NEPD Editor: Matthew Jones
After a nauseating Thursday night contest to begin week two, the New England Patriots will once again take the field against the rival New York Jets, attempting to build on their 13-10 victory in the initial matchup and put some distance between themselves and their divisional competition by emerging victorious from what should be a difficult road game. The Jets, on the other hand, have an opportunity to improve to 4-3 on the season and cut the divisional lead to just one game, should they prove capable of protecting the football and taking advantage of a diminished opposing defense. Read on for ten keys to this week’s rematch.
1. Will Stevan Ridley be able to replicate last week’s breakout rushing performance?
After gaining a total of 141 yards on the ground last week against the New Orleans Saints, New England’s rushing attack appears to be getting back on track, with the notable standout from that performance being Stevan Ridley, who accounted for 20/35 attempts and gained 96/141 yards, scoring both of the Patriots’ rushing touchdowns while adding one reception for fourteen yards and notably outperforming the team’s reserve options, Brandon Bolden (seven touches, twenty-eight yards) and LeGarrette Blount (seven touches, nine yards.)
However, that success may have been somewhat misleading, as the Saints are woefully ineffective against the run, having entered that game allowing a league-low 5.0 yards per attempt on the ground. New York, by contrast, is among the best run-defending teams in the league, ranking second in opposing rushing yardage and first in yards per attempt allowed, a discouraging average of 3.0 per rush which should be enough to dissuade New England from emphasizing their rushing attack much. Rather, the game may more closely resemble the team’s week two rushing output, in which Ridley mustered only 40 yards on sixteen attempts, good for just 2.5 yards per carry as part of a disappointing 24-54-0 cumulative line.
The Jets rank among the league’s top six teams in Adjusted Line Yards in any direction, with a defensive line which features four highly-effective run-defending linemen, those being defensive ends Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson and nose tackles Damon “Snacks” Harrison and, in a reserve role, Kenrick Ellis. New York’s linebackers, inside starters David Harris and Demario Davis and outside starters Calvin Pace and Quinton Coples, are also more effective versus the run than they are as pass rushers.
2. Can the Patriots take advantage of Antonio Cromartie and New York’s secondary?
Typically regarded as one of the league’s top man-coverage cornerbacks, Jets starter Antonio Cromartie has been considerably less productive than usual in 2013, limiting opposing quarterbacks to completions on just 53.7% of targets but having allowed those same passers to gain 9.46 yards per attempt and 17.5 yards per completion, those figures combining with the three touchdowns he’s allowed to translate into a 110.6 quarterback rating against which is tied for the twelfth-worst figure in the league among qualifying cornerbacks.
However, it may be somewhat premature to consider him a liability in the secondary, as New England’s various receiving options failed to take advantage of him in their last meeting, completing only three of six passes in his direction for 21 yards. Rookie wide receivers Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson both made important contributions in last week’s victory over the Saints, but may struggle to replicate those should they draw Cromartie in coverage. To compound matters, Tom Brady was ineffective when targeting New York’s other cornerback options last time, gaining only twenty yards on four throws in Kyle Wilson’s direction and 46 yards on two-of-seven passing towards rookie Dee Milliner according to ProFootballFocus, which includes the site blaming Milliner for Aaron Dobson’s 39-yard touchdown reception, a questionable decision.
Given the overall effectiveness of New York’s secondary at covering New England’s receiving options, the Jets can afford to focus additional attention on limiting any initially-productive Patriots while feeling confident in their ability to cover other options with a single defender. The fact that none of New England’s receivers other than Julian Edelman were able to catch the ball with any consistency the last time these two teams met should also foster a sense of confidence in New York’s secondary.
3. How thoroughly will Rob Gronkowski be integrated into the offense in his return?
The New England Patriots received their first positive injury-related news in what seems like forever this week when agent Drew Rosenhaus announced that his client, star tight end Rob Gronkowski, had been cleared to return to the field for this weekend’s contest at New York. Gronkowski, whose back and forearm have been the cause of myriad reports since the offseason, comes at just the right time, as New England sustained the loss of their top wide receiver, Danny Amendola, last weekend to a concussion, and the Patriots have struggled to sustain passing success through the air all season, with quarterback Tom Brady on pace for career lows in completion percentage, yards per attempt, and passer rating.
