When the Patriots run
Stevan Ridley is bound to get out of the doghouse earlier than expected because of Shane Vereen’s injury. This is a good thing. Although Ridley had a costly fumble in the opener, he’s still a productive, young running back, and neither he nor the Patriots will benefit from an extended stay on the sideline. The 5-foot-11-inch, 225-pounder is an energetic runner with good vision and surprising pop. He shows the patience to let his blocks develop and generally picks the right creases. Ridley is by no means a bruiser, but he won’t avoid contact, either.
He thrives on work and generally gets stronger as the game progresses. LaGarrette Blount is a more bullish tailback (and built more like a fullback). The 6-1, 245-pounder (yes, he looks thicker) is a punishing between-the-tackles runner who hits the hole — and defenders — with authority. New England’s interior three of center Ryan Wendell and guards Dan Connolly and Logan Mankins got a good push against the Bills, opening holes and picking off linebackers. The Jets have some beef up front in tackles Kenrick Ellis and Sheldon Richardson, but both are at less than 100 percent with injuries. Unheralded Damon Harrison (6-5, 350) stepped in admirably in Week 1. Harrison has the size and strength to make plays, but myriad knee injuries have led to durability concerns. Linebacker David Harris will give his usual yeoman’s effort; a very instinctual player, Harris sheds blocks quickly and will punish ball carriers. Fellow linebacker Demario Davis is versatile and relentless in pursuit.
When the Patriots pass
There is little time to lament missed opportunities against the Bills, as Tom Brady and his young and battered receiving corps must bounce back quickly. With Shane Vereen on IR, and Danny Amendola and Rob Gronkowski ailing, New England will rely heavily on Julian Edelman and must design a plan to get the kids involved quickly and build their confidence. Edelman (5 feet 10 inches, 198 pounds) was terrific in Week 1. He is a tough and smart receiver with quick feet and strong hands. On the downside, he takes a ton of big hits and has been banged up a lot. Kenbrell Thompkins (6-1, 190) had a decent debut game. Thompkins has good size and strength and needs to use those attributes to gain separation more consistently. Josh Boyce (5-11, 206) has the speed to stretch defenses but must fight harder to get open quicker in this offense. Tight end Michael Hoomanawanui was a beast Sunday, seemingly playing every snap and blocking like a demon. He’ll need a similar effort and likely will be targeted more with Zach Sudfeld nursing a sore hamstring. The Jets have two good cornerbacks in Antonio Cromartie and Dee Milliner. Cromartie (6-2, 210) is big, fast, and consistent. Cromartie can jam receivers at the line and also has the quickness to turn and blanket guys all the way down the field. He has freakishly long arms. Milliner (6-0, 200) is very athletic and smart. The rookie has good closing speed and hits big. Strong safety Dawan Landry is a ball hawk while free safety Antonio Allen can thump like a linebacker.
When the Jets run
Bilal Powell and Chris Ivory are in charge of the Jets’ ground game now that Shonn Greene and Joe McKnight have moved on. Powell plays bigger than his 5-10, 204 pounds. He has good first-step quickness and vision. He runs upright, always keeps his legs churning, and will break his share of tackles. Powell can be slippery and runs with great balance. Ivory (6-0, 222) has excellent size and deceptive speed. Just when you think he’s nothing more than a plodder, he will explode through an opening for a nice gain. Ivory will lower his shoulder and drive through defenders, but consistency has always been an issue. Fullback Tommy Bohanon (6-1, 246) will lay his body on the line. Quarterback Geno Smith is extremely quick and elusive. At center, veteran mauler Nick Mangold always sets the tone for this line. He’s everything you want in a center: smart, strong, and sizable. Watching him lock horns with Vince Wilfork is about as good as it gets. Left guard Vlad Ducasse (6-4, 325) has the size but lacks athleticism and quickness and will get beat. Right guard Willie Colon (6-3, 315) is an underrated battler. Wilfork (6-1, 325) and Tommy Kelly (6-6, 300) man the middle for New England. Wilfork is powerful and athletic. He moves quickly north-and-south as well as laterally. Kelly is smooth, shifty, and strong. As always, linebacker Jerod Mayo (instinctive and tough) will be around the ball. Brandon Spikes and Dont’a Hightower locate the ball quickly and pursue accordingly.
When the Jets pass
Geno Smith won the starting quarterback job by default after Mark Sanchez was hurt. Whether he would have earned it in any case is anybody’s guess, but it’s now the rookie’s job to lose. A dynamic player who exudes confidence (the anti-Sanchez?), Smith is very athletic and has a strong arm. He may lack prototypical QB size (6 feet 2 inches, 218 pounds) but he does plenty of good work outside the pocket. He can extend plays with his legs by either scrambling to find the open man or by tucking it and taking off. He has the skills to turn busted plays into big gains. Smith does not have an outstanding corps of receivers at the moment. Top targets Santonio Holmes (foot, rust), Jeremy Kerley (out with a concussion), and Kellen Winslow (knee) are all banged up. When healthy, Holmes is a menace. He gets off the line fast and finds soft spots quickly. He does his best work after the catch, weaving his way through the secondary and avoiding defenders. Most importantly, he’s clutch. Stephen Hill (6-5, 215) is a big target with flair but he battles inconsistency and loses focus too often. Winslow excels as a pass-catcher while fellow tight end Jeff Cumberland is a better blocker. The Patriots have a talented trio at cornerback in Aqib Talib (he’s big and rangy), Alfonzo Dennard (he’s instinctive and strong), and Kyle Arrington (he’s quick and rarely out of place). Safeties Devin McCourty and Steve Gregory are playmakers.
Jets’ key player: Geno Smith
This rookie quarterback is scary. How could you not be at least a little afraid of a kid who ran an offense called “Air Raid” to perfection in college? Smith is very athletic, but you’re making a mistake if you think he’s a run-first QB. He’d rather carve you up with his arm.
HOW HE BEATS YOU: With quickness. Everything about Smith is quick. He has quick feet, he makes quick decisions (granted, not always the right ones), and he has a quick release.
HOW TO SHUT HIM DOWN: By slowing him down. By whatever means necessary. Slow his decision-making by mugging the receivers at the line and slow his forward progress by mugging him.
JETS’ KEYS TO VICTORY
1. Green party: Establish a ground game. The Patriots looked weak here vs. the Bills, so use Bilal Powell, Chris Ivory, and anyone else to keep the pressure off Geno Smith.
2. Green line: Win the battles in the trenches. It’s going to be hot and humid, so rotate the big uglies early and often to keep them fresh and hydrated.
3. Green day: The pass rushers — led by Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson — have to make some music and get to Tom Brady. The Bills did a nice job disrupting Brady, so watch and learn.
PATRIOTS’ KEYS TO VICTORY
1. Hold the fort: Tom Brady got hit an awful lot Sunday. It’s only Thursday, so he’s probably still sore. The offensive line (and everyone else) has to sell out and keep him upright.
2. Hold the line: Win the battles in the trenches. It’s going to be hot and humid, so rotate the big uglies early and often to keep them fresh and hydrated. (Yes, that should sound familiar.)
3. Hold off on the punishment: Yes, Stevan Ridley committed a no-no last week and was benched. That should be good enough. You’ll need a confident Ridley to be successful.