Each week, I'll be doing an in-depth scouting report on the Patriots opponent, going over their tendencies, strengths and weaknesses in all three phases of the game. After winning their revenge game in Indianapolis, the Pats find themselves facing another hated rival this week in the New York Jets. Even when they were bad, Jets week always proved to be a difficult task, but an improved offense and stifling defense has Todd Bowles Jets at 4-1 heading into this week's divisional battle. Remarkably, despite the Pats torrid start, they'll lose their lead in the AFC East with a loss Sunday in Foxborough. Let's take a look at the Jets much improved roster.
New York offense
After the past few seasons, it's hard to shake the mental association of the Jets offense with a dumpster fire. However, the addition of playmaking receiver Brandon Marshall and an improvement to just adequate quarterback play has them at seventh in the entire league in scoring average (25.8 per game). It's still a stretch to call them an offensive juggernaut, but they're far from the laughingstock they were just last season.
The personnel upgrades in the passing game will get a lot of the credit for that, but the heart of the offense remains the Chris Ivory fueled running game. The Jets lead the league in rushing yards per game (146), rank a narrow second in attempts per game (32.6) and are in a 3-way tie for fifth in yards per attempt (4.5). That success is almost entirely due to the powerful running of Ivory, a tackle-breaking machine and one of the few true bell-cow backs left in the league. Despite missing a game due to injury, Ivory's fourth in the league with 460 rushing yards, and his 5.5 yards per carry average is the highest amongst any back with 80+ carries.
Ivory is a load to bring down
Given the Patriots struggles stopping the run this year, I'd expect the Jets to feed Ivory the ball early and often. Despite a strong performance against the run-reliant Cowboys, the Pats are still giving up 4.9 yards per carry on the ground (only the Browns and Chargers have been worse. It's been a bit of a Jekkyl & Hyde situation for the Patriots, who have stopped the run fairly well when prioritizing it (aka running a base defense) but been gashed out of the nickel, with Frank Gore being the most recent back to post strong numbers against them. We'll see if the Patriots do go with their heavier base defense, trusting their corners to handle a talented group of playmakers on the outside with less help. It might be their only option, as the Pats nickel personnel have struggled against far less potent rushing attacks than that of the Jets.
With the Jets looking to challenge the Pats physically in the run game, it would be a fortuitous week for the Patriots to get Dont'a Hightower back. Hightower has surprisingly managed to practice ever since leaving the Week 5 Cowboys contest with a rib injury, but was held out of last week's revenge game in Indy. He's questionable this week and it's unlikely we'll know anything about his availability until inactives are officially announced on game day. Jerod Mayo and Jonathan Freeny split Hightower's reps last week, with Freeny playing more snaps likely due to having more range in coverage against the pass-happy Colts. Against this opponent, the splits could trend more towards Mayo, who is more physical and instinctual against the run. If the Pats run more base defense, both could see a season high in snaps playing alongside Jamie Collins, who has been a constant and shown an improved ability to take on and defeat blocks in the running game.
With the running game being so important to the Jets offense, the importance of getting off to a fast start cannot be overstated for New York. Despite their season-long struggles against the run, only four teams have seen fewer carries per game than the 23.6 the Patriots have faced (coincidently, they're currently tied with the Jets in that statistic). Essentially, the Patriots have played with the lead so much this season that opponents have been forced to abandon the running game early, often despite finding some success on the ground. The longer the Jets can keep this a competitive game, the longer they can expose the Patriots weak run defense, which would come with additional benefits regarding time of possession (keeping Brady's offense off the field) and aiding their passing game (selling play action, staying out of third and longs, etc).
When the Jets do throw, they'll turn to Ryan Fitzpatrick, who has been his usual competent but turnover-prone self under center this year. Fitzpatrick has always been unafraid to chuck it downfield and give his playmakers a chance, which has manifested itself in solid yardage (235.4 per game) and touchdown (9) statistics. His downfall has always been turnovers, a natural by-product of making riskier downfield throws, and that's shown up this year, as he's already thrown 7 picks. The opportunistic Pats secondary already has six interceptions themselves through five games, and will certainly look to capitalize on any mistakes Fitzpatrick makes.
