The New England Patriots’ 2020 season will come to an end on Sunday: the 6-9 squad, which has already been eliminated from playoff contention, will host the 2-13 New York Jets at Gillette Stadium — hardly a marquee matchup to close out the year. However, it will still be an interesting one considering that the Patriots might turn to the young talent on their roster for quite a bit in Week 17.
It remains to be seen how all of this plays out, but one thing we do know is that the Jets are among the worst teams in the league even after having beaten the Los Angeles Rams and Cleveland Browns in back-to-back weeks heading into the regular season finale. Both their offense and defense have shown some major inconsistency this season, while the coaching has been questionable at times as well.
That said, those two wins mentioned above cannot be disregarded: momentum may not be quantifiable, but it certainly has been building up in New York those last two weeks. Could it be enough to beat a Patriots team that is entering the regular season finale having lost three straight? That certainly is a possibility, although New England winning some of the key matchups could lead to the game ending in the home team’s favor after all.
With that said, let’s take a look at those matchups.
Patriots offensive line vs Jets defensive line
New England’s offense has struggled mightily in Year One after Tom Brady, but not all was bad: the interior offensive line led by center David Andrews as well as guards Joe Thuney and Shaq Mason has been a definitive strength. Two of its members will be absent versus the Jets, however, with Andrews and Mason both already being ruled out because of calf injuries.
As a result, the Patriots will have to find new starters at center and right guard. Who could they choose? That remains up in the air, even though it seems like a safe be that James Ferentz will take over Andrews’ role with rookie Michael Onwenu a candidate to move inside from his starting right tackle spot — something he did after Mason’s injury last week.
With left tackle Isaiah Wynn also not activated from injured reserve this week, New England’s starting offensive line on Sunday could therefore very well look like this:
LT Justin Herron — LG Joe Thuney — C James Ferentz — RG Michael Onwenu — RT Jermaine Eluemunor
With only one starter (Thuney) playing in his normal spot, the Patriots could be uncharacteristically vulnerable up front against a defense that has had some good play in the trenches recently. If New York ends up winning its battles versus New England’s depleted offensive line, thus taking away what has normally been a strength for the team’s attack, it could be a long day at the office for the Patriots.
Jakobi Meyers vs New York’s secondary
No player on the field was as impressive in Week 9 as Jakobi Meyers. The second-year wide receiver finished with 12 catches for 169 yards and provided the Patriots with some big plays throughout their 30-27 victory. What was more impressive is that he did it regardless of who New York used against him: Meyers was matched up against eight different defenders during the game, catching at least one pass versus all of them.
His biggest reception came in the first quarter, when he was able to get free for a 33-yard catch:
New England’s use of a 21-personnel package in combination with play-action forced the Jets’ off-the-ball linebackers to move forward and open up some space behind them. While Damiere Byrd (#10) did not attack it on his go route, Meyers (#16) did: matched up against since-released Pierre Desir (#35), the former undrafted rookie was able to get inside position before breaking towards the corner to get behind the Jets’ defender.
Meyers’ ability to use his leverage to his advantage allowed him to make the play — not the only time this happened against New York in early November. Given how little the Patriots’ passing offense has progressed since then, the expectation is that Meyers will once more be a focal point for both quarterback Cam Newton and the New York defense.
Sam Darnold vs Bill Belichick
The last time the Patriots faced off against the Jets, Joe Flacco was lined up as New York’s quarterback. Despite regular starter Sam Darnold being out because of a shoulder injury, however, the team was able to efficiently move the football through the air: Flacco completed 18 of 25 pass attempts for 262 yards as well as three touchdowns and an interception. His quarterback rating of 128.7 was Flacco’s highest since 2014.
And yet, the veteran will not start on Sunday: Darnold is back healthy again and has played some solid football recently, having completed 60.3 percent of his throws for 382 yards and three touchdowns. The numbers may not be spectacular, but they are a clear improvement towards a more consistent performance when compared to earlier during the season.
Darnold, it seems, is not giving up his job without a fight as the Jets are entering an offseason in which they are expected to add a new quarterback high in the draft.
First, however, he and the team will go up against the Patriots. That matchup has not been favorable for the former first-round draft pick over the course of his young career: in two games versus New England, Darnold has completed just 27 of 60 throws for 253 yards as well as four interceptions. He also lost a pair of fumbles, with one of them being returned for a touchdown.
Darnold’s main problem against New England both in 2018 and 2019 was his inability to properly recognize amoeba looks and coverages. His “seeing ghosts” comment of last year perfectly summed up his experience going against the Patriots’ multi-faceted defense. So, will this year be any different? There is a chance considering that New England has lost some key personnel since 2019 — from almost its entire linebacker corps to star cornerback Stephon Gilmore.
