When the Patriots run
Stevan Ridley ran with purpose and passion last week. The 5-foot-11-inch, 220-pound third-year tailback has boundless energy and some pretty decent moves at the second level. Ridley doesn’t show great patience, but if he picks the right crease, he will explode through it and get on the linebackers quickly. He’s not overly powerful and won’t break a ton of tackles, but he spins and slides off enough defenders to make hay. Ridley thrives on work; the more touches he gets, the more effective he will be. LaGarrette Blount (6-0, 250) doesn’t do a whole lot of spinning and sliding. A downhill runner with good vision, Blount is not trying to run around you or by you. He’s trying to run right through you. Brandon Bolden (5-11, 220) has a slow first step, has trouble following his blockers, and this season has not finished his runs physically. His lack of focus is frustrating. New England’s interior three of center Ryan Wendell and guards Logan Mankins and Dan Connolly will fight and scrap. They’ll have to Sunday against a physical, tough, and equally aggressive New York front seven. Big nose man Damon Harrison (6-4, 350) sits in the middle and takes up a ton of space. Harrison is not real active but can occupy multiple bodies briefly. He lacks stamina and is injury-prone. The middle linebacking duo of David Harris and Demario Davis is strong. Harris has excellent instincts, sideline-to-sideline range, and outstanding pop. Davis is quick and athletic. He consistently fights through blocks to get to the ball.
When the Patriots pass
Tom Brady & Co. will be looking to build off the momentum of last week’s improbable victory. Brady’s statistics — and his accuracy — have been off this season, but the man with the exceptional presnap recognition and picture-perfect release reminded all last week why he will go down as the best clutch player in history. The passing attack gets a huge boost with the return of the 6-foot-6-inch, 265-pound beast that is Rob Gronkowski. The league’s top tight end has long arms and strong, soft hands. He’s lighter on his feet than a man his size has a right to be. He will cut across the middle and catch the ball in stride and is a threat down the seam on every play. The man is a tremendous red zone weapon and an aggressive and relentless in-line blocker. He seems to enjoy blocking as much as he enjoys scoring. That’s rare. Julian Edelman (quick feet, strong routes) has been the most consistent threat; he can line up everywhere and Brady will throw to him no matter the coverage. Rookies Kenbrell Thompkins (he has size and strength and obviously is immune to pressure) and Aaron Dobson (he has size and speed) continue to impress and frustrate. Antonio Cromartie is the best player in an underrated Jets secondary. The 6-2, 210-pounder is a lockdown corner with excellent speed and strength and freakishly long arms. Fellow corners Kyle Wilson (he can work the slot) and Isaiah Trufant (he’s smallish) are adequate. Safeties Antonio Allen (he thumps like a linebacker) and Dawan Landry (he locates the ball quickly) make a ton of plays.
When the Jets run
Bilal Powell has gone from afterthought to legitimate weapon. The 5-foot-10-inch, 204-pounder is an exceptionally versatile runner who can line up anywhere and everywhere on the field. Powell has very good vision and hits the hole hard. He’s most comfortable banging between the tackles but he will go wide. Powell will follow his blockers, sift through traffic, and break his share of tackles. He finishes his runs hard. Chris Ivory could see an increased workload with Mike Goodson out for the season. A rugged 6-foot, 222-pounder, Ivory is a strong runner who flashes surprising speed. If he gets past the big uglies, he can do damage at the second and third levels. Quarterback Geno Smith can be a threat in the running game — but not always because he wants to be. Tough and ornery center Nick Mangold sets the tone for a scrappy and veteran offensive line. Mangold (6-4, 307) is smart, and plays with great strength and body control. He fires out of his stance and delivers a quick wallop that often stuns defenders. He will not miss banging heads with Vince Wilfork. Rookie left guard Brian Winters (6-4, 320) is physical and quick, while veteran left guard Willie Colon (6-3, 315) knows all the tricks. With the Patriots missing the heart (Wilfork) and soul (Jerod Mayo) of their defense, it’s up to linebackers Dont’a Hightower and Brandon Spikes to take on more. Hightower, who will be calling the defense, has yet to show the consistency of a first-round pick. Spikes is a violent tackler who plays with exuberance.
When the Jets pass
Rookie Geno Smith has had his struggles since winning the quarterback job by default. The 6-foot-3-inch, 221-pounder abandons his pocket too quickly, makes some questionable decisions and throws, and isn’t the most accurate passer in the league. Despite those negatives, what the athletic Smith gives the Jets is a consistent chance to win. He’s a confident (borderline cocky) player who isn’t afraid to take chances or make mistakes. His teammates seem to believe in their quarterback, which hasn’t been the case in New York for some time. Smith has a very strong arm and does a decent job of getting everyone involved. Stephen Hill and Jeremy Kerley have emerged as solid receivers. Hill (6-4, 215) is a big, fast target who can stretch defenses. He’s a bit thin, doesn’t react well when jostled, and is a sloppy route runner. Kerley (5-9, 188) is an explosive player who excels in the open field with his quickness and moves. Jeff Cumberland (6-4, 260) is a big, lumbering tight end with decent hands. Bilal Powell, Chris Ivory, and Tommy Bohanon are solid receiving threats out of the backfield. The New England secondary has been outstanding. With top corner Aqib Talib hobbled, a lot of pressure falls on rookie Logan Ryan. Fellow corners Alfonzo Dennard (he’s very physical) and Kyle Arrington (few play the slot better) have been great. Safeties Devin McCourty (he’s quick, smart, and decisive) and Steve Gregory (he’s instinctive and delivers big hits) have been calming and comforting presences.
Jets’ key player: Muhammad Wilkerson
This 6-foot-4-inch, 315-pound defensive end may not float like a butterfly or sting like a bee, but he is unquestionably a champ at making your quarterback uncomfortable. He can deliver a knockout blow.
HOW HE BEATS YOU: With strength and speed. Wilkerson has the power to overwhelm tackles straight on (insert Gronk here) and the quickness to shoot gaps and get into the backfield.
HOW TO SHUT HIM DOWN: By wearing him down. Wilkerson lacks stamina and is not the same player in the second half he is in the first. So punch him before he punches you.
JETS’ KEYS TO VICTORY:
1. Air traffic control: Geno Smith needs to get comfortable early. Screens to Jeremy Kerley and Bilal Powell will build confidence and move the ball.
2. Angle of approach: Nick Mangold has to rip open holes in the vulnerable middle of the Patriots’ defense so Powell and Chris Ivory can get to the second level.
3. Flight plan: Rob Gronkowski is back. Outside linebackers Calvin Pace and Quinton Coples have to disrupt Gronk at the line and blanket him in coverage to keep it close.
PATRIOTS’ KEYS TO VICTORY:
1. Ground effect: The Jets have been stout against the run. But the Patriots have the weapons to wear down this defense. Don’t abandon the run quickly. Keep after it.
2. Indicate air speed: Just because Gronk is back, don’t abandon the young pups. They’re making strides, so don’t stunt their growth. They will reward you with results.
3. Thrust: Defensive end Chandler Jones has been flying under the radar and having a great season. He needs to keep charging and collapse the pocket around Geno Smith.Jim McBride can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.