Film breakdown: How the Rex (almost) spoiled Christmas

The Patriots may have escaped MetLife Stadium with a win, but Sunday's nailbiter served as further evidence of why Patriots fans everywhere should be breathing a sigh of relief that Rex Ryan will no longer be head coach of the enemy (whether they'll admit it or not). Say what you will about Rex's ability to run a franchise, but the man clearly knows how to coach defense, and has built a defense in New York that consistently makes life hard for Brady and the Pats. Without further ado, lets take a look at the film and review what Rex's Jets did to hold the league's top scoring offense to 17 points.

Lack of personnel consistency hurts offensive line

Despite the final outcome, the Patriots offensive line's inability to protect Tom Brady was in many ways the story of the game. The Jets vaunted defensive front whipped the Patriots up front for long stretches of the game, making a disruptive play on 17 of the Patriots 42 dropbacks (40.47%).

Much of the credit for this should go to the Jets. Their best players are unquestionably loaded up on the front seven of their defense and they came to play on Sunday. Sheldon Richardson and Jason Babin were the loudest, but Muhammad Wilkerson, Quinton Coples and Calvin Pace all showed up with several disruptive plays themselves. The Jets coaching staff also did an excellent job of mixing up looks, and got several free rushers on Brady with clever usage of stunts and overloads.

However, the Patriots coaching staff didn't appear to do their players any favors by liberally rotating players in and out of the game. We knew going into Sunday's contest that the line would look different, as 14 game starter Dan Connolly was ruled out with neck and knee injuries. However, the constant shuffling of line combinations called to mind the season's first month, when poor play from the line and the inability to settle on a starting five threatened to submarine the season.

Part of the rotation came due to the team's desire to use an extra lineman as a blocking tight end in power run formations. It's a tactic the team has used with varying success throughout the season, often with Cameron Fleming coming in as the sixth lineman off the bench. On Sunday, the jumbo package had Nate Solder as a nominal tight end, with Marcus Cannon playing left tackle.The Pats clearly wanted to utilize this package as a way to matchup with the power of the Jets up front, running it on a third of their plays (8 times in 24 first half snaps).

However, the strategy simply backfired on them. Despite the extra beef upfront, the Pats only managed to gain 4 yards on their three rushing attempts with Solder at tight end, while giving up pressure on three of their five pass blocking snaps. Expanding the role of the struggling Cannon against a talented Jets front certainly didn't help, as Cannon was beaten three times by Quinton Coples, resulting in a partial sack and two incompletions. Despite this, Cannon stayed in at left tackle during several series even with Solder off the field, although the team did pull him for Solder at left tackle on four different third down plays in the first half.

Another change up front came at guard, where the team switched things up at haftime by benching Connolly's replacement at left guard, Josh Kline. Kline actually held his own for much of the first half, but imploded on the last two meaningful plays of the half. On third and 2, Kline got put on ice skates by a Richardson bull rush almost immediately off the snap, with the pressure clearly affecting Brady's inaccurate throw to Brandon LaFell. It's impossible to expect offensive execution when the line gives up pressure that quickly.

The offense would get one more chance after that, getting the ball back with 48 seconds left in the half. However, Kline gets beat quickly once again by another Richardson power rush. Richardson's pressure immediately blows up the passing play, and he winds up splitting a sack with Calvin Pace, whose speed proves too much for Stork to handle after catching the Patriots center by surprise on an inside stunt. This prompted the offense to kneel on the ball, giving up on moving the ball for that half.

With Kline removed from the lineup, the team moved Ryan Wendell, the team's starting right guard for much of the season, to the left side, with rookie Cameron Fleming stepping into Wendell's old role at right guard. Wendell deserves credit here, as the veteran made the mid-game switch to a position he'd never played before out of necessity.

A quick look at the stat sheet might prompt one to think this lineup adjustment led to better play from the line and the offense, but closer observation of the film reveals that to not be the case. After allowing disruptions on 7 of the team's 18 first half drop backs (38.88%), the offensive line rebounded in the second half to...allow 11 disruptions on 24 second half drop backs (45%).

