NEPD Editor: Matthew Jones
The New England Patriots host the New York Jets tonight in a contest which will determine the current leader of the AFC East. Both teams narrowly escaped from their games last weekend via last-second field goals, and tonight’s contest may be closer than anticipated as well, owing to a recent string of Patriots injuries which has cast some doubt over their ability to score the ball as consistently as they have in the past. Read on for ten keys to what should be a competitive divisional matchup.
1. Can Jets quarterback Geno Smith replicate the productivity of his pro debut?
Despite a disappointing set of preseason performances, second-round pick Geno Smith’s pro debut at the quarterback position was respectable enough to prevent New York from trying to rush Mark Sanchez back into action before he’s ready to play. Smith completed 63.2% of his passes, averaging an adequate 6.74 yards per attempt through the air for a total of 256 yards, with one passing touchdown. Additionally, he gained 47 yards on the ground over six rushes, leading the team. Smith’s success wasn’t limited to short throws, as he completed seven of ten attempts traveling more than ten yards down the field.
Smith did an outstanding job on plays in which Tampa Bay failed to pressure him, completing 21/26 attempts for 231 yards and his lone touchdown, averaging 8.9 yards per throw on these snaps. However, when pressured, Smith crumbled, completing just three of twelve attempts for 25 yards and the interception, being sacked on five occasions as well. That Smith’s yards per attempt drop from 8.9 to 2.1 in those situations, and that his completion percentage drops by over 65% make creating pressure on Smith a priority for New England’s coaching staff.
2. How will D’Brickashaw Ferguson and New York’s offensive line perform in pass protection?
Last week, quarterback Geno Smith took a pounding from Tampa Bay’s defense, which combined to record five sacks and eight quarterback hits. Surprisingly, four of those sacks came from Buccaneers linebackers Mason Foster (two), Lavonte David (one), and Dekoda Watson (one.) Jets left tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson, the fourth overall pick of the 2006 NFL Draft, is typically considered one of the best blindside protectors in the league, but he submitted a terrible performance, allowing five pressures compared to just nineteen throughout the entire 2012 season. As discussed earlier, because Geno Smith played so poorly under pressure in the opener, Ferguson and the Jets will have to do much better against New England than they did on Sunday.
While Ferguson is unlikely to struggle nearly as much this week, and while New York possesses one of the league’s top centers in Nick Mangold, the Jets’ performance in the trenches last week should look appealing to a Patriots team which failed to sack rookie quarterback E.J. Manuel in Buffalo last weekend. New England’s defensive tackles, Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly, may be able to get favorable matchups against Jets left guard Vladimir Ducasse, a 2010 second-round pick out of the University of Massachusetts who has started just two career games.
3. Will the Jets support Smith with anything resembling rushing success?
New York ranked sixth in rushing attempts per game in 2012, finishing twelfth in yards and thirteenth in touchdowns. However, the team’s 23rd-place position in yards per attempt left something to be desired; consequently, the Jets committed themselves to an overhaul of their personnel group at running back this offseason, shifting from a rushing attack dominated by Shonn Greene (276 attempts) to one which features Bilal Powell, a holdover from last season’s team, and Chris Ivory, acquired from the New Orleans Saints for a fourth-round selection during the 2013 NFL Draft. While New York’s 90 rushing yards last week placed them thirteenth in the league, it took the Jets 29 carries to get there, translating to an average of 3.1 yards per carry.
As mentioned above, Smith led the Jets in rushing last week via his 6-47-0 line, while Powell (12-29-0 and a fumble) and Ivory (10-15-0) hurt more than they helped. Despite limiting C.J. Spiller’s production last week, New England’s defense did not fare well against the run, their 136 yards allowed placing them 29th among the league’s teams. That figure is incongruous with their success against the run last season, when the Patriots ranked ninth among the league’s teams. This week, it’s possible that both teams will ultimately perform better than they did on Sunday.
4. After a poor showing last week, can New England’s secondary improve their coverage?
Jets slot receiver Jeremy Kerley punished the Patriots in 2012, securing seven of eleven passes for 120 yards in week seven, then catching another seven throws on ten attempts in week twelve, those receptions gaining a total of 86 yards. Unfortunately for New York, Kerley suffered a concussion last week and has already been ruled out for the game, likely increasing the roles of reserve options Clyde Gates (thirty snaps last week) and Ryan Spadola (seven.) Santonio Holmes is also projected to see an expanded role after playing just 45 snaps in the opener. Holmes was held to just one catch on two targets against former Jets star Darrelle Revis, gaining thirteen yards. However, no Patriots cornerback approximates the impact Revis has on the productivity of opposing receivers, so Holmes should see a substantial increase in targets. In 2011, Holmes caught four of six passes for 60 yards and a touchdown against the Patriots in Foxboro, then grabbed another six of eight balls for 93 yards at home.
