Commentary

Patriots should expect tough game

Updated: November 21, 2012, 11:07 AM ET
By Tedy Bruschi and Mike Reiss | ESPNBoston.com

Every week during the season, Tedy Bruschi and Mike Reiss break down the New England Patriots' upcoming game. This week: Thursday night's road game against the New York Jets (NBC, 8:20 p.m. ET).

Mike: It's a quick turnaround for both teams, which naturally makes this week much different than the norm. The majority of work for the Patriots this week has been mental more than physical. Add in that the Patriots are adjusting after tight end Rob Gronkowski broke his forearm and rookie defensive end Chandler Jones injured his ankle, and let's start there.

Tedy: The Gronkowski loss is huge. He just can't be replaced. The offense is going to be different and I don't think they are going to be as effective. He was huge in the first matchup versus the Jets. Every week, he's the red zone threat. It doesn't matter what personnel group is on the field, you can't really lock in on that as a defense because Gronkowski can also play a wide receiver role. But what's so special about him is that you can also put him in-line and he can block. So if you're in the nickel defense, the Patriots are in position to jam it down your throat. That's a big part of why they're so successful. This is the biggest loss they can have, minus Tom Brady. We already saw what it did when he wasn't 100 percent against the Giants in the Super Bowl. This is where offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels earns his money. How different will the Patriots' offense be, how creative can he be, and how can they attack the Jets' defense without Gronkowski?

Mike: One thing that should soften the blow is the return of Aaron Hernandez, which has been expected for this game for some time. He's been out since the Oct. 28 game against the Rams.

[+] EnlargeAaron Hernandez
Jim Rogash/Getty ImagesAaron Hernandez has 17 catches for 143 yards in just three-plus games this season.
Tedy: He's a different type of headache for a defensive coordinator. You can't really look at him as a tight end because of his wide receiver abilities. If he's 100 percent healthy, there's no reason they shouldn't give him the ball out of the backfield. The Patriots love creating mismatches, and when both Gronkowski and Hernandez are healthy, that's a huge issue for any defense.

Mike: As you'd expect, Jets coach Rex Ryan had something to say about it. After the Jets lost cornerback Darrelle Revis and receiver Santonio Holmes earlier this season, Ryan knows what it's like to lose a key player. So there was no sympathy from him, nor should there be.

Tedy: Without Gronkowski, another player to keep an eye on is tight end Visanthe Shiancoe. He's starting to get a little more playing time -- goal-line, two-TE situations last week -- and I've heard good things about him, that he looks good in practice. He could possibly be an additional weapon for them in the two-tight end set.

Mike: It also looks like the Patriots will be without Chandler Jones, the rookie defensive end who has started every game and seldom comes off the field. That's another key loss, so look for third-year player Jermaine Cunningham to elevate into the starting unit at right end, where Jets left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson awaits.

Tedy: Even if Jones comes back, one question to be asked is, "Does he have the same explosion?" He's young, and the younger you are the faster you usually heal. When you have an injured ankle and you're pushing off it to rush the passer, and you have to "run the hoop" -- that's when you lean and your body is at a 45-degree angle -- your main post on the ground are those seven-stud cleats in the turf. There is a lot of torque on that ankle. Can Jones be as effective turning the corner?

Mike: Speaking of turning the corner, one might say that's what cornerback Aqib Talib is in the process of doing when it comes to his career. That was an impactful debut, with the 59-yard interception return for a touchdown against the Colts. It's going to take more than one game, so let's not lose that context, but what were your thoughts on his debut?

Tedy: It's not like he has this defense down 100 percent, and he's saying, "I got this, I'm going to take this one back to the house." But he is the type of player where the ball finds him. That's just who he is. He proved that against the Colts, and certain cornerbacks have that. They find a way to knock down passes and get interceptions, and then he has the skill with the runback. His talent was never doubted; it was the decisions off the field. Can he put all that in the past and be a good player for the Patriots? Sure. I think he puts it all together because he has a lot on the line with his contract expiring after the season.

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Mike: The role of the coaches seems worthy of exploration given the circumstances here -- second meeting of the season between the teams, short week, a lot of familiarity. You already mentioned Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.

Tedy: This does play into your coaching, and how good the coaches are. Both teams are going to watch the first meeting between the teams (Patriots' OT win) and the plan is there for both sides to see -- this is how they attacked us in the first game. So what type of adjustments can both sides make based on that?

Mike: So let's turn our attention to the Jets, who at 4-6 don't have much margin for error if they are thinking playoffs. It might be dramatic to say it, but one could make a case they will be playing for their season Thursday night.

