After a two-game losing streak put home-field advantage in jeopardy, the New England Patriots have since bounced back nicely with two breezy wins over AFC South competition. And having received the help they needed from the rest of the league, the Pats are now firmly in the driver's seat for the top seed, needing just one more win in their final two games.
However, a short-handed squad has needed to grind out wins over competent opponents, and the New York Jets certainly fall into that category. The 9-5 Jets are on the wrong side of the wild-card tiebreakers and thus will almost certainly need a win Sunday to keep their postseason hopes alive. Gang Green probably does not need extra motivation for Patriots week, but Todd Bowles' crew will have that impetus this particular week.
In the Patriots' 30-23 win over New York back in October, the Jets dictated most of the game on their terms, only to see Tom Brady steal the game with a brilliant fourth quarter. The Week 7 meeting essentially turned into an arms race between Brady and Ryan Fitzpatrick, with the former winning that matchup after going 14-of-17 with two touchdowns in New England's fourth-quarter comeback.
The Pats would take their chances in that duel every time, but do they have the horses around Brady to outrace the Jets for the second time this season?
Offensive Game Plan
Perhaps looking to protect Brady, Josh McDaniels has dialed back the offense the past two games. Brady, who is still on pace to set a career high in pass attempts, has thrown just 30 and 35 passes the past two weeks after averaging more than 42 pass attempts through the first 12 games. This possession-based philosophy has led to a less explosive offense, but it has alleviated the pressure and number of hits Brady takes.
However, that approach isn't likely to cut it against the Jets defense, which ranks first against the run based on Football Outsiders' DVOA metric. The Patriots passed on a whopping 86 percent of their offensive plays in the Week 7 meeting against New York and handed the ball off just twice the entire second half in their 30-23 comeback victory.
Obviously, the primary concern with replicating that approach revolves around New England's shaky offensive line, which may not hold up long enough to allow the depleted receiving corps to get open. Even though the line has gotten healthier following a rough midseason stretch with injuries, the Patriots still rank just 26th in Pro Football Focus' pass-blocking efficiency stat, which accounts for pressures and hits as well as sacks.
The one silver lining for this particular week is the Jets' tendency to send blitzes. Bowles showed his willingness to send extra rushers after Brady in the first meeting, even though the Patriots quarterback has traditionally thrived against the blitz. Back in October, the Pats frequently kept in extra blockers to negate New York's rush while pairing their protection schemes with quick route combinations designed to give Brady easy immediate reads:
This slant-flat combination with Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman only gained two yards, but it neutered the Jets blitz and eliminated the possibility of a negative play. We saw this frequently during the Patriots' fourth-quarter comeback, as New England typically sent four receivers out on routes, while an extra tight end or running back stayed in to block.
Of course, it was much easier for a healthy Patriots receiving corps to win its one-on-ones in space. Now, the Pats won't have the ability to threaten the Jets with Edelman or (most likely) Danny Amendola. Thus, McDaniels' primary job is to figure out how to get the ball to Gronkowski, the lone mismatch who could stretch New York's defense.
Getting the ball to Gronk wasn't an issue the first time around, as he garnered a career-high 11 catches on 16 targets. The Pats could likely replicate one wrinkle they used in that game, often splitting Gronkowski out wide to take advantage of the Jets' man-to-man coverage staples. Splitting him outside the numbers gives him a chance to work in space against smaller cornerbacks, who cannot jam him the same way linebackers and safeties in the box can:
Even Darrelle Revis isn't going to fare well when asked to deal with Gronk's size, as illustrated in the above sequence. In a 2x2 formation, Edelman ran a simple clear-out seam route, while Gronkowski came underneath him on the dig. I recently highlighted how teams like Buffalo have limited Gronk by honing in on him at the line of scrimmage and essentially refusing to let him release into his route, but this is a way to avoid such bullying physicality.
Here's one more example of Gronkowski split out wide, this time as the weak-side iso receiver on a 2x1 formation against the Denver Broncos. The Pats frequently treated Gronk like a wide receiver against the Broncos, who employ similar man-coverage principles as the Jets. As a side note, notice how the Pats have Cameron Fleming as a sixth offensive linemen in for extra protection, as well as the stack formation at the top of the screen, which allows free releases for both receivers:
The Pats also played that game without Edelman and Amendola, so against a stylistically similar defense, it makes sense to think we'll see a similar offensive game plan. For all their star power in the secondary, the Jets rank just 15th in pass defense DVOA against opposing tight ends, so this is a winnable matchup for Gronkowski.
Still, even while scoring 30 points, the Patriots averaged only 5.3 yards per play in the first game, below their season average of 5.9. And with no Edelman or Amendola, it's reasonable for Patriots fans to fret about how the offense might consistently move the ball against a unit which, on paper, holds the talent edge.
Fortunately, the Patriots do actually have one weapon they didn't possess in the October contest. With Dion Lewis out of the lineup in Week 7, Brady threw only five passes to running backs that afternoon. In Lewis' absence, James White has ingratiated himself into the passing back role, accumulating 21 catches over the past three weeks. That figure not only leads all running backs over that span but is tied for sixth among all players, placing White alongside the likes of Demaryius Thomas and Martavis Bryant.