One way to create turnovers is to pressure the quarterback, something the Patriots have done exceptionally well this season (despite playing only five games, only the Broncos and Packers have more than their 19 sacks). However, that Patriots strength will be going head-to-head against a strength of the Jets, as they've allowed a league-low two sacks of their quarterback all season. They've certainly exceeded their on-paper expectations, as center Nick Mangold is the only star on the Jets offensive line. However, D'Brickashaw Ferguson remains a solid starting left tackle, and he's looked better this year with massive free agent addition James Carpenter helping to stabilize the left side of the offensive line. The right side is weaker, with former Seahawk and Massachusetts native Breno Giacomini at right tackle and 2013 third round pick Brian Winters at guard. The Patriots certainly have the horses to test the Jets 2015 track record of success in pass protection, particularly on the edge where Chandler Jones is having a monster season so far. However, their pass rush could take a hit if Jabaal Sheard, who did not practice yesterday due to his ankle injury, is unable to go.
Marshall has been a go-to guy in New York
The vast majority of Fitzpatrick's targets go to their productive starting duo of Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker. The impact of adding a true number one receiver in Marshall has been evident, as he's soaked up targets (53 through five games) and turned them into consistent production. He's averaged over 100 yards per game, totaling 37 catches for 511 yards and four touchdowns as Fitzpatrick's go-to guy. He's also opened up opportunities for Decker, who was miscast as a number one receiver last year but has flourished with Marshall on the other side this year. Decker has battled a knee injury most of the year but has been productive in spite of it, particularly in the red zone where he's scored a touchdown in every game he's played. Both Decker and Marshall average over 13 yards per reception (13.3 for Decker, 13.8 for Marshall), illustrating their big play capability.
One of the biggest challenges for the Pats this week against those two will be matching their size and physicality. At 6'4" and 230 pounds, Marshall is known for his size, which he uses masterfully to "post up" smaller defenders in the red zone, but Decker checks in at 6'3", 215 himself. Both players are very athletic for their size, and that combination of speed and physicality makes both difficult to bring down once they have the ball in their hands. The tackling from the Patriots starting cornerback duo of Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan has been good so far, and that will need to continue this week.
I'll be interested to see whether the Pats choose to shadow Marshall with Butler, who clearly is the Pats top corner. Butler isn't the prototypical "big corner" that normally gets matched up on Marshall (Bradley Fletcher was signed to fill that role), but he uses his ball skills very well to bridge the gap against bigger receivers. Butler against Marshall would be a fascinating battle to watch, but one that likely favors the Jets, particularly in the red zone. Butler did an impressive job overall against the 6'3" Donte Moncrief last week, but he did allow a touchdown when Moncrief was able to snag a jump ball over him despite tough coverage. Marshall has made a living making plays just like that for a long time in the NFL.
Things thin out a bit on the depth chart behind the starters, as no other Jet has more than 20 targets in the passing game. The most dangerous guy talent wise amongst the depth options is probably rookie Devin Smith, a deep threat speedster who was a touchdown machine at Ohio State. Smith has been slowly worked into the lineup after missing most of the preseason with a rib injury. He's struggled so far, catching just 5 of his 15 targets, but his deep speed must be noted whenever he enters the game. With Quincy Enunwa suspended this week, the other depth options are veteran slot man Jeremy Kerley, who has a history of hurting the Patriots, and Chris Owusu, who has a 43 yard catch to his name but very little else in terms of production despite a promising preseason.
In fact, third down back Bilal Powell is third on the team with 19 targets. He's been reliable as a checkdown option, catching just under 80% of his targets, but has done very little with those touches. Powell has managed a measly 5.9 yards per reception, with no touchdowns and a fumble to his name. He also didn't practice yesterday with an ankle injury, leaving his status for Sunday in question. If he can't go, Ivory will likely get some of those passing down snaps, with former Ram Zac Stacy also in line for a few more snaps.
