NEPD Staff Writer: Matthew Jones
It certainly wasn’t pretty – the Patriots blew a 10-point fourth-quarter lead – but New England currently sit atop the AFC East at 4-3 following two clutch drives engineered by Tom Brady to force overtime and put New England ahead for good. The Patriots’ struggles seemed familiar: questionable playcalling, an inability to close, and soft coverage.
Read on for more analysis regarding New England’s 29-26 overtime victory.
Passing game struggles to develop rhythm
Tom Brady looked good while throwing to Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, but struggled to work his wide receivers into the game. Brandon Lloyd dropped two deep throws in the first quarter and was otherwise ineffective, while Wes Welker and Julian Edelman were rarely targeted by Brady in the early going; the two made more of an impact in the third quarter, combining to convert three third downs on New England’s initial second-half drive.
Instead, he looked towards Gronkowski and Hernandez for the majority of his passing yardage; Gronkowski caught a diving 17-yard touchdown on a corner route, and Hernandez was lined up all over the field: as a fullback, a tight end, an H-back, and an outside receiver.
Gronkowski caught another short touchdown pass on a goal-line crossing route in the third quarter. Brady was also forced to throw away a number of passes because of New York’s coverages as well as their defensive pressure; left guard Logan Mankins was inactive, and right guard Dan Connolly left early with an illness.
They were replaced by Donald Thomas and Nick McDonald, respectively. Brady wasn’t at the top of his game today, but played well enough in the fourth quarter and overtime to execute a fourth-quarter comeback and game-winning drive.
New England’s three active running backs all featured
Brandon Bolden’s absence resulted in an increased offensive role for 2011 second-round pick Shane Vereen; the second-year player started the game at running back and received the first three touches for a total of 25 yards. Stevan Ridley and Danny Woodhead entered the game on the following drive; Ridley’s powerful running helped New England establish more offensive balance than they had last week against Seattle. Ridley ended up rushing for 65 yards on 17 carries, while Vereen added eight carries for 49 yards.
Unfortunately, the Patriots abandoned the running game in the fourth quarter and were unable to kill enough of the time remaining to prevent New York from winning the game; Tom Brady looked inaccurate and took a number of risky chances downfield in the late stages of the game. Josh McDaniels primarily exorcised his Danny Woodhead draw fetish in the overtime period, calling three on the Patriots’ final drive; Woodhead finished with 46 yards on 10 touches.
Patriots have an up-and-down day in coverage
As expected, Mark Sanchez played better than expected, throwing for over 300 yards and looking accurate aside from one drastically underthrown pass on a would-be touchdown; the pass ended up being intercepted by Alfonzo Dennard instead. Sanchez found Jeremy Kerley three times for gains of 20+ yards before the Patriots started double-covering him.
Kyle Arrington’s struggles continued as he was consistently beat for completions as one of the Patriots’ starting cornerbacks (Devin McCourty shifted to safety to compensate for the losses of Steve Gregory and Patrick Chung, the latter a surprise inactive.) On the bright side, Ras-I Dowling received extensive playing time and broke up a few passes, while Alfonzo Dennard continued to impress. Moving forwards, the Patriots would be wise to limit Arrington’s playing time in favor of Dowling and Dennard.
Tight end Dustin Keller was another problem this afternoon; New England tried covering Keller with a number of different options, all of which were unsuccessful. Ras-I Dowling couldn’t tackle him, Jerod Mayo couldn’t cover him, and Dont’a Hightower was just a little bit too late. Keller ended up catching seven passes for 93 yards, including a seam route vs. Mayo for a gain of 23 yards, a touchdown late in the fourth quarter which cut the lead to three points, and a 21-yard pass which set up the typing field goal with two minutes remaining. Alfonzo Dennard’s holding call in overtime gave the Jets an automatic first down.
Patriots’ interior rush defense is heavily tested by Jets
Although Mark Sanchez played well, the Jets still dedicated themselves to a balanced offensive attack, rushing and passing in almost equal measures. On New York’s initial 11-play, 76-yard touchdown drive, the Jets relied on two important rushes: Tim Tebow’s third-and-two conversion near the goal line, and Shonn Greene’s following one-yard plunge. Greene ended up providing New York with 85 total yards before leaving the game following a devastating hit from Patriots middle linebacker Brandon Spikes.
New England prides themselves on a stout interior run defense, but today the majority of New York’s success on the ground came on runs up the middle. The Jets picked up over 100 yards on the ground altogether, with seven different players receiving a carry. Defensive line fatigue appeared to factor into the struggles late in the game, as Ron Brace’s absence left New England with just three defensive tackles: Vince Wilfork, Kyle Love (who was injured in the first quarter and returned later), and Brandon Deaderick (who also a few snaps as a defensive end in three-man fronts.)
Patriots melt down once again in the fourth quarter
New England’s performance in the fourth quarter was abysmal; they wasted almost no time off of the clock and surrendered a 14-play, 92 yard drive to New York which cut the lead from 23-13 to 23-20. Their coverages allowed Mark Sanchez to throw the ball at will into the soft zone coverages which seem like a staple of the Patriots’ defense. New England was forced to punt the ball almost immediately after the Jets scored, but not before Tom Brady was nearly intercepted by Antonio Cromartie on an underthrown pass into bracket coverage.
The ineffective offense gave New York the ball with four minutes left and a chance to win the game. Mark Sanchez immediately connected with Keller on a 21-yard pass and would have brought New York into the red zone if not for a Stephen Hill drop. Regardless, the Jets were able to tie the game with 2:00 remaining on a 43-yard field goal by Nick Folk. Devin McCourty, who had returned a kickoff for a 104-yard touchdown earlier in the game, fumbled the ball away immediately on the following kickoff; New York recovered with 2:02 left inside the red zone.
Folk converted another 43-yard field goal to give the Jets a three-point lead with 1:36 remaining. Luckily, the Patriots were able to drive downfield in time for a game-typing field goal from Stephen Gostkowski in order to force overtime.