We're allowed to laugh because the Patriots won, right? Even though the offense looked shaky and the defense helped Geno Smith look like an NFL quarterback (at times). The Patriots played without Tom Brady's safety blanket on offense, receiver Julian Edelman, and without the captain of the offensive line, Dan Connolly. There were going to be some hiccups, so the fact New England left with a victory, regardless of the current state of the Jets, should be applauded.
I decided to go through the game to see how the Patriots turned it around (in the smallest of ways) in the second half, and how they did a better job of protecting the quarterback. There wasn't a grand reveal- the Patriots used quicker passes and 3-step drops to reduce the impact of the Jets pass rush- and the Patriots continued to struggle.
But I did figure out a couple things:
1) The tackles weren't an issue. Whether it was Nate Solder, Sebastian Vollmer, or Marcus Cannon, they all played extremely well and fended off the edge rushers.
2) The center wasn't the issue. Bryan Stork had one or two plays he'll wish he could do over, but mostly he was very solid against some quality defensive linemen.
3) The Jets run their 3-4 with squeezed defensive ends, where the align their defensive ends inside the tackles, instead of across (in the four-technique, instead of the five-technique). This allows for greater penetration and less control at the line (single gap instead of two-gap, like the Patriots). This also puts increased pressure on the guards, instead of the tackles, to match-up against the Jets defensive line.
So this means that the Patriots, without Connolly, would be playing some fresh blood on the offensive line against a defensive grouping of sharks that love when blood is in the water.
The Patriots featured plenty of offensive groupings, but if we focus on the guard position, we saw a general set-up. Josh Kline was the left guard for the first half and was benched in the second half, when Ryan Wendell slid from the right side to the left side. Rookie Cameron Fleming stepped up at right guard.
The Jets countered by moving around their best defensive lineman, Sheldon Richardson, and just having him attack the fresh meat on every down. He moved back-and-forth, but he did most of his damage against Kline and Fleming.
Drive 5: Cannon at LT, Brady falls down and wastes a play, Solder back 3rd play, LG Kline devoured: pic.twitter.com/5CmQTr0KQh— Rich Hill (@PP_Rich_Hill) December 22, 2014
At first, it just looked like a bad play. The Patriots weren't moving the ball well and the Jets were having their defensive ends run north-south into the backfield to force Brady to rush his passes. But it happened across the board. Richardson was so destructive he was taking out two offensive linemen at the same time.
So then Cameron Fleming entered in the second half and Richardson just...well...roll the tape:
MAH GAWD SHELDON! HE HAS A FAMILY pic.twitter.com/X9kF6ZBO8w— Rich Hill (@PP_Rich_Hill) December 22, 2014
And then when the Patriots made it far enough down the field to possible put the game out of reach, Richardson set up camp exactly where Ryan Wendell was supposed to be blocking.
STOP IT SHELDON STOOOOOP pic.twitter.com/QNksTox7oU— Rich Hill (@PP_Rich_Hill) December 22, 2014
It was bad. Really bad.
If a future defense wants to copy the Jets game plan, they'll need to run the 3-4 front with two defensive ends (Richardson and Muhammad Wilkerson) who can play the 4-technique and can consistently beat the Patriots guards. Luckily for the Patriots, the possible playoff teams in the AFC that run the 3-4 (Colts, Steelers, Ravens, Chargers, Texans, Chiefs) don't have two ends who can cause as much damage as the Jets.
The Patriots interior is at its best when they can play off of each other and the Jets defensive line places everyone on an island by splitting the blockers. Attacking in between Solder and Kline forces Solder to block in single coverage against a edge rusher, but also keeps Kline away from Stork in the middle- and that allows for more space for delayed blitzers.
Everything the Jets did was to exploit the Patriots offensive line. Luckily the Patriots handled that with some quick passes, and there is some comfort knowing that no other team can field the same defensive attack (and that the issue was truly just with the guards and not the whole line). The return of Dan Connolly can't come soon enough, but it's likely the flaw remains even if he's on the field.