When the Patriots run
Stevan Ridley is coming off a poor performance: a season-low 28 yards on a season-low-tying 13 carries. Maybe that’s a good thing. With a quick turnaround, Ridley should have fresh legs as he attacks a defense that has been porous against the run. The 5-foot-11-inch, 220-pounder is a confident runner who uses good vision to find gaps and good power to break tackles. Ridley is slippery at the second level and will finish his runs leaning forward. Shane Vereen is more quick than fast. He runs low and has good vision; he will find cutback lanes. He lacks power, however, and won’t break a lot of tackles. Speaking of fresh legs, Danny Woodhead should have them, too. The little dynamo was absent from the stat sheet Sunday and he could have a big night. He’s equally effective on handoffs and screens and you know the ex-Jet loves playing against Rex Ryan. Center Ryan Wendell (how underrated is this guy?) will use his quickness and surprising athleticism to battle burly nose man Sione Pouha (6-3, 325). Aggressive inside linebackers David Harris and Bart Scott are formidable. Harris (great lateral quickness) quietly goes about his business of hitting everything in sight. Scott is more verbose. He stacks and sheds blockers quickly before abusing ball carriers. Safeties LaRon Landry (he’s powerful) and Yeremiah Bell (he’s smart) are terrific in run support.
When the Patriots pass
While Darrelle Revis’s season-ending injury was a crushing blow, the rest of the defensive backs refused to acknowledge it as a death knell, and they have performed admirably. Antonio Cromartie is an excellent cover corner with the skills to match up with speed guys on the outside or blanket slot men. Fellow corners Kyle Wilson (he’s fast but can be pushed around) and Ellis Lankster (he has quick feet) run hot and cold. Patriots tackles Sebastian Vollmer and Nate Solder have been tremendous at keeping defenders off Tom Brady, who has been playing virtually mistake-free football since the loss in Seattle. Brady breaks down defenses quickly, finds mismatches, and exploits them. Brady has a plethora of weapons at his disposal. Mismatch No. 1 is Aaron Hernandez against the unfortunate soul who has to cover him. Hernandez is incredibly athletic and versatile and will make plays from multiple positions. Fellow tight end Visanthe Shiancoe will see his workload dramatically increase. Mismatch No. 2 is Wes Welker and, again, the unfortunate soul who has to cover him. Welker, who has quick feet and great toughness, has the uncanny ability to always appear open. Julian Edelman will look to build off his big day. Brandon Lloyd is New England’s speediest receiver and lone downfield threat. He has great body control, allowing him to adjust to poorly thrown balls (doesn’t happen often).
When the Jets run
Shonn Greene looks every bit the part of a bruising NFL halfback. The 5-foot-11-inch, 226-pounder has a muscular build with thick legs and strong shoulders. Greene is an effective inside runner, using his size and strength to power through small creases and out of arm tackles. He will lower his shoulder and lean into defenders while always keeping his legs churning. His competitive fire sometimes can be a detriment. He is always trying to crank out extra yards after initial contact, and this leads to gang tackling, and gang tackling leads to extra punishment. The punishment wears down Greene, who is almost always dealing with a nagging injury. Bilal Powell (5-10, 204) is a quick runner with good vision and a fiery spirit. He runs low and hard and won’t shy away from contact. Joe McKnight is explosive but lacks vision and patience. He will shy away from contact. Center Nick Mangold continues to play at a high level. He is smart, strong, and scrappy. Right guard Brandon Moore (quick and strong) and left guard Matt Slauson (powerful) are inconsistent. New England’s front seven struggled early against the Colts. Mammoth tackles Vince Wilfork and Kyle Love combine quickness and strength to cut down offensive linemen and give big-hitting linebackers Jerod Mayo (find the ball, you’ll find him) and Brandon Spikes (good for several pad-popping hits per game) room to roam.
When the Jet pass
Mark Sanchez is the most scrutinized player in the NFL. He is also one of the most inconsistent players. Despite reassurances from coach Rex Ryan that Sanchez is his man, Sanchez still must play in Tim Tebow’s ominous shadow. It can’t help his confidence that he frequently gets yanked so Tebow can run New York’s wildly ineffective Wildcat package for a play or two. Sanchez, coming off a solid performance (15 of 20, 178 yards) against the Rams, has good size (6 feet 2 inches, 225 pounds), deceptive athleticism, and quick feet. He can be very effective on short passes, but his accuracy tails off on anything over 15 yards. If he struggles early and Ryan pulls him (that’s doubtful), Tebow will get the call. Tebow is a wonderful athlete with great improvisational skills. He is also a dreadful pocket passer with poor mechanics (he looks like a natural righthander trying to throw with his left hand). Jeremy Kerley has developed into a consistent threat. Quick off the line, Kerley explodes in and out of his cuts. Rookie Stephen Hill (6-4, 215) has great size and explosiveness but runs sloppy routes. Dustin Keller is a terrific receiving tight end who uses his athleticism and strong hands to gain separation and move the chains — Sanchez will lock on to him early and often. New England’s secondary is still susceptible to big plays but this group is better with Aqib Talib in place and Devin McCourty settled in at safety.
Jets’ key player: Mark Sanchez
A gifted athlete with quick feet and a decent arm, Sanchez is one of the league’s streakiest players — looks like Joe Namath one day and Browning Nagle the next. When things are going well, he is the life of the party on the sideline. When they’re not, he stands alone.
How he beats you: By making smart decisions. He’s at his best when he keeps things simple and throws the safe ball. If he starts hot, his confidence builds and he will make plays and move this offense.
How to shut him down: By confusing and abusing him. Disguise the coverages and blitz him from every angle. If he turns the ball over early, his shoulders slump, he hangs his head, and he’s cooked.
JETS’ KEYS TO VICTORY
1. Inspiring words: Rex Ryan has to shelve the comedy routine and fire up this group. For all intents and purposes, Gang Green’s season is on the line.
2. Sting like a bee: Defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson is big, strong, and athletic. He must create pressure off the edge and at least make Tom Brady uncomfortable.
3. Bubble boys: Get Mark Sanchez into a rhythm by throwing early screen passes to Shonn Greene and Joe McKnight. It will do wonders for all three players.
PATRIOTS’ KEYS TO VICTORY
1. First course: Score early and set the tone. These Jets are fragile. Getting out ahead quickly could cause them to lose interest — then the rout is on.
2. Second helping: Julian Edelman’s talent has teased for years. Get the ball in his hands and see if he can put together back-to-back dominating performances.
3. Stuffing: Vince Wilfork and Kyle Love need to dominate the trenches and turn back Shonn Greene and put the pressure squarely on Mark Sanchez’s shoulders.