In particular, the most significant area where Gronkowski may be able to give the team a boost is in the red zone, where the Patriots rank 30th in the league in touchdown percentage, having scored on only nine of twenty-two attempts on the season after finishing first in that category last year via a 49/70 rate which represents a 29% increase in efficiency over their 2013 figure. New England was able to defeat the Jets earlier this season without Gronkowski’s help, so it remains to be seen how cautious the team will be in his return, although it would come as a surprise if he were not on the field in those situations given the team’s lack of success at converting red-zone opportunities into touchdowns.
Fellow tight ends Scott Chandler (Bills), Delanie Walker (Titans), Tony Gonzalez (Falcons) and Heath Miller (Steelers) all had productive games against New York’s defense this year, with the Jets typically relying on rotating coverage from their linebackers and safeties.
4. Will New England’s pass protectors be able to buy Tom Brady enough time?
One of the only encouraging statistics in New England’s previous matchup versus the Jets was the infrequent sack/hit figures New York recorded against Tom Brady despite utilizing Jets head coach Rex Ryan’s exotic defensive looks and pressure-oriented philosophy. In that game, New York was able to pressure Brady on thirteen occasions but sacked him only once, recording no additional quarterback hits. Those figures resemble the Jets’ lack of success in their two 2012 matchups versus the Patriots, in which New York recorded a total of one sack, five hits, and twenty-three pressures. Not being able to reach Brady didn’t translate into aerial success for New England last meeting, but nonetheless New York will require more from their defensive front in order to win this week.
Fortunately for Rex Ryan, his brother Rob was highly effective in creating pressure against Brady last week, with New Orleans’ defenders sacking the quarterback on five separate occasions, adding one additional quarterback hit, and pressuring the passer on a total of fourteen occasions. The two brothers currently lead defenses which are tied for fifth in the league in sacks, so it should come as no surprise if the Jets create more pressure this week than they did previously.
Tom Brady has not been as efficient this season as he usually is against the blitz, averaging just 5.5 yards per attempt and completing 54.5% of his passes versus additional rushers, so Ryan may feel more comfortable than usual about calling plays which would overwhelm New England’s blockers and force Brady to make quick decisions. On the bright side, none of New York’s linebackers are considered particularly dangerous rushers.
5. Can the Patriots improve their effectiveness in critical third-down situations?
In what was perhaps the team’s ugliest offensive performance of the season, the New England Patriots scored just thirteen points versus the Jets in week two, punting the ball on eleven different occasions, owing to the team’s painful four-of-eighteen success when attempting to convert third downs.
New England’s first attempt was successful, with a creative wheel route earning Aaron Dobson his first pro touchdown on a blown coverage, but the Patriots stalled out on a third-and-goal on their next possession, then were stuffed on third-and-one on the following drive. An offensive holding call against Logan Mankins resulted in the team forfeiting a third-and-fifteen conversion and subsequent one-yard rush on their next attempt, then four straight incompletions when targeting Dobson on third down, the third and fourth separated by a quarterback sneak by Brady to set up a field goal before halftime. Brady also failed to connect with Thompkins on three third-downs, all occurring in the second half of the game.
While those miscues were not costly enough to lose the game, the Patriots may not be able to count on their defense, which is now missing defensive tackle Tommy Kelly, nose tackle Vince Wilfork, weakside linebacker Jerod Mayo, and cornerback Aqib Talib, to singlehandedly win the game again this time around. On the season, New England has converted only 36.6% of their third-down attempts, ranking 18th in the league compared to a league-leading 48.7% rate in 2012; New York’s third-down defense is almost identical to New England’s offense, with a 36.7% figure. Fortunately, this is another area where Rob Gronkowski’s return may lead to a notable improvement by furnishing Brady with a more reliable receiving option.
