Browns Know The Importance Of Being D’Ernest As Bill Belichick Seeks To Stop Their Running Attack

Super-sub running back D'Ernest Johnson will get his second NFL start. This time Bill Belichick and the Patriots are waiting for him. (The News-Herald)

Super-sub running back D'Ernest Johnson will get his second NFL start. This time Bill Belichick and the Patriots are waiting for him. (The News-Herald)

Browns know the importance of being D’Ernest as Bill Belichick seeks to stop their running attack

You must have an active subscription to read this story.

Click Here to subscribe Now!

Editor's note: Tony Grossi is a Cleveland Browns analyst for and 850 ESPN Cleveland.


Four downs on Browns (5-4) v. New England Patriots (5-4)

First down: The importance of being D’Ernest.

Erstwhile mahi mahi fisherman D’Ernest Johnson is back on the mainland, heeding the call of an offense that desperately needs him to reel in another big game. With running backs Nick Chubb and John Kelly sidelined in COVID-19 protocol and Kareem Hunt still out with a calf injury, Johnson is the Browns’ feature back against Bill Belichick’s defense. Johnson saved the Browns season when he ran for 146 yards and one touchdown against the Broncos – with Chubb and Hunt out -- to avoid dipping under .500 at 3-4. This game is just as dire because the season is older and the Patriots are among nine AFC teams with five wins. The Browns are among the four 5-win teams currently out of the eight-team AFC playoff field. Further, Belichick is noted for forcing opponents to play “left-handed” – meaning he takes away your strength, which is the running game in the Browns’ case. The good news is the Bill Callahan zone-blocking running game historically has been the Kryptonite of Belichick’s defenses. “He showed in that Denver game where he had to carry the load and did a nice job,” Stefanski said of Johnson. “Our expectations for that [running back] room do not change.”

Second down: The 30-and-under league.

If Belichick’s defense is able to shut down the Browns’ running attack, it would put the game on the shoulders of quarterback Baker Mayfield – presumably the healthy, right shoulder. That’s in addition to the chip that Mayfield regularly carries to his job. The concern here is based on historical data of which Belichick is keenly aware. Over his 3 ½ seasons as Browns starting quarterback, when Mayfield attempts 30 or fewer passes the Browns are 15-6; when he attempts 31 or more, they are 12-20. While that trend probably rings true with a majority of NFL quarterbacks, it is indisputably the formula for success in Stefanski’s system. “The way we are built and the way we operate here with our system in place, it starts with the running game,” said coordinator Alex Van Pelt. “We get the running game going, and everything plays off of the running game. I would like to keep that number [of pass attempts] below 30. Usually, when you are over 30, it is because you are coming from behind or you are forced into those situations. We feel really good about our run game and what comes off of that. Obviously, a good marriage of run and pass and being balanced in that area is critical to any quarterback’s success.”

Third down: Mac and cheese.

Gillette Stadium has been a burial ground for visiting teams under Belichick. Since 2002, the Patriots are an astounding 127-30 (.809) at home – 12 games better than next-best Baltimore in that time. But wait: For 18 of those seasons, Belichick’s quarterback was Tom Brady. Since Brady departed for the sunny climes of Tampa, FL, the Patriots are 6-7 at home, including 1-4 this season under rookie quarterback Mac Jones. Jones is proving to be a precocious study under coordinator Josh McDaniels and has compiled as many wins (five) as the other starting QBs in his draft class combined – Trevor Lawrence (two), Zach Wilson (one), Trey Lance (none), Justin Fields (two) and Davis Mills (none). The Browns’ defense has played two in the rookie class previously, Mills of the Texans for one half and Fields of the Bears for a full game. The combined numbers for them: 14 of 38, 170 yards, 10 sacks, 1 TD, 1 INT, 49.23 passer rating. Now, Jones is much better at the early stage of development than Fields and Mills because he landed in the best system from the onset. But let’s not confuse Belichick’s dominating home record with something to do with the venue; it’s been mostly about Brady. Although Jones physically resembles Brady in his fundamentally sound drop-backs and ability to process a defense and deliver the ball fairly accurately, he’s no Brady. Not yet, anyway.

Fourth down: The Art of Bill.

The answer is Chris Palmer and Eric Mangini. The question is: Which Browns coaches have defeated Bill Belichick as Patriots coach? Palmer’s win comes with an asterisk. In that 2000 meeting, Brady was still third on the Patriots’ depth chart and was inactive behind starter Drew Bledsoe, who played with a bum hand. Mangini’s 34-14 win in 2010 was a personal career highlight, one of two losses in that 14-2 Patriots season and a tour de force for Mangini and other former Belichick assistants on that Browns staff. But both wins came in Cleveland, so no Browns coach has humbled Belichick on his home soil. In his 22nd year – second without Brady – Belichick is said to be at ease with his team and is re-invigorated with his young QB in place as he stalks Don Shula’s all-time coaching wins record of 347 (Belichick has 316). And it’s grossly unfair to credit Brady solely for Belichick’s amazing success. Brady, of course, has nothing to do with Belichick’s driving philosophy over his 46 years of NFL coaching, 22 with the Patriots. In his typical insightful Friday press availability – dubbed Fridays with Bill over the years – Belichick expounded on his philosophy as primarily a defensive strategist. “I think if you want to go far enough, look at Sun Tzu,” Belichick said of the ancient Chinese military strategist and author The Art of War, a prominent book in Belichick’s expansive library.  “Look at the great generals. You exploit your strengths and attack weaknesses. That's about as fundamental as it gets. If there's something that you can do well, you want to try to do it. If there is something that your opponent is weak at, you want to try to attack it, and if you can match those up, then that's a good way of attack.”

The pick: Browns 17, Patriots 13

My record: 5-4.