6. Will New England’s run defense be able to limit Shonn Greene to short gains again?
Shonn Greene was able to find the end zone in the first quarter of New England’s last game against the Jets, but totaled just 54 rushing yards on 16 carries (3.4 yards per attempt) with a long of eight yards. However, Colts running backs Vick Ballard and Delone Carter were each able to break free for 20-yard runs on Sunday; New England’s run defense must prevent this problem from recurring against Greene and the Jets.
Fortunately, Greene has been relatively ineffective this entire season, with just two carries over 20 yards, a 3.7 yards-per-attempt average, and a 46% success rate. His style of play is also ill-suited to succeed against a defense such as New England’s which emphasizes stopping the inside run; Greene is simply not fast enough to beat defenders to the edge for big gains. New York may have to get creative or rely on their change-of-pace runners, such as Joe McKnight, for big plays on the ground.
7. How will problems against Jeremy Kerley and Dustin Keller be addressed?
Almost half of Mark Sanchez’s throws in week seven (20/41) were targeting either Jeremy Kerley or Dustin Keller. Kerley’ seven receptions for 120 yards in New York’s last contest against New England are disturbing; however, five of his catches (for 74 yards) came against Kyle Arrington, now acting as a reserve defensive back. This week, Kerley will have more difficult matchups against Aqib Talib and/or Alfonzo Dennard; Kerley caught a 22-yard pass against Dennard.
Dustin Keller has missed a handful of games due to injury this season and thus far has just 21 receptions for 236 yards and one touchdown on the season. However, seven of those passes came against New England, resulting in 93 yards and the aforementioned touchdown. Those numbers are concerning especially in context: New England’s defense has struggled to defend tight ends all season. Last week, relatively slow rookie Dwayne Allen caught six passes for 69 yards and would have had an even more impressive game had he not dropped two passes. Keller may prevent New England from blitzing their linebackers as often as they would like to.
8. Can the pass rush build on its previous success vs. New York and Indianapolis?
The bad news is that right end Chandler Jones (ankle) has already been ruled out for this week, leaving one weak point on the offensive line. On the other hand, New England’s pass rush sacked Andrew Luck once while recording six quarterback hits and 16 pressures despite losing Jones after just 11 defensive snaps. At defensive end, Rob Ninkovich played 67 snaps, finishing with a sack, two hits, and a forced fumble, while Jermaine Cunningham was able to get some pressure as well (two hits and four hurries in 65 snaps.) Trevor Scott (32 snaps last week) should also rotate in at right end once again.
The Patriots were ultimately successful last week in part because they utilized their depth on the defensive line (rotating in Scott, Ron Brace, and Brandon Deaderick to give defensive tackles Kyle Love and Vince Wilfork some time to rest) and because they weren’t afraid to get creative by rushing both their linebackers (Spikes, Hightower) and their defensive backs (Arrington, Dennard.) New England sacked Mark Sanchez four times during the last Patriots/Jets matchup; Sanchez is completing just 38.2% of his passes under pressure this season.
9. Will the Patriots be able to force New York to commit multiple turnovers?
New England’s defense does not fare well on traditional defensive numbers: the Patriots are 28th in yards per game allowed, 30th in pass yards per game allowed, 10th in rush yards per game allowed, and 16th in points per game allowed. However, one area where the Patriots have excelled is in terms of creating turnovers. The Patriots have intercepted 13 passes (fifth) and have forced (21) and recovered (14) more fumbles than any other team in the league. Their 27 turnovers are tied for the second-most in the league behind Chicago’s 30 forced turnovers.
Last week, New England forced Andrew Luck to turn the ball over on four separate occasions, scoring twice. The Jets turned the ball over twice back in week seven, and Mark Sanchez has historically been prone to turning the ball over. Through ten games, Sanchez has thrown nine interceptions and lost four fumbles; Sanchez also committed 26 turnovers in 2011. The Patriots will have failed defensively if they cannot end at least a couple of New York’s possessions prematurely by forcing turnovers.
10. Both teams have excellent special teams units; which unit will perform better?
Jets special teams coach Mike Westhoff and Patriots special teams coach Scott O’Brien are considered among the best in the league; they may be asked to design a few plays specifically for this occasion. Patrick Chung’s botched attempt on fourth down was a key factor in New England’s playoff loss a couple of years ago, but this time the trick plays may come from New York; a Jets loss would virtually concede the AFC East to New England, and special teams could offer New York a potential trump card.
The Jets traded for Tim Tebow and are currently featuring him as their personal protector on punting downs; the Patriots must be prepared to stop Tebow on fake punts. New York’s return specialists are dangerous as well: Joe McKnight is averaging around 30 yard per kick return, with one touchdown on the season, while punt returner Jeremy Kerley has scored as well. New England has reason for optimism based on past success: Devin McCourty scored on a 104-yard kick return against the Jets last time around, while Julian Edelman scored on one punt return last week and came close to finding the end zone again on a subsequent attempt.