Stephen Hill, New York’s 2012 second-round pick, is the organization’s most physically talented weapon on offense. At 6’4” and 215 pounds, Hill ran the 40-yard dash in 4.28 seconds at the NFL Combine, adding a 6.88-second three-cone drill and a 39.5” vertical. However, Hill struggled to make the adjustment from Georgia Tech’s triple-option attack to pro offense as a rookie, catching just 21/46 passes (45.7%) for 252 yards and three touchdowns, dropping six passes. Last week he caught all six of his targets for 39 yards, an encouraging sign. His size and athleticism present a unique challenge, although he was inconsistent at best against the Patriots last year.
5. Can tight end Kellen Winslow, a former Patriot, frustrate his previous employer?
With top receiver Santonio Holmes blanketed by former Jet Darrelle Revis on Sunday, Geno Smith turned to tight end Kellen Winslow early and often, throwing eight passes in Winslow’s direction and completing seven of them. Consistent with Smith’s overall statistics, Winslow was at his most productive in the intermediate range, catching all three targets for 54 yards on throws which traveled between 10-19 yards downfield. Thus, the burden of defending against him will likely fall upon New England’s linebacker corps, which typically doesn’t perform especially well in coverage. Bills tight end Scott Chandler caught a pass against each of the Patriots’ three starters at the position (Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes, and Dont’a Hightower), and was unable to reel in another throw on a play in which he was wide open downfield, having lost Mayo on a crossing route.
It would be painful for New England if Winslow, who was temporarily a member of the Patriots last season as the team tried to replace injured “F” tight end Aaron Hernandez, were to demonstrate his value as a receiving option at a time where New England is seeking just that at the position. Winslow’s predecessor, Dustin Keller, performed well against the Patriots last year, catching all seven targets for 93 yards and a touchdown over the initial meeting, then adding another five catches on seven throws in the rematch, gaining 64 yards and finding the end zone again.
6. Can the Patriots protect Tom Brady from Rex Ryan’s pressure-oriented defense?
In their season opener versus Tampa Bay, New York recorded five sacks for 42 yards, compiling another eleven pressures, crippling Tampa Bay’s intermediate and deep passing game. New England had plenty of trouble in Buffalo against Mike Pettine’s defense, with Tom Brady being pressured on nineteen dropbacks against the Bills which resulted in a passer rating of 51.3. That figure may not improve as much as the Patriots may desire, as Pettine served as Rex Ryan’s defensive coordinator from 2009-2012 and New England will likely see many similar things from the Jets defense as a result.
New York will be without pass rusher Quinton Coples, who pressured Brady four times, which will ease New England’s burden a bit, but the Patriots were not as successful as most teams were against Calvin Pace last season, and Coples’ replacement, Antwan Barnes, is a talented if undersized pass rusher. The main concern in New York’s defensive front seven is Muhammad Wilkerson, among the most productive five-technique defensive ends in the league. Wilkerson primarily played right end last season, but lined up at left end last week, with first-round pick Sheldon Richardson sliding into the starting spot opposite him. The Jets boast a significantly more talented secondary than the Bills, which should make things even harder on New England.
7. How will Stevan Ridley respond after last week’s fumble and subsequent benching?
The Patriots currently rank third in the league in rushing yardage after Stevan Ridley’s fumble and subsequent benching led to a breakthrough performance by Shane Vereen, the former second-round pick averaging 7.2 yards per attempt and gaining 101 yards on fourteen carries while adding seven receptions for 58 yards through the air. However, New England has since placed Shane Vereen on short-term injured reserve, as Vereen underwent wrist surgery following the game; he will miss at least eight weeks as a consequence of the designation. That means Ridley, whose position as New England’s feature back appeared to be in jeopardy, will likely step back into his previous role without facing much competition from the likes of LeGarrette Blount, Brandon Bolden, and Leon Washington, the Patriots’ other backs.
