Check the Film: Defensive game plan maximizes Patriots chances
In a competitive effort, Malcolm Butler won some and loss some against the Jets Eric Decker. Jim Rogash/Getty Images
After each Patriots game, I'll be going back over the game film and posting my observations. As many (myself included) expected, the Jets came into Foxborough Sunday and gave the good guys all they could handle. Knowing that the offense would have it's hands full with the league's best defense, the Pats defense was tasked with keeping the team in the game, no easy feat given the Jets came in with the league's top rushing attack and one of it's best one-two punches at receiver. In classic Patriots form, they overcame both the Jets and their own supposed deficiencies in the secondary thanks to a game plans that sold out to take away the Jets two best offensive playmakers.
It's often said that the Patriots are a "game plan" team. What they do week-to-week typically varies greatly, as they adjust to each opponent's tendencies and personnel. The result is often wild swings in playing time for certain players, as a role that could be imperative one week could be unnecessary the next.
That was evident simply from looking at the snap counts from this week's Jets game and contrasting them with those from the previous week against Indy. That week, the Patriots went safety-heavy in their nickel packages, with three safeties (Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, Duron Harmon) playing at least 70 of their 80 defensive snaps and another (Jordan Richards) chipping in with 43 snaps himself.
This week was a different story. McCourty went the distance, playing all 72 defensive snaps, and Chung came close with 65. However, Harmon and Richards only saw 7 snaps each, with the only memorable play from either being Richards getting tossed to the ground with a stiff arm from Eric Decker.
What gives? Like the previous week, the Pats found themselves in a lot of nickel against the Jets. However, the extra defensive back in this week's game plan was cornerback Justin Coleman, who played a season high 52 snaps. This was likely in response to the Jets lack of tight end usage, as tight ends Kellen Davis and Jeff Cumberland combined to play 66 snaps (out of 72) and tallied one catch for 16 yards. The Jets spent the majority of the game in three wide sets, with Chris Owusu (32 snaps), Jeremy Kerley (29 snaps) and Devin Smith (17 snaps) splitting that workload. As a result, third linebacker Jonathan Freeny (who appears to have completely surpassed Jerod Mayo on the depth chart at this point) only played 22 snaps, despite an emphasis on defending the run.
The Patriots countered the Jets passing game with a remarkably simple game plan. Instead of mixing up coverages, as they did against Andrew Luck's Colts, the Pats played man coverage on all but 6 of Ryan Fitzpatrick's dropbacks. Determined to limit Brandon Marshall's impact, they played a cover 1 for most of the game, with the deep safety McCourty constantly shaded over the top of the former Bears standout. With Logan Ryan drawing the Marshall assignment, Malcolm Butler was trusted on an island against Eric Decker, with Chung typically taking the tight end or back and Coleman the number 3 receiver (in this example, Chris Owusu).
It's hard to say the plan worked to perfection, but it worked well enough to limit what had been a surprisingly productive Jets offense. Both Decker and Marshall made some plays, with Decker tallying six catches for 94 yards and Marshall adding four grabs of his own for 67. Marshall wound up averaging 16.7 yards per catch, while Decker checked in at 15.6. However, this was still far from the norm for Marshall, who had bettered 100 yards in his past four games, while Decker was kept out of the end zone for the first time this season. Neither were particularly efficient either, with Decker catching just half of his team-leading 12 targets and Marshall grabbing 4 of 7, including two drops.
While Marshall did make a handful of plays, the Patriots bracket coverage did it's job of limiting Fitzpatrick's opportunities to get him the ball. Marshall saw just two targets the entire first half, hauling in one of them for 13 yards. The Jets made a clear effort to get their top receiver more involved in the second half, with his 5 second half targets far closer to the 10.6 target a game pace he'd been on during the first five games of the season. Still, his seven targets and four receptions were both easily season lows, and the sporadic nature of his contributions made it difficult for the Jets offense to string together drives.
You can chalk that up to coaching, as the scheme allowed the Patriots to get away with the on-paper mismatch of Logan Ryan on Marshall. Ryan did a good job playing physical on the line of scrimmage against the bigger Marshall, which often messed up the timing of his routes and forced Fitzpatrick to look elsewhere. That physicality allowed Ryan to win far more snaps than he lost in coverage, something that would shock most Pats fans just two months ago after Ryan suffered through an uneven preseason that led some to wonder if he was on the roster bubble.
Ryan has tight coverage on Marshall here, but still has help from McCourty over the top just in case
However, there were several plays where Marshall made Ryan look silly once he got past his initial jam (his 29 yard catch at the end of the third quarter being the most glaring example), and those plays made it clear why safety help was necessary. McCourty deserves credit for stopping the bleeding on those plays, as Marshall's physicality makes him dangerous after the catch. The Patriots also caught a break when Marshall, perhaps influenced by his butterfingered counterparts on the New England sideline, dropped a well placed back shoulder throw in the end zone.
The Patriots wouldn't have been able to devote that much attention to Marshall without being able to trust their other coverage players to hold up on their assignments. I've seen the narrative floated out there that Decker "exposed" Butler, and that narrative is only true if you are one of the fans that foolishly expected Butler to become Revis 2.0 in only his second season. Instead, like most starting corners in the league, Butler gave up some plays but made plenty as well. It was an interesting matchup for him, as Butler often relies on his athleticism to make up for a lack of prototypical size and physicality. There were times when Decker's size gave Butler problems, including a pass interference penalty when Butler was forced to stick an arm in there after Decker managed to box him out. However, the notion that Butler was any sort of liability is ridiculous, as he made enough plays to hold Decker to a 50% catch percentage. Prior to Sunday's game, Decker had caught 69% of his targets.
