By: Steve Balestrieri
This week the New England Patriots (5-3) take on the New York Jets (5-3) for first place in the AFC East. The rivalry is intense and the all-time series sits at 52-52-1, which is about as even as you could possibly get.
As usual, Rex Ryan has amped up the hyperbole and these are the kind of games at home that he thrives on, talking up a storm but putting the pressure on himself and taking it off of his team. Will he succeed again this week?
Patriots Running Game: Interesting matchup here, last time they faced, the Patriots ran the ball down the Jets throat at crunch time to put the game away. But since that game, the Jets have really played much better against the run and the Patriots have sputtered a bit in the running game with BenJarvus Green-Ellis hobbled with a bad foot.
The Patriots desperately need the balance of the running game to offset the limited production of the WRs in the passing game. Green-Ellis and Kevin Faulk should get plenty of looks in this game, as the Patriots will try to attack the Jets sub-packages.
But I really expect the Jets to crowd the box as everyone has been doing lately, limiting the run, and trying to take away all of the down low stuff. It will be interesting to see how much of a push the Patriots OL is able to get on the Jets front seven.
Patriots Passing Game: The NFL is a copycat league and teams have been successful at slowing down the Patriots two tight end offense lately by bringing men into the box and being physical with the receivers at the line of scrimmage. They give no free release and force everything. By taking away the short and intermediate routes, they dare the Patriots to throw deep.
With the lack of a speed WR on the outside that can get open and Tom Brady can find, it is rendering the Pats offense stale. Bill O’Brien has been slow to adjust, when they Patriots finally spread the Giants out late in the game last week, they scored 17 points.
The Jets, specifically Rex Ryan have been superb at frustrating Tom Brady since he took over in NJ. Until Brady starts finding Chad Ochocinco (and yes, it’s as much on Brady as Ocho) or Taylor Price on the occasional deep ball to stretch the field, expect the Jets to force everything inside. With the extra bodies there to clog the middle of the field, that will take away the area where Brady likes to work.
Look for the Patriots to mix it up more with three wide WR looks and spreading it out on some earlier downs to keep the Jets guessing with their coverages. Last time the Jets opted to put Darrelle Revis on Wes Welker. I think they will mix it up with he and Antonio Cromartie again. Cromartie is the wild card for the Jets on defense. When he plays well, the Jets defense is tough to beat. But his inconsistency can be maddening for the Jets coaches.
By playing more three WR spread, it will place the Jets in the position of having to choose who they cover with Revis, Kyle Wilson was placed on Deion Branch last game and Cromartie did a good job on Aaron Hernandez. The wildcard here remains Rob Gronkowski, and how they cover him. But the pressure will be on Brady in this one, his decision making and field vision has been lacking the past three games and no one frustrates him more than the Jets.
Jets Running Game: The Jets running game has really picked up with the return to health of C Nick Mangold. After gashing the Chargers for 162 yards, the running game got the offense its needed balance again last week in the blowout win over Buffalo.
The Patriots run defense has performed well, especially in the middle with Vince Wilfork and Kyle Love doing a good job of stuffing the runs inside. But this week, the Patriots will no doubt be without run-stuffing LBer Brandon Spikes who went down with a knee injury late in last week’s game. His injury is significant because, Spikes was coming into his own as perhaps the Patriots best player on the field lately. With Jerod Mayo still not 100% from his own knee issues, Dane Fletcher being out with a thumb injury and Gary Guyton with injury issues of his own, this leaves the middle of the Patriots defense thin.
With the Jets looking to return to their ground and pound look from the past two years, they will pound the ball quite a bit, trying to control the line of scrimmage and keep the pressure off of Mark Sanchez. If the Jets get ahead, then they will attempt to run the ball even more and it opens up the play-action pass.
Jets Passing Game: Most “experts” expect the Jets to air it out against the Patriots since everyone seems to be throwing for 300 yards on the 32nd ranked passing defense. I disagree, while I expect the Jets to throw a few short passes right out of the gate, to get Mark Sanchez into a rhythm, the last thing they want is for him to be turning the ball over and giving the Patriots short fields.
