The New England Patriots’ offense was unable to secure a victory last week against the Buffalo Bills, but the unit did show some encouraging signs of progress after a series of disappointing outings. Going up against the New York Jets on Monday night, it will have a chance to build on this momentum and ultimately help the team return to the win column after four straight losses have it at 2-5 seven games into the season.
The Jets, after all, are a bad team on both sides of the ball and winless for a reason. When it comes to their defense, they are ranked 25th in scoring while giving up 27.8 points per game. The unit coordinated by veteran coach Gregg Williams also does not fare much better in advanced metrics: New York is ranked 19th in success rate (48.0%), 26th in DVOA (8.5%), and 27th in EPA per play (0.138).
New England’s offense will therefore have a golden opportunity to get back on track in Week 9. But what exactly do the Patriots have to do in order to find success on this side of the ball? Let’s find out.
Be prepared for exotic pressure packages
Gregg Williams’ defense may be among the least talented in football, but that doesn’t stop the veteran coordinator from trying to run his scheme — one that is heavy on blitz and exotic pressure packages. New York is currently ranked dead last in the league with a pressure rate of 16.8 percent, but the unit, which is using blitz on 32.3 percent of drop-backs, can still make some positive plays from time to time.
It certainly can take advantage of an offense that struggles with communication or reacting to movement up front. New England, of course, has shown some issues in this area over the first half of the season and particularly after its Week 5 bye. Accordingly, the team will need to be on top of its game when it comes to diagnosing the pressure packages that Williams has drawn up and fairly regularly likes to employ to make up for a pass rush that has had its struggles this season.
One of his favorite ways of doing that is having rushers drop back with others taking their spots in order to overload a particular side of the field. The following sack from the Jets’ 24-0 loss against the Miami Dolphins is a perfect example of that:
New York’s front aligned in a relatively standard look with two-down linemen and two stand-up edge defenders also on the line of scrimmage. At the snap, however, Bryce Huff (#47) dropped back into coverage from his wide-9 alignment. Simultaneously, the Jets opted to overload the right side of the offensive line by having off-the-ball linebackers Neville Hewitt (#46) and Avery Williamson (#54) blitz from the second level.
With both of them attacking outside the right guard alongside edge defender Tarell Basham (#93), the pressure was on the offensive line to react accordingly. Dolphins rookie right tackle Robert Hunt (#68) initially moved to the interior to help against Hewitt, but was able to recover when Williamson attacked to his outside shoulder. However, fellow rookie Solomon Kindley (#66), the team’s right guard, was slow to peel off his double-block and therefore unable to close the A-gap and pick up Basham.
Luckily for the Patriots, they have one of the best offensive lines in the NFL — a unit that has time and again shown that it can execute at a high level in situations like the one illustrated above. Even with sixth-round rookie Michael Onwenu manning the right tackle spot in place of an injured Jermaine Eluemunor, the line has not skipped a beat and continues to be the most consistent positional group New England has to offer on this side of the ball.
On top of that, the Patriots also have another trick up their collective sleeve: a dual-threat quarterback capable of exploiting holes in the defensive line. Just look at the following play from New York’s first game against the Bills to see where Cam Newton could find some hidden yardage as a result of the Jets’ pressure looks:
The play began similar to the one against Miami above, with the defense in a rather standard-looking alignment. At the snap, however, outside linebacker Tarell Basham attacked the B-gap between left tackle and left guard instead of rushing around the edge. That edge rush, meanwhile was filled by a zone blitz from safety Marcus Maye (#20) with ex-Patriot Harvey Langi (#44) dropping out to cover the underneath zone previously manned by Maye. Simultaneously, the edge linebacker on the other side of the line — Frankie Luvu (#50) — was also dropping back.
The overload on the left side of the line was picked up well, however, with running back Devin Singletary (#26) slowing down Maye just enough. In the meantime, Josh Allen (#17) saw a hole developing between Singletary and left tackle Dion Dawkins (#73): with Langi dropping back, Maye being slowed down, and Basham attacking the inside rather than securing the edge, Buffalo’s quarterback found a hole.
Cam Newton, of course, is one of the best dual-threat quarterbacks in league history. While he may not be on the same level as he was during his 2015 MVP campaign, he is still able to do some damage in scrambling situations. With that said, let’s take a closer look at his potential role in the game plan:
Use Cam Newton to attack a solid run defense
The Jets’ defense as a whole is ranked in the bottom third in every major statistical category. That said, the team has looked pretty good when it comes to stopping the run: Buffalo is 10th in yards given up per attempt (4.1) and run defense DVOA (-17.3%), while ranking 11th in EPA (-0.126) and an impressive third in success rate (33.0%).
For as well as the Jets have played in this area, the Patriots can find success on the ground when trusting their quarterback to deliver. Cam Newton looked comfortable last week versus Buffalo and in an offense that incorporated more zone read and RPO concepts again; those could work against the Bills as well considering that the team’s defense has had a comparatively hard time defending quarterback runs whether scripted or not.
