Breaking Down the Jets vs the Patriots
The biggest regular season game since at least 2002 is now upon us as the Jets travel to New England to take on the Patriots in a game where the winner will likely not just win the division, but be the number 1 seed in the entire playoffs.
Jets Offense vs. Patriots Defense
When you look over the Patriots defense there are not too many names that anyone recognizes besides NT Vince Wilfork who still remains one of the toughest defenders in the league. The defense is largely a group of castoffs and young players, few of whom you would expect to be great. From a statistical standpoint there is little they do well. They allow the 3rd most yards per game in the NFL and are ranked 22nd in yards allowed. They are arguably the worst pass defense in the league and the only reason they do not rank as terribly in run defense is because the offense scores so often that teams are often forced to abandon the run. Yet here the team is at 9-2 and the group has yet to have the late game collapse which actually costs them the football game and has been responsible for a number of wins and points that are credited to the offense. The reason that this is the case is because this group is the best coached and most opportunistic defense in the NFL. The Patriots do a fantastic job of protecting the field from the 1 play big score that so many teams capitalize on. They understand their own limitations as well as any team in the NFL and realize that they are going to give up a number of big plays through the air, but know as long as they limit the damage from those plays they live to fight again on a shorter field. This is the same strategy the team successfully used in their first two Super Bowl campaigns in 2001 and 2003. There is no secondary that makes bigger plays than this the group in New England. They are all good athletes that are going to take chances on the football and more often than not going to capitalize on it. Their 15 interceptions are right at the top of the NFL and there is no athlete better than rookie CB Devin McCourty who seems to have gotten over the rookie mishaps early in the season and become a deadly weapon for this defense. He has very good instincts and tremendous closing speed which has led to 5 interceptions, 3 in the last 2 games. The Safety play has been solid with three players contributing. Pat Chung may be the most versatile of the group, while Brandon Meriweather is the athlete and James Sanders the steady veteran presence. All have 2 interceptions on the season and Chung and Sanders are both solid at recognizing plays and picking up play fakes. The Patriots will use a rotation of linebackers to try to confuse the QB and trick him into a poor decision. The star of the group is LB Jared Mayo who has already racked up 143 tackles on the year and is setting himself up for a massive payday in two years. He is everywhere on the field and the primary reason nobody breaks large runs on the team. Nobody generates much of a pass rush for the Patriots and they are more than happy to drop into coverage rather than try to harass the QB and leave players on an island. Their best pass rusher is DE Mike Wright, who is primarily used on passing downs, but Wright missed the last game with a concussion and could miss this weeks game. Wilfork is the anchor of the run defense, but their other players along the line are rotated depending on the situation and all have been susceptible to letting guys run around or inside them if Wilfork does not hold the middle.
The Jets offense pulled a complete no show against Cincinnati on Thanksgiving, the third time they have done so in 2010. The running game for the Jets has totally stalled meaning the offense can only go as far as QB Mark Sanchez can take them, and Sanchez played terribly against the Bengals. There are a number of things Sanchez does well, such as creating time in the pocket, faking the defense with play and pump fakes, and using the sideline well, but he still refuses to throw the football away and in his desperation to always make a play is often putting the ball in a spot where the defense can capitalize on it. This has become a three weapon offense with WR Santonio Holmes leading the way. Holmes has been a dynamic addition to the Jets and has developed a real bond with Sanchez. Holmes has great quickness and hands. WR Braylon Edwards is the deep ball threat. He runs the sidelines very well and normally has great body control. He does not factor much in the short game and his run blocking has become a concern as it seems the referees have been warned to look at him for blocking in the back. TE Dustin Keller has had some big games this season and some games where he has done little. He is at his best when he keeps his feet moving as he catches the ball as there are times when he is standing still that he either drops the bal or seems to fall over as soon as he grabs it. RB LaDainian Tomlinson is becoming a target in the passing game and the team also hopes to have WR Jerricho Cotchery available for the game. When it comes to running the ball there has been little the Jets have done well. It is not just a talent problem at the position, but a problem with the offensive line. The Jets are not creating those giant holes that they did last season, specifically on the right side of the line, for Tomlinson and RB Shonn Greene. The team seems to be at their best when they can spring Tomlinson outside the tackles, but he is no longer making the cuts he did early in the year and is being held on those plays to 6 yards when they would have gone for 15 in the first quarter of the year. In general the line has underperformed, but they will be facing a weak pass rushing team and should be able to protect Sanchez on the night with no issues.
