The New England Patriots have not lost to the New York Jets since 2015, but rarely if ever have their division rivals played that well over that six-season stretch. Their 5-2 record is a reflection of the Jets’ emergence this year — the second with head coach Robert Saleh and quarterback Zach Wilson leading the team.
They are not standing out in any statistical categories, but they are well-balanced across the board and capable of making life hard on any opponent. Just ask Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, who spoke highly of the Jets earlier this week.
“This is obviously a team that’s playing really well. Coach Saleh’s done a great job. I think they’ve improved in every area-offense, defense and special teams there,” Belichick said.
“It was a big win for them in the Cleveland game, the last two minutes of the game coming back there. And then in the last four have really been solid. Playing very well defensively. A lot of explosive players on offense and then the kicking game. So, this will be a big challenge for us down there. There should be a lot of energy and a lot of juice in the stadium. We need to get ready to go down there and play our best game of the year.”
Needless to say that this is not your father’s Jets. As Belichick pointed out they have shown some significant growth since last year, and cannot be taken lightly despite the Patriots being listed as 3-point favorites as of Sunday morning (via DraftKings Sportsbook).
So, what can the Patriots do to live up to their status as road favorites? Based on the Jets’ game tape over the first seven weeks of the season, here is our best-guess estimation.
Patriots offense vs. Jets defense
The biggest questions about the Patriots offense entering this week’s game has already been answered. Mac Jones will be starting at quarterback after seeing only three snaps versus the Chicago Bears on Monday night, as was confirmed by head coach Bill Belichick.
The Patriots returning to a more traditional quarterback usage after employing both Jones and backup Bailey Zappe in a platoon-like arrangement should in itself lead to better results. The problem is that the Patriots will be going up against one of the NFL’s better defenses — a unit that has picked up the pace during the Jets’ recent four-game winning streak.
In total, the unit coordinated by Jeff Ulbrich entered Week 8 ranked 10th in points per game (10th), yards per game (314.7) and expected points added per play (0.033). It also ranked eighth with 11 takeaways.
The Patriots need to be up to the task, starting with their quarterback.
While New York is still running its fair share of Cover 3 zone looks — New York is using it on 28.5 percent of its coverage snaps — the team has started to incorporate a lot more split-safety looks and two-high zone concepts. And the team is pretty good at running those, forcing underneath throws rather than deeper completions.
Needless to say that if there is a week for Mac Jones to reel in his risk-taking, it is this one. If facing Cover 4 or Cover 6, for example, he needs to take what the defense is giving him, no questions asked. And, make no mistake, teams have found success using that approach.
Using short in-breakers to the No. 1 versus off-man coverage, high-low concepts outside (usually targeting the No. 2 cornerback), and RPOs to hold the off-the-ball linebackers have proven itself as prominent ways to move the ball versus New York this season:
On this play against the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 3, wide receiver Tee Higgins (85) is matched up versus outstanding first-round rookie Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner (1). With Gardner playing off and giving Higgins a free release at the line of scrimmage, quarterback Joe Burrow (9) had an opportunity to hit his pass catcher on an in-breaking route.
While pass plays like this are not without risk — cornerbacks or linebackers jumping it can happen — they are a relatively easy way to create positive yardage against the Jets defense. In general, that defense has had some issues with crossing concepts while running two-high zone.
High-low concepts, particularly when attacking linebackers, and throws down the seam will likely be part of New England’s battle plan as well.
On this play against the Cleveland Browns in Week 2, the offense is able to clear out space underneath by having two receivers sit down low and draw the linebackers’ attention. This, in turn, gave Jacoby Brissett (7) and Amari Cooper (2) an opportunity to attack the hole between the second and third levels of the defense.
Both plays shown here are relatively risk-averse and don’t really give the Jets’ defensive backs and opportunity to get their hands on the ball. Jones needs to play it safe, especially on the road versus a division rival.
Of course, passing the ball is not the only way to move the ball versus New York. The Patriots will also be looking to bounce back after two straight disappointing outings on the ground. Standing in their way is a defense ranked third in yards per rushing attempt (3.9) and 14th in run-game EPA (-0.072).
Like the Bears, the Jets also use stunts to disrupt the line of scrimmage and free the second level of the defense to make plays toward the ball. Having a is massive, physical, and very tough-to-move defensive line helps them do that.
