NEPD Staff Writer: Matthew Jones
The New York Jets are in town for a game which will determine who is sitting atop – and at the bottom of – the AFC East. Another Patriots loss may prove fatal: they have already lost three games this year and have upcoming games against Houston and San Francisco; however, they must not underestimate the Jets, who have defeated New England in three of their past six meetings. Read on for ten keys to today’s contest.
1. How will New England attempt to address their recent struggles in the secondary?
Devin McCourty is enjoying a renaissance as New England’s left cornerback this season, but the situation at the right cornerback spot opposite him couldn’t get much worse. Kyle Arrington has played the second-most snaps at cornerback and has been victimized, surrendering completions on 22 of his 27 targets for 357 yards and four touchdowns; his play has earned him a “perfect” 158.3 quarterback rating against. Sterling Moore has received the third-most playing time and isn’t doing much better (14/19, 225 yards, one touchdown, 130.4 rating against.) On the bright side, seventh-round pick Alfonzo Dennard has been receiving increased playing time (his defensive snaps jumped from 31 in week five to 48 last week) and looks like a potential starter on the outside; he has allowed just three of 12 targets to be completed for a total of 15 yards. Look for Dennard to get the first crack at defending the right side this week; Kyle Arrington and Sterling Moore were both limited last week. The matchup against the Jets may present Ras-I Dowling with an opportunity to get on the field; he is New England’s tallest cornerback and may receive some chances to cover 6’4” Jets rookie Stephen Hill. Tavon Wilson will start once again at free safety in Steve Gregory’s place and must put the 46-yard touchdown he surrendered last week behind him.
2. The Patriots must not allow Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez to beat them deep
Mark Sanchez is struggling through another underwhelming season, completing only 49.7% of his passes for 6.36 yards per attempt, but he has played some of his best games against the Patriots: he threw for three touchdowns in New York’s first matchup against New England in 2010, and then rebounded from the Jets’ 45-3 loss at New England that year to stun the Patriots with another three touchdowns in a playoff victory. The Patriots emerged victorious in both of their meetings against the Jets last year, but Sanchez scored a combined four touchdowns in those games, including one on the ground. Sanchez played well in last week’s 35-9 victory over Indianapolis (11/18, 82 yards, 2 TD) but will need to be even more productive this week in order for the Jets to win. As we saw last week against the Seahawks, New England struggles to defend the downfield pass and their ability to prevent Sanchez from completing deep throws will be crucial to rebounding from last Sunday’s loss in Seattle; the Jets must try their luck downfield early in hopes of stretching out New England’s defense and opening up rushing lanes for Shonn Greene. On the season, Sanchez is 9/24 on deep throws, but those have gone for 291 yards and two touchdowns.
3. Jets offensive line matches up well with the strengths of New England’s defensive front
The Jets have two weak links along their offensive line: left guard Matt Slauson and right tackle Austin Howard. Unfortunately, their struggles at those two spots are offset by elite left tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson and top center Nick Mangold; right guard Brandon Moore is also among the best in the league at his position. New England’s top two defensive linemen are unquestionably nose tackle Vince Wilfork and right end Chandler Jones; they will match up against Mangold and Ferguson, respectively, with defensive tackle Kyle Love likely competing against Brandon Moore for most of the contest. Mangold’s strength is well-suited to defending Wilfork, while Ferguson has yet to allow a sack in pass protection. That means the Patriots may be forced to rely on exploiting Slauson and Howard. Pressure from Rob Ninkovich or Jermaine Cunningham at the left end spot would be ideal; the Patriots should also draw up some creative blitzes for their linebackers – Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes, and possibly Dont’a Hightower (who is questionable again this week) – in an attempt to overwhelm New York’s protections.
4. Can Patrick Chung and the Patriots limit Jets tight end Dustin Keller’s effectiveness?
Jets tight end Dustin Keller injured his hamstring in the season opener against Buffalo, but returned last week and stayed on the field for 49 of New York’s 65 offensive snaps; he is expected to play again against New England and could have a significant role in the Jets’ offensive gameplan. Zach Miller caught two passes for 29 yards last week in one of the Patriots’ better performances against a tight end, but Broncos tight ends Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreessen combined to catch ten passes for 71 yards the week prior. Strong safety Patrick Chung struggled in coverage last week, surrendering completions on all four targets for 57 yards; he must rebound and limit Keller’s effectiveness in order to silence critics who argue that the 25 year-old impending free agent is not reliable in coverage. The good news is that the Patriots were able to limit Keller to just three catches for 43 yards last season over their two matchups versus the Jets. Tavon Wilson is another possibility; he struggled to get sufficient depth on his zone coverage drops last week and may perform better in coverage against Keller.
5. How and to what extent will the Jets utilize Tim Tebow in this week’s matchup?
Bill Belichick has always stressed the importance of fastidious film analysis to decipher opposing tendencies; however, that also increases the possibility of New England’s defense being exploited by the unexpected. New York should have a few tricks up their sleeve this week, especially after trading for Tim Tebow this past offseason. Rex Ryan suggested that Tebow may be used as a running back this week because of the Jets’ lack of depth at the position (reserves Bilal Powell and Joe McKnight are both out for today’s game); Tebow is also expected to see snaps out of New York’s wildcat formation. His potential impact is not limited to offense; the Patriots must also be aware of his special-teams value as well. Patrick Chung’s botched fake punt attempt was among the most memorable plays in New England’s 2010 playoff loss to the Jets; this week, the Patriots must respect the possibility that Tim Tebow will get the ball on a trick play from the “personal protector” spot on the punt team, especially after completing a 23-yard pass on a trick play last week.