For the Jets to win this game they need a flawless game on offense from Sanchez. There are a number of things that Sanchez does in games that he has to avoid this week. Sanchez has a tendency to lock on certain players for a stretch of the game. He will hook up with Holmes for a gain of 10 and then look his way the next 3 plays. Next up will be Keller. Then Edwards. When teams take that primary target away is when Sanchez starts running around in the pocket and getting himself in trouble. He has to understand that there is a difference between buying time in the pocket, which he has been great at when the offensive line collapses, and wasting time in the pocket which is what leads to awful sacks and interceptions. The Jets have to spread the ball around to everyone on the team and make quick decisions at the line to determine the best possible read. Sanchez has to avoid those bad passes that hit the other team in the numbers. He has done that countless times this season and gotten away with it, but that will not happen against the Patriots. If he hit's a linebacker with the ball the defender is going to catch it. This is how the Patriots survive. The Jets have to have the offense designed to make quick decisions and spread the ball around the field. The Patriots are not often decimated by one target. They give up essentially the same yards to every position. This season they allow 67 YPG to the number 1 WR, 69 to the number 2, 53 to the top TE, and 57 to the RB position. The Jets have to be willing to use every weapon they have in the passing game this week and use all of the field to reach those numbers. They can not rely on Edwards running 50 yards down the field to get his yardage. They have to use their players in the 20 yard range and let them catch a lot of passes and make plays after the catch. The offense has to score early and they can not afford to put themselves into a position of playing catchup all day as they seem to do almost every week. This is one of the slowest starting offenses in the NFL and you do not with in New England by waiting to turn it on in the last quarter of a game. The Jets need to get something out of the running game this week just to keep the clock moving. Tomlinson had a good game earlier in the year and if he can duplicate that the Jets will be in good shape. I would not be surprised if the Jets use WR Brad Smith often in the offense both under center and as a run decoy. The Jets have laid the foundation for the Smith end around play most of the season and after running it for a score last week they may hope the defense over pursues the play. He will have options to throw the football or get cute with a reverse to Edwards or Cotchery. If the Jets can get Mayo to commit to smith it should leave the other side of the field in a position where a less athletic player is forced to stop someone like Edwards, who can make up a lot of ground fast with his long strides once he turns the corner. The offense has to put up at least 24 points this week with no turnovers if they want to have a shot at the win.
Jets Defense vs. Patriots Offense
New England has gone back to the formula that was a big success in the pre Randy Moss days and not over-relying on one or two players every week in the offense. New England is back to spreading the field with a number of talented players that create mismatches and make timely receptions. The team likely will not have a 1000 yard receiver nor will they have the deep ball threat that they have had these last 3 years, but they move the ball effectively and always make plays when it counts. The offense is fueled by the smarts of QB Tom Brady. Brady is not putting up the gaudy numbers of years past, but he never makes a mistake with the football and always seem to come up with a crucial play when its needed. Since the trade was made to move Moss off the football team Brady has been lights out throwing for 14 touchdowns and only 2 interceptions, the last of which occurred on October 17th. The team made a wise move in bringing back WR Deion Branch who was already familiar with the system and excelled in it in the past. He understands the routes and the team does not use him as something he is not. Brady's favorite bail out target remains the sneaky Wes Welker who seemingly always finds himself open and catches everything that comes his way. By dumping Moss they have been able to get their two Tight End's, Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski, into the mix. Hernandez is more of an athlete, but has hit something of a rookie wall recently leading to Gronkowski seeing more looks. Both have a nose for the end zone and Gronkowski is terrific in the red zone. The Patriots running game is comprised of two players. RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis is the primary ball carrier and the most physical player they have in the backfield. He is a good downfield runner that will push players back if he gets a head of steam. He is supplanted by former Jet RB Danny Woodhead. Woodhead does not get many traditional rushing opportunities, but the team has designed the offense to use him in the screen game with the pass essentially acting as a long handoff. Woodhead is incredibly small so they screen him to the outside where he can use his speed to beat slower linebackers one on one rather than having him deal with oncoming traffic in the middle of the line. He averages over 8 yards after the reception, making him one of the best screen backs in the league. RB Fred Taylor could also get into the mix as he returns from injury. The offensive line of New England is no longer considered one of the best in the NFL. Brady still hides many deficiencies with his quick release of the football, but LT Matt Light has not been nearly as effective as in the past and will likely give up the most sacks he has allowed since the first year or two of his career. C Dan Koppen has also had some issues this year and is giving up tremendous pressure straight up the middle. The right side of the line has been very good this season both in terms of run blocking and pass protection.