Fleming eventually settled in at guard, but he had some rough moments upon entering the game that rivaled the end of Kline's first half. In fact, the Patriots first drive of the second half stalled out after Fleming gave up pressure on back to back plays. On second and 11, Fleming gets beat cleanly by Muhammad Wilkerson, who forces Brady to rush an off-balance throw in Gronkowski's direction. He's fortunate to escape the play without an interception, as Jets linebacker Demario Davis makes a nice read to undercut the out route and gets both hands on the football.

Fleming followed that play up with this display on third and 11. Needless to say, when you play a rookie offensive tackle out of position at guard and then ask him to hang in there against Sheldon Richardson, you risk things like this happening.

Richardson sack from Michael Saver on Vimeo.

Fleming deserves credit for settling down after that horrific sequence. He did allow one other hurry later in the quarter (to Richardson, whose play on tape backs his words that the Jets were "feasting" on the Pats line), but otherwise was competent in the second half.

Variety of Jets looks creates confusion

While much of the Jets pressure up front was the simple byproduct of physical dominance from stars like Richardson, the Jets coaching staff deserves credit for dialing up several pressure schemes that caused confusion and created mismatches for the Patriots up front. The Ryan era Jets have been well-known for their ability to throw multiple pressure looks at their opponents, and the scheme clearly created several big plays for the Jets defense.

They set the tone early with a big, scheme-generated sack on the Patriots first third down of the game. On the play, the Jets begin by showing only two down linemen (Wilkerson and Jason Babin), with Richardson and Cavin Pace in two point stances near the line of scrimmage. It appears to be a traditional four man pressure, although linebacker Demario Davis is starting to creep up towards the line.

In the end, the Jets do only rush four, but the confusion they create as far as where those four are coming from creates a numbers advantage that leads to an easy sack. Both Richardson and Davis drop into coverage, with Wilkerson bringing his inside rush towards the right side of the line. As a result the Pats have four lineman (Kline, Stork, Wendell and Vollmer) acounting for one rusher (Wilkerson).

This spells trouble for Solder. The protection scheme has failed to account for the presence of two rush players (Babin and Pace) on the defenses right side. Babin uses his speed to cross Solder's face, forcing the tackle to block him down, but that leaves no one to account for Pace off the edge. Meanwhile, linebacker David Harris is coming on a delayed blitz, looping around the occupied Solder behind Pace to bring a second unblocked rusher on Brady. The play has no chance, and ends the Pats first drive with a big sack.

The Pats third possession ended on another sack created by the Pats failure to pick up a Jets pressure scheme. Once again, the Jets show what winds up being a four man pressure, but disguise where those rushers are coming from. This time, they have four traditional rush players on the line (Babin, Wilkerson, Leger Douzable and Pace) but drop the left side of the defensive line (Douzable and Pace) into coverage. Once again, Wilkerson takes his pass rush to the right side of the Pats line, operating mainly as a decoy, while Babin once again crosses Solder's face and forces the tackle to block down on him.

This time, there shouldn't a numbers advantage, as the Pats have three players (Solder, Gronkowski and Vereen) to account for the Jets three rushers on the offense's left side. However, both Gronkowski and Vereen identify the blitz of slot corner Antonio Allen, opening up a lane for the delayed blitz of Demario Davis, who like Harris on the previous play loops around the occupied Solder. The end result is another free rusher bearing down on Brady, and another drive-killing sack.

A final impact play that came thanks to a scheme-aided pass rush came in the fourth quarter, when Tom Brady's interception allowed the Jets a brief chance to retake the lead. This time, the Jets are showing blitz, with four down lineman and a linebacker (Davis) creeping up to the line at the snap.

Once again, the Jets have some scheme misdirection about where the rushers are coming from. Once again, it's Richardson (91) who surprisingly drops back into coverage, with the blitzing Davis (56) joining the rush to replace him and keep it a four man pressure. Davis slants his rush heavily into Solder, forcing the left tackle to engage him and drawing the attention of Vereen in protection. This frees Babin (58) to loop around and get a free shot at Brady, forcing a rushed, inaccurate throw that glances off of LeFell's outstretched fingertips and into the waiting hands of corner Marcus Williams.