6. How can the Patriots compensate for their recently-sustained defensive injuries?
Although left cornerback Aqib Talib returned to practice on Friday in a limited capacity, the hip injury he sustained last week against the Saints will keep him out of this afternoon’s contest at New York, meaning that the Patriots will likely be without four of their initial starters on defense, those players being Talib, nose tackle Vince Wilfork (lost three weeks ago at Atlanta), defensive tackle Tommy Kelly (who injured his knee one week later at Cincinnati and has already been ruled out), and weakside linebacker Jerod Mayo (who has already been placed on injured reserve with a torn pectoral muscle suffered last week.)
Despite those absences, the Patriots have been able to maintain an effective defense which currently ranks third in the league in points per game allowed with a 16.2 average in that category. However, it remains to be seen how much losing Talib and Mayo could negatively impact the team, as Talib was on the field for 36 plays last week, while Mayo was not hurt until his 59th snap. Losing Talib for an extended period of time could cripple New England’s pass defense, as he has been an elite man-coverage cornerback this season who has proved capable of smothering virtually any receiver he’s been assigned to, with his resume including impressive outings against the likes of Stevie Johnson, Vincent Jackson, Julio Jones, A.J. Green, and Jimmy Graham. This week, though, his services may not be needed quite as much, as the Jets rank 22nd in the league against the pass.
Look for the Patriots to start Alfonzo Dennard and Kyle Arrington on the outside, with Logan Ryan seeing an increased role. Jerod Mayo was not enjoying one of his best seasons before getting hurt and his absence may cost New England more in terms of leadership than on-field play. Defensive end Michael Buchanan and linebackers Jamie Collins and Dane Fletcher may be asked to fill that void defensively, depending on what the Patriots do with defensive end Rob Ninkovich, a player who is also capable of playing linebacker.
7. Can rookie Geno Smith limit or eliminate the number of turnovers he commits?
Rookie second-round pick Geno Smith has already demonstrated why he’s superior to previous starter Mark Sanchez, throwing for an impressive 7.84 yards per attempt which dwarfs Sanchez’s career average of 6.48 while additionally completing 4.4% more passes than Sanchez did during his four-year tenure as New York’s starter. However, Smith’s decision-making as well as his accuracy thus far leave substantial room for improvement, as he has been intercepted in each game this season aside from the Jets’ surprising Monday night victory over the Falcons two weeks ago.
Smith’s three interceptions at New England in week two helped seal the game, with all three passes missing their mark in a game where Smith’s arm looked particularly imprecise, completing 15/35 passes for a 42.9% completion percentage. One possible culprit for Smith’s scattershot passing may be the pressure the Patriots were able to create, sacking him on four occasions and hitting him on five others. Smith has done a decent job this year when given a clean pocket, completing 70.2% of his passes in those situations for an average of 9.0 yards per attempt, but when pressured his completion percentage falls to 39.4% and his yards per attempt figure plummets to 5.6.
The key for the Patriots will be to build an effective pass rush against him without resorting to the blitz, as Smith has been more effective against additional rushers than he has against coverage-heavy playcalls, potentially owing to his ability to create additional time for his receivers by escaping the initial rush. It’s probably not realistic to expect a duplicate of his horrific performance earlier this season, but through the first six games of his career he has shown a tendency to turn the ball over with some regularity.
8. Will New York’s committee of runners enjoy the same success they did last time?
The Jets’ week-two committee of Chris Ivory and Bilal Powell formed an effective two-back rotation which provided New York’s offense with 100 yards and one touchdown over 25 carries, with Powell additionally gaining another twenty-two yards through the air on two receptions (albeit requiring five targets to do so.) Since then, Ivory’s workload has been significantly scaled back: he has received just four teaches in each of his three subsequent appearances.