The Jets defense felt embarrassed after the meltdown against the Texans and came up aces against the Bengals. If not for some bad penalty calls by the officials they would have likely held the Bengals without a touchdown in the game. The defense was fueled by the best game the secondary played all season as CB’s Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie completely shut down WR's Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco leading to a miserable day for the Bengals passing attack. Cromartie has had a Pro Bowl caliber season while Revis is starting to resemble the player from last season. The team looks to have moved on to a rotation of Drew Coleman and Kyle Wilson as the nickelback and S Eric Smith has taken over the starting Safety job opposite Jim Leonhard. All played well last week. The pass rush showed a bit more life on Thanksgiving with the Jets tinkering with different alignments to create some advantages up front. LB Jason Taylor was very active and may have had his best game in two months while LB Calvin Pace finally looked like something of an impact maker on the field. The team continues to get excellent play from their linemen. DE Mike DeVito, NT Sione Pouha, DE Shaun Ellis, and DE Trevor Pryce may rarely make the noticeable play, though Pryce did get a safety last week, but you will rarely see them blown off the line or out of position. The team arguably has the best run defense in the NFL and it is primarily due to their rotation of defensive linemen always being in the right place on every running down. The Jets have faced some tremendous running backs this year and nobody has really stood out in way to take over a game. The play of the inside linebackers has also been tremendous in this regard. LB Bart Scott does alot of things which wont get noticed at all such as taking on lead blockers head on or quickly closing a gap which allows someone else to make the play on the runner. LB David Harris is also excellent and typically does well in protecting from big screen passes to go along with his reputation as a big tackler.
Playing the Patriots offense is always a measuring stick for the defense and this game will not be any different. Though these Patriots don't put up the quick score as much as in the past or drive the ball as long, they are still one of the highest scoring teams in the NFL and defenses take it as a real compliment to shut them down. The Jets have actually had very good success with much of this personnel in stopping New England in recent years. Since the switch to the 34 defense under Eric Mangini, Tom Brady's statline reads 59.8%, 240 YPG, 8 TD's, and 6 INT's in 7 games. The offense only averages 18.9 points a game and that includes two easy scores set up by deep in their own territory turnovers. So this game should not be a question of whether or not the Jets defense can stick with Brady and the Patriots but whether the Patriots adjustments in the offense will have newfound success against the Jets. The clear mismatch in the Patriots favor looks to be the Hernandez and Gronkowski combination and how the Jets can cover them. You would expect the Jets to likely match up one of their corners on the two targets with Cromartie likely being the guy to cover Gronkowski who is just too big for the Safetys on the team and too athletic for the linebackers. Hernandez is more of an athlete and could even draw some coverage from Revis depending on the personnel on the field, though physically players like Pool and Smith can match up with him and not just be overpowered. We have seen a lot of communication breakdowns when it comes to covering tight ends this season so the Jets may want to keep this simple and just play straight coverage on these players. Such a strategy will leave WR Welker matched up against Coleman with help coming from a safety or linebacker dropping into coverage, but as long as they are aware of Welker and wrap him up as soon as he catches the football they can live with him grabbing his 7 yard slant passes. Harris has to be the guy in charge of getting to Woodhead in the passing game and the Jets have to realize that when he is in the game to be aware of the screen and not allow the linemen to just let them through so they can block for Woodhead. At the very least the pass rushers must go in with their hands up when the line releases them into the backfield. Brady always plays worse when he gets harassed and the Jets rushers have to finish plays off when they get pressure, but at the same time be aware that officials are always looking at the Jets defenders especially against Brady. You don't want to give the Patriots free plays off roughing the passer calls and Brady is one of the two guys in the NFL that gets a ton of calls that go his way. If ever there was a game for Jason Taylor to find that old swagger its this game. He and Ellis have been tormented by the Patriots for a decade and this is likely their last chance to get the best of Brady and Belichick. The Jets need big games from both players.
