NEPD Staff Writer: Matthew Jones
New England barely escaped from Gilette Stadium with a 29-26 overtime victory over the New York Jets back in week seven, but the Patriots looked unstoppable on Sunday against the Colts. Which New England team will show up at MetLife Stadium this Thanksgiving?
1. How will New England’s injured roster respond to the short week of preparation?
Three key players have already been ruled out this week: tight end Rob Gronkowski (arm), left guard Logan Mankins (calf/ankle), and right end Chandler Jones (ankle.) As usual, there are a number of starters also listed as questionable: wide receivers Brandon Lloyd and Wes Welker, tight end Aaron Hernandez, right guard Dan Connolly, right tackle Sebastian Vollmer, linebackers Dont’a Hightower and Brandon Spikes, and safeties Patrick Chung and Steve Gregory. Reserves listed as questionable include offensive guard Nick McDonald, defensive tackle Ron Brace, defensive end Trevor Scott, and linebacker Tracy White. Of the players listed above, Lloyd, Welker, Hernandez, Vollmer, Hightower, Spikes, and Gregory should all be active once again; it may be unrealistic to expect players such as Connolly or Chung to return after being inactive during last week’s games.
If New England is without Mankins, Connolly, and McDonald, their depth at guard will be tested: McDonald started in Connolly’s place last week. Marcus Cannon would likely start at right guard if McDonald is unable to play.
2. Offensive rhythm is important; how can New England perform more consistently?
One depressing aspect of New England’s last matchup with the Jets was the Patriots’ lack of offensive rhythm. The Patriots scored 29 points, but were often unable to put together extended drives. They scored nine points between a 104-yard kickoff return by Devin McCourty in the first quarter and a safety in the second quarter. Rob Gronkowski’s first touchdown reception concluded a shortened drive of 58 yards, and two Patriots drives were concluded with field goals.
Zoltan Mesko was very visible, punting six times. Tom Brady was able to move New England down the field late in the fourth quarter to send the game into overtime and to position Stephen Gostkowski for the game-winning field goal, but the Patriots cannot count on winning with another an inconsistent performance. Becoming more consistent starts on the offensive line: New York sacked Brady just once back in week seven, but recorded 15 additional pressures which helped hold Brady to just 6.2 yards per attempt. The Jets will likely try a similar approach this week, featuring press coverage at the line and frequent blitzes inside.
3. Can running back Stevan Ridley get back on track? How will Shane Vereen factor in?
Stevan Ridley has been very effective this season overall, but struggled last week against the Colts, gaining just 28 yards on the ground over 13 attempts. Ridley will have to get back on track against a Jets run defense which gave him some problems back in week seven: he was held to 65 yards on 17 attempts (3.8 yards per carry.) If Ridley struggles against New York, the Patriots may want to try their hand with Shane Vereen, who ran for 40 yards and a touchdown last week and had some success against New York in week seven, rushing eight times for 49 yards. Vereen has been underutilized this season but is finally starting to show some of the ability which made him a second-round pick back in 2011.
In week seven, the Patriots also gave Danny Woodhead six carries and four targets in the passing game totaling 46 yards. Woodhead wasn’t incredibly effective running the ball, so he may not be utilized heavily the second time around. That may be a good thing: New England’s offense was much more effective last week when Josh McDaniels concentrated New England’s offensive touches on a handful of options: Gronkowski, Welker, Edelman, Lloyd, Ridley, and Vereen.
4. What will the Patriots do at tight end without Rob Gronkowski (forearm)?
Rob Gronkowski’s fractured forearm has been reported as requiring a four-to-six week recovery period; New England will have to beat New York without their most imposing offensive weapon. Gronkowski scored both of New England’s offensive touchdowns during the first matchup against the Jets, and another pair of scores last week against Indianapolis. In Gronkowski’s absence, the Patriots will be forced to play their auxiliary options more often: Visanthe Shiancoe, Michael Hoomanawanui, and potentially Daniel Fells should all expect additional snaps. Hoomanwanui is the best blocker of the three and should replace Gronkowski on rushing downs.
Of course, Gronkowski’s forearm injury will be less significant if Aaron Hernandez (ankle) is able to play and contribute in some capacity as expected. Gronkowski and Hernandez have different skillsets, but without either tight end, the Patriots would be forced to rely on their running backs and wide receivers for production.
5. Limiting opposing yards/plays has been difficult; where is there room to improve?
New England is still allowing opponents to execute far too many plays. The Jets ran 78 plays over 13 drives in week seven, converting eight of their 15 third down attempts while punting just three times. Indianapolis’ offensive numbers from last week’s matchup are almost identical: the Colts ran 75 plays over 13 drives, going 8/14 on third downs with three punts. To put those third downs in perspective, the Patriots are converting 51% of their third down attempts this season, while other teams in the top ten range from 41.2% to 47.3%. The Jets are currently ranked 16th, converting on 38.6% of their attempts, but converted 53.3% of their tries against the Patriots.
Third down percentage is generally considered an effective indicator of defensive success, as well as an area where the Patriots have struggled in recent years. If they can hold the Jets to a third down conversion percentage more in line with New York’s averages, New England’s chances of winning this week will improve greatly.