By: Steve Balestrieri
Here we go again, the New England Patriots (7-3 1st in the AFC East) travel on a short week to take on the New York Jets (4-6 tied for 2nd in the AFC East) on Thanksgiving night in a divisional game with big implications for both teams.
The Patriots are coming off of a huge blowout win over the Indianapolis Colts but lost TE Rob Gronkowski for a reported 4-6 weeks with a broken forearm. A win over the Jets would put New England at 8-3 and the Jets far in the rear-view mirror.
The Jets stopped the bleeding last week, breaking a three game losing streak in an impressive win over the Rams. In a week where it seemed the Jets were coming apart at the seams, Rex Ryan rallied the troops. The Jets still have hopes of making the playoffs, at 5-6 in the AFC that would still be possible, especially given their upcoming schedule. At 4-7 that would be very remote and would essentially mean running the table. So this game looms very large for Ryan and the Jets.
In an intense rivalry that is as extremely close as can be (the Patriots hold a slim 53-52-1 advantage), this one will not be short on meaning for both teams. On to the matchups:
Patriots Running Game:
The Patriots running game sputtered against the Colts on Sunday averaging less than 3 yards per carry with the lone exception being Julian Edelman’s reverse which netted over 40 yards. The loss of both starting guards Logan Mankins and Dan Connolly obviously had something to do with that as the holes on the second level weren’t there for the running backs to exploit.
The Jets defensive line in the first meeting did a fantastic job of limiting the Patriots of doing the same thing as New England had been routinely feasting on opponents sub-packages. The Jets were able to slow the running game while flooding the secondary and taking away the middle and intermediate passing routes.
Look for the Patriots in this one to change it up from time to time with Danny Woodhead and Shane Vereen from Stevan Ridley to keep the Jets off-balance. But with Mankins and Connolly questionable for this one, the running game will have a rough time taking advantage of a suspect Jets running defense (141.9 yards per game).
With Rob Gronkowski out as well, the run blocking will suffer as well as he remains an excellent blocker in-line and it remains to be seen if the other TEs on the roster, (Fells, Hooman, Shiancoe and Hernandez) can match that kind of performance.
Jets Running Game:
The Jets running game received a big boost in St. Louis with the performance of Bilal Powell who had two rushing touchdowns to help put the game away. Shonn Greene remains the go-to guy in the Jets rushing attack but this season, the big holes aren’t there for him to exploit.
The Patriots run defense has been gashed in the last two games (at least early in the Colts game) but for the most part, they’ve been outstanding at stopping big, physical guys like Greene who doesn’t make people miss but runs through them.
Brandon Spikes has been outstanding in run support this season, his instinctive, downhill style lends itself perfectly to blowing up plays in the backfield or at the point of attack. Spikes will be the guy tasked to putting the stops on Greene this week.
One thing to watch for this week, see if the Jets take a page out of the Bills book and try to pass on early downs to set-up the running game. While the Bills play a different type of offense with the spread, it could be a way for the Jets to get the running game going.
Patriots Passing Game:
With Rob Gronkowski out, a big part of the Patriots offense’s mismatch goes with him, but the Patriots have plenty of weapons that they can bring to bear against the Jets defense so it will be a matter of utilizing them.
The Jets may attempt to blitz more with both of the Patriots starting guards hurting and attempt to disrupt Tom Brady’s timing. But what they did best, especially in the last meeting was to show blitz and drop and flood the middle of the field, making the favorite crossing routes of the Patriots filled with defenders.
Aaron Hernandez is expected back for this game and he and Visante Shiancoe should see some added looks in the passing game with Gronkowski out. One big key of the Jets now will be Wes Welker so they may slide Antonio Cromartie over on Welker to try to take him away.
But the bottom line in this game is like every other, give Brady time to throw and someone will get open.
Jets Passing Game:
Before everyone expects another blitz-fest like last week, it’s important to listen to what Bill Belichick said about the game on Sunday. He mentioned that the team blitzed more against Andrew Luck and Bruce Arians offense because the QBs in his offenses take such deep drops and hold the ball longer trying to make deeper plays.
That said, they might still have to dial it up even though the Jets with Sanchez like to get the ball out of his hands quickly. Why? Because in the previous meeting, the Patriots defense made Sanchez look more like Aaron Rodgers than he did like….well Mark Sanchez.
He torched the Patriots for 328 yards and the only stops they got were on the blitzes or drops. Jeremy Kerley and tight end Dustin Keller were unstoppable for most of the game. And the Jets will be looking for those two as well as Chaz Schillens and Stephen Hill to make plays.
The Patriots secondary did tighten things up quite a bit last week, with Aqib Talib (rusty but still playing well) and Alfonzo Dennard at corner and Steve Gregory with Devin McCourty at safety. It was the best the unit has looked in quite some time.
Look for the Patriots to tighten up their coverages and blitz a tad more than the first meeting and force Sanchez into making the mistakes he’s known for.
The Jets always have one of the best STs units in the league and with Joe McKnight and Kerley returning kicks, they are dangerous and have returned kickoffs and punts for touchdowns. McKnight nearly broke one in October in Foxboro. Their kicking game is solid with Nick Folk and punter Robert Malone.
The Patriots return game got a huge boost by Julian Edelman who returned one punt for a touchdown and nearly returned a second against the Colts. Last time out, the Jets made a huge blunder in their kick coverage and Devin McCourty returned a kickoff 104 yards for a touchdown.
The kicking game for the Patriots remains solid with Stephen Gostkowski and Zoltan Mesko, who wasn’t needed much last week but when called boomed a 62 yard punt.
The Jets know that for them to make the playoffs they really can’t afford to lose many more games and a loss on Thursday would essentially eliminate them from the division race. They will come out strong and backed a raucous crowd in MetLife Stadium will make the early part of the game a key.
The Jets also have the advantage of playing at home on the short week, which is always a big advantage for these Thursday night games. But the Patriots have confidence, winners of three in a row against the Jets and on the season. In October, they took the Jets best shot and came out on top when they didn’t play particularly well.
This one should be an interesting chess match, Rex Ryan knows with Gronkowski out the deep seam route and the high-low concept of the Patriots passing game will be less effective, so how he will defend the offense will be a key. Look for the Jets to blanket Welker and force others to step up.
The Patriots will need a better running game than the last time to keep the Jets off-balance and open things up with play action passing with Brady. This may be a perfect game for Julian Edelman to put together back-to-back big games.
In the end the Patriots have too many weapons for the Jets to shut down and the defense will play better this time around. Patriots 31-20