New England was dealt a huge blow when they lost K Stephen Gostkowski for the season. Not only was he an established player that could kick in the cold, but he had a huge leg on kickoffs. His replacement, Shayne Graham, has never met a big kick that he couldn't miss and does not have that same kickoff advantage. P Zoltan Mesko has been an upgrade for New England and their punt coverage team is good. Brandon Tate is dangerous on returns and has two scores early in the season, but is often feast or famine as a return man. Julian Edelman has settled in as one of the better punt returners in the NFL.
There are many things to like about the Jets special teams. Brad Smith has now become the third player to return kicks in this system to have a pro bowl type season as a return man. Smith returned one for a score last week and has been outstanding in the role this year. If he can break a big return or two this game, which is possible, the Jets will be in good position. The Jets have found something with RB Joe McKnight and LB Josh Mauga on punt coverage and if they keep up the kind of pursuit they had of the ball against the Bengals they are going to create turnovers, especially with the way P Steve Weatherford is punting the football. Kick coverage is solid as well, but that brings us to the one thing there is to dislike about the team and that is K Nick Folk. Folk's job is hanging by a thread at this stage. He is becoming a concern on field goals and his outdoor kickoffs are atrocious. Last week he was booting line drives to the 10 or 15 yard line, which should never happen for a professional. He got an earful at times during the game. The Jets can not afford to have him missing field goals or giving the Patriots the ball beyond the 30 because he cant get any distance on the kicks.
It is amazing to see how Bill Belichick seems to find ways to win every year. From a talent standpoint this is the least talented Patriot team since 2005 yet he is rolling along at 9-2 and his team is expected to get home field advantage in the playoffs. He does more with less than any coach currently in the NFL and maybe in NFL history. He has reinvented this team a number of times in his 11 years with the club and every single time it seems to work out. This has to be an important game for him as he understands the ramifications of the game and what it means in terms of the chances for winning the division. He has to prepare all the young players, especially on defense, for a game of this magnitude. Though all week long people have said that the Patriots are battle tested, its really only Brady, Wilfork, and a few others who are truly battle tested. The Jets have been through huge games last year while the Patriots have a ton of young guys who have never been in this spot before. 2007 is an eternity ago and New England is 0-1 in the playoffs since then. Belichick and Brady can downplay the importance of this game in the public, but behind closed doors convincing his players that this is just another game is probably the hardest job he has all week.
For Rex Ryan this is the Super Bowl. He has put such hype and expectations on the team that a loss here would be crushing to Ryan. Deep down Ryan knows the Jets are the more talented team and should win the game, but every Sunday the Jets come close to losing games against poor teams while the Patriots cruise along. At some point he knows that someone will point the finger at him if they continue to play poorly and he can avoid that with a win here. Ryan has to get his team focused and ready to play a clean game with few penalties, something that has been a problem with the team this year. He also needs to use the extra preparation time to go over every situation in his head and be ready when it occurs in the game. This is not the game for blowing time outs because you have 10 or 12 men on the field or because you don't know what you want to call from the sideline. The Jets have not fared well under Ryan when they have had extra rest which could play a role here. At times the staff seems as if they may overanalyze the opponent with the added time. Hopefully that will not happen this week.
