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It’s a win at all costs for the Patriots as they head into familiar enemy territory against the Jets at MetLife Stadium on Sunday.
Before we dissect the Aaron Rodgers-less Jets, winning at all costs means a look inward at what caused the Patriots to sink into their first 0-2 hole since the 2001 season. Obviously, it’s easy to point to slow starts and turnovers. It goes without saying that New England needs to be more competitive early in games and avoid costly turnovers.
However, let’s dig deeper into the minutiae rather than start fast and don’t turn the ball over; every team wants to play with a lead and protect the football. The Patriots offense has two areas they need to improve immediately against one of the NFL’s best defenses, or it will be 0-3, and they go hand in hand. First, the Pats absolutely need to block better along the offensive line, which hopefully will happen with improved health up front.
Second, New England must return to their bread-and-butter schemes that they can hang their hat on. There’s a game plan element every week, but when you’re searching for consistency, you have to lean on your identity as an offense rather than getting caught up in scheming the opponent.
The Patriots have fallen behind by big deficits so quickly in the first two weeks that it’s been difficult to discern what they want their identity to be, but here are a few theories. During his media availability this week, offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien explained that the Patriots need to get their rushing attack going and that he’d like more balance in lining the quarterback up under center versus in the shotgun. In the first two weeks, while mostly playing from behind, quarterback Mac Jones has thrown 92 of his 96 pass attempts from the shotgun.
“We have to improve the running game, there’s no doubt about that. I think that starts with us as a coaching staff. We have to do a better job with what we believe we’re going to see and what we actually see on game day,” O’Brien said. “I think there probably has to be a better balance to that. I definitely think there’s probably been an imbalance of shotgun versus under center.”
Although there are positives to having Mac digest as much pre-snap information as possible to make quick decisions from shotgun, Jones ranks near the bottom of the league in air yards relative to time to throw, meaning he’s getting the ball out quickly, but the Patriots aren’t producing many explosive plays without the scheme opening larger passing windows. Currently, the Pats are tied for the second-fewest 20-plus yard pass plays in the opening two weeks (2). Due to a lack of chunk gains, the offense must string together several positive plays consecutively to score on longer drives.
Ideally, they’d strike a better balance with more under-center play-action, marrying that to open up their rushing attack. For example, the Patriots had positive early-down runs using crack toss schemes into the field. By motioning tight end Mike Gesicki across the formation, the Pats add a blocker to out-number the Dolphins on that side of the formation, generating a nine-yard run for Rhamondre Stevenson.
The next step here would be to marry the run action to boot-action, where Mac can hit an in-breaking route, hopefully with room to run after the catch. Doing that creates conflict in the defense to help the receivers get open, and moving the pocket helps to protect the quarterback. New England also always has success mimicking their gap schemes with pulling guards.
The bottom line for the Patriots offense is that we haven’t seen their preferred play-calling script because they’ve been chasing the game on the scoreboard. As a result, they’ve been very one-dimensional and over-reliant on outside receivers to win single coverage matchups to generate explosives on vertical routes, stressing a shorthanded offensive line in the process. Furthermore, bigger backs like Stevenson and backup Ezekiel Elliott are better suited to getting downhill at the line of scrimmage rather than starting their runs at a standstill from the shotgun.
There will always be a place in a Bill O’Brien offense for spread schemes with bunches, stacks, option routes, and RPO elements. But those need to evolve past the intro level to incorporate more downfield routes off RPO actions and seam shots that will lead to bigger gains.
The Patriots offense has improved in certain areas in the early stages under O’Brien. They’re tied for fourth in red zone efficiency, are converting third downs at a higher clip of 40% (34.4% in 2022), and Jones has more tools to beat pressure, an area the Pats QB has improved this season.
Still, a successful formula for this group isn’t leading the NFL in pass attempts while ranking 27th in RB rushing average when your best skill player is your top running back. The need to sustain long drives due to a lack of explosive plays has led to too many stalled possessions and turnovers. The Patriots have had 16 drives end on the opponent’s side of the 50-yard line, tied for the most in the NFL. However, only six of those possessions ended in points (TD or FG), the second-lowest scoring rate on those such drives through two weeks (37.5%). The more times an offense snaps the ball, the more likely it is to make mistakes.
