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Patriots vs. Jets preview: Four matchups that could decide Sunday’s game

Related: How the Patriots and Jets have changed since their last meeting

New York Jets v New England Patriots Photo by Al Pereira/Getty Images

The New England Patriots remain on the hunt for their first win of the 2021 season. After falling to the Miami Dolphins by a score of 17-16 last weekend, the Patriots will make a trip to New Jersey on Sunday to take on rookie quarterback Zach Wilson and the New York Jets.

This will be a momentous game for New York, as the Jets faithful will get a live glimpse at the new duo of Zach Wilson and first-year head coach Robert Saleh for the very first time. The Patriots will hope to play spoiler, and defeat New York as they have for the two teams’ last 10 matchups.

Speaking of matchups, let’s look at the ones that could dictate Sunday’s game.

Belichick vs. Wilson

Bill Belichick has been torturing rookie quarterbacks for over 20 years now. Since taking over as the head man in New England in 2000, Belichick holds an impeccable 21-6 record against first-year QBs. With wins stretching from Chris Weinke to Justin Herbert, he has shown that he has no qualms with exploiting any possible advantage he has over young signal callers.

The game plans for these games have stayed pretty similar to one another throughout the last two decades. Belichick puts all of the pressure he can on the quarterback. Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean he’s sending blitzes at them, but he takes their biggest strength away and forces them to think on their feet. In fewer words, it becomes an “adapt or die” mentality.

Wilson’s strengths lie in his mobility and arm strength. When he is able to escape the pocket, Wilson does a tremendous job of finding receivers down the field on ad-libbed plays. That means the Patriots defense will likely be looking to keep Wilson in the pocket, and forcing him to get the ball out quickly.

The Carolina Panthers sacked Wilson six times on Sunday, pressuring him throughout the first half and forcing him to make mistakes. Once they got out to a comfortable lead, they relaxed their pressure and played a more conservative style that gave Wilson enough time to pick them apart in the fourth quarter. New England got a good glimpse at both sides to Wilson last week, now they have their choice on how to go about defending him.

New England’s DL vs. New York’s OL

As we previously mentioned, the Jets’ offensive line allowed their rookie quarterback to be sacked six times in his NFL debut. He was hit on five other occasions and knocked down on three. It was an ugly day overall for the big boys in New York.

Now they will be without starting left tackle Mekhi Becton, who is on injured reserve with a knee injury. Veteran tackle Morgan Moses will slide in to replace him in a starting unit that also includes a rookie in left guard Alijah Vera-Tucker. The line has been pieced together and has very little time spent practicing as a unit.

That is likely why Carolina had a field day against them last weekend, running stunts across the front line that got home on multiple occasions. Forcing this new look offensive line to communicate could be paramount in the effort to pressure Wilson. Christian Barmore was New England’s most effective interior pass rusher last weekend and serves well in a role where he can open up holes on stunts for others to cash in on.

Cole vs. Mills

May I present to you, Keelan Cole.

The man who had his NFL coming out party against the Patriots in Week 2 of 2018, Cole was one of the Jets offseason additions in a year where they loaded up on weapons for Zach Wilson. He missed last weekend’s game with a knee injury, so Sunday’s game against New England will be his Jets debut.

The man who is likely to line up across from him is Jalen Mills, the de facto No. 2 cornerback while Stephon Gilmore is on the PUP list. Mills had a solid game against the Dolphins, making a touchdown-saving pass breakup right before halftime.

This matchup is interesting in the sense that we really don’t know much about Cole and his usage with the Jets. What we do know is his ball skills and route running are what made him a valuable addition to the Jets’ wide receiver room, and Mills has historically struggled with receivers that possess strong footwork. There’s a chance Cole has another breakout game against the Patriots unless they are able to limit his productivity along the boundary and in the red area.

Saleh vs. Jones and McDaniels

Here is the million dollar question for Sunday: Who does Robert Saleh game-plan for? Does he focus his energy on limiting the production that we saw last week out of Mac Jones, or does he use a similar game plan to the one that he put forth last year to hold Josh McDaniels and company to six points?

The obvious answer would be to focus on Jones, who is a much different quarterback than Cam Newton and should be better equipped to handle the aggressive approach that Saleh’s defenses usually bring. But with McDaniels calling plays the way he did in Week 1, there is only so much Jones could do against a great defensive mind like Saleh.

Making his name off of forcing mistakes from offenses, Saleh’s hyper-aggressive style has been the benchmark in forcing turnovers and limiting big plays in recent seasons. If you combine that with the — often times conservative — play-calling style of McDaniels, it could make for another day where the offense is set up in situations to fail. The flip side to McDaniels’ usual ideology would see him open up the playbook a bit for Jones after seeing the rookie perform well last week, and countering Saleh’s attack-style defense by taking some shots of their own.

This is the most important matchup of the day, as it doesn’t just spell out the Patriots’ approach with Jones for this week, but should tell you a lot about how much they’ll trust him in the future.