Despite coming up short in the end, the New England Patriots played possibly their best offensive game of the season against the Dallas Cowboys in Week 6. Now, the team will face a good opportunity to keep building momentum: the Patriots will host the New York Jets on Sunday, and a defense that has had its ups and downs this season.
Led by head coach Robert Saleh and defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich, the unit is ranked 19th in the NFL in scoring and giving up an average of 24.2 points per game. This number does not tell the whole story, though, given that New York’s defense has been a tale of two units.
The front seven has been quite solid so far this season. With a disruption rate of 28.4 percent, the Jets are the sixth best team in the league at generating pressure even though they are only 14th with 13 sacks (tied with New England despite having played one fewer game). They are also ranked ninth in run game EPA with -0.123, while having surrendered 617 yards and 7 touchdowns on 154 carries.
The secondary, on the other hand, has been a weak point for the unit especially versus the pass. Opposing quarterbacks have combined to complete 69.2 percent of their passes for 1,247 yards as well as 4 touchdowns and, despite some solid pass rush up front, an EPA of 0.157 (20th in the NFL). What stands out is that the group has yet to register even a single interception.
So, what does all of that mean for a Patriots team that won the first meeting in Week 2 with a final score of 25-6? And how could said team find success again? Let’s find out.
Give Mac Jones time
While the Jets defense as a whole may not have posted overly impressive numbers so far this season, the group certainly can be disruptive. The Patriots found out in Week 2, with the offensive line delivering an inconsistent performance in pass protection: quarterback Mac Jones was sacked on three occasions and either knocked down or hurried on four additional plays.
The pressure rate of 21.2 percent was not particularly bad, but New York’s front seven has the potential to impact the game in its favor. Just ask the Tennessee Titans, who were forced to give up seven sacks and a disruption rate of 38.6 percent in a Week 4 loss.
Frankly, the Patriots offense cannot afford to allow Jones to be pressured repeatedly. For one, the team will likely want to pass the football more in order to avoid putting itself in difficult down-and-distance situations by testing a solid run defense too much. Furthermore, New England already learned in Week 2 that pressure can have a negative impact even in a game won by 19 points.
Just take a look at the following red zone play:
Facing a 3rd-and-9 with around two minutes to go in the third quarter, the Patriots had an opportunity to increase their 19-3 lead significantly and possibly put the game out of reach. What happened, however, was a short pass to James White (#28) that resulted in a loss of a yard and subsequent field goal kick.
That kick was good, and the Patriots ended up winning rather comfortably, but they also left points on the board on multiple occasions. The third down play illustrated here is one of those.
New England’s O-line failed to account for blitzing off-the-ball linebacker Quincy Williams (#56), who attacked the offensive right-side B-gap from the second level. Williams looped around the defensive line to get into the backfield, with guard Shaq Mason (#69) not leaving his combo block to account for him.
Williams barely touched Mac Jones (#10), but he still had an impact on the play despite not showing up on the stat sheet. If the Patriots’ passer had had more time, after all, he might have been able to scan the field properly and see tight end Hunter Henry (#85) relatively wide open on a corner route from the right slot. A few more seconds without pressure might have been the difference between a hot-read throw for a loss of yardage or a touchdown.
Heading into this week’s game, the Patriots need to make sure that those seconds are on their side. It will definitely not be easy, though, given that the Jets field some talented defenders up front.
Former first-round draft picks Quinnen Williams and Shaq Lawson are two of the big names along the defensive line, but another player is worth pointing at as a disruptive presence: John Franklin-Myers. A former fourth-round draft pick by the Los Angeles Rams, Franklin-Myers is first on the team with 21 quarterback disruptions. Two of them came against the Patriots in Week 2, including a 10-yard sack that resulted in a fumble.
Franklin-Myers is not the only player capable of making big plays as a pass rusher, but he certainly is a problem attacking from his defensive left edge spot. Projected Patriots right tackle Michael Onwenu will have his hands full to contain the 25-year-old.
Dust off the old zone beaters
As Robert Saleh explained earlier this week, his defenses are no longer exclusively running the old Seattle Cover 3 that helped the Seahawks win a Super Bowl and field some of the best defenses of their era. Speaking with reporters, he pointed out how then-Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan “exposed it.”
“Now, teams understand exactly how to attack it, but at the same time, it’s on the defense to make sure you’re putting enough wrinkles in so teams can’t throw haymakers at you every single play. So, for example, Josh McDaniels is one of the best coordinators in all of football as it pertains to finding your run-pass weakness, finding the defender who’s got the hardest job with regard to a run-pass conflict and attacking the daylights out of him,” said Saleh.
“As a D-coordinator, you’ve just got to do a really good job of finding ways to move the issue from player to player so Josh and a good offensive coordinator doesn’t catch the defense. ... But at the same time, you don’t want to get so complex that your players can’t play as fast. And so, there’s a fine balance there, because every coach can run every coverage in football, but can every player? And that’s where the balance comes in.”
While Saleh’s explanation makes perfect sense and gives insight into how coaches view the process of conceptualizing, the fact remains that his team still runs its fair share of zone coverages. Yes, the Jets sprinkle in some heavy one-deep man looks to pair with blitzes up front but at its heart the New York defense as run by Saleh is still incorporating its fair share of zone such as Cover 3 and Cover 2.