Turning the page to the Jets, let’s take a look at what the Patriots can expect in the Meadowlands on Sunday afternoon:
Keys to Success vs. a Stingy Jets Defense
Although getting their house in order, especially along the O-Line, is a huge aspect of this week’s divisional contest, the Patriots will face a dominant Jets defense.
Last season, the Jets were the sixth-ranked defense in defense-adjusted value over average (DVOA), holding the Patriots to 32 total points in two New England wins in the 2022 season. With a stout defensive front led by stud DT Quinnen Williams and John Franklin-Myers, the Jets have talent at all three levels of their zone-based defensive system under head coach Robert Saleh. A deep defensive front, aided by an excellent linebacker duo in C.J. Mosley and Quincy Williams, allows the Jets to be among the league leaders in split-safety coverage structures.
Over the last two seasons, the Jets have faced the fourth-most pass attempts in a split-safety shell and are in zone coverage on 74.5 percent of the opponents passing plays. In Saleh’s system, New York primarily plays quarters (cover-four), cover-three, and cover-one man schemes, leaning on a talented cornerback duo of Sauce Gardner and D.J. Reed.
The Jets system is designed to limit explosive plays, cause a pause in the quarterback’s decision-making process with disguises to let their pass-rush eat, and rally to the football to limit yards after the catch. In a pair of 2022 matchups, quarterback Mac Jones had his two lowest average air-yard outputs of the season and only attempted four deep passes over 20 yards, with only one deep completion.
For a Patriots offense that has struggled to generate big plays through the air in the first two weeks, this is a challenging matchup to find a rhythm with producing explosives offensively.
Looking at the Cowboys offense last week, quarterback Dak Prescott threw for 255 passing yards and two touchdowns with an average target depth of only 5.0. Prescott did it by staying patient on the underneath stuff while taking a few calculated deep shots.
The Cowboys called seven screens that produced three first downs. The screens only averaged 5.8 yards per play, but they produced enough positive plays to set up an explosive with a “bluff” screen when Dallas flooded the boundary against the Jets quarters coverage with a post-wheel concept after the receivers faked like they were blocking on the screen.
Dallas also found success sequencing together run-pass options, which the Patriots also had success with in the first matchup against the Jets last season, where they threw perimeter screens paired with gun runs that were often gap schemes (counter). After throwing a few RPO screens, the Jets defense adjusted by putting their nickel corner over the inside slot receiver to the three-receiver side, lightening the box, which led to yards on the ground.
From there, the Cowboys also did their best to put short zone defenders in conflict with quick-game concepts (curl-flat/slant-flat), and when they did get man coverage on third down, they moved the chain on concepts like mesh crossers.
Although it was aided by a dominant defensive effort and five field goals, the Cowboys scored an impressive 30 points on a stingy defense by producing on short passes and committing to the run rather than playing into the Jets hands by throwing into their deep zones.
The catch for the Patriots is that the Jets will expect New England to lean on their short game. Plus, the Pats offensive line still needs to block New York’s talented defensive front. In that sense, it’ll be up to O’Brien to find ways for the Patriots to access their bread and butters.
Keys to Success vs. Jets QB Zach Wilson
Following an offseason hype train that had them as Super Bowl contenders, the Jets lost star quarterback Aaron Rodgers for the season on his fourth play in green and white in Week 1.
The four-time league MVP is supposedly targeting a return date that could have him back from a torn Achilles for the playoffs, but unless he’s miraculously back by Week 18, the Patriots shouldn’t have to face Rodgers in their two regular-season matchups with the Jets.
Instead, the Jets will have to end a 14-game losing streak to the Patriots with backup quarterback Zach Wilson, who is 0-4 in his career against Belichick with two touchdowns to seven interceptions and a 50.6 passer rating. Frankly, it’s been ugly for Wilson since the Jets selected him second overall in the 2021 NFL Draft, especially against the Patriots.
