Some things have changed. But when the New England Patriots and New York Jets cross paths at MetLife Stadium on Sunday afternoon, some things will remain the same.
Even if nine weeks have passed.
“It seems like quite a while since we played the Jets,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said in his press conference Wednesday. “The Jets are playing well. They’re a very competitive football team. They’re in every game. They’ve been in a lot of tight games; it seems like every game comes down to the last possession, kind of like it did with us, like a lot of our games with them have in the last, four of the last five times we’ve played them.”
The 11-3 Patriots and the 3-11 Jets last played at Gillette Stadium in October. Yet the game itself was not one that came down to records. It was one that came down to a blocked 58-yard field goal.
Since that 27-25 end result, New England and New York have merged to different ends of the spectrum. One now holds first place in the AFC, while the other now holds 13th place. Yet if the past serves as any indicator of the future, the strategies and matchups between the two teams should remain closer than the standings in Week 16.
Perhaps they’ll remain as close as they did in Week 7.
Jets Run on the Ground
There’s something to be said for holding the football for 41 minutes of possession. That is what the Jets did against the Patriots on Oct. 16.
New York ran the ball 43 times for 218 yards and 13 first downs, with Chris Ivory leading three-back convoy to the tune of 21 carries for 107 yards and a touchdown versus predominantly a three-man Patriots line of Chris Jones, Casey Walker and Vince Wilfork.
Sealver Siliga was four weeks into his stay on short-term injured reserve and Alan Branch was two weeks away from signing with the team as a free agent. But it wasn’t so much about New England’s personnel or gap discipline as it was about New York’s offensive DNA.
The Jets have committed to the run every week since, ranking fourth in the league with 441 attempts, second with 2,363 rushing yards, and tied for third with 105 first downs on the ground.
New York’s offense will look for those trends to continue come Sunday’s 1 p.m. kickoff. And New England’s defense, conceding a total of 301 yards to running backs since Week 9, will look for otherwise.
New England Packs Light Backfield
The Patriots held possession for 19 minutes in the last meeting with New York, running the ball a total of 15 times for 63 yards and two first downs. Shane Vereen handled the bulk with 11 runs for 43 yards while Jonas Gray filtered in for three runs and 12 yards. And the only other Patriot to handle a carry in Week 7 was wideout Julian Edelman, who took a jet sweep eight yards.
It was a shift in identity after the first play from scrimmage, which included “21” personnel and fullback James Develin in an offset I-formation. Develin logged just eight more snaps thenceforth as the Patriots turned to shotgun and spread looks to keep Vereen on the field.
As Develin explained this week, though, New England’s offensive identity has been found through its lack of one.
“I think that right there is a testament to our versatility as an offense. You can never quite put a finger on it,” Develin told WEEI’s Middays with MFB. “A game like in Detroit, we’re going ‘12’ personnel, throwing the ball a lot, using Tim Wright a lot. And then you go to a game like Indianapolis where we’re using jumbo tight ends, a lot of ‘21’ personnel and just kind of running the ball.”
The Patriots’ looked to the former against the Jets. It could have been due to New York’s run defense, which is currently situated third in the NFL with 3.5 yards allowed per attempt. It could have been due to New York’s pass coverage, which is currently situated 29th with 29 touchdowns allowed. But it also could have been due New England’s adjusting offensive line.
At that time, the Patriots’ interior line had implemented Jordan Devey at left guard, Ryan Wendell at center and Josh Kline at right guard. That group is slated to implement Dan Connolly at left guard, fourth-rounder Bryan Stork at center and Wendell at right guard this time.
Vereen Widens the New York Secondary
Three games before LeGarrette Blount made his return, New England’s running game ran on Vereen. But versus the Jets, his impact as a running back was realized as a receiver.
The 5-foot-10, 205-pound California Golden Bear loomed in the backfield and motioned out to the numbers, creating defensive personnel adjustments before the snap. And after the snap, the back traveled through a Jets secondary consisting of cornerbacks Darrin Walls, Phillip Adams and Kyle Wilson, as well as safeties Dawan Landry, rookie Calvin Pryor and Antonio Allen.
Vereen went on to run 29 routes over the course of New England’s victory, according to Pro Football Focus, leading the team in receiving yards with 71.
He also led the team in touchdowns. Vereen got into the end zone twice, with a diving 49-yard score beyond Allen’s zone coverage only four plays in, followed by a three-yard touchdown grab beyond the jurisdiction of linebacker Demario Davis 20 plays in.
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady found him out of shotgun first and foremost during that contest, finishing 20-of-37 passing for 261 yards and three touchdowns, with the third traveling 19 yards to receiver Danny Amendola.
Brady has since found Vereen for a total of 48 completions, 421 yards and three scores on the season. However the Jets elect to cover tight end Rob Gronkowski will dictate how often Brady finds him this weekend.
Patriots Make Change at Nickel
New England’s secondary approached things differently against a Jets passing attack that distributed to ball to three wide receivers, two tight ends, and three halfbacks.
The Patriots aligned former Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis on both receiver Eric Decker and rookie tight end Jace Amaro, while the 6-foot-4, 221 pound Brandon Browner and second-year corner Logan Ryan split snaps across from him.
And in between them stood Alfonzo Dennard, primarily versus slot receiver Jeremy Kerley, as starting nickelback Kyle Arrington entered the defense for only one play.
But over his 34 pass plays during the Thursday matchup, quarterback Geno Smith ultimately completed 20 passes for 226 yards and a touchdown to tight end Jeff Cumberland. Decker led the Jets receiving corps with 65 yards of four of Smith’s completions.
Smith has not completed more than 18 passes or thrown more than 29 passes in his five appearances since. Yet the Jets have since added Percy Harvin to catch passes from him, and it is expected that the multidimensional receiver will also take his share of handoffs from the quarterback on Sunday.
Pass Rush Equalizes
Patriots linebacker Dont’a Hightower, defensive end Chandler Jones and Walker sacked Smith for cumulative loss of 21 yards during New England’s October win versus New York.
The Jets’ blitz-heavy 3-4 front and its talented constituents, on the other hand, sacked Brady just once for a one-yard loss courtesy of linebacker David Harris.
But New York did hit close to home over New England’s 37 pass plays.
Left end Sheldon Richardson, right end Muhammad Wilkerson, and outside linebackers Calvin Pace and Jason Babin recorded five quarterback hits and seven hurries on Brady.
Heading into Week 16, New England and New York both stand in the top-third of the NFL in sacks. And with Akeem Ayers now part of the edge, the Patriots will stand a bit differently in East Rutherford on Sunday.