So, how to attack those looks? Josh McDaniels does have various concepts available, with three of the most popular run by the Patriots being Hoss, Yankee and Post/Wheel.
The most prominent of the three might be the Hoss concept and its Hoss Y-Juke variation. The play call has been a staple of the Patriots’ offense for quite some time now, not just since it helped the team win Super Bowl 53 against the Los Angeles Rams. It can be modified in various ways based on coverage and New England’s use of option routes, but in a basic version as run in that title game looks like this:
The two outside options are running curl routes with the inside receivers attacking the seams. Those same seams are one of the structural weak-points in a Cover 3 scheme, and deep routes attacking the middle are also a way to challenge Cover 2 or Cover 4/Quarters looks.
The Patriots also found success against zone looks in the past by stressing the bubble between the deep defenders and those aligning underneath by running a so-called Yankee concept. There are multiple ways to draw Yankee up, but the Patriots used it as following in Week 2 against the Jets:
Quarterback Mac Jones faked a jet sweep to tight end Jonnu Smith crossing the formation, checking down to Damien Harris releasing from the backfield into the flat. The play gained only modest yardage in Week 2, but it does have big play potential against Cover 3 or even an aggressive Cover 1 run with press-man at the line of scrimmage.
Even though the Patriots have not been overly successful generating big plays with their passing game, they do have the tools to attack both zone and man looks. One concept that can work against both — as is shown regularly by the Kansas City Chiefs under Andy Reid — is the Post/Wheel combination:
Stressing the integrity of the coverage on one side of the field by running it off and attacking the space underneath, this concept is meant to get the ball out of the quarterback’s hands quickly in case the Jets decide to bring pressure — something that they did rather successfully against the Patriots in Week 2.
Here, the patterns run by the Z-receiver and the wheel route will occupy the perimeter cornerback plus the underneath defender on the curl. As a result, the out-route from the Y should be open versus this side of the field. The Patriots could use multiple players in this role, but Jakobi Meyers and Kendrick Bourne might be the most reliable intermediate options on the team to be used in this fashion.
Whether it is Post/Wheel, Hoss or Yankee, though, Josh McDaniels’ playbook is a deep one that can attack zone-based defenses like the Jets’ even if it switches to man coverage looks.
Attack the Jets’ weaknesses in the screen game
Five games into the season one definitive statement that can be made about the Jets defense is that it has had some issues defending screen passes. Take the following quote from Pats Pulpit’s sister site Gang Green Nation that is touching on the unit’s second-level vulnerability:
The Jets are a bend but don’t break defense I think because they don’t have any confidence in their defensive backfield. The second level of the defense has to drop back so far to cover the secondary that teams have seen huge gaps in the defense. ... The LBs are dropping way too quickly without waiting to see if a draw or screen is developing. This is obviously on Robert Saleh’s plate as he is the designer of the defense. Again this is not an isolated situation.
The Jets’ secondary certainly is a weak link compared to the front seven. The projected starting five for this week is consisting of cornerbacks Bryce Hall, Michael Carter II and Brandin Echols as well as safeties Marcus Maye and Ashtyn Davis. The group is one of the lesser-known in football — one starting two rookies in Carter and Echols — and, as noted above, has yet to register an interception.
If Robert Saleh and Jeff Ulbrich are indeed worried about the unit and thus dropping their linebackers quicker or employing them deeper than usual, teams will find openings to exploit underneath. One way to do that is via the screen game, and the Jets have not been good stopping those so far this season.
In Week 2, for example, the Patriots gained 28 yards on this screen pass from Mac Jones (#10) to James White (#28):
From the Patriots’ perspective the play is well executed and designed. Take the interior offensive line, which is able to get to the second level quickly in order to serve as a cavalry for White. The group does not move down the field too quickly, though, thus limiting the risk of earning any ineligible-man-downfield penalties.
On top of that, the double fake drawn up by Josh McDaniels — first a non-handoff to White followed by a non-pass to Jonnu Smith (#81) — puts pressure on the defense to react accordingly. That is not happening, with four players moving towards Smith. Sometimes, small steps is all it takes for players to move themselves in a difficult position.
The Jets have had multiple such steps this season when it comes to defending the screen; teams have been able to capitalize.
Learn from Week 2
Let’s revisit the Yankee concept off a fake jet motion run mentioned above. The play gained only two yards on a pass to Damien Harris, but there was potential for a bigger gain even with the two downfield routes by Nelson Agholor (#15) and Kendrick Bourne (#84) well covered.
For one Jonnu Smith (#81), the original motion player, was pretty wide open in the right-side flat:
While it seems that Smith was rather low on the priority list of reads on the play — Jones never looked his way after the fake handoff — he probably would have gained at least a couple of yards as well with fellow tight end Hunter Henry (#85) as a de facto lead blocker in front of him. The rookie QB went for the short dump-off to Harris (#37) with pressure closing in, however, which is not a surprising decision to be made by a player in just his second NFL game.
What also can be seen is that the play design spread the defense out quite a bit, and in turn would have left it vulnerable over the middle of the field. The Patriots did not have any routes attacking the hole in the short underneath zones, but that is certainly a wrinkle Josh McDaniels could add to an otherwise well-designed play.
The Patriots have room for improvement based on the game film produced in Week 2. While that is just one concrete example, there are more like it related to both execution and design. The ability to make the necessary adjustments from the first game between the two clubs could very well be a deciding factor come Sunday.