At 5-1, the New England Patriots are certainly in prime position to eventually secure a playoff spot, even if they are far from being the well-oiled machine that fans are accustomed to seeing.
This week, they could effectively eliminate the Jets from division contention, as a Patriots victory would put New York in a three-game hole in the AFC East, excluding the tiebreaker disadvantage.
But that victory is far from a foregone conclusion. When the Pats narrowly edged the Jets in Week 2, they were already a banged-up team that most felt would receive reinforcements soon after. Instead, the New England MASH unit has only increased in size, suffering critical blows and few returns.
With the Pats likely being shorthanded this Sunday, some of these adjustments will be even more difficult to make. Nevertheless, the "next man up" mentality is in full swing for all teams by now, and the Pats still have the personnel to scrap out another win, even if the margin for error is smaller.
To unveil what the Patriots must do to win this week, let's revisit their first meeting with the Jets and see where the Pats fell short. If New England can shore up these areas, or at least remain competitive in them, there is no reason they cannot deal a critical loss to their bitter rivals.
Control the Jets Run Game
This will almost certainly be the biggest challenge for the Pats this week.
Even with both Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo playing in Week 2, the Jets had fairly sustained success on the ground. In particular, bruising back Chris Ivory averaged 4.3 yards per carry on 12 attempts, well above his season average of 3.4
The Pats have typically had success with physical running backs, but without Wilfork and Mayo, the soft middle could prove challenging to shore up. Consequently, we could see the Jets run lots of plays like this one from the first meeting:
There is nothing fancy at all about this playcall. The Jets were in "21 personnel," and Ivory took the ball for a simple lead strong carry, which means that he was running toward the strong side of the formation. The fullback and center executed their assignments perfectly, neutralizing Mayo and Spikes at the next level. When Ivory received the carry, he saw this beautiful sight in front of him:
This was not an isolated incident, either, as the Pats had trouble winning one-on-one matchups in the run game throughout this contest.
Of the starters, only Rob Ninkovich had a postive run grade. Wilfork and Tommy Kelly were dominated by Vladimir Ducasse and Nick Mangold, who were the only two players on the Jets offense to receive plus grades. Too often, the Jets were able to seal off the Pats two interior linemen to create running lanes on simple counters, like this one:
Kelly and rookie Joe Vellano were the two defensive tackles on that play, and the Pats will be starting an undersized duo again, not only this Sunday but for the rest of the season. To combat this, expect the run-stuffing duo of Brandon Spikes and Dont'a Hightower to see plenty of snaps. Spikes played just 31 snaps the first time around, but since Wilfork's injury, he has essentially filled the role of A-gap stuffer.
The Jets probably do not stand much of a chance if the offense has to rely upon Geno Smith to pass for points, especially in the red zone. But if New York can control the clock, they can wear down the Pats defense and make the game a favorable low-possession contest.
Neutralize Richardson and Wilkerson
The Jets defense is not nearly the fearsome byzantine unit that it was from 2009-10, but the Rex Ryan-coached unit still gives the Pats offense fits.
In particular, the young duo of Sheldon Richardson and Muhammad Wilkerson in the middle could become the league's best interior line combo in short order. The current and future foundation of the Jets defense should present problems in both the running and passing game for the Pats on Sunday.
This offseason, Grantland's Robert Mays wrote an excellent piece on Wilkerson as part of his "All-22" series. In it, Mays notes how Wilkerson's versatility allows him to not only to be a three-down linemen, but his rare ability also allows him to play both the 3-4 and 4-3 concepts effectively, not unlike a certain injured Pats defensive tackle:
Plenty of players can shift between these two spots, but few have the strength to hold up in the 3-4 and the quickness to be truly effective in the 4-3. Fewer still can make that sack and then hold up as a nose guard just a few plays later. Outside of Justin Smith, it’s hard to think of a player who’s as useful in as many different roles. “There’s a saying that we have, 'The more you can do,'” [Jets D-coordinator Dennis] Thurman says. “The more you can do, the more you increase your value. And he has tremendous value.”