Plays like that illustrate the kind of mental stress Ryan's Jets are capable of putting on an offensive line. It's a very difficult defense to play against, both physically and mentally, and it's worth wondering if shuffling the lineup added to the difficulty of picking up the Jets disguises. The chemistry was going to be challenged with a 13 game starter in Connolly missing, but the feeling here is that communication might have been aided by sticking with one line combination for the majority of the game.

Jumbo package backfires: it's a numbers game

The Patriots have typically gone to their "jumbo" packages when they've wanted to establish power at the line of scrimmage with their running game. We all remember the Indianapolis game, when they used Fleming as a blocking tight end on 32 of their 45 rushing attempts en route to physical domination on the ground.

That wasn't the case on Sunday. The Pats used the package on eight of their 24 first half snaps (33%), but passed five times and ran only three from that look in the first half. The look was then largely discarded in the second half, with only four appearances before showing up seven times on the final, clock-killing drive (with three of those being kneel-downs).

Why go to this look despite such a pass heavy game plan? My best guess is that the Pats felt they needed the extra bodies to handle the pass rush of the Jets. Both Richardson and Wilkerson are the type of players who can command double teams, and having the extra blockers up front should in theory help the team avoid the kind of numbers advantages that can create free rushers at the quarterback.

However, it's hard to say the scheme didn't backfire. The Pats allowed disruptive pressure on three of their five first half dropbacks with Solder at TE, with a late pressure on a fourth. They also allowed a negative play on one of their three running snaps, with Solder getting beat cleanly and quickly by Calvin Pace.

Part of this was due to the Jets game plan. Rex actually didn't blitz often, opting instead to take his chances at getting pressure with four rushers and flooding the short areas of the field with pass defenders. The Jets sent an extra rusher on just 9 of the Patriots 42 dropbacks, against 24 snaps with the traditional four rushers. They had as many three man rushes (9) as they did blitzes in the game.

Being able to get pressure with only four rushers will always bring a numbers advantage to the defense, as it gives them seven players to drop into coverage. That numbers advantage for New York was only enhanced by the Pats emphasis on their heavy package, which obviously replaces a potential receiving option with Solder. With Brady, Solder and the other five linemen on the field, the Patriots are down to four legitimate targets on the field, who most of the time were trying to get open against eight or nine Jets in coverage. With those numerical odds stacked against them, it's no wonder Brady struggled to find open targets, and that his receivers found it difficult to manufacture yards after the catch when they did gain some separation.

The Jets ability to get pressure while rushing only four was a key in this game, and remains a major key for any team hoping to beat New England in the postseason. When Brady got reasonable protection, he was generally able to get completions, although the extra bodies in coverage prevented the Pats from getting much of the yards after the catch that normally make their offense so dangerous. Sure tackling was a key to the defense containing playmakers like Rob Gronkowski, who only managed 16 yards after the catch on his six receptions.

Essentially, the Jets knew that their pressure would force the Patriots to turn to the short passing game. The strategy basically became to keep the pressure up, force Brady to dink-and-dunk into tight coverage, and make their tackles when Brady did get completions. Forcing the Pats to string together long drives by making difficult, contested play after difficult contested play, the Jets held the Pats to a miserable 3.7 yards per attempt and only 17 points.

Return to normalcy/no huddle benefits line

The second half opened with another troubling drive, with three pressures on their four passing plays leading to yet another Patriots punt. However, that prompted several adjustments on their next possession that brought tangible results and helped them turn the game in their favor.