No team has gotten less passing game production from the tight end position than the Jets, who lost 2014 second round pick Jace Amaro for the year to a torn labrum. Starter Jeff Cumberland has always had an intriguing combination of size and athleticism, but he's only managed 2 catches for 10 yards all season. He's the only Jets to record a statistic in the passing game.
New York defense
With the possible exception of the Denver Broncos, this is likely the toughest defense the Pats will see all season. They rank 1st in the league in points allowed (15 per game), yards allowed (269.2 per game) and turnovers forced (15). Despite facing the 19th most passing attempts per game, they rank second in passing yards allowed, holding opponents to an absurd 4.8 net yards per attempt with more interceptions (8) than touchdowns allowed (6). They've faced that many passing attempts because of a rushing defense that ranks second in the league in total yards allowed (413) and yards per attempt (3.5). They've also ended a higher percentage of opponent's possessions with a turnover than with a score.
Williams has been another playmaker up front
The monstrous defensive line that has given the Pats all they can handle in the past is back with reinforcements. 3-4 end Muhammad Wilkerson remains as disruptive as ever against both the pass and the run, and he now has his partner-in-crime Sheldon Richardson (pun intended) back as his bookend. At his best, Richardson might be even more dominant than Wilkerson, but he'll be playing in just his second game of the season after missing the first four games for a marijuana related suspension. Richardson's early absence just meant more early opportunities for Leonard Williams, the sixth overall pick in last spring's draft and arguably the best defensive prospect in that entire draft class. Williams has exceptional quickness off the snap, which he uses to penetrate into the backfield and make plays.
With Richardson back, Williams will likely be used in more of a rotational role, particularly on passing downs. Early downs will feature nose tackle Damon "Snacks" Harrison, who is one of the best run stoppers in all of football. The rotation is rounded out by veterans Leger Douzable and Stephen Bowen, who are capable when called upon to give the starters an occasional breather.
The Jets rely on that defensive line to create disruption up front due to a lack of impact edge rushers. The outside linebacking duo of Quinton Coples and Calvin Pace does an excellent job of setting the edge with physicality, but neither of them have registered a single sack yet. In fact, Wilkerson accounts for four of the Jets 8 sacks on the season, a surprisingly low total for a team with that much front seven talent and a blitz heavy approach.
New head coach Todd Bowles has always run a blitz-heavy approach, and he's been able to carry that over to New York thanks to the massive offseason upgrades they made to their secondary. After fielding one of the league's worst units last season, the Jets got the band back together in the offseason, signing Darrelle Revis away from the Pats while adding his former bookend Antonio Cromartie. They also signed former Browns corner Buster Skrine to be their nickel back, a role more appropriate for his skill set than starting in Cleveland. Skrine is questionable this week with a concussion, and his availability will be extra important this week given his ability to cover out of the slot.
Of course, Patriots fans are well aware that Revis can cover anyone from anywhere in the formation. With Tom Brady's reliance on Julian Edelman made painfully evident in last week's Colts game, it wouldn't be surprising to see Revis shadow him on Sunday, reprising their spirited training camp battles from the previous offseason. Revis is plenty familiar with the Patriots offense after practicing against them every game last season, and he'll need every trick in the book to compete with number of legal picks and rub routes the Pats will likely send his way to try to free up Edelman.
Brady's reliance on Edelman has been heightened this year by the absence of last year's number two target, Brandon LaFell, who has resumed practicing this week after missing the first six weeks of the season on the PUP list. It's unclear if LaFell will be officially activated (such a move would likely come on Saturday), let alone how big of a role he could have after just one week of practice. If active, LaFell would cut into Keshawn Martin's snaps at the X receiver spot in the offense. He could also cut into Danny Amendola's role, particularly in two receiver sets.