Wilkerson has continued to blossom in 2013, ranking ninth among defensive ends with a plus-7.3 overall grade. I strongly recommend you take a look at Mays' piece, if only to see the GIFs of Wilkerson. But here is an example of Wilkerson illustrating his relentless motor and strength anyway:
Next to him, Richardson may very well be the front-runner for Rookie of the Year. The first-year defensive end has actually outperformed his third-year counterpart, ranking third among all defensive ends with a plus-13.1 grade, behind only J.J. Watt and Cameron Jordan. Richardson is a bit of a different animal, though, in that he is true run-stuffer, with a plus-13 run defense grade that trails only Watt.
Indeed, the Pats had no success running the ball the first time, averaging a paltry 2.3 yards per carry. And it's frightening to think about, but Richardson actually had a rather pedestrian game by his standards, with a season-low plus-1.0 run defense grade.
Nevertheless, he was still a primary factor in shutting down the Pats rushing attack. Here, he forced Stevan Ridley to bounce outside on a run that was intended to go up the middle. With no blocking outside, Richardson ran Ridley into a pack of hungry Jets:
The Patriots did a solid job on the Wilkerson-Richardson duo in the first game, even if it did not necessarily show on the stat sheet. For an offense still looking to find its rhythm, a true impact game from the duo might stunt any consistent progress—in either the running game or the passing game—that the Pats have made over the last few weeks.
Connect on Open Deep Chances
Recently, ESPN.com's Mike Sando (ESPN Insider subscription required) had an interesting post on Tom Brady's sharp decline on deep passes. Of course, part of this is due to growing pains with his new receivers, but as Sando illustrates, the numbers are shockingly ugly so far:
Courtesy ESPN Stats & Info
Brady and the Pats had numerous chances to hit on big plays against the Jets. If even just one or two of those plays had swung in New England's favor, the offensive production and final result likely would have looked much better from the Pats' perspective.
The Jets secondary is certainly not the same without Darrelle Revis, as New York as compiled an atrocious minus-27.6 grade in pass coverage this season, the third-worst mark in the league. And yet, Brady was just 1-of-7 on passes traveling over 20 yards in the first meeting, with either he or his receivers failing on several golden opportunities.
This play is one Pats fans bitterly remember. Facing 3rd-and-18, the Jets were playing a Cover 2, and even had a linebacker shading over to Dobson. Neither the corner nor the linebacker kept up to him, however, and once Dobson faked a nifty inside stem, he got the safety's hips turned the wrong way. Brady saw this and fired the ball for what should have been an easy touchdown:
Unfortunately, as you can see, Dobson dropped the pass. There is no excuse for not finishing this play, as the throw was on target and Dobson ran a beautiful route. Simply holding onto the ball would have created a potentially game-changing play for the Pats.
Not all of the blame this season should be place on the receivers, however, as Brady's accuracy has been quite shaky on deep passes anyways. Brady has just a 37.5 percent accuracy percentage on deep passes, ranking him 13th in the league. That's down from 40.5 percent last year and 41.7 percent in 2011. Some of those misses have been particularly egregious, like this one to Shane Vereen in Week 1:
There was also this one from last week, when Brady missed Danny Amendola on a sure touchdown up the seam:
These are correctable, albeit extraordinarily frustrating, problems for the offense. The Jets are vulnerable to shaky coverage breakdowns, and the Patriots are still taking a handful of deep shots every game. Moreover, the Jets pressured Brady on just 9 of his 40 dropbacks in the first meeting, and are a subpar pass-rushing team overall.
But for an offense that could have trouble scoring on sustained drives, hitting a couple of these passes could make the difference in a game that will be closer than most people might suspect.
*All stats courtesy Pro Football Focus' premium section (subscription required), and all photo stills courtesy NFL Game Rewind.