However, with the Jets defense facing a Patriots offense that is a work in progress, Wilson has a Super Bowl-ready supporting cast around him with explosive playmakers in WR Garrett Wilson and RB Breece Hall. Even with Wilson under center, he still hit Garrett Wilson on a Shanahan “drift” concept off play-action for a 68-yard touchdown last week.
We won’t try to sell you on the opposing quarterback, but the Jets skill players that were supposed to surround Rodgers are legit, so the Patriots defense needs to make Wilson beat himself. In his 23 career appearances and four starts against New England, Wilson’s kryptonite has always been pressure. He had the lowest PFF passing grade while under pressure in 2022, with six interceptions and a league-worst 18.6 passer rating.
Last week, Wilson threw another pressured interception when the Cowboys put stud pass-rusher Micah Parsons over the center, forcing him into an awful decision outside the pocket that should look familiar to Pats fans, given their experience with Wilson over the years.
Like the Patriots, New York’s offensive line has been shaky this season, with Wilson being pressured at a ridiculously high rate (53%). Unfortunately for Gang Green, and unlike the Patriots in this sense, the group that allowed 19 individual pressures on 34 drop-backs for Wilson is their top offensive line (LT Daune Brown, LG Laken Tomlinson, C Conor McGovern, RG Alija Vera-Tucker, and RT Mekhi Becton).
The Patriots typically charge up Wilson with their simulated pressure schemes, where they blitz a back seven defender while dropping a first-level defender into coverage to maintain their zone integrity, causing Wilson to make errant throws when his process is sped up.
The other way the Patriots made Wilson turn the ball over was by confusing his post-snap processing with coverage disguises and then unleashing their five-man pass rush package with a quarterback spy that forces Wilson to make a throw once he’s flushed from the pocket. Wilson has some mobility, but not enough to run away from a spy, so four of the five rushers pin their ears back while linebacker Mack Wilson is there to ensure Wilson needs to pass.
New England already has the blueprint to bait Wilson into mistakes that will hand the Patriots a win, but they need their front to dominate this matchup. The Patriots defensive front has the advantage here, and you know that Jets OC Nathaniel Hackett will try to establish more of a running game with Hall and Dalvin Cook than New York had last week (eight combined carries).
The Jets will try to turn Wilson into a game manager by leaning on their running game as much as possible, so as the saying goes, stop the run and then have some fun (in the pass rush).
1. Patriots CB Christian Gonzalez vs. Jets WR Garrett Wilson – there’s an argument to be made that the rookie cornerback has been the Pats best defensive player through two weeks, all while in a trial-by-fire situation facing two elite passing attacks. Wilson is another all-around stud who can win with his route-running and downfield at the catch point. I expect Gonzo to have outside trail technique on Wilson, who loves to run in-breakers and go balls.
2. Patriots EDGE Matthew Judon vs. Jets C Connor McGovern – after seeing Micah Parson pressure Wilson multiple times by rushing over McGovern, Judon, who has said he wants to add interior rushes to his toolbox, should get some rushes over the Jets center to see if he can expose the same pass protection issues that Parsons did last week. It’s also possible that the Jets will pivot to rookie Joe Tippman at center or left guard. If that’s the case, expect the Pats to test the rookie.
3. Patriots RT Calvin Anderson vs. Jets EDGE Bryce Huff – assuming it’s Anderson again at right tackle, this matchup is terrifying. Huff is a pure speed rusher in the Uche mold with a 17.1% win rate with eight pressures on 37 rushes. Anderson really struggled with Dolphins edge rusher Andrew Van Ginkel’s speed rush and spin move last week, and Huff can do the same. Typically, John Franklin-Myers rushes over the right tackle as a base defensive end, so Anderson has two challenging matchups.
4. Patriots LG Cole Strange vs. Jets DT Quinnen Williams – Williams, one of the best D-Tackles in football, got Strange benched in the first matchup last season. The Pats second-year guard was shaky in his first game-acton last week and will now try to show he has taken the next step by faring better against Williams this time.
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