The linebackers behind are undersized, but they fly to the ball and are not afraid of taking on blockers to condense lanes. The defensive backs, meanwhile, have shown excellent toughness and effort coming down as well.
That does not mean the Patriots will again struggle; teams have been able to generate positive plays on the ground: most explosive runs allowed by the Jets this season have hit outside the tackles.
Crack toss, pin-pull, and duo featuring a lead blocker have been effective means of getting to the perimeter while creating a numbers advantage with pullers in front. Take the following 13-yard Pittsburgh Steelers run with center Mason Cole (61) as the pull-blocker as an example:
If the Patriots want to get their inside run game going, some offenses have used wham and trap runs to catch the Jets’ aggressive front off-guard. Outside zone has also led to some big lanes, especially for patient backs — something Rhamondre Stevenson and Damien Harris have both shown they can be.
That being said, finding consistent success inside versus the Jets’ front will be tough. Sheldon Rankins is a wall who can easily shed single blocks, while Quinnen Williams has been an explosive presence when he’s on the field. Linebackers C.J. Moseley and Quincy Williams can get downhill in a hurry once they diagnose plays.
Teams have therefore attempted to challenge those diagnosing skills by using non-traditional running plays. Miami and Denver in particular have ripped off big gains using reverses, while the Dolphins also managed to sneak a jet sweep by the Jets defense in their matchup.
Patriots defense vs. Jets offense
For the first seven weeks of the season the Jets offense was powered by impressive rookie running back Breece Hall. However, he suffered a season-ending knee injury against Denver last week — prompting the Jets to acquire Jacksonville Jaguars running back James Robinson via trade.
How the Hall-Robinson exchange will impact the New York offense remains to be seen, but the fact is that losing the rookie is a blow to the Jets. Hall, after all, has been responsible for 56.5 percent of the Jets’ rushing yards so far this season. He also is the team leader in total touches (99) yards from scrimmage (681) and touchdowns (5).
The Jets’ ground game itself is inspired by what Salah and offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur ran in San Francisco: a lot of wide zone, which might lead the Patriots to roll out the 3-3-5 package they successfully used against the Detroit Lions earlier this year.
This look was basically a variation of New England’s classic tite front with the nose tackle head-up on the center and the two ends aligning over the tackles.
Additionally, the Patriots used an outside linebacker — primarily Matthew Judon from a two-point stance — plus two off-the-ball defenders as well as five defensive backs, including safety/linebacker hybrids Kyle Dugger, Adrian Phillips and Jabrill Peppers. With Dugger ruled out, Peppers might play a prominent role on Sunday.
For as productive as the ground game has been for the Jets so far this year, the biggest name on the offensive side of the ball is obviously quarterback Zach Wilson.
A first-round draft pick a year ago just like the Patriots’ Mac Jones, Wilson has also had a challenging season. He missed the first three games with a knee injury and has been average when in the lineup: he has completed 58 of 101 pass attempts for an accuracy rate of 57.4 percent, while gaining 693 yards and throwing one touchdown and two interceptions.
The Jets have made some massive investments to build a strong support cast for Wilson, but so far he remains a hit-and-miss option at the quarterback position. That is especially true when under pressure: his completion percentage drops from 75.7 percent (53-for-70) when operating in a clean pocket to just 16.1 percent (5-for-31) when pressured.
Both of his picks have also come under pressure, even though only one was really his fault. That said, he has also gotten away with a handful of late throws and poor decisions that should have resulted in turnovers.
Wilson will give the Patriots defense opportunities to make plays if they provide the proper setup. They need to generate pressure against a new-look offensive line — starting right tackle Alijah Vera-Tucker is out for the season — and force the young quarterback into making difficult decisions.
Chances are he will make the wrong one at some point. And if that happens, New England’s defensive backs need to be able to get their heads turned in time and play the ball.
Even if they do not come away with turnovers in such situations, simply making life hard for Wilson should help the Patriots push New York into somewhat unfamiliar territory: playing from behind.
“Playing from ahead that always plays favorably into ball security, the decision making and that kind of thing,” Bill Belichick said this week. “I think some of the stats last year were a little skewed with the come-from-behind, trying to get back in the game, pressing things, that type of thing. There’s been a lot less of that this year. Part of that’s because there’s been less bad plays in the beginning of the game to get behind.”
If the Patriots can get Wilson and the Jets to play catch-up, they should be in a more favorable spot than the last four teams going up against New York.