a ton), and those situations have been disastrous. They have burned for big plays time and again this season. The bright spots in the defensive secondary are rookie safety T.J. Ward and rookie cornerback Joe Haden, who doesn’t start but plays in nickel and dime situations.
4. On offense, Peyton Hillis seems to have been a pleasant surprise in the running game. Should we expect to see him a great deal on Sunday to take the pressure off of quarterback Colt McCoy?
Yes. Expect a substantial dose of Hillis, who should be feeling much better than he has for a few weeks. After running for more than 100 yards in Weeks 3 and 4, Hillis suffered a pulled quadriceps and has been playing hurt since. However, he said the rest he got during the Browns’ Week 8 bye did wonders for his leg. Also, don’t forget about Josh Cribbs running out of the Wildcat offense, which is another way the Browns hope to support McCoy.
5. What do you feel will be the key match-up to watch betwen these two teams?
The obvious, headline-generating matchup is Mangini vs. his former mentor, Belichick. The runner-up is probably Brady and Co. vs. Cleveland’s struggling defensive secondary. But I’m more interested in some others, such as the Browns’ offensive line vs. the Patriots’ defensive line. Mike Wright has had a sack in four consecutive games, and Browns Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas has not had his best season. On the other hand, Browns center Alex Mack has been playing extremely well, so I’m looking forward to seeing him Face Vince Wilfork. I’m also curious to find out how Brandon Tate performs against the Browns’ kickoff-coverage unit. The Browns are really good at suffocating return men, but Tate has obviously been really tough this season, too.
Nate Ulrich’s Prediction: Patriots 30, Browns 20
I expect Tom Brady and his receivers to overpower the Browns’ defensive secondary.
A special thanks to Nate for giving his time to give his thoughts on this weekend’s match-up. You can also follow him on twitter at @ABJ_Browns.