The Jets don't have many weaknesses on defense, but cornerback depth could be one to attack, particularly if Skrine is out. Next in line behind him would be Marcus Williams, but Williams has been a limited participant in practice all week with a hamstring injury and will likely be questionable for Sunday. The rest of the depth chart consists of Darrin Walls and Dexter McDougle, both who were members of last year's disastrous secondary. Spreading the Jets out and forcing those depth guys onto the field will likely bring about the Pats best chances of success. It could also create better looks to run at, which will be key since running against the Jets base defense has been equivalent to running head first into a brick wall this year.
The other advantage for the Patriots to attack with will be, as always, human force-of-nature Rob Gronkowski. The Jets can usually get away with their man-coverage heavy strategy due to their talent on the outside, but they have no good option to put on Gronk. Linebackers DeMario Davis and David Harris are excellent downhill thumpers against the run, but neither has prayer against Gronk in coverage. Safety Calvin Pryor, a 2014 second round pick, has emerged in his second season with better talent around him, but he's also stronger against the run than the pass. Pryor's aggressiveness could be taken advantage of with play action (although that would also require the Pats running game doing enough to make a run fake a legitimate threat). The free safety is Marcus Gilchrist, who has been an upgrade, but keeping a safety over the top of whoever covers Gronk is typically an opponent's best chance of keeping him from tearing up their secondary.
Given Gronk's importance to the Pats passing game, I wonder if Cromartie could be considered an option against him. Cromartie has the athleticism to stay with Gronk in coverage and the length to counter his massive catch radius. Gronk would have an obvious strength advantage in that matchup, but he does against everyone who attempts to cover him (hello, Byron Jones).
If the Pats do spread the Jets out, they'll likely continue to use a quick-passing attack to neutralize the Jets ability to disrupt them up front. That will particularly be key with the Pats likely to be down two starting members of the offensive line, as neither Marcus Cannon nor Shaq Mason have practiced all week with ankle and knee injuries. Cannon's expected absence would leave the Pats with the same combination that finished the Colts game: Sebastian Vollmer at left tackle and Cameron Fleming manning the right side. Fleming let up a few pressures against the Colts, and his lack of ideal foot speed could be targeted by the Jets pressure schemes. The absence of Mason will hurt more in the running game, where his ability to get to the second level on pulls has stood out. Fellow fourth round rookie Tre Jackson will likely get the start in his absence.
If past performance is taken into consideration, the Pats should have an edge in this department. The Jets have struggled in the game's third phase this year, while the Pats have continued their strong play.
The bright spots for the Jets special teams have been punt returner Jeremy Kerley (9.3 yards per return) and a kick coverage team that's held opponents to a solid 21.9 yards per return. However, they've gotten little from their own kick return game, with primary return man Zac Stacy managing just 21.8 yards per return himself. The bigger issue has been their punt coverage, which has allowed a whopping 23.7 yards per return and a touchdown. They've also already allowed a punt to get blocked. Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman should be licking their chops at the prospect of getting opportunities against this group.
Even the usual strength of the Jets special teams, placekicker Nick Folk, has had some uncharacteristic struggles this year. The usually reliable Folk has missed 3 of his 5 attempts from 40-49 yards. He has made his lone attempt from 50+ yards.
Rex Ryan may be gone, but the Jets still have excellent defensive coaching to bolster an already talented defensive roster. Bowles has taken full advantage of his roster, bringing pressure from all over the place (including a lot of blitzes from their corners) to create the monstrous defense I just went over. If any defense is equipped to shut down the Patriots prolific offense it's this group.
The coaching matchup could be one of the most intriguing ones of the week, as Josh McDaniels and Bill Belichick will look to scheme openings against a defense that, on-paper, likely has the talent advantage. The Patriots have yet to run into a defense that could legitimately stop them, and that ability to play with a lead has been a major advantage for their defense all season. All of that will be challenged for the first time on Sunday.
In fact, that should be the biggest storyline from Sunday's game. The Jets appear to be the Patriots toughest test this season so far, and one of the tougher teams remaining on their schedule. It will be interesting to see how this team responds to that challenge, even with the benefit of playing at home.