I think Ryan will be conservative with his play-calling and rely on his defense to win the field position battle, the Jets passing game will be taking the occasional shot down the field on play-action, but mainly confined to the safer passes underneath and take what the defense is giving.
Last time out, the Patriots did a superb job of limiting TE Dustin Keller to one catch for seven yards. He will be the go-to guy again, he and Santonio Holmes will be the chains movers. Look for plenty of short passes to LTII out of the backfield as this is an area also that the Patriots have struggled. Kyle Arrington will be matched up with Plaxico Burress. As usual, the Jets will attack the middle of the field between the LBs and safeties.
The Patriots pass rush has been better as of late with Andre Carter playing very solid and Brandon Deaderick filling in for injured Shaun Ellis. They need to get Mark Anderson involved more as well, as he’s been very consistent with getting to the QB, last time out he registered 1.5 sacks against the Jets
Special Teams: This is one area where the Jets have a huge, huge advantage. Joe McKnight is averaging over 40 yards per return for kickoffs, Jeremy Kerley is right around 10 yards per punt return.
The Patriots return game was absolutely abysmal against the Giants. The starting field position for the Patriots offense was as follows: Own, 5, 6, 17, 20, 11, 9, 21, 16, 17, 21, 20, 36, 21 yard lines and one possession on the Giants 33. It should be noted that the one possession on the Giants 33 was because of a muffed punt. The other at their own 36 was because of an excessive celebration penalty on the Giants and they kicked off from 15 yards deeper. What happened to the dangerous Julian Edelman? He averaged 3.4 yards per punt return. That is totally unacceptable, personal behavior aside. Is there any silver cloud in there? This week they face one of if not the best coached special teams in the league.
Even normally sure footed Stephen Gostkowski is struggling. After doinking one in Pittsburgh, he missed a glorified extra point, a 27 yard chip shot field goal that hurt. Nick Folk on the other hand has made 12-13 FG attempts this season. The one bright spot for the Pats STs has been Zoltan Mesko, who keeps getting better every week.
“X”-Factors: Teams moving in opposite directions is the theme this week. Last time the two teams met, the Jets were finishing a woeful three game road losing streak and looked dead in the water. Now the Patriots come in, losers of two straight and playing sloppy, uninspired football and will attempt to stave off their first three game losing streak since 2002.
The Jets have their swagger back and using this game as a “must-win” contest. Rex Ryan though has been brilliant as usual at taking the pressure off of his team, by telling the fans, that they “can be the difference” by being loud and boisterous on Sunday.
The Patriots offense will be dealing with a lot of crowd noise on Sunday, and will need a quick start to keep them sitting on their hands. A repeat of the goose egg from at home last Sunday would be disastrous for a group that is struggling right now.
Conclusions: It doesn’t get any easier this week folks, and this should be a tough game on both sides of the ball.
I think the Patriots are going to be struggling at the LBer position with the injuries and the Jets will attack the middle of the Patriots defense. The Pats may try to load up on sub-packages and force the Jets to run but I think Ryan will try to limit Sanchez’s mistakes anyway and have faith in his defense which has done well against Brady in the past.
The Patriots offense will have to start getting better production outside the numbers or they will again struggle. The running game will again be counted upon to get some tough yards to take pressure off of Brady and stay out of the long passing situations that the Jets thrive on defensively. Until they are able to stretch the field credibly, the scoring drives will be hard to come by. Brady is becoming increasingly dependent upon Welker and TE Rob Gronkowski, something that hasn’t escaped the Jets attention.
This week Sanchez at home plays error free football and the “Sanchize” calls come out. New York’s special teams will have a big contribution this week. The Jets shut down the Pats offense again and pound the ball at crunch time. Jets 24-16
Early Thursday night pick: Chargers 27-24 over the Raiders with a late score.
My partner in my Weekly Picks – Steve the Cat (STC) likes the Bolts 35-17
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