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Stopping Ivory was key to the Pats week 7 win over these Jets

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. This week, the Patriots can clinch the AFC's top playoff seed (and more importantly, home field advantage throughout the playoffs) with a win over the hated Jets. While that seems like a lot to play for, the Jets find themselves playing for their playoff lives. A win will keep the Jets in the thick of the playoff race, while a loss would require one of Pittsburgh, Kansas City or Denver to lose their final two games for the Jets to get in. Without further ado, lets dive into the matchups of this high-stakes showdown.

New York offense

When I wrote my first Jets scouting report back in Week 7, I noted how surprising it was to see the previously inept Jets offense putting up respectable numbers. The sample size is now nearly a full season and it's time to accept the fact that the Jets are one of the better offenses in the league. As things currently stand, they rank 11th in scoring (24.6 points per game) and 10th in yards (5,197).

They have a pair of offseason additions to thank for that drastic offensive turnaround. Veteran quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick will never be mistaken for elite, but he's provided a level of competence that the team previously had struggled to find at the game's most important position. He's gotten plenty of help from the other key pickup, receiver Brandon Marshall, whose presence as a legitimate number one receiver has also opened things up for Eric Decker on the other side.

While the big names reside in their passing game, these Jets are at their best when they're able to run the ball. At the time of the Pats last matchup with the Jets, they were near the top of league in most rushing categories, with Chris Ivory leading all backs with 80+ carries in yards per carry at 5.5. They had rushed for 100+ yards in four of their five games, with 200+ yards in the two games leading up to that Week 7 contest.

That game against the Patriots wound up being a turning point. The Patriots bottled up Ivory in that game, holding him to just 41 yards on 17 carries as the star runner battled through a tweaked hamstring. From that game on (a nine game sample size), the Jets have rushed for 100+ yards just three times. Ivory's health played a factor in that, as he gained just 43 yards (on 38 carries) in the two games following the Pats one.

Ivory's healthy now and has been running pretty well as of late. The Cowboys strong defensive line did a good job of bottling him up last week, but that was the first time in six weeks that he had been held under 4 yards a carry. When he's running well, Ivory is an absolute load to bring down. He's a big (6'0", 222 pound) downhill power back with deceptive shiftiness who regularly makes would-be tacklers bounce off his stout frame. Strong fundamental gang-tackling will be key for the Pats this week, as Ivory eats up arm tackles for breakfast.

The availability of Dont'a Hightower will be key for the Patriots, as their stout run defense has looked just average when he's been forced to the sidelines. Hightower tweaked his sprained knee last week against the Titans, but is tentatively expected to play tomorrow. His physical presence was impossible to miss in the Week 7 game, and no one on the roster can match his ability as a downhill thumper against the run. If Hightower can't go, Jerod Mayo will likely get the bulk of the early down work opposite Jamie Collins.

Ryan battled with Marshall all game long, typically with help over the top
Stopping the run won't necessarily shut down the Jets offense, but making them one-dimensional will make things far more difficult for a passing game that heavily relies on it's top two receivers. Few tandems have been as productive as Marshall and Decker, who have combined for 165 catches, 2,191 yards and 21 touchdowns. The biggest characteristic that stands out with the two of them is their size: Marshall is listed at 6'4" and 230 pounds, while Decker measures in at 6'3", 213.

The Pats did a better job than most covering those two their first go-round, but Decker did catch six balls for 94 yards and Marshall dropped an open fourth quarter touchdown that could have changed the trajectory of the game. The Pats used bracket coverage on Marshall, using safety help over the top of Logan Ryan's man coverage to limit his opportunities. Marshall did make a few plays, catching four balls for 67 yards, but his seven targets were a season low at the time (he also saw just seven targets last week).

That strategy required trust in Malcolm Butler to handle Decker without help on the otherside. The result was a back-and-forth battle. It was one of only four games this season that Decker has been held without a touchdown, with the receiver catching just 50% of his 12 targets. However, Decker was able to use his size effectively at times, both in boxing out the smaller Butler and in out-muscling him for yards after the catch. It will be interesting to see how Butler responds if the same matchups ensue this Sunday: Logan Ryan typically takes the other team's "bigger" receiver, but both of the Jets starters fit that bill.