Fitzpatrick is forced to scramble for his life here, as he has no one open when Hightower breaks free
Butler wasn't the only corner on an island either, as nickelback Justin Coleman's ability to hold up in coverage without help made him one of the unsung heroes of the game. Coleman split time guarding Jeremy Kerley, Devin Smith and Chris Owusu and recovered well from letting up an early touchdown to be competitive in coverage all afternoon. That touchdown was a bit of a teaching moment, as Coleman gave up his initial inside position after biting on a head fake from Kerley on a slant. However, Coleman flashed the athleticism that made the Patriots covet him, as he stayed step for step with Devin Smith on a deep route before using his position to knock the ball away. Coleman also knocked away a potential touchdown on a first quarter slant to Chris Owusu. All in all, the Jets trio of complementary receivers were targeted 10 times and came down with six catches for 59 yards. It's not shutdown play, but Coleman's coverage was certainly good enough to execute a game plan that put plenty of individual responsibility on his plate. An impressive performance by the undrafted rookie.
Justin Coleman and Logan Ryan both provided excellent coverage on this failed deep shot to Owusu
The Jets probably hoped that spreading the Pats out with their three wide sets would create mismatch opportunities against the Pats secondary, but an added benefit (on paper) to that approach would be creating lighter looks in the box to run at. Fueled by Chris Ivory, the Jets came into the game as one of the best rushing teams in the league, and post-game comments from the likes of Dont'a Hightower suggest that stopping the run was a major defensive priority on Sunday.
Regardless of how limited Ivory was by his hamstring, the fact that the Patriots were able to do so despite playing most of the game out of the nickel has to be a major confidence boost for this team. The Pats had proven they could stop the run when they prioritized it and loaded up the box (see the Dallas game), but they had also struggled to stop the run out of the nickel all season. They were able to reverse that season-long trend on Sunday thanks to some standout individual play from their front seven, with no one shining brighter than Hightower.
Hightower was questionable for Sunday's game after missing the Colts game with his injured ribs, but his physical presence was unmistakable against the Jets. He was simply all over the field, racking up 10 tackles (seven of which were considered defensive stops by PFF) and a fumble recovery. It wasn't just the statistics either, but the way he got them, as Hightower's physical downhill play set the tone early on against a Jets team that prefers to run. Tossing Ivory, normally one of the league's most imposing backs, backwards like a ragdoll in the first quarter made it clear that yards on the ground wouldn't come easy.
If possible, Hightower was even more destructive as a pass rusher. Per Doug Kyed of NESN, Hightower turned his 15 snaps as a pass rusher into 8 total pressures, including two quarterback hits. However, none were as impressive as his second quarter bull rush, on which he absolutely ran over All Pro center Nick Mangold like a runaway freight train. That rush flushed Fitzpatrick from the pocket, where Jamie Collins cleaned him up for the possession killing sack.
As good as Hightower was, his job was made easier due to some stout play up front. The Patriots largely went with a four man rotation at defensive tackle, with Malcom Brown (34 snaps), Alan Branch (31 snaps) and Akiem Hicks (23 snaps) splitting the early down work and Dominique Easley (28 snaps) playing more in passing situations. All three of the big bodies tackles played well, as the Jets were unable to win at the line of scrimmage and create much room for either Ivory or Zac Stacy to get going. Branch in particular stood out with arguably his strongest game of the season, as the Patriots biggest player was nearly impossible to move up front. Likewise, Brown was nothing but solid in this one, racking up three tackles (2 solo) and using strong technique to draw a holding call against Mangold. Easley was productive as well, turning in three pressures (including one where he cleanly beat Mangold to get a lick on Fitzpatrick). He also flashed his trademark explosion off the snap on a second quarter run stop, jacking the unprepared James Carpenter into the backfield before disengaging and moving well laterally to track down Ivory for a minimal gain.
Down a key member of the rotation in Jabaal Sheard, the starting duo of Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones did an excellent job of setting and maintaining the edge, forcing those runs to stay in between the tackles where those big defensive tackles and Hightower were waiting. Jones was largely quiet as a pass rusher after his early forced fumble, but the Jets inability to get their backs outside the tackle box is a tribute to how well he and Ninkovich played in the running game. Nink, of course, also chipped in with active hands at the line of scrimmage, batting away a JJ Watt-esque four passes at the line of scrimmage.
By setting the edge, Ninkovich forces Ivory to cut back inside towards the waiting Chung, resulting in a harmless 2 yard gain.
A quick glimpse at the stat sheet is all you need to see the approach worked. The Jets mustered just 89 yards on the ground despite pounding it inside 29 times: good for a paltry 3 yards per carry. Toss out Fitzpatrick's five scrambles and that number drops a full half yard to 2.5 per carry. Those are ugly numbers for a team that entered Sunday's contest leading the league in rushing yards per game.
Despite it's simplicity, this was a classic Bill Belichick game plan. As they typically do, the Pats schemed to take away the opponent's biggest strengths (in this case, their running game and Marshall), forcing them to come up with enough plays elsewhere to win. Decker and co certainly made some plays, but not enough to generate consistent offense. As a result, the defense held the league's seventh best scoring offense to just 20 points prior to a late desperation field goal drive against a prevent defense, providing Brady's offense with just enough cushion to emerge with a hard fought divisional win. All in all, a fine defensive performance for a unit which is showing steady improvement as the season goes on.