On paper, the New England Patriots should have few problems against the New York Jets tonight: the team is 6-0 and entered Week 7 ranking first in the NFL in scoring on both offense and defense. The Jets, meanwhile, are just 1-4 heading into the Monday night showdown and have had some major struggles on both sides of the ball. Furthermore, the Patriots won the first meeting with a final score of 30-14.
Football, however, is not played on paper and the Jets do present a formidable challenge despite their record and the accompanying statistics — and not just because they field a different quarterback this time around. After all, the team’s defense is also returning to full strength with linebacker C.J. Mosley and first-round defensive tackle Quinnen Williams expected to play after missing the Week 3 game against New England.
Mosley and Williams are projected to see considerable action as two cornerstone players in the defense of coordinator Gregg Williams. The veteran coach, meanwhile, will incorporate them into one of the most aggressive schemes in the entire league: whether it is blitzes or disguised coverages, Williams like to challenge opposing offenses on a down-to-down basis and keep them off balance from the first to the last snap of the game.
The Patriots experienced this during their first game against the Jets. They did score 30 points, yes, but New England’s passing game did have some problems going up against the coverage looks Williams and his unit threw at them — particularly after wide receiver Julian Edelman left the game in the late second quarter because of a chest injury. Just take a look at the Jets’ very first defensive snap of the game as an example:
Using a 21-personnel package (two tight ends, one tight end, two wide receivers), New England saw plenty of motion on the other side of the line of scrimmage before the snap. The defense ultimately aligned in what looked like a single-high scheme like Cover 1 or Cover 3, but did move its weak-side perimeter cornerback — Nate Hairston (#21) — towards the middle of the field once the play got underway to show a different coverage: Cover 2.
In its essence, Cover 2 is a zone defense with the two safeties splitting the deep responsibilities. Just like every other coverage it does have its weaknesses, though, and the Patriots actually were in a position to exploit one of them: the aforementioned Julian Edelman (#11) originally aligned in the right-side slot and ran up the seam into the bubble created by the two safeties splitting wide to patrol their respective sides of the field.
Quarterback Tom Brady (#12), however, is looking at the play differently: he is expecting a single-high look that would give tight end Ryan Izzo (#85) and his out-cutting route an opening on the left side of the field. With the Jets playing an inverted Cover 2, however, this portion of the field was crowded and Brady had to dump the football off to running back Brandon Bolden (#38) for what turned into a modest gain of 11 yards.
Had Brady anticipated the post-snap switch or would have had more time in the pocket, however, he likely would have gone to Edelman over the top against the two-safety look. Alas, it was not meant to be as the Jets were able to lock down his initial read and force a short pass underneath — not the only time that da that the Jets were able to throw the Patriots off balance with their disguised Cover 2 looks.
“The Jets played a lot of Cover 2, but they had two or three different ways of the way they played it and it kind of looks the same,” said Patriots head coach Bill Belichick after the first game against New York. “It’s not the same, and it really can affect the receivers’ rules and their adjustments because it just, it looks differently. Experience and understanding concepts and understanding route concepts and route coverages, that’s a big area of growth for the passing game.”
This disguise-heavy look, as Belichick pointed out, challenges a player’s schematic understanding of the defense he sees — a vital part of the Patriots’ offense as routes oftentimes develop differently against coverages. Edelman, for example, ran an appropriate route against the Jets’ Cover 2 on the play above, but Brady was not on the same page initially and had to go elsewhere against what initially looked like a single-high coverage.
Tonight, the Patriots will likely face similar concepts as the Jets and Gregg Williams love to challenge a quarterback’s chemistry with his receiving corps. And with Josh Gordon and Rex Burkhead out because of injury, Brady and company will have to be on point in this area. Experienced options like Edelman, Phillip Dorsett and James White certainly help, but a youngster like Jakobi Meyers also needs to show strides and prove that he can earn his quarterback’s trust.