Over the last five games, the most disturbing trend for Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has been his decrease in efficiency throwing the deep ball.
Since Week 13, Brady has a completion percentage of 27.3 and a passer rating of just 25.6 on passes of 20-plus air yards.
In the first 11 games of the season, Brady completed 42.3% of his deep passes for a passer rating of 113.5.
Several mitigating factors including WR-OL-RB injuries, Gronk’s suspension/Week 17 bubble wrap and December elements, but this is a severe downturn in Brady’s deep passing, via @NFLResearch pic.twitter.com/xq8mVTIMg0— Chris Wesseling (@ChrisWesseling) December 31, 2017
Against the Jets, Brady completed just one pass of 20-plus air yards, a 37-yard completion to Brandin Cooks.
However, a few of Brady’s deep attempts in Week 17 fell incomplete for reasons out of his control.
For example, Brady appeared to have Brandin Cooks open in the end zone on a deep pass in the first quarter, but Cooks slowed down on his route not expecting to be targeted on the play.
On another deep attempt, wide receiver Phillip Dorsett dropped a terrific pass from Brady that would have gained significant yardage.
And Brady also doesn’t get credit in the stat sheet for the 39-yard defensive pass interference penalty drawn by Brandin Cooks in the second quarter.
Brady hasn’t had his best fastball over the last month or so but his receivers could be doing more to help him out, and an extra week off with a first-round bye ought to do wonders for the 40-year-old quarterback.
Finally, Brady’s time to throw against the Jets came in at his season average of 2.6 seconds.
On the season, Brady ranked tied for tenth among 29 qualified quarterbacks in time to throw at 2.62 seconds. In 2016, Brady ranked eighth at 2.49 seconds.
It was difficult to evaluate the performance of the Patriots' offensive line in pass protection on Sunday.
On the one hand, both starting tackles struggled at times with Nate Solder allowing a team-high four total pressures and Cameron Fleming allowing a sack on a third-down play in the first quarter, and right guard Shaq Mason allowed three total pressures and a quarterback hit.
But on the other hand, Brady was only pressured on 33.3% of his dropbacks, which is significantly higher than a week ago against Buffalo, but still a respectable number, and the Jets blitzed Brady a significant amount on Sunday.
This season, the Patriots’ offensive line has flown under the radar as one of the top units in the NFL.
Opposing defenses pressured Brady on 31.4% of his drop-backs in 2017, which was eighth-lowest among quarterbacks that played a minimum of 50% of their team’s snaps this season (29 qualifiers).
And the group has made significant contributions to a dangerous rushing attack as well.
The Patriots' offensive line had it's struggling this season, but on the whole, this has been a very stable unit in 2017.
Only three Patriot receivers were targeted out of the slot on Sunday as the middle of the field continues to be solely reliant on Rob Gronkowski and Danny Amendola.
Amendola caught three passes for 27 yards out of the slot in Week 17, and those were the only three completions for Brady to a receiver positioned inside all day.
However, on Phillip Dorsett’s key drop, Dorsett was initially lined up in the slot, taking away another completion from Brady.
On the season, Danny Amendola hauled in 54 receptions out of the slot, which ranks tied for fourth in the NFL among wide receivers.
And despite zero targets on Sunday, Rob Gronkowski finished the season with 554 yards out of the slot, which ranks second among tight ends behind the Chiefs’ Travis Kelce.
PASS RUSH/RUN STOPS
The Patriots’ defense pressured Jets quarterback Bryce Petty on a modest 31.7% of his drop-backs, but they got critical contributions in the pass rush from some notable players.
First, the newest Patriot, James Harrison, finished off the Jets with back-to-back sacks at the end of the fourth quarter.
In Harrison’s Patriots debut, the former Steeler rushed the passer on 11 snaps generating three total pressures, played ten snaps against the run, and dropped into coverage on six snaps.
It was a busy day for Harrison as he tries to learn the Patriots defense in enough time to contribute this postseason.
Adding to Harrison’s strong finish, Adam Butler (4 total pressures) and Trey Flowers (3 total pressures) also harassed Petty a handful of times.
The Patriots’ pass rush leveled off this week after two outliers in the previous two games, but over the last month or so they’ve improved from earlier in the season.
Also, a clear positive takeaway from this game was the Patriots’ run defense against Bilal Powell and a productive Jets rushing attack.
The Jets ran for just 40 yards on 19 carries (2.1 YPC), and the Patriots got another strong game against the run from defensive tackles Lawrence Guy (3 run stops) and Malcom Brown (2 run stops).
Plus, safety Devin McCourty also played a significant role in stopping the run making three run stops against the Jets.
McCourty led the Patriots in tackles this season (94), and for the second consecutive year, a defensive back led the team in tackles (CB Logan Ryan in 2016 - 92).
The Patriots struggled to set the edge on a few notable runs on Sunday, something they have struggled with all season, but this was the best performance by the run defense this season.
In fact, the 40 yards and 2.1 yards per carry allowed by the Patriots defense in Week 17 were both season-lows for 2017.
Jets quarterback Bryce Petty struggled mightily in this game with his accuracy, but the Patriots starting cornerbacks had themselves a day against the Jets wide receivers.
Petty only targeted Stephon Gilmore and Malcolm Butler six times on Sunday, and the duo allowed just two catches for 12 yards, with both catches coming against Gilmore.
The lack of targets was due in part to Petty’s limited abilities, but the two also shut down Jets wide receivers Robby Anderson and Jermaine Kearse for long stretches of the game, and they held Anderson, the Jets’ #1 wide receiver, to just one catch for two yards.
Both Butler and Gilmore haven’t lived up to the hype so far this season, but a strong Week 17 performance may give them the momentum they need to play at a high-level in the postseason.
On the other side of the spectrum, both cornerback Jonathan Jones and linebacker Elandon Roberts had down games in coverage.
Jones, allowed a team-high 61 yards into his coverage, including a 46-yard reception to Jets rookie wideout Ardarius Stewart, the longest play from scrimmage for the Jets on Sunday.
The Patriots didn’t do Jones any favors, however, playing zero coverage (no deep safety) in the middle of the field with the Pats in a man-to-man defense.
Roberts, on the other hand, got beat on a play over the middle that resulted in a 35-yard completion to Jets tight end Neal Sterling and continues to be a liability in the Patriots’ secondary.
Roberts has played on 52.6% of the Patriots’ defensive snaps this season, which is second among Pats linebackers behind only Kyle Van Noy (66.9%).
And although the angles he takes in the run game are putrid, he often reminds you once or twice a game that he can make plays behind or at the line of scrimmage against the run.
It seems that Patriots fans will have to tolerate Roberts for at least one more playoff run.
But one has to wonder if the team opts to go with more athletic options at linebacker such as Marquis Flowers and safety Jordan Richards in the postseason.
(h/t Pro Football Focus: https://www.profootballfocus.com/products/elite#edge)