Powell, on the other hand, has seen a spike in his usage since, touching the ball twenty-nine times versus the Bills, seventeen times at Tennessee, thirteen times at Atlanta, and twelve times versus Pittsburgh; at this point, he should be considered New York’s lead option, a runner who makes up for a middling success rate of 44%, as cited by Football Outsiders, with added value as a receiving option out of the backfield, providing the Jets with a potential weapon to use against the Patriots, whose defense was victimized by nine running back/fullback receptions last week against the Saints which went for a total of 93 yards and one touchdown.
Powell shouldn’t be considered especially dangerous, but with Tommy Kelly, Vince Wilfork, and Jerod Mayo now missing from New England’s defense, the Patriots’ 24th-ranked run defense could drop even further down the rankings this week should the Jets choose to employ a ball-control offense which limits Tom Brady’s opportunities and takes advantage of their opponent’s lack of defensive line depth.
9. Which option (if any) will Bill Belichick scheme to eliminate from New York’s offense?
New York’s erratic offensive production in the last meeting between the Jets and Patriots highlighted the team’s lack of a go-to offensive weapon who could be counted on to move the ball down the field. However, if there is one player who could cause problems for New England, it’s wide receiver Stephen Hill, who caught four passes for 86 yards in week two, including a 37-yard gain against right cornerback Alfonzo Dennard and a 33-yard gain against left cornerback Aqib Talib, who, as mentioned earlier, will miss this week’s contest with a hip injury.
Hill has disappeared at times this season, but has nonetheless been considerably more efficient than he was as a rookie in 2012, a campaign which saw him catch just 21/46 passes (45.7%) for 252 yards and three touchdowns, dropping six passes and being held without a catch in five games he appeared in. This year, he has already topped his rookie yardage total while dramatically improving his catch percentage, bringing in 18/29 throws (62.1%) for 300 yards and one touchdown, dropping only two passes. He has topped fifty yards just twice on the year, but at 6’4” and 215 pounds, with a 4.28-second 40-yard dash and 39.5” vertical, he presents a physical mismatch for the defensive backs remaining on New England’s roster and could draw increased attention as a result.
The Jets have targeted him five times over the course of his career when matched up against Dennard, the Patriots’ top cornerback with Talib out; Hill has caught four of those attempts for 80 yards. Therefore, it may be more beneficial to assign someone like Kyle Arrington to Hill, who has limited the receiver to three-of-five receiving for twenty-one yards over their three meetings. Arrington could receive bracket help, as the Jets lack dangerous auxiliary options, especially with Santonio Holmes having been ruled out with a pulled hamstring.
10. Who will win the rematch between D’Brickashaw Ferguson and Chandler Jones?
Left tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson has long been considered one of the league’s top blindside protectors, a reputation which he has done a decent job of maintaining this year by limiting opponents to just two sacks through six games. Additionally, he has been more productive as a run blocker than usual, with the Jets currently ranking sixth in the league in Adjusted Line Yards on runs behind their left tackle, averaging 4.50 yards per attempt in that direction, and fourth in the league in stretch plays off the left end, where they average 5.66 yards per attempt. Those figures are significantly higher than New York’s 2012 averages of 4.06 and 4.27 yards, respectively.
By comparison, Chandler Jones and the Patriots have struggled to defend plays run behind an opponent’s left tackle, ranking 22nd in the league with an average of 4.36 yards per attempt. However, when the two teams played earlier this season, Jones was arguably the more impressive of the two players, recording a pair of sacks, with one of those (and an additional pressure) coming against Ferguson, making this one of the more appealing one-on-one matchups when New York has possession. Last season, Ferguson held Jones without a sack in week seven, with the potential week twelve rematch going unrealized due to an ankle injury sustained by Jones the week prior.
Although Ferguson’s larger body of work should give him the advantage, Jones has recorded 4.5 sacks thus far in 2013 and is developing into a more consistent pass-rushing threat than he was in 2012; an additional sack this week would go a long way towards solidifying his reputation as one of the league’s top young rushers.
Final Prediction: Patriots 21, Jets 14