The Patriots have faced some of the NFL’s best receivers this season: Vincent Jackson, Julio Jones, Roddy White, Jimmy Graham, A.J. Green, and the Broncos’ dynamic trio.
But their toughest test may come Sunday against the Browns from a second-year player and former supplemental draft pick who has morphed into a fantasy football superstar.
Josh Gordon, a standout at Baylor who left school in the spring of 2012 after failing a marijuana test, has been unstoppable all season, but especially in the Browns’ last two games. Though the Browns lost both, Gordon had 14 catches for 237 yards and a touchdown against the Steelers, and followed that up against the Jaguars with 10 catches for 261 yards and two touchdowns, including a 95-yarder. Gordon’s 498 yards the last two games set an NFL record.
Overall, Gordon has seven touchdowns this year and is second in the NFL with 1,249 receiving yards. Given that he sat out the first two games because of a drug suspension, Gordon’s 124.9 yards per game leads the NFL. At 6 feet 3 inches and 225 pounds, he’s big and physical enough to win a jump ball, and with 4.5 speed is fast enough to take any pass to the house. (Gordon is second in the NFL with 512 yards after the catch.)
The Patriots aren’t sure who will play quarterback for the Browns this Sunday — Brandon Weeden is likely out with a concussion, Jason Campbell may return from a concussion, and Caleb Hanie was signed Tuesday as insurance — but, no matter what, they’ll have to pay special attention to Gordon.
“He’s a hard guy to handle one-on-one out there, in terms of tackling and just getting him on the ground,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “He’s a really hard guy to defend because they do so many things with him and you have to defend him at all three levels of the defense. Depending on what type of coverage you’re in, that can stress everybody, it’s not just really one guy.”
The Browns are struggling once again, coming to Foxborough with a 4-8 record, losers of six of seven, and set to miss the playoffs for the 11th straight season. But the Browns’ woes are mostly tied to the quarterback position. They were 3-2 and playing well when Brian Hoyer was lost for the season with an ACL tear, and Weeden and Campbell have been in and out of the lineup because of injuries and ineffectiveness.
The Browns are stout on both sides of the ball, and have a few of exciting playmakers in receiver Greg Little, tight end Jordan Cameron, and cornerback Joe Haden. They have a solid offensive line anchored by left tackle Joe Thomas and center Alex Mack, neither of whom have missed a snap in their entire careers, and a stout defensive front featuring Desmond Bryant, Ahtyba Rubin, Jabaal Sheard, Paul Kruger and rookie Barkevious Mingo, a quintet that has combined for 15½ sacks. The Browns allow just 3.5 yards per carry, third best in the NFL.
The Browns haven’t allowed a 300-yard passer this year, though they only have nine interceptions and teams have often been running on them in the second half.
“They don’t give up many big plays. They make you earn everything,” Belichick said.
Offensively, the Browns have been decidedly one-dimensional. They lead the NFL with 43.1 pass attempts per game, and are 30th with 22.1 rushing attempts per game, with street free agent Willis McGahee leading the team with 344 rushing yards and two touchdowns. Chris Ogbonnaya is a nice change-of-pace back, but he is used mostly in the pass game, with 38 catches for 266 yards.
Sunday’s game will be the 12th time Bill Belichick will see Norv Turner, now the Browns’ offensive coordinator, since Belichick took over the Patriots in 2000. Belichick is 9-2 against Turner (stints with the Chargers, Dolphins, Raiders, and 49ers), allowing 324 yards and 18.7 points per game. But Belichick said he has a lot of respect for Turner and the Browns’ offensive line.
“They have a solid offensive line that can give those guys time to run those 20-, 22-yard in-cuts and plays like that down the field,” Belichick said. “It puts a lot of pressure on your defense if you play zone coverage, you have to drop way back there to cover those deep routes. Then that opens up the checkdowns and crossing routes underneath. If you’re in man coverage, you have to cover those guys for a long time.”