The Jets passing game essentially goes as those two go. Few teams have gotten less from their tight ends in the passing game, as the pedestrian duo of Jeff Cumberland and Kellen Davis have combined to catch eight passes all season. The supporting cast of receivers has been a bit of a revolving door, but Quincy Enunwa, Kenbrell Thompkins and Jeremy Kerley figure to get those snaps this week. Enunwa is another big receiver (6'2", 225) who has settled into the third receiver role since returning from a four game suspension, but he's listed as questionable with a neck injury. If he can't go, it will likely mean more snaps for Jeremy Kerley, a shifty slot-type who has always brought his A game against the Pats. Thompkins, of course, is a former Patriot who has recently begun earning snaps as the fourth receiver since being promoted from the practice squad. He came up with a clutch 43 yard catch to set up a game winning field goal against the Cowboys last week. Leonard Johnson appears to have tacken over the slot cornerback role from Justin Coleman, who gave up a touchdown to Kerley in that role back in Week 7, and he'll likely get the bulk of his snaps in the slot.

Powell has emerged as a valuable check-down option
With such a lack of proven depth behind their starters on the outside, passing down back Bilal Powell has seized his opportunity to become a bigger part of the offense. Powell missed a four week chunk in the middle of the season with an ankle injury (the Patriots game was the first he missed), but he's become a key player since returning in Week 11. In the five games since his return, he's averaged 7.4 targets, 5.4 catches and 53 yards per game, chipping in two touchdowns through the air. He's also been fairly effective as a change of pace runner, averaging 4.1 yards per carry on the season. Jamie Collins could see plenty of him if the Pats stick with their typical man coverage principles this game.

The knock on Fitzpatrick has always been that he can be pressured into forcing balls down the field, often leading to crippling interceptions. The ability of Marshall and Decker to win contested balls has certainly played a factor in his cutting the picks back to an acceptable total of 12, but so has an offensive line that has been better than the sum of it's parts. Only the Rams have given up fewer sacks than the Jets 20.

Strength's will collide here, as the Patriots are currently tied with the Broncos for the league lead in team sacks (47). The key matchups could come on the edge, where the Patriots have the on-paper advantage. Long time Jets left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson has seen some serious slippage in his play in his age 32 season, and right tackle Breno Giacomini has been no match for the better pass rushers he's faced this year. Chandler Jones broke a four week sackless streak last week with two against the Titans and will likely spend most of his time across from Ferguson. Rob Ninkovich beat Giacomini for several big plays back in Week 7, but the real mismatch to watch will be Jabaal Sheard against him on the right side.

Sheard's ability to bump inside on passing downs could also be used to take advantage of the Jets guards. Free agent signing James Carpenter is a big mauling run blocker in the midst of his best season, but the former first round pick has never been a stellar pass protector. He's still better in that department than Brian Winters, a former third round pick who has assumed the starting job at right guard since Willie Colon was lost for the season. Both guards have been aided quite a bit by Nick Mangold, who remains as reliable as ever at center.

Getting pressure on Fitzpatrick is key given his desire to push the ball downfield to his weapons, but the Pats will have to be mindful of his deceptive athleticism while rushing. Fitz's ability to escape the rush and extend the play has certainly aided the line's numbers, and he has enough speed to hurt a defense with his legs when given an open lane to run. Rush lane discipline from the interior group of Malcom Brown, Akiem Hicks and Alan Branch will be key, as such openings are often a by-product of the matchup man coverage the Pats typical favor.

New York defense

Another week, another big test for the Patriots offensive line, which needs to continue the improvement they've shown over the past two weeks. The Jets revamped secondary was expected to be a new strength of their defense, but it's been their stout front seven that's kept the defense afloat while offseason additions Antonio Cromartie and Buster Skrine have struggled.

