NEPD Staff Writer: Matthew Jones
The New England Patriots increased their lead in the AFC East last night, blowing out the New York Jets in a 49-19 win; the Patriots took advantage of repeated opportunities to create turnovers and left New York looking for answers on both sides of the ball. Read on for some keys to New England’s victory.
1. Quarterback Tom Brady dissects Jets secondary through the air
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady didn’t throw very often – New England ran the ball more than they passed it – but his passing was efficient, gaining 323 yards and throwing three touchdown passes. Without star cornerback Darrelle Revis on the field, the Patriots were able to take advantage of New York’s coverage units. Brady spread the ball between seven different receivers, exploiting blown coverages on touchdown passes to Shane Vereen and Julian Edelman. Tight end Aaron Hernandez returned to action and looked explosive on a 28-yard reception, one of two catches he made totaling 36 yards. The Patriots didn’t utilize their second tight ends too often, but Daniel Fells was able to separate from coverage on a crossing pattern which netted New England 24 yards. Even without left guard Logan Mankins or right tackle Sebastian Vollmer, New England was able to protect Brady, who avoided being sacked all game. Brady also concluded a 17-play, 87-yard drive with a one-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter.
2. Running backs Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen successful early
Stevan Ridley made up for his struggles last week by rushing for 97 yards and a touchdown over 21 attempts. Although he didn’t manage to break free for a big run – his longest was the nine-yard score – his consistent gains drove the offense. However, he was upstaged by 2011 second-round pick Shane Vereen, who had his most productive game as a pro. Vereen caught a screen pass and ran it all the way to the end zone for an 83-yard touchdown, part of his 133 total yards on just 12 touches; Vereen’s role appears set to increase once against. While most of Brady’s yardage was spread over a handful of big gains including Vereen’s screen, the running game could always be counted on to pick up six or seven yards. Danny Woodhead was largely invisible again, carrying the ball twice for eight yards and adding a reception as well; Vereen’s emergence may cost Woodhead a roster spot next season, as he is set to become a free agent. The Patriots will have a wealth of options at running back once rookie Brandon Bolden returns from his suspension for performance-enhancing drugs.
3. Patriots defense/special teams creates five more turnovers, scoring twice
Patrick Chung was active this week after a long absence; he joined Devin McCourty and Steve Gregory at safety in New England’s sub package, with Aqib Talib and Alfonzo Dennard manning the cornerback spots; the combination was highly effective against the Jets. Gregory cut across the field to intercept a Mark Sanchez pass in the first quarter which bailed New England’s defense out of some poor field position. Later, Gregory recovered a puzzling Shonn Greene fumble and ran back a Sanchez fumble for a touchdown. On the following kickoff, Devin McCourty forced a Joe McKnight fumble which was caught and returned for a touchdown by Julian Edelman. The scoring was part of a 35-point second quarter which effectively put the game out of reach. New England has now scored three defensive touchdowns as well as two special teams touchdowns over the past two weeks. Although the Jets still gained quite a bit of yardage on offense – Mark Sanchez passed for 301 yards, and New York rushed for 119 – most of that yardage occurred in garbage time once the game’s outcome had already been determined.
4. Julian Edelman matches last week’s two-touchdown performance
Edelman’s first touchdown – a fumble return on a kickoff – has already been discussed, and he also managed to score on a 58-yard fly route thanks to a blown coverage by Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie. However, Edelman was on the field for just 16 offensive snaps before suffering a head injury and being brought back to the locker room; he did not return. Nonetheless, Edelman’s contributions have occurred increasingly often this year; his absence next week would be a significant loss. Edelman’s name is frequently paired with Wes Welker’s, but he has a long way to go before he can be considered a replacement for Welker, who caught seven passes for 71 yards, including the game’s opening score with safety LaRon Landry in coverage. Both players are free agents at the end of the season, and New England has a difficult decision looming: Welker is possibly the best slot receiver in the entire league, but he may price himself out of reach.
5. Season-long struggles against tight ends continue vs. Keller, Cumberland
If there was one area of improvement during this game, it was in terms of defending New York’s tight ends, Dustin Keller and Jeff Cumberland. Keller was expected to cause issues in the passing game, and he ultimately gained 64 yards on 5/7 receiving, including the Jets’ lone touchdown reception. Cumberland was also surprisingly effective, catching all four of his targets for 58 yards, including a big gain against rookie linebacker Dont’a Hightower. Generally, New England’s struggles come when linebackers are caught in coverage against tight ends, but the Patriots at least took a step in the right direction this week by running their three-safety sub packages more often; that may be their most effective option this year. Nonetheless, New England’s ability to cover tight ends must improve dramatically over the remainder of the season in order to prevent that weakness from being exploited in the playoffs.