Re-watching the Patriots’ 17-16 win Sunday over the Jets, a question came to mind: Did these teams accidentally put on the wrong uniforms before the game?
The usually woeful Jets were well-prepared, creative, and sound in their assignments. And the usually sharp Patriots were sloppy on both sides of the ball and not ready for the new wrinkles in their opponent’s game plans.
It was the Jets, not the Patriots, who were devastating with their use of play-action passes this time — such as on the touchdown pass to Jeff Cumberland, and a big 25-yard play to Jeremy Kerley.
It was the Jets using one play to set up another – such as when Percy Harvin ran an end-around in the first half, then froze Chandler Jones on a fake end-around in the second half, giving Chris Johnson a ton of room for a 16-yard scamper.
It was the Jets who only blitzed Tom Brady nine out of 41 dropbacks, while the usually conservative Patriots defense blitzed Geno Smith 11 out of 31 times, including nine times in the second half.
It was the Patriots who had major protection and communication issues, such as when four offensive linemen stood around blocking one defender in the first quarter while Calvin Pace and David Harris came screaming in untouched for an easy sack.
And it was the Patriots’ passing game that couldn’t get anything going downfield, with Brady not even attempting a pass of more than 15 yards through the air.
It was hard to tell which team was 3-11 and which team was 11-3. But one element of the game stayed true to form, of course — the final score.
When the Patriots had the ball
■ The issues with the offensive line were two-fold. For one, as Brady mentioned after the game, they had major communication issues up front. Even though the Jets only blitzed about 25 percent of the time, they did a great job of disguising their rush with zone blitzes. In addition to Pace’s sack, the third sack allowed in the first half was because of a communication issue. Rob Gronkowski and Shane Vereen both picked up Antonio Allen, leaving Demario Davis wide open for the easy sack. And on Brady’s interception, the Jets’ zone blitz gave them a numbers advantage — four rushers against only three blockers — allowing Jason Babin to come screaming through the “B” gap between Nate Solder and Ryan Wendell, causing Brady to rush his throw and affecting his accuracy.
And two, the Patriots just couldn’t handle the Jets’ defenders. Solder whiffed on Pace once, leading to a tackle for a loss on Jonas Gray, and missed again on Babin in the third quarter, leading to a tackle for loss on Vereen. On the second sack of the game, Marcus Cannon was beaten around the edge by Quinton Coples, Sebastian Vollmer was beaten to the outside by Muhammad Wilkerson, and the two Jets met at the quarterback. Josh Kline was absolutely bullrushed twice by Sheldon Richardson (who had a phenomenal game), resulting in the fourth sack of the first half and a hurried throw by Brady. Kline was replaced by Cameron Fleming in the second half, and while Fleming did slightly better, he also got bullrushed by Richardson in the third quarter, leading Brady to throw in the dirt and curse loudly at Fleming, which was picked up by CBS’s microphones.
■ The Patriots tried to counter the Jets’ defense by going heavy with a sixth offensive lineman, but they didn’t find success until they spread out the Jets more and went to the up-tempo offense in the second half. Gray’s ankle injury in the first half hurt the balance of the Patriots’ offense, as well. With LeGarrette Blount out of the game and Gray sapped of his burst, the Patriots had a hard time getting the power running game going. Vereen did a nice job of running out of passing sets in the second half.
■ Hard to evaluate Brady’s performance, because he had very little time in the pocket (hence the no throws more than 15 yards). But he once again showed great pocket mobility and an ability to extend plays, which is clearly something he has worked hard to improve this year (impressive for a 37-year-old sure-fire Hall of Famer). His back-shoulder throw to Gronk for the touchdown was perfect, and he did a good job of moving the chains against the blitz in the second half. But without Julian Edelman, he did seem to lock onto Gronk and Danny Amendola a little too much. He missed Brian Tyms on an open slant route in the first half, and missed Vereen wide open on a wheel route in the fourth quarter. Tim Wright and Vereen combined for just three targets, but they should have been targeted more.
■ Amendola doesn’t always run to the right spot, but there’s no questioning his toughness. He took some big shots over the middle, kept on running after losing his helmet (though the play was whistled dead), and went on a kamikaze mission on a kickoff in the first half. He was also clutch — five of his eight catches came in the second half, and five of his eight catches went for first downs.