The first adjustment was settling on a set offensive line group, with the jumbo package essentially eliminated from the offense. After using multiple offensive line combinations on five of their first six possessions, the Pats stuck with a lineup of Solder, Wendell, Stork, Fleming and Vollmer for all 12 snaps of an 81 drive that would culminate with a game-tying Stephen Gostkowski field goal. They then stuck with the same line on all but two goal line snaps on their ensuing possession, which ended with a touchdown after Jamie Collins' interception set the offense up with a short field. In fact, the jumbo package almost completely disappeared from the playcalling after the first possession of the second half, only showing up on those aforementioned goal line snaps and the game's final clock-killing drive.

The other two big adjustments came hand in hand, as a decision to return to an uptempo, no-huddle offensive approach created better looks to run the ball against. After running only 5 times in the first half, the Pats ran six times and threw another six on their 81 yard third quarter drive that tied the game and final established some momentum in the Patriots favor. Going hurry up meant ditching the jumbo package, which was replaced with a base personell group featuring tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Tim Wright along with Amendola, Lefell and Shane Vereen out of the backfield.

Putting all of their passing weapons on the field at the same time forced the Jets to respond with a nickel defense, and the quick tempo kept the Jets on their heels enough to give Brady the time he needed to finally make some plays against a Jets secondary that was playing in over their heads for most of the day. The key to this was Wright, whose ability as a pass catcher forces teams to devote a defensive back to covering him or pay the price.

After getting only seven yards on their seven rushing attempts leading up to that point, the Pats rushed for 39 yards on their six rushing attempts of the drive, during which the Jets stayed in the nickel to match-up with Brady's options in the passing game. Vereen had space to run against those smaller fronts, as the speedy running back ripped off runs of 8, 15, 6, 4 and 6 on the drive (he was also stopped for no gain on a play when Solder was beat by Babin). That's an impressive 6.5 yards per carry on the ground from a team that had barely even attempted to run against the Jets rugged front.

When they weren't running, Brady was efficiently dinking and dunking his way down the field. Brady was 5-6 for 43 yards on the drive. It's certainly not a coincidence that Brady's improved performance coincided with better play from the line up front. In fact, Brady completed the first five of his passes on the drive on plays without a blip in protection, with his one incompletion coming on 3rd and 2 when Richardson beat Wendell like a drum with a club move and had Brady running for his life.

How big of a concern should this be going forward?

Watching Brady hit the turf time after time on Sunday was certainly unsettling for Patriots fans, most of whom had pushed the team's September struggles to the back of their minds during the team's impressive 10-1 stretch since. The offensive line, believed by most to be the achilles heel of this Patriots team, had played well for much of that stretch, highlighted by a brilliant two-week stretch when they bullied the Colts into submission before shutting down the vaunted Lions front.

However, they've shown some cracks in the armor since reaching those highs, and the performance of the Patriots offense has fluctuated along with that of it's line. Three of the past four games have seen the Pats score 23 or fewer points, with rhythm-killing pressure often being a clear culprit.

The biggest thing that stands out from Sunday's debacle is just how thin this group is. The preferred starting five of Solder, Connolly, Stork, Wendell and Vollmer have been decent, but they've had troubles whenever they've had to dip into their bench. Guard has particularly been a bit of a nightmare position for them, as Kline now joins Cannon and Jordan Devey as guys who have been their opportunity yanked from them due to poor play, and Fleming had a few ugly plays as well on Sunday.

On paper, the Patriots remain the favorite to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl, and were certainly the most talented team in the conference even before Peyton Manning's early Christmas presents to Dre Kirkpatrick sealed up home field advantage. However, the fact remains that an injury to any one of their starting offensive lineman could all of a sudden turn the offensive line back into a major trouble spot, one bad enough to outweigh all the other strengths this team has on offense.

Of course, that point also serves to reinforce why Denver's loss on Monday night was so important to the Patriots cause. With a bye week in hand and the opportunity to rest whatever banged up players need it in a meaningless regular season finale this week (Connolly in this case), the Pats should be as healthy as a football team can be in January. If they can keep that starting line healthy throughout the playoff run, they could be tough to beat.

Otherwise, avert your eyes. These Patriots don't have many weaknesses, but the offensive line is the one weak spot glaring enough to threaten their championship aspirations.