Ridley’s removal from last Sunday’s game had more to do with ball security than overall effectiveness, but he should be in for a challenge against the Jets’ stout, aggressive defensive front, which features five-technique defensive ends Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson. Last week, New York’s defense held Tampa Bay’s star running back, Doug Martin, to just 65 rushing yards on 24 attempts, an average of 2.7 yards per attempt; no other Buccaneers gained yardage on the ground. Ridley struggled at home against the Jets last season, gaining only 65 yards on seventeen attempts, but performed better in week twelve, gaining 97 yards on 21 attempts and adding a touchdown. Necessity should translate to a heavy workload for Ridley tonight.
8. Who will provide New England’s production at the wide receiver position?
Last week, three different targets contributed almost all of New England’s production in the passing game: running back Shane Vereen (7/10, 58 yards) and wide receivers Danny Amendola (10/14, 104 yards) and Julian Edelman (7/9, 79 yards, two touchdowns.) On passes to other targets, Tom Brady was just 5/19 for 47 yards and an interception. That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement of New England’s rookie options, as receiver Kenbrell Thompkins was targeted thirteen times but caught just four passes, while Brady’s three throws in the directions of receiver Josh Boyce and tight end Zach Sudfeld resulted in 0/3 passing and Brady’s lone interception on a pass bobbled by Sudfeld.
The situation may have been dire last week, but it should be even more difficult now that Vereen will miss the next eight games and Amendola is expected to be among New England’s inactives after aggravating his previous groin injury. Their absences will likely lead to a more ground-oriented gameplan, although rookie second-round pick Aaron Dobson is projected to return from a hamstring injury and, while perhaps not as polished as Thompkins at this point, is the most talented receiver on the Patriots’ roster; he is officially listed as questionable at this point. However, the Jets possess three talented cornerbacks in Antonio Cromartie, Dee Milliner, and Kyle Wilson, which should make things difficult on what was an underperforming group of rookie receivers last week.
9. Will New England be more effective on third down than Tampa Bay was last week?
Last week, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers converted just 6/16 third down attempts against the Jets, while New England went 11/20 in Buffalo on their own tries. The Patriots may ultimately find themselves frustrated more frequently this week, as the losses of Shane Vereen and Danny Amendola will make it more difficult to convert in third-down situations. Brady converted his first third-down attempt on a 24-yard throw to Danny Amendola, then failed to connect with Amendola on the team’s next third-down attempt. Brady found Vereen for a conversion not long after, then targeted Amendola and Vereen within a short span. Amendola converted the team’s first third-down try in the second half; Vereen and Amendola received the ball on New England’s next three tries. Amendola was targeted on three additional third-down conversions over the final two Patriots drives.
Based on last week’s performance, Tom Brady appears most likely to look Julian Edelman’s way, but the Jets may be able to neutralize him to some extent by forcing him to deal with press man coverage from a big, physical group of cornerbacks. Reasonable distances should appeal to New England as opportunities for Stevan Ridley to put last week’s fumble behind him. It should be interesting to see how the rookie wideouts handle press coverage; second-round pick Aaron Dobson’s size and strength should help him in that regard, with absences in the offense potentially creating more opportunities for him than would otherwise be expected given his recovery from the hamstring injury which prevented him from playing last week.
10. Can New England avoid turnovers and take advantage of red-zone opportunities?
New England’s uncharacteristic three-turnover performance and two-of-five red zone performance obscured what an offense which was typically able to mount extended drives. Stevan Ridley’s fumble at the Buffalo 25-yard line killed what was shaping up to be a touchdown drive and the Jets with one of their three touchdowns. Had Ridley held onto the ball, the game may have been headed for a 17-0 Patriots lead rather than a 10-7 contest. New England found themselves unable to score on three straight downs from the one-yard line in the third quarter, with an aborted fourth-down snap being recovered by Bills linebacker Kiko Alonso. Generally, a team which makes it to the 25-yard line will typically come away with at least a field goal, and a team on the one-yard line is expected to score given three opportunities.
New England’s execution certainly wasn’t impressive, but even average play could have given the Patriots a comfortable 33-14 victory rather than the seemingly-unlikely victory they escaped Buffalo with after trailing for nearly the entire second half. Although New England is typically an astonishingly effective team, it is nonetheless somewhat difficult to imagine where they will be able to improve their play this week.
Final Prediction: Patriots 24, Jets 21