Consider this the midterm for the offense of the New England Patriots.
The final exams aren't for a while. Those are at the end of the semester in January. But the Patriots still have a pretty big test coming up in the New York Jets. Passing would set New England up well for the rest of the season, while failing would...well, it would mean that if there's a mental war going on between the two rivals, the J-E-T-S are winning it.
As far as the offense is concerned, if the Patriots can beat the Jets, they can beat anyone. The Jets have built themselves to stymie Tom Brady, and so far, the plan has worked. The Jets have struggled against other teams (since Rex has arrived, they're 4-4 against the Bills and Dolphins, for cryin' out loud).
But against New England? Different story.
Pittsburgh's defense is often considered tops in the AFC, but if the Steelers are a math problem, Tom Brady is Will Hunting. The Ravens give Brady a hard time, but he usually gets the last laugh on the scoreboard. Not true with Ryan's Jets. They confuse No. 12 and get the win to go with it.
So this is the offense's first big test of the season. If Ryan can't develop a way to slow it down, few coordinators and coaches will be able to fare better.
In order for the Patriots to come out on top, there are three things they have to do:
Run the Ball
Ryan dared the Patriots to run the ball in January, taking most of his defenders and throwing them in zone coverage in back. It's a strategy easily beatable with a running game, but Ryan knew the Pats weren't going to run. He was right.
A 1,000-yard rusher in BenJarvus Green-Ellis ran nine times. Nine. He ran well, averaging 4.8 yards a run, while Danny Woodhead, who's on the field more often in passing situations, averaged only 3.3 yards but got 14 carries. Obviously, it wasn't good enough.
The Patriots don't need to pretend Stevan Ridley or Green-Ellis is Adrian Peterson, but they have to at least keep New York honest. Only running the ball when passing gets boring doesn't fool anyone. Ridley and Green-Ellis both ran over 10 times against Oakland, with Green-Ellis nearly getting 20 carries. That's the sort of versatility that the Patriots need to shoot for.
A commitment to the running game would force Ryan to play more defenders up and would cause his crowded secondary to spread out. With a plethora of targets in the offense, Brady could then go to work.
Handle the 4-Man Rush
In addition to the zone coverage, a key to Ryan's defense in January was an ability to generate pressure with base four-man fronts. Unlike in previous years, Ryan didn't send the house. He didn't need to, as his linemen supplied enough pressure to take Brady down five times.
Some of those sacks were due to push by the defensive linemen, while some were due to the objective of the X's and O's of the scheme; flooding the field with covering defenders forces the quarterback to hold onto the ball longer than normal, allowing those linemen to eventually break through.
This strategy has been the Patriots' Achilles heel, as the 2007 Giants, '09 Ravens and '10 Jets showed that physical fronts give the New England line fits. That has to change. The unit has to step up and protect the quarterback and force Ryan to burn up other defenders in blitzes to generate heat in the pocket.
If they can do that, they can turn the Jets into the Steelers. Pittsburgh is as good as it gets when it comes to drawing up blitzes, but those don't fool Brady. His reads are quick enough to find the option being left alone as a result.
If the offensive line can either give Brady time to throw against a pulled-back defense or allow him to pick apart a blitz, the Patriots will win the chess match on that side of the ball.
Over-Respect Darrelle Revis
Wes Welker's been exceptional this season, and he would be the team (and maybe league) MVP if it weren't for the guy throwing him the ball.
But if Welker draws uber-talented corner Revis, then that needs to be the end of the day for the game's best slot receiver.
Welker can still be used on bubble screens and drags, maybe. But those outs and 15-yard routes he's been running the last two weeks? No way. The Patriots need to treat Revis like the best defensive player in football. After all, he is.
Throwing at Revis is a losing battle, and it's not worth it for any quarterback to give in to his pride. Revis is the best since Deion Sanders at removing a receiver so effectively that throwing to the receiver becomes like throwing to Revis himself.
There are two reasons for New England not to play with fire. For one, this is a game that the Patriots will win if they execute. For them to lose, they'll have to make mistakes, like turning the ball over. And throwing at Revis is an interception—if not a pick-six—waiting to happen. There just isn't enough margin for error to make it worth it.
The other reason not to test Revis is that the Patriots don't need to. If Revis is on Welker, that means that there is still Deion Branch, Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez (hopefully) and Chad Ochocinco to throw to, as well as Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen (maybe) out of the backfield. The offense will move, even if Revis disables its best cog.
Brady makes a point of throwing to the open man. He would be wise to remember that, as the open man won't be anywhere near Revis' part of the field.