■ The physical coverage of Jets rookie cornerback Marcus Williams was impressive. The Jets had their corners play sides — Williams on the right, Darrin Walls on the left – and Williams, who only stands 5 feet 11 inches and is 196 pounds, did a nice job in getting physical and contesting both Gronk and Brandon LaFell with press coverage in the first half. The Jets played a lot of zone coverage, especially with their linebackers, and had multiple defenders shadowing and bracketing Gronk throughout the game, taking away his impact. Williams was later rewarded with his first career interception. But LaFell and Gronk were able to take advantage of some “off” coverage by Williams and Walls in the second half, catching some balls underneath to move the chains.
When the Jets had the ball
■ The Patriots were concerned, first and foremost, with stopping the Jets’ rushing attack, and scrapped their lighter, versatile, athletic six-man front that worked so well in wins over the Chargers and Dolphins for a heavy, 3-4 front. Vince Wilfork played 56 of 63 snaps, while Sealver Siliga played 47, Alan Branch played 26, and Chris Jones 9. Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones then were used as stand-up outside linebackers, giving the Patriots five stout players on the defensive line to stop the run, although Jones and Ninkovich returned to defensive end on obvious passing downs.
Wilfork had a great game getting off blocks against Willie Colon and clogging the run lanes, while Siliga, playing a lot of nose tackle, and Branch were active, as well. But the “heavy” alignment negated the Patriots’ pass rush, and Smith had all day to throw, especially in the first half. Akeem Ayers, who has been terrific in a hybrid linebacker-pass rusher role, played just five snaps, and Ninkovich didn’t do much zone blitzing, as he had been successful in doing the previous few games.
■ The lack of a pass rush forced the Patriots to dial up the blitz in the second half, and the results were sink-or-swim. John Connor’s 26-yard catch out of the backfield came against a six blitz – either Jamie Collins or Patrick Chung blew the assignment – Kerley’s 25-yard catch came against a five-blitz, and Smith hit Cumberland for a key third-and-8 conversion against a five-blitz, as well. (The touchdown to Cumberland in the first half, during which Chung bit badly on the play-action fake, was also against a five-blitz). But Smith’s interception to Collins came on a five-blitz in which he was hit by Chandler Jones, Duron Harmon had a really nice pass breakup on Cumberland over the middle on a six-blitz, and Donta Hightower’s game-changing sack that knocked the Jets all the way back to a 52-yard field goal in the fourth quarter came on a five-blitz. Hightower came through the “B” gap while right tackle Breno Giacomini and Bilal Powell both blocked Ninkovich and never saw Hightower.
■ Interesting that the Patriots cornerbacks mostly chose sides instead of matching up, similar to what they did in the preseason and first couple games of the season – Darrelle Revis at left cornerback and Brandon Browner on the right. The only time they switched sides was when the Jets went twin receivers to one side. Revis and Browner allowed a few catches to Eric Decker and Harvin, but kept everything in front of them. Chung had his worst game in coverage, mostly against Cumberland, and Logan Ryan was a bad mismatch against Kerley, though Kerley only had three catches for 54 yards, plus one penalty for a first down. Harmon and Tavon Wilson have been used in third-down situations in recent weeks, and have played well in coverage and on occasional blitzes.
■ Chandler Jones made a big play in the fourth quarter in beating D’Brickashaw Ferguson around the edge and meeting Siliga at the quarterback for the sack, and did a great job in staying “home” on Harvin’s end-around in the first half, although it led to Johnson’s big run in the third quarter.
■ Tough injury for Jets center Nick Mangold. Wilfork was blocked into Mangold’s ankle by Oday Aboushi well after the play had passed them.
■ Right before Nick Folk’s 52-yard field goal attempt, the Patriots defensive linemen shifted down towards center, and Wilfork easily hopped through the “A” gap, but the Jets called timeout. After the timeout, the Patriots defensive line once again down-shifted, and Wilfork once again hopped through the “A” gap, getting his finger on the ball for the tip. Branch gets the assist for helping clear out Damon Harrison to allow Wilfork to get through the line.
■ Linebacker Darius Fleming got away with a blatant block in the back on the Jets’ Nick Bellore on Amendola’s 39-yard punt return in the second quarter that led to the Patriots’ first touchdown. Had the refs called that penalty, the complexion of the game could have been completely different.
Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com.