White will be a new wrinkle the Patriots offense can throw at the Jets. During his breakout, he has actually seen surprisingly simplistic usage. Unlike Shane Vereen or Lewis, who would split out wide and run a variety of routes, White has essentially been a two-trick pony.
Behind Door 1 is a short out route, which White usually runs when he's the offset back in shotgun formations. The formation provides him some natural leverage on the linebacker on coverage; here's an example of White scoring on that route:
The other play the Patriots run for White is a screen that involves all three interior offensive linemen down-blocking. It's a play with a lot of moving parts and thus fairly difficult to execute, but the Patriots have run it each of the past three weeks and gained 24, 27 and 30 yards. Check out this video for a full breakdown from Bill Belichick of how the screen works, and here's a visualization of it unfolding to perfection against the Houston Texans:
The Jets rank 16th in pass defense DVOA against running backs, so like Gronkowski, White should have his opportunities to win. With a dearth of playmakers and little traction to be had in the running game, McDaniels' focus this week will be how to protect Brady and feed the ball to Gronk and White.
Defensive Game Plan
As it has done throughout this offensive shortage, New England's defense will bear the burden of keeping things afloat against Gang Green. While the Patriots' pass rush has deservedly received the bulk of the attention, the unit's work on early downs will be more important against a Jets offense that is at its best when balanced.
The Patriots knocked New York out of this balance in the first game, limiting the Jets to a meager 3.1 yards per carry. Some of that stemmed from Chris Ivory suffering a hamstring injury early, and he has been on a decline in the second half of the season. After averaging 4.5 yards per carry through the first eight games of the season, he has averaged just 3.8 yards per carry in the second half of the year.
The wear and tear stemming from Ivory's bruising running style has added up, and the Pats' quick front should be able to stifle New York's ground game. The Jets have particularly had issues against smaller 4-3 fronts, as the aggressive one-gapping styles of these defenses can force Ivory to move east and west rather than north and south.
The Dallas Cowboys, who employ this type of front, had success against Ivory last week by creating frequent backfield penetration:
The Patriots should contain Ivory for the most part, which should force this game onto Fitzpatrick. The Jets quarterback had his moments in the first game, comprehending Belichick's game plan and zeroing in on the matchups New York could win. As most Pats fans know, Belichick moved Malcolm Butler into the slot that day to defend Eric Decker, while Logan Ryan took top target Brandon Marshall with safety help over the top:
Fitzpatrick averaged a reasonable 7.6 yards per attempt in that game and did not throw a pick, but given Butler's progression throughout the season, Belichick may well go back to the well this week. This will be a sub-package game for the Patriots, who were in nickel defense the majority of the game in Week 7.
The big question is how much trouble New York's size at receiver will pose for the Patriots. Though they were able to keep Marshall and Decker relatively in check the first time around (a combined 10 catches for 161 yards on 19 targets and no scores), the Pats secondary has been up-and-down with big receivers this season. Ryan in particular has had his share of good moments (DeAndre Hopkins) and bad (Dorial Green-Beckham).
If we assume Ryan will receive consistent help on Marshall, then Butler will be the one who needs to hold up most frequently in isolation situations. This is where quickness presents an issue, as Butler can contain big receivers who try to win with ball skills along the sideline but doesn't have as much success against smaller receivers who win with their route running. Because Decker plays from the slot, Butler has to defend two-way releases, guarding against either in- or out-breaking routes on any given play:
In the above screenshot, Butler was a split second late to react to Decker's corner route, and the extra step was all the Jets receiver needed to pick up a third-down conversion. Butler's size (5'11", 190 lbs) makes him a better fit to match up against Decker than Leonard Johnson or Justin Coleman, but if the Pats insist on playing man-to-man on the majority of their snaps again (which they likely will), he simply needs to win more often.
Thinking from a Jets perspective, it might make more sense for New York to use its size at receiver to attack the perimeter. Marshall matched his season low with just seven targets in Week 7, but when the Jets were able to get him the ball, they did so quickly through isolation fade routes, which allowed Marshall to simply leap over Ryan for the ball:
As you can see, there was simply no way for the safety to arrive in time to bail out Ryan. Attacking the perimeter was clearly a part of the game plan for the Jets—according to PFF, Fitzpatrick threw 51 percent of his passes outside the numbers in the first meeting. That's above his season rate of 45 percent of throws outside the numbers, which suggests the Jets knew they could exploit their size advantage over New England's fairly small secondary.
The front seven would typically help the secondary by pressuring the quarterback, but that's not especially likely to happen this week. For someone with a gunslinger reputation, Fitzpatrick gets the ball out of his hands quickly, as his 3.4 percent sack percentage is the lowest among all qualified passers, per Pro-Football-Reference.com.
