Welcome to the Play of the Game, a weekly breakdown of the last game’s top play as voted on by you, the fans. Today, we will take a closer look at the New England Patriots 30-27 victory over the New York Jets on Monday Night Football and a redemption story for a defensive back that had struggled up until making one of the biggest plays of the game.
Throughout the season, the New York Jets’ passing game has struggled mightily as the least efficient in the entire league. And yet, going against the New England Patriots’ secondary, quarterback Joe Flacco was able to move the football down the field at ease: his deep passing was on point, and the Patriots had no recipe to slowing New York’s second-string QB and his supporting cast down.
Up until the point when he took the field again with six minutes left in the fourth quarter and the Patriots having just scored a field goal to cut their deficit to seven points, Flacco had produced some impressive numbers: he had completed 17 of 22 pass attempts for 254 yards and three touchdowns, with a passer rating of 154.2. He had bested the Patriots’ defense all game, and yet his night was about to change.
While the Jets only had to run down the clock as much as possible in order to put themselves in the best possible position to win their first game of the season, Flacco had different plans. He wanted to go deep on the very first play. While this method of attack had worked tremendously before, it would result in the game’s first turnover this time and give the Patriots a chance to tie and possibly even win the game.
1-10-NYJ 18 (6:00) J.Flacco pass deep middle intended for D.Mims INTERCEPTED by J.Jackson at NE 28. J.Jackson to NE 28 for no gain (D.Mims).
When the Patriots defense took the field with exactly six minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, it had surrendered scores on five of its first six drives. Needless to say that it was in dire need of a big play to keep the team in the game — which is exactly what happened, courtesy of J.C. Jackson, who had originally aligned as the boundary cornerback to the weak side of the Jets’ offensive formation.
New England aligned in a two-deep zone look versus New York’s 12 personnel grouping, with five defensive backs on the field playing behind a 3-4 over front. The Jets countered with a classic 1x1 i-formation with the tight end attached to the line of scrimmage. Schematically, the play looked like this:
At the snap, the Patriots attacked with five defenders: the three down-linemen and edge linebackers John Simon (#55) and Chase Winovich (#50) tried to collapse the pocket, with off-the-ball defenders Anfernee Jennings (#58) and Kyle Dugger (#35) first moving forward against the possible hand-off as well. Dugger, like Winovich, dropped out after his initial move forward and went on to cover the seam. Jennings, meanwhile, joined the pass rush instead of trying to stay with tight end/fullback Ryan Griffin (#84) in the flat.
While this could have created an opening for the Jets offense to pick up significant yardage on a short throw to Griffin, Flacco was focused on the deep shot all the way. The Jets’ quarterback later reflected on his decision, stating that the defensive coverage look prompted him to attempt a long pass instead of a different one.
“The safety on that side of the field kind of came down and cut the crosser and the corner was outside leverage and it was just one of those looks,” Flacco told the New York Post after the contest. “With the Cover 2 safety on the back side of the field, I felt like I could throw down the hash and Denzel Mims could beat the guy to the hash and catch that ball for the post. I’ve been rattling it around in my head and I don’t think I would have made a different decision in the moment, but obviously I wish I had that one back.”
The play itself looked as follows:
As Flacco stated, the Patriots were in a Cover 2 defense although they played it in inverted fashion: instead of safeties Terrence Brooks (#25) and Devin McCourty (#32) staying back deep to cover their halves of the field, the latter moved down to play a robber role underneath. With McCourty vacating his deep half, J.C. Jackson (#27) took over this responsibility as the back-side safety mentioned by New York’s quarterback.
Jackson had originally aligned on the other side of Jets wideout Denzel Mims (#11), and was playing him off as part of the zone defense New England was in. Mims was one of Flacco’s primary reads on the play, with Breshad Perriman (#19) as the other. Given that Brooks hovered over the top with McCourty’s robber coverage and Dugger dropping back down the seam also factoring in, the crosser to Perriman was taken away when Flacco had completed his drop.
Instead, he went to Mims who had gotten a step on the nearest defender and found an opening in the two-deep zone between Jackson and ex-Jet Brooks. Once the ball was released, however, the two defensive backs closed in quickly to take away the only spot the ball could be thrown to: right in front of the streaking wide receiver. Jackson, who had surrendered two touchdowns up until this point, was the first to the ball to pick it off.
“I had some ups and downs, but it’s all about how you finish the game,” the third-year cornerback said after the game. “I mean, they’re going to make some plays. It’s just all about how you finish. It’s all about finishing, and we finished the right way.”
Bill Belichick echoed those sentiments during his own postgame press conference call.
“That’s a position that you need to have a short memory,” the Patriots’ head coach said about Jackson and his interception. “But defensively, we didn’t play well in the passing game. It just wasn’t one of our better performances. Fortunately, in the fourth quarter, we had the interception, had a stop and got the ball back. So we kind of salvaged it a little bit.”
While the return after the pick was non-consequential, the pick itself was a huge play and a momentum swing that allowed the Patriots to methodically drive for the game-tying touchdown. Another defensive stop later, they then scored the game-winning field goal. Jackson’s interception played an enormous role in the successful comeback.