The play above that saw Josh Allen gain nine yards is a good example for that, as is this one that we already analyzed as part of last week’s breakdown of the Bills offense:
The Jets were rushing four defenders at the snap, but the Bills picked them up well despite 2i-technique John Franklin-Myers (#91) getting into the backfield. The play could have turned into a positive one for the defense, but Buffalo’s QB was able to exploit an opening in the defensive line that was created when Avery Williamson pulled to the inside and Tarell Basham was forced to run the loop around the defensive right edge.
Buffalo’s quarterback showed some tremendous vision on the play, seeing that the gap had opened up and that the nearest off-the-ball linebackers were all being pulled away through the route concept and coverage call. With the Jets not using a spy on Allen and being unable to fill all the gaps up front, he had enough space to take the ball for a 17-yard gain.
Allen was not the only quarterback to take advantage of the Jets’ aggressive rush so far this season.
According to Sharp Football Stats, opposing quarterbacks have gained 168 yards on 31 carries against New York’s defense so far for an average of 5.4 yards per carry. Of those rushing attempts, nine came in the form of scrambles (for 72 yards and an 8.0-yard average). The following graphic shows that QBs found success across the board, with the defensive right side of the defensive line especially susceptible to quarterback runs:
All in all, New England will get its fair share of chances to challenge the Jets defense with designed or improvised quarterback runs. Of course, that also means that Newton’s decision making will be tested: keeping the ball to take off is not always the best decision, especially considering that New York a) has struggled to defend the pass so far, and b) will likely try to keep the Patriots’ quarterback contained.
“When guys haven’t played Cam before, they don’t realize how big he is, how strong he is and that he’s faster than what you realize,” said Jets head coach Adam Gase during a recent media conference call. “When he gets green grass, he can go. He has to play in a phone booth quite a bit himself and the times that I’ve seen him get in the open field, it becomes an issue.”
Challenge New York’s secondary
While the Jets’ run defense is comparatively solid, the team has struggled mightily against the pass so far this season as a look at the three advanced categories mentioned above shows. New York is ranked 31st in success rate per dropback (57.8%), pass defense DVOA (28.5%) and EPA per dropback (0.309). The unit has surrendered a completion percentage of 71.9 percent (205 of 285) for 2,262 yards, 16 touchdowns and seven interceptions. New York’s defensive passer rating of 103.6 is in the bottom third of the league.
With the exception of Week 2, the Patriots’ passing attack has been mostly inconsistent so far this season. That said, even with Julian Edelman on injured reserve and N’Keal Harry still out because of a concussion, the unit should find some success on Monday night against a defense that has had its fair share of issues in coverage — with the majority of the five starters in terms of playing time struggling:
Jets coverage statistics: Secondary
As can be seen, only one starting member in the Jets’ secondary has played on a statistically solid level so far this season: Brian Poole is the team’s best defender when it comes to coverage, even though he also does not qualify as a shutdown cornerback. That said, he is the one player that has proven himself as a consistent playmaker in New York’s defensive backfield. The others, meanwhile, have had some major issues.
This is especially prevalent at the safety position, which lost Bradley McDougald to a shoulder injury in Week 7. With the 29-year-old out, the Jets had to insert third-round rookie Ashtyn Davis into their secondary in his place. While Davis is a promising young player, the fact remains that he is still growing into a more prominent role. Just look at the following play from New York’s 35-9 loss against the Kansas City Chiefs last week:
The Jets were in a two-deep shell but moved their coverage to a three-deep zone after the snap. Davis (#32) originally aligned on the defensive left hash, responsible for taking away any deep routes in his area. However, his inexperience showed against wide receiver Tyreek Hill (#10): he bit hard on what initially appeared to be a corner route and left the middle of his zone open on an in-breaking pattern. While he reacted quickly once he realized that Hill was trying to attack there, it was too late and he was beaten for a 36-yard touchdown.
New England obviously does not have a receiver on the talent level of the two-time All-Pro Hill. Nevertheless, the team can still learn from plays like the one shown above: Davis’ instincts are still a work in progress, and he may be susceptible to double-moves and complex patterns on his side of the field.
While Hill is a unique player given his speed and agility, the Patriots actually have a speedster of their own on the offense: Damiere Byrd, whose 4.28-second 40-yard dash on his pro day was actually faster than Hill’s 4.29 one year later. Byrd’s speed has not been on display as a deep threat so far this season, but New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels could opt to use him to stress either Davis or the rest of New York’s up-and-down secondary.
Byrd may be the number one guy in this scenario given his skillset, but the Patriots also will try to get Jakobi Meyers involved quite a bit. While he may draw the aforementioned Brian Poole on most snaps, Cam Newton should still not be afraid to go to his favorite target in recent weeks.