Unlike most teams known for their front seven, the Jets strength up front stems from their interior lineman rather than their edge rushers. The trio of Muhammad Wilkerson, Sheldon Richardson and rookie Leonard Williams have all proven to be pass rush threats (particularly Wilkerson, who leads the team with 12 sacks), and all three are also stout against the run. Throw in nose tackle Damon Harrison, who has quietly become one of the best run defenders in the league, and you have the makings of a dominant defensive line.

This group represents a major challenge for the Patriots offensive line, which could be starting two players (Bryan Stork and Shaq Mason) who have had significant struggles in pass protection this season. The status of Josh Kline also bears watching, as Kline was active last week but played just 21 snaps as the team eased him back from an injured shoulder. Kline has been the team's best guard in pass protection, and would bring a boost to that interior group if he's able to take on a heavier workload.

While the matchups are nightmarish on the inside, they are more palatable on the outside. Veteran Calvin Pace has managed just 3 sacks all season. He'll be bookended by third round pick Lorenzo Mauldin, who hasn't brought much juice as a pass rusher in his rookie season. Offensive tackles Sebastian Vollmer and Marcus Cannon should be able to handle those two without help, although they could struggle when the power guys like Wilkerson attack the edges.

That defensive line is backed by a group of active linebackers. Veteran David Harris remains as productive as ever, and DeMario Davis brings significant range to the position beside him. Erin Henderson has also pushed his way into the rotation recently, particularly on early downs. Henderson can be exposed in coverage, but he's a force when allowed to attack as a downhill thumper against the run.

Harrison is one of many fantastic run defenders on the Jets defensive line
The Patriots have often completely abandoned the run against the Jets, figuring that running head-first into the strength of the Jets defense would be counter-productive. That strategy worked back in Week 7, as the Pats scored 30 points on one of the league's top defenses despite a 9-54 run/pass ratio. It will be interesting to see if they go back to the well with that strategy this time, as they appear to be attempting to get a rushing game going in recent weeks. Combine that with major injury issues on the outside (neither Danny Amendola nor Julian Edelman is expected to suit up and Brandon LaFell is questionable with a foot issue), and we could see the Pats run more than they have in the past out of necessity.

The Pats commitment to the run could also depend on how large of a workload they feel Steven Jackson can handle in his first game in nearly a calendar year. Jackson figures to eat up a chunk of the carries if they do try to run, with Brandon Bolden and Joey Iosefa serving as other options. If they do run, it will likely be tough sledding against a defense that allows just 3.8 yards per carry, the fifth lowest average in the league. The Pats won't necessarily be expecting to dominate on the ground, but if they can consistently grind out three and four yard gains, it will help the offense to stay out of third and long situations, where Todd Bowles complex blitz schemes can overwhelm an offense and create turnovers. Communication will be key for the offensive line in those situations, and that could be severely tested by what figures to be a very loud and rowdy home crowd for the Jets.

The Jets cornerbacks have largely struggled other than Darelle Revis, who remains one of the best corners in football. Cromartie has been burned repeatedly in a tough season, and Skrine has regressed since a strong start to the year as their nickel corner. However, the Pats could lack the weapons to really make the Jets pay for this weakness. If active, LaFell likely becomes the number one receiver by default, but his status is currently up in the air. If he can't go, we could be looking at Keshawn Martin as Brady's top receiver, with Chris Harper as the number two. Harper was called up from the practice squad yesterday, likely due to his familiarity with the offense (new signing Leonard Hankerson was released to open up his roster spot).

With the Pats lacking numbers at receiver, it could be a game to go heavy on multiple tight end sets. Rob Gronkowski is now fully healthy, having been completely removed from the injury list, and figures to be a huge part of the Pats offensive game plan. Scott Chandler has been the preferred second tight end on passing downs, but his status is in question after missing last week with a knee injury. If he can't go, it could mean a heavy dose of Michael Williams, who is a blocking presence but provides little threat as a receiver.

