FOXBOROUGH — The Patriots were lucky enough to face two rookie quarterbacks in the first two weeks of the season in the Bills’ E.J. Manuel and the Jets’ Geno Smith. So obviously Bill Belichick, the defensive wizard who revolutionized the NFL with his 3-4 defense and unleashed the terror of Lawrence Taylor on hapless quarterbacks, would use every exotic blitz in his playbook to confuse and punish the rookies, right?
And despite the vanilla looks, the result was two old-school victories by the Patriots — won by the defense, for a change.
“Good for once to see the defense go out and finish a ball game,” defensive tackle Vince Wilfork said after the Patriots finished off an ugly 13-10 win over the Jets at Gillette Stadium. “Two weeks in a row we came up big, and it’s good for the defense.”
Smith certainly had his moments on Thursday night, as Manuel did Sunday in Buffalo. Smith’s final numbers look brutal – he completed only 15 of 35 passes for 214 yards, no touchdowns, and three interceptions — but they were skewed by a poor fourth quarter in which he turned over the ball three times. He also had some impressive throws downfield — three of more than 25 yards — and would’ve had more if not for a few untimely drops by Clyde Gates and Stephen Hill.
But the Jets played right into the Patriots’ hands, just like the Bills did on Sunday. The Patriots were much more concerned with Smith making plays with his feet than his arm after watching him rush six times for 47 yards in a Week 1 win over Tampa Bay.
So the strategy for attacking Smith was the same as it was for attacking Manuel — don’t blitz, and make the young quarterback dissect the pass coverage and win the game from the pocket.
“We knew how important it was for this quarterback to be up in his face, and we knew how important it was to keep him in the pocket,” Wilfork said. “We had to contain him.”
The Patriots only blitzed Manuel six times in 30 pass attempts last Sunday. And while we won’t know how many times the Patriots blitzed Smith until the game tape is reviewed, it definitely wasn’t much.
The Patriots’ game plan was incumbent upon the front four — starters Rob Ninkovich, Tommy Kelly, Wilfork, and Chandler Jones, and backups Michael Buchanan and Joe Vellano — getting consistent pressure on Smith so the Patriots wouldn’t have to blitz.
Manuel and Smith each had one big scramble — 19 yards for Manuel, 16 for Smith — but otherwise were contained in the pocket all game.
“When you bring pressure on the quarterback, there’s the ability for guys to break loose,” said Ninkovich, who had another solid night with six tackles, two for losses, a quarterback hit, and a forced fumble. “So I think the mentality has been, let the front get some pressure on them, keep them in the pocket, let them throw the ball and have them win the game throwing the ball. You want to keep those guys in the pocket the best you can.”
The “no blitzing” tactic may not work so well when the Patriots face classic pocket passers such as Matt Ryan, Drew Brees, and Peyton Manning later this season, but their “containment policy” on the defensive line certainly worked the first two games.
And the big guys up front weren’t exactly dominant over the first two games. The Patriots didn’t record a sack against Buffalo, and gave Smith plenty of time for most of the first half.
But then, finally, the pieces started falling into place. Buchanan got a coverage sack midway through the second quarter to thwart one drive. Then Jones got a couple of coverage sacks. Then Kelly recorded the fourth sack of the night in the third quarter.
Then the second half of the game plan came to fruition in the fourth quarter. The Jets needed to throw to erase the 3-point deficit, and the Patriots kept Smith in the pocket, forcing him to read the coverage.
The result? Two interceptions by Aqib Talib and another by Alfonzo Dennard to thwart any chance of a Jets comeback.
“We picked a great quarter to finish,” cornerback Kyle Arrington said. “We just wanted to get on these guys tight, force Geno to make some great throws.”
The defensive backs will get the headlines today because of the interceptions, but the efforts of the six defensive linemen through two games cannot be understated.
On most teams, defensive linemen are constantly rotated throughout the game to keep them fresh, but not so far with the Patriots.
Ninkovich and Jones played all 63 snaps against Buffalo, and while snap counts weren’t available late Thursday night, they barely, if ever, came off the field against the Jets.
Same with Wilfork, who played 81 percent of snaps against the Bills and likely a similar number Thursday.
The defensive line wasn’t perfect — the Jets ran for 129 yards on a 4.0 average — but it certainly was a solid effort, especially considering how hot and muggy it was Thursday night.
“We got beasts up front,” safety Devin McCourty said. “They don’t mind how many plays they play — they want to be like defensive backs. It’s huge for us to have guys that can play a lot of snaps and play football. It keeps the core group of guys on the field together.”