This is the biggest regular season game for the Jets since they beat the Packers back in 2002. Though divisions are not won during the first week of December a win here gives the Jets a commanding 2 game lead with 4 games to play and allows them to have a slip up game where they do not pull off a miracle in the last two minutes of the game. A loss and the Jets have no margin for error the rest of the way out and will need Miami or Buffalo to upset New England if the Jets are to gain home field. Though the Jets went deep last year as a wildcard team, there is a big difference in facing the Bengals of 2009 on the road and either the Chargers or Colts of 2010 on the road. That could be a death trap.
The Jets players and fans have been waiting for this day for a long time. It almost arrived in 2008 when Brett Favre went into Foxboro and beat the Patriots in a game that seemed to all but assure the Jets of the division title before they went into a tailspin starting two weeks later. I don't buy into the story that this is the Jets only chance to do this because the Patriots have all these draft picks and are retooling as Belichick's drafts have been awful in recent years and Brady is not getting any younger, but that is going to be the media story and its going to eat at the fans, many of whom will be calling into the talk shows agreeing with it. Even knowing that all is not lost with a loss this week, it would be a crushing blow to the players and those who live and die with the team. This is going to be the biggest Monday Night football game in a long long time and nobody wants to be the loser in such a matchup.
There are a few things that worry people about the Jets in this game. Can they beat a good team? Thus far they beat the Patriots early in the season but lost to both Baltimore and Green Bay, the latter game being a shutout. The offense is the main culprit in those losses and do seem to have a tendency to play very tight in bigger games, especially early on. Will that trend continue? It should be a big concern. Can the Jets put a team away? All season the Jets have let teams back into games. They let Miami, Minnesota, and Houston back into games that should have been blowout wins based on the early play. They also allowed the Browns to send a game into overtime. The Patriots are not a team you allow to hang around as they have shown, like the Jets, an ability to come from behind. Can the offense get off to a fast start? Its been a nightmare lately as the offense trudges along averaging less than 3 points in the first quarter and 10 in the first half. While the Patriots let teams back into games late they do not let them win. You do not want to play come from behind football against New England, but will the Jets be forced to?
A lot of people are asking can the Jets win in Foxboro? I don't believe that this is a real concern. People are making a big deal about Brady winning so many regular season games in a row there, but they did get throttled last season in the playoffs. The Jets have also gone into Foxboro and won in 2006 and 2008 and played well enough to win in 2007 when the Patriots went undefeated until the Super Bowl. There has been a clear change in that regard since the departure of Herman Edwards. I don't think anyone regards the stadium with any mystique the way they did in the early 2000's especially when the weather turned.
This is a game that really boils down to whether the Jets make enough mistakes to shoot themselves in the foot and if the offense can actually get the job done in the red zone. If the Jets rack up 100 yards in penalties and continue with their 40% red zone efficiency they won't win the game. If they play smart and are effective around the goalline they will win the game. The talent level disparity is no longer a factor to where you have to say “the Jets have to play a flawless game to win” like we seemed to say during the Pennington era. The Jets just have to play a smart football game to win. Don't take dumb negative yardage plays, win the battle of field position, and score early in the game. That usually the story from every coach in the league, but in some cases, as the Jets have already shown, you can win despite doing all those stupid things. You cant do too many of those things and expect to win in New England.
A loss here would be such a tremendous letdown for everyone. The Jets have created such high expectations that anything short of a division title will be a massive disappointment, unless of course the team wins the Super Bowl as a Wildcard. The only reasonable route to the division title is by winning this game. On paper the Jets have more talent, though they have yet to show that this season for 60 minutes in all phases of the game. This has to be the game where it all comes together if the Jets want to reach their goals for the season.
Jets 24 Patriots 16