A defense’s ability to disguise coverage looks and pressure packages is directly tied to players being on the same page at all times. The 2020 Patriots, due to a lack of experience and at times plain quality, have not reached that level on a consistent basis. If Darnold ever wants to beat New England before his possible demotion during the offseason, this is the time for him to do so.
“I think he’s got the ability to make all the throws,” said Patriots head coach Bill Belichick about the 23-year-old earlier this week. “He can throw a ball down the field and intermediate throws. There are plenty of examples of him going through a read progression, a 1-2-3 type of progression, high to low, outside to inside, man to zone, from one side of the field to the other based on what the coverages is, blitzes, so forth.
“I think he’s shown the ability to do everything. The consistency has looked better in recent weeks. I don’t think there’s any shortage of talent there or play-making ability. We saw him run for a 50-yard touchdown or whatever it was against the Broncos. So, he’s an athletic guy that has great size, big arm, is hard to tackle in the pocket. He was a good prospect and he’s been well-coached.”
Belichick praising an opponent is nothing new, but those statements in combination with New England’s defensive shortcomings this year could make for an interesting matchup on Sunday.
Patriots front-line vs Jets’ outside zone concepts
Even with Darnold back in the lineup, the Jets offense is among the more conservative in the league, passing on early downs on five percent below expectation based on game situation. Only six teams, including the Patriots, are more likely to run the football on early downs than New York.
Add the Patriots’ repeated struggles at stopping the run, and it would not be a surprise to see New York put an emphasis on establishing a presence on the ground again in Week 17 — even with veteran Frank Gore on injured reserve and La’Mical Perine on the Coronavirus reserve list. Still, Gase and company could try to attacking New England’s biggest weakness on the defensive side of the ball: stopping outside zone runs.
Outside zone is a running scheme that asks the offensive line to focus on moving into pre-defined spaces rather than taking on opposing defenders one-on-one or two-on-one. The linemen are often moving in unison towards the sidelines, while the ball carriers are asked to either bounce around them to the outside or either cut up the field or across the formation to the other side.
This play from the Jets’ game against the Kansas City Chiefs that we already looked at in our Week 9 preview is a good example of such a zone run:
New York has blocked this 7-yard run by Gore (#21) very well, especially on the front side of the play. Outstanding first-round rookie Mekhi Becton (#77) is quick out of his stance at left tackle to take on Chiefs edge defender Frank Clark (#55) and move him off the ball. Left guard Alex Lewis (#71), meanwhile, crashes down on Clark as well to deliver the pancake block before quickly turning up the field and on to the second level.
The line is doing a mighty fine job setting up the blocks up front, while Gore reads them well to follow right guard Greg Van Roten (#62) to gain additional yardage. All in all, this is an impressively executed play — and one that could give the Patriots some problems on Monday given their undersized front and inability to hold firm on the edge this season.
What could the Patriots therefore try to do?
Given their current personnel up front, the schematic options appear to be limited. The team has neither the linebacker depth to play its 6-1 alignment that helped stifle the Rams in Super Bowl 53, nor the firm edge-setters to win with some consistency out of base personnel. The Jets’ offensive line being without Lewis on Sunday, and the team missing the aforementioned Gore and Perine, might help New England a bit, but those personnel changes will still not make defense’s issues against the run go away.
Yes, the Patriots had plenty of success versus New York’s ground attack in Week 9 — Gore and Perine combined to gain just 65 yards on 18 carries — but both teams have changed quite a bit since.
J.C. Jackson vs Breshad Perriman
With the aforementioned Stephon Gilmore out because of a partially torn quad muscle, third-year cornerback J.C. Jackson is again projected to fill the role as New England’s number one coverage defender. While Jackson is a big-play threat that is in the middle of another impressive season, he has had some ups and downs in this role over the course of the season.
Not only did he surrender three receptions for 85 yards and two touchdowns against the Buffalo Bills’ Stefon Diggs last week, he also gave up three catches for 80 yards and two touchdowns when playing the CB1 role in early November against the Jets (he also did have an interception, though). A large portion of that production came in the form of Breshad Perriman.
Perriman beat Jackson for two receptions and 64 yards. Both of the catches ended in touchdowns, including the following 50-yard pass from Flacco:
The Patriots aligned in a Cover 1 defense with Jonathan Jones (#31) following Braxton Berrios (#10) across the formation before the snap to give away the man-to-man nature of the coverage look. That matchup also was key to New York winning this down decisively, as it forced deep safety Devin McCourty (#32) to play the post route over the middle of the field rather than drop back and help Jackson (#27) versus Perriman (#19).
The Jets’ wide receiver, meanwhile, was able to get inside leverage against Jackson and the former undrafted rookie was left trailing from the get-go. Perriman’s stutter step occupied New England’s defender just long enough to keep him from turning his hips quicker versus the inside release.
With Gilmore out, Jackson is again expected to play against Perriman quite a bit. He therefore has a chance at some redemption, and to showcase his value heading into restricted free agency this offseason.