6. Can the Patriots’ offensive line protect Tom Brady against Rex Ryan’s defensive front?
It’s no secret that pressuring Tom Brady is the key to stopping New England’s offense, and traditionally Brady has been inconsistent against Ryan’s Jets defenses. The Jets have struggled to reach opposing quarterbacks thus far; they rank 27th in the league with just nine sacks on the season. The biggest concerns along New York’s defensive front are their defensive ends: Muhammad Wilkerson (6’4”, 315) and Quinton Coples (6’6”, 285); both players can win with either power or speed and play either end spot or defensive tackle. The Jets rush six different linebackers regularly – Calvin Pace, Bryan Thomas, Garrett McIntyre, Aaron Maybin on the outside, David Harris and Bart Scott on the inside – and have had some success with defensive back blitzes as well, particularly from free safety LaRon Landry (three quarterback hits on 15 blitzes.) Protecting against the Jets this week starts with Brady’s pre-snap reads; he must identify who the Jets will rush and leave the rest up to his blockers. The Jets must blitz in order to pressure Brady, and New England can take advantage of that aggressiveness if they recognize where the pressure will be coming from.
7. Re-establishing the running game should be a focus of the Patriots’ offense this week
After beginning the season with impressive performances in four of New England’s first five contests, Stevan Ridley struggled last week, rushing for just 34 yards on 16 attempts. Ridley must perform much better this week in order to take advantage of a Jets defense currently ranked 28th against the run. The Jets will also be without nose tackles Sione Pouha (back) and Kenrick Ellis (knee) this week; undrafted free agent Damon Harrison or defensive tackle Mike Devito may be forced to anchor the center of New York’s defense. Consequently, Ridley must be able to reach the second level of the Jets’ defense in order to take advantage of those absences; rushing to the outsides will be more difficult considering New York’s two recent first-round investments at defensive end, Muhammad Wilkerson and Quinton Coples. Danny Woodhead could be a factor as well; he struggled to begin the season but has been a reliable third-down option in recent weeks and is New England’s best pass protector at running back.
8. Will Brandon Lloyd factor into the offense with Antonio Cromartie in man coverage?
Rex Ryan’s 46 defense emphasizes man-free coverage on the outsides; Ryan prioritizes overloading opposing protections and counts on his cornerbacks to shadow opposing wide receivers without much help from the deep secondary. Unsurprisingly, the Jets have invested heavily in the cornerback position during Ryan’s tenure, signing Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie to lucrative contracts and selecting Kyle Wilson in the first round of the 2010 NFL Draft. Revis won’t be playing for the Jets this week, but Cromartie remains one of the most talented man-coverage cornerbacks in the league and will likely be shadowing Brandon Lloyd all game in what should be an exciting matchup. Lloyd has been a key contributor in New England’s offense this year, catching 34 passes on the season but the Patriots may not be able to complete many passes against Cromartie, who has allowed just 15 completions on 36 attempts this season (41.7%) with three interceptions. Kyle Wilson has also played well this season, allowing 16 completions on 31 attempts without surrendering a touchdown; he will likely cover Wes Welker for the majority of the game.
9. How will New York attempt to defend against New England’s dangerous tight ends?
Although New York’s cornerbacks will make attacking the outside of the field difficult, the Jets may be susceptible to New England’s two tight ends, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Both players were listed as questionable on New England’s Friday injury report (with hip and ankle injuries, respectively) but will be active today; they will have to produce in order for New England’s passing game to thrive. New York’s starting linebackers rely more on size and strength than athleticism, and none of them have inspired much confidence in coverage this season. The Jets are also shallow at safety this week with Eric Smith (knee) inactive; starting safeties LaRon Landry and Yeremiah Bell are more effective as in-the-box defenders. New York will have to be physical with Gronkowski and Hernandez at the line of scrimmage to disrupt their releases; forcing New England to retain Gronkowski as a blocker by blitzing often is another possibility. Regardless, the Patriots should be able to count on big games from both Gronkowski and Hernandez this week; both will factor heavily into the offensive gameplan.
10. Can New England’s coverage units prevent big returns from New York’s returners?
Leon Washington’s fourth-quarter punt return last week allowed Seattle to begin their game-winning drive in excellent field position; the Patriots must not allow the Jets’ returners to make a similar impact. Luckily for New England, Matthew Slater and Patrick Chung are both expected to play after leaving last week’s game early; however, special teams contributors Tracy White, Steve Gregory, and Brandon Bolden have all been ruled out for week seven. New York has already scored on two returns this year: on a kick return by Joe McKnight and on a punt return by Jeremy Kerley, who is averaging 17 yards per punt return this season. McKnight is considered a game-time decision this week and may not play; Antonio Cromartie would likely return kicks in his absence (he has returned one kick for 20 yards this season.) Stephen Gostkowski and Zoltan Mesko can help by limiting the Jets’ potential returns: Gostkowski by forcing touchbacks in the kicking game and Mesko by forcing Kerley to fair-catch his punts; doing so would force the Jets to lead extended drives in order to score.