CLEVELAND - There was nothing unexpected and there were no excuses.
What there was, player after Patriots player said, was a lack of execution.
New England knew the Browns were coming off their bye week, giving Eric Mangini and a slew of former Patriots assistant coaches and players extra time to prepare to face their former boss, Bill Belichick. The players were aware Cleveland liked to throw some creative plays into the mix on offense, through its “Flash” package. They knew running back Peyton Hillis was tough to bring down, and they knew the Browns’ defense was riding high after a stellar effort against Drew Brees and the defending champion Saints two weeks ago.
All of that knowledge was useless without proper execution.
The Patriots entered Browns Stadium flying high, with the best record in the NFL and on a five-game win streak, but left the city by the lake humbled after a 34-14 blowout at the hands of the Browns.
“It was an awakening,” linebacker Jerod Mayo said.
It was an apt assessment from the Patriots cocaptain, since it seemed like there were stretches when his team was sleepwalking, on all three units, particularly early on.
From the opening kickoff, which the normally solid coverage team allowed to be run back 36 yards by Joshua Cribbs, to the Browns’ first two offensive snaps, which went for 39 yards, to a Patriots’ miscommunication on special teams that led to a turnover, short field, and touchdown for Cleveland, New England trailed, 10-0, before four minutes had passed.
The offense, which has struggled to move the ball consistently early in games of late, was at it again yesterday. It mustered just one first down and 21 yards in three first-quarter possessions, when Tom Brady completed just one of six passes. The Browns rolled up 132 yards of offense in the first quarter.
“We preach it every single week,” tight end Alge Crumpler said about getting off to a good start. “It’s preached every day - Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Sunday. It just caught up to us, our inconsistency, at an opportune time for them and an inopportune time for us.”
After their poor first quarter, the Patriots turned to the no-huddle offense in the second, and quickly scored their first touchdown, an 11-play drive that included a 22-yard flare pass to Sammy Morris on fourth and 1. New England had lined up in a bunch formation on the play, with Dan Connolly in as an extra lineman (Logan Mankins started the game, playing just five days after taking part in his first practice of the season) and Morris lined up at fullback. With Cleveland expecting a run, Morris trotted out to the left flat, and was open for the catch and run that set up first and goal from the 2.
Some heads-up play by Aaron Hernandez - Brady’s pass into the end zone was meant for Rob Gronkowski, who batted the ball up and Hernandez came down with it at the back of the end zone - and New England was on the board.
But a play that best can be described as sleight of hand, with Cribbs under center and almost imperceptibly handing off to Chansi Stuckey, who sprinted right and into the end zone from 11 yards out, increased the Browns’ lead to 17-7 and was a source of great frustration for Patriots’ defenders.
“That was a lack of awareness from all 11 guys on the field,” Mayo said. “It’s very disappointing. They’re known for plays like that.”
“We harped all week on awareness,” cornerback Kyle Arrington said. “That was an opportunity [to execute] what we had worked on. A quick snap caught us off guard. We need to be more situationally aware than that.”
Though New England went into the locker room down only 10 points, things seemingly could have been worse.
And yet they easily could have been better: driving late in the first half and deep in Cleveland territory, Brady found Gronkowski for a 6-yard gain, but Abe Elam stripped the ball from the big tight end and fell on it, ending any threat of New England scoring before the break.
“It shouldn’t be happening because I should have two hands on the ball,” Gronkowski said. “I shouldn’t be letting defenders get in at the ball like that. I have to go low and get down.”
Where it was Hernandez’s turn to struggle a few weeks ago against the Ravens, yesterday it was his fellow rookie Gronkowski’s turn. In the first quarter, he had a mix up with Morris on a kickoff; Gronkowski called for a fair catch but then deferred to Morris, and the ball was lost. There was also the lost fumble, a holding call in the second half, and a couple of dropped passes added up to a tough afternoon for the Buffalo native.
Crumpler talked with Gronkowski throughout the game, as he always does with both of the young tight ends after every offensive series. This morning, he will have them at Gillette Stadium for an early film session, just the three of them, before the full team goes over video of the loss.
“I think self-evaluation is how you keep teams together,” Crumpler said.
Defensively, there was nothing Cleveland did that knocked the Patriots off their game, Crumpler said. Their problems were largely self-inflicted.
“I’ll tell you this: we were prepared,” he said. “It’s a testament to Coach that he had us prepared. There weren’t any surprises. They played better than we did.”
Vince Wilfork added, “The same thing [Cleveland] did on film, they did today.”
The Patriots’ defense, which had done so well against the run since the bye week, was not as successful against the Browns. Hillis, the 6-foot-2-inch, 250-pound mauler Cleveland got in a trade with Denver this year for quarterback Brady Quinn, ran over - and jumped over, during his first carry of the day - the defense for a career-high 184 yards. He is the first running back to top 100 yards against New England this season.
Hillis’s 35-yard fourth-quarter touchdown run, in which he got to the edge and outran Mayo, was the final nail in the Patriots’ coffin.
“I was coming from the other side,” Mayo said of the play. “They just came out and did what they came to do. They came out and ran effectively. We didn’t tackle well. He’s a good back. He did a good job, and their offensive line did a good job.”
It became easy to forget that the Patriots are counting on so many young players this season as they won game after game, easy to overlook the defense’s struggles on third down and the offense’s inconsistency over the last month (sans Randy Moss) as they became the toast of the NFL once again.
But yesterday, New England got a rude awakening in Cleveland. With the Steelers and Colts the next two teams on the schedule, the time is now to ring the alarm.
“We definitely have to get back on track, quick. I mean, quick,” Wilfork said. “Tomorrow is a big day for us to go in and make corrections and see what went wrong and how we can fix them. And that’s the key, fixing them.
“The schedule isn’t getting any easier.”