Pryor could be key to the Jets game plan against Gronk
Gronk had a typical Gronk-like day at the office in Week 7, but did much of his damage after Jets safety Calvin Pryor left the game with an ankle injury. Last year's first round pick, Pryor has emerged as a quality starter in his second season, and he was competitive in coverage with Gronk before his injury struck. He typical operates as the Jets "in-the-box" safety, where his heavy-hitting downhill style can be most effective, with veteran Marcus Gilchrist as the deep free safety. With the Patriots down most of their passing game weapons (Revis will likely shadow LaFell if he plays), the Jets will be free to give Pryor plenty of help against Gronk. It wouldn't be surprising to see the Pats attempt to use that schematically to create openings for other, lesser-known pass catchers.

One area where the Pats do have a mismatch to attack could be James White against the Jets below average coverage linebackers. White's emergence as a reliable target in the passing game has been key to the offense staying afloat despite the injuries at receiver, and Tom Brady's growing trust in him has been evident. He's scored five touchdowns over the past five weeks and has averaged 8 targets a game over the past four. Look for him to continue to step up as a key component of the offense down the stretch.

Special teams

The Jets special teams have been a mixed bag all season, but the Pats face questions of their own after a remarkable stretch of four straight games with a special teams turnover. Handling punts has been a big issue for the Pats, and that should remain under scrutiny with the sure handed Amendola not expected to play. Harper could get a second crack at the job in his absence, and he'd be fielding kicks in far better conditions than the snowy, windy confines that contributed to his infamous muffed punt against Denver.

The Jets return game has been a strength recently. Kerley has been solid all year long, averaging 8.9 yards per return. Meanwhile, Cromartie has breathed some life into the Jets kick return game since replacing the injured Zac Stacy as the primary returner. He's averaged a healthy 25.7 yards per return, with a long of 54. Good field position has helped the Jets, as they've started their average drive from just about the 30 yard line.

Covering kicks has been a different story. They've been just average covering kickoffs (23.8 yards per return), but absolutely dreadful at covering punts. Opponents have averaged a whopping 12.8 yards per punt return against them, with two touchdown returns. They've also had a punt blocked. It remains to be seen who winds up handling the punt returns (Keshawn Martin is also an option after a solid showing in Houston), but the opportunity could be there for a big play if they can field the ball consistently.

The kicking game isn't in great shape either, as Randy Bullock has stepped in to replace the injured Nick Folk. Bullock lost his job with the Texans after missing two extra points and a field goal in the first three weeks. He started off strong with the Jets but has slowed down since, with another missed extra point and two missed field goals over the last two weeks. Needless to say, the Jets confidence in their kicker isn't exactly at an all-time high.

Coaching/other factors

Coaching will be big for the Pats this week, as they'll have to use their scheme to work their way around some injury issues. It will be fascinating to see how the offense in particular adjusts, as they could be without several key guys to the pass heavy strategies that have worked well against these Jets.

The injuries aren't the only factor that favors the Jets. There are few things more dangerous than a football team playing to save it's playoff chances, and that's exactly what the Pats face today. A loss by the Jets would essentially stick a fork in their odds, as it would require one of Denver, Kansas City or Pittsburgh to lose out for them to get in. Stranger things have happened, but that's highly unlikely, especially given that Chiefs finish with the Browns and Raiders, while Pittsburgh faces the Ravens and Browns and Denver follows up its Monday Night showdown with Cincinnati by playing the hapless Chargers. This is as "must win" as it gets for the Jets, and that desperation should fuel a raucous crowd at MetLife Stadium. There are hostile environments and there's what the Pats will be going into today.

With that said, the Pats have overcome the odds before, and a win would lock up the conference's number one seed, enabling them to get an extra week of rest for some of their banged-up players. As it always is with these Jets, this game will likely be a dogfight. The Week 7 game was, in my opinion, one of the best wins of the season due to how hard the Pats had to fight to get the "W". Rest assured, if they pull this one off, it will be well-earned as well.

Ned Brady 12/27/2015 09:22:00 AM Edit
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