Commentary

Patriots' toughness put to the test

Against Jets' smashmouth ground game, N.E.'s defense faces biggest challenge yet

Updated: November 10, 2011, 10:22 PM ET
By Chris Forsberg | ESPNBoston.com

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- When the Jets came to Foxborough last month, the buzz centered on the team's desire to get back to "ground and pound." The Patriots might have beaten their rivals at their own game that day, but the Jets have succeeded in recent weeks in re-establishing that smashmouth style of play.

The Jets combined to rush for 392 yards on 99 carries (4 yards per carry) in wins over Miami, San Diego and Buffalo. Paired with inspired defensive play, the Jets look like a much more familiar -- and formidable -- foe heading into Sunday's rematch at MetLife Stadium.

"I just think we got back to playing our style of football," Jets coach Rex Ryan said. "We've been a team that plays good defense, good solid defense, solid special teams, and [has] the ability to run the football. That's who we've been and that's who we are. I think we got back to those roots a little bit."

How the Patriots fare against the Jets' rushing attack figures to be a key storyline this week. The Patriots' defense ranks 18th in the league in opponent's yards per carry (4.26) and rarely has been tested on the ground. With a dinged-up linebacking corps, it's a recipe for trouble.

The Patriots could be thin at middle linebacker, as Brandon Spikes (knee) and Dane Fletcher (thumb) haven't participated in practice this week, while both Gary Guyton (shoulder) and Jerod Mayo (knee) have been limited.

[+] EnlargeTBD
AP Photo/Michael DwyerTracy White, who was burned by this crucial Jake Ballard reception last week, might get a chance to redeem himself Sunday against the Jets.

That could thrust the likes of special-teams standout Tracy White into an elevated role, and Patriots fans have the lingering image of White getting beat on the Giants' winning touchdown in Sunday's loss at Gillette Stadium.

White remains confident in both himself and the linebacking unit as a whole.

"Everybody knows their role," White said. "If someone goes down, then the next person just picks up from where he left off. It's not really an emphasis [this week]; everybody wants to prove that they can help the defense."

White acknowledged the Jets have cranked up their rushing attack, pointing to inspired play from Shonn Greene, who has rushed for 262 yards on 60 carries (4.4 yards per trot) over the past three weeks. In summing up the Jets' offense as a whole, White said: "We know they are going to do a lot of running."

Greene accounted for 83 yards on 21 carries and scored the Jets' only rushing touchdown when the teams met in Week 5. New York finished with 97 yards on 25 carries but didn't have a run longer than 9 yards. New England, meanwhile, piled up 152 yards on 35 carries (highlighted by BenJarvus Green-Ellis totaling 135 yards on 27 carries with two touchdowns).

The Patriots know it's on their front seven to keep the Jets contained Sunday night if they want to slow New York's offense again.

"They've been running the ball very well, they've been throwing the ball very well, protecting the ball -- they've been doing what they need to do to win," said defensive tackle Vince Wilfork, a defensive captain. "Like I said, it's not going to get any easier for us, going there and playing a division team on the road. I'm pretty sure it's going to be loud -- they're going to be pumped up. We're going to have to match their intensity. That's what we're going to have to do."

The Patriots' defense won't just be patching holes at linebacker.

Up front, the team made a big splash with the release of defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth, while defensive end (and former Jet) Shaun Ellis sat out last week's loss to the Giants with a rib injury.

Haynesworth's limited snaps shouldn't be hard to divide up, and second-year tackle Kyle Love said he expects his playing time to increase a bit, while Ron Brace could see heightened action in his second week since coming off the reserve/physically-unable-to-perform list. Second-year end Brandon Deaderick, who played heavy snaps last week against the Giants, said he's focussed on what the Jets have accomplished since that Week 5 meeting in New England.

"I'm not really concerned with the last time we saw them," said Deaderick, who didn't play in that game while on the PUP list. "Right now my focus is on the past three games that they've played. They look really good out there, and it'll be a challenge. But I think we can match up."

The Jets could be enticed to throw, and not just because the Patriots have struggled to defend against the pass this season. New England's two starting safeties last week -- Patrick Chung and Josh Barrett -- were both injured, with Chung suffering a foot injury that's kept him out of practice twice this week and Barrett being shifted to season-ending injured reserve with a calf injury.

That puts the likes of James Ihedigbo, Sergio Brown and Sterling Moore in the spotlight Sunday. Moore is a rookie corner coming up for his second stint on the active roster and could add depth at safety, while second-year player Brown, an undrafted free agent, committed key fourth-quarter pass-interference penalties in losses to both the Bills and Giants, which has him in the crosshairs of Patriots supporters.

Ihedigbo, a special-teams whiz during his time with the Jets and elevated to a loftier role in New England, thinks a big division game will bring the best out of everyone on the Patriots' defense and not just on Sunday.

"As a defense, we talk about games like this, with a lot riding on the line," Ihedigbo said. "Big games, games like this, depend on how you practice during the week. We made it a goal to have our best week of practice and our hardest week of practice. [Wednesday] was a step in the right direction."

Chris Forsberg covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.

Chris Forsberg

Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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