Thus, instead of fruitlessly committing resources to chase pressure, we might see Belichick employ more of a rush-containment strategy, as he's done in the past with the likes of Ben Roethlisberger and Russell Wilson. Fitzpatrick has been excellent this season when playing in rhythm, but when forced to hold the ball, he's much more vulnerable to mistakes:
|Fitzpatrick Splits Based on Time in Pocket|
|2.5 seconds or less||2.6 seconds or more|
|Comp %||62.4 %||56.5 %|
|via Pro Football Focus|
Belichick would also rather take his chances with Bilal Powell and Quincy Enunwa, New York's third and fourth targets who did not play in the first meeting. Powell's quickness and Enunwa's size (6'2", 225 lbs) may present occasional issues, but given that the Jets rarely design pass plays for either player, the Pats can consider it a win if they force Fitzpatrick to move off Marshall or Decker to a secondary read.
The defense generated multiple takeaways last week for the first time since Week 8 and may need a repeat effort to aid the offense. While the Jets are not an offensive juggernaut, their personnel in the passing game present difficult questions for the Patriots to answer, particularly if starters such as Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung and Dont'a Hightower are unable to play.
Key Players and Matchups
Every week in this space, we'll list two offensive and two defensive players critical to the game plan who haven't necessarily received much attention in the sections above. Not all of these selections will necessarily be the most obvious choices, but each figures to play a key factor in New England's chances of victory.
After missing last week's game to rest a knee injury, Chandler drew the questionable tag for this game. However, given that the Patriots released fellow tight end Asante Cleveland during the week, perhaps that transaction indicates Chandler is likely to play.
If he does suit up, Chandler figures to see a highly prominent role, much like he did against Denver when the wide receiver corps was similarly decimated. Chandler played on a season-high 80.6 percent of the snaps that night, per PFF, and could again become a de facto receiver in the game plan. Chandler and Michael Williams should each see heavy usage, assuming the Patriots become a base two-tight end offense for this game.
McCourty is surprisingly questionable despite being just two weeks removed from a high-ankle sprain, but the Patriots will most likely take the conservative, long-range approach and sit their All-Pro safety for the week. Thus, just as he did last week, Harmon will likely play every snap as the center field free safety in New England's single-high coverage scheme.
Of course, the Jets will give him a tougher challenge than the Tennessee Titans did last week, as Harmon will provide Ryan help with Marshall. New England wasn't the only team to double Marshall throughout the season, but the 31-year-old Pro Bowler has typically produced despite the extra attention. Harmon needs to bring his best if the Pats are to contain Marshall as well as they did back in Foxborough.
As I wrote in my Thursday preview, right tackle Marcus Cannon will draw Muhammad Wilkerson on the majority of the passing downs this week. However, when the Pats keep in an extra blocker, they'll likely shade toward Cannon's side most often, given the matchup.
That likely leaves Vollmer one-on-one against rookie end Leonard Williams for most of the game. The sixth overall pick is second on the team behind Wilkerson in total pressures and is just as big of a threat to create havoc for Brady if left alone. Vollmer has been unsteady from the left side this season and could use the week off as much as anyone, so one strong effort this Sunday could buy the veteran some much-needed time off in Week 17.
We could go with any of New England's edge-rushing trio here, but if this game is more about containment and collapsing the pocket, then Ninkovich might have more of an impact than either Chandler Jones or Jabaal Sheard. Ninkovich had his most disruptive game of the season against the Jets, batting down four passes and generating four pressures.
To date, those four passes are still his only ones of the season, which makes that game one of the more bizarre statistical outliers for the Patriots this year. Nevertheless, Ninkovich will have the best chance to disrupt Fitzpatrick with a juicy matchup against beatable right tackle Breno Giacomini, while Jones and Sheard primarily deal with the steadier left side of D'Brickashaw Ferguson and James Carpenter.
Just as they did in October, the Patriots are catching the Jets on a hot streak. Gang Green was 4-1 headed into the first matchup and has now won four in a row ahead of this game. New England was unfortunate not to catch the Jets during their midseason slump and now faces a hungry squad that must treat this contest as a de facto elimination game.
But the battered Patriots have plenty of motivation as well. Among the top Super Bowl contenders, New England probably needs a break before the postseason more than anyone else. Gimpy players like Amendola and Hightower have effectively been forced into the lineup in recent weeks despite being in suboptimal condition, simply because the Pats do not have enough bodies to stay afloat.
New York is equipped to play a low-possession, medium-scoring game, which is the type of contest the Pats have resorted to for most of the season's second half. Ideally, the Patriots would force this game into the hands of the quarterbacks and trust Brady to outgun Fitzpatrick. That strategy worked in October, but it may be unfeasible now given New England's personnel.
Still, the Pats have typically wriggled their way out of whatever troubles the Jets have presented. Though the past five games between the teams have been one-score affairs, New England has ended up on top in four of them. Even in their current state, the Patriots have enough gas to clinch the top seed and deal a fatal blow to their fiercest rivals.
Prediction: Patriots 27, Jets 26