Tedy: That's a dangerous team, especially when considering how closely they played the Patriots on Oct. 21 at Gillette Stadium. The Jets are coming off a game in which they beat the Rams, and I liked what I saw from QB Mark Sanchez -- 15-of-20, 178 yards, 1 TD. The numbers might not look impressive, but that's right about where the Jets want him because it means they were also running the ball, the defense was making plays, and they were controlling the clock.

Mike: If I recall, you also liked what you saw from Sanchez in the Oct. 21 game against the Patriots.

Tedy: Many people see Sanchez as a game manager, not a quarterback who is going to test you down the field. He likes the safe throws -- the slants, the quick throws, three-step drops. That's what game managers do; they don't want to make mistakes. I liked the Jets' plan that day against the Patriots because Sanchez was going down the field and attacking the secondary. The Jets' offensive coaches recognized that, and they hit some play-action passes. Sanchez looked like a different quarterback, throwing down the field with accuracy. You can anticipate that again Thursday night.

Mike: I thought the Jets had success running the ball that day. It might not be ground-and-pound, but it was effective.

[+] EnlargeBilal Powell
Jeff Curry/US PresswireBilal Powell rushed for 42 yards and two TDs in the Jets' win over the Rams on Sunday.
Tedy: It was the same way against the Rams on Sunday; the Jets had a trio of running backs -- Bilal Powell, Joe McKnight and Shonn Greene. It's Greene who pounds it right at you, between the tackles. McKnight is more of the outside guy, and also a receiver out of the backfield. When Powell came in, the Jets ran some trap plays. What they try to be is a creative run team -- Green with power, McKnight outside, and of course the Tim Tebow packages, with the Wildcat off that. That's really who they are -- creatively finding ways to run the ball and being safe with Sanchez.

Mike: So the Jets are basically who we thought they are. Not too much has changed from Oct. 21. Would you say the same thing about the Patriots' defense?

Tedy: They have Talib at cornerback now, but there has been no big scheme change. Sure, they sprinkled in some corner blitzes against the Colts, but those are always in the plan. This is just who the Patriots are -- a big-play defense, which has helped the this D lead the NFL in turnover differential (plus-20). They aren't stingy -- they give up a lot of yards -- but they're like sharks. They go get that ball. Maybe it's something people are starting to appreciate a little more.

Mike: The Jets' defense, on the other hand, often gives the Patriots a tough time. What is it about Ryan's scheme that presents problems for Tom Brady & Co.?

Tedy: The more you see it, the more you know what to do. I think Rex has done a great job seeing his mistakes in the past and then realizing what works and what doesn't. Since he got there, he has stressed playing man-to-man coverage against the Patriots' offense. That's what beats them -- when you can cover them tight and Brady doesn't see anyone open. Brady is the type of quarterback who says, "I am going to throw it to who's open," and he will go from No. 1, to No. 2, to No. 3 & the Jets are hoping to force him to that third or fourth read, and by then they hope the pressure gets there. DE Muhammad Wilkerson is bringing some of that pressure for them of late. He's getting pocket pressure up the middle, and is playing very well. That's one of my matchups to watch.

Mike: Given the Jets' style of play, with the man coverage, the onus falls on the Patriots' pass-catchers.

Tedy: I think it's all about one-on-one battles. The Jets' defense has always had the mentality of "this is what we're going to do, and you're going to have to beat it." You have to respect that. Even when they have linebackers playing in the slot, or linebackers on running backs, they just play. That's a defensive coordinator challenging his guys -- man-to-man.

Mike: We shouldn't overlook special teams, which can be a game-changing deal, as we saw Sunday with Julian Edelman's punt return for a Patriots touchdown. The Jets usually present a wrinkle or two there.

Tedy: Another thing to consider is that there's always the Tebow factor. It hasn't been a huge threat this year, but you have to wonder when they'll use him more consistently. Is it this week against the Patriots? Specific to special teams, he's the up-back on the punt team and he's run multiple fakes from that position. Uncharacteristic of a Mike Westhoff special-teams unit, the Jets have struggled. Devin McCourty took one to the house on them before.

Mike: Prediction time. I anticipate a close game. The numbers might not suggest it, but I think this Jets defense will present some problems for the Patriots, who will be recalibrating their high-powered attack without Gronkowski. I'm envisioning a lower-scoring game based on Patriots standards. In the end, the Patriots will find a way, but it won't be easy. Patriots 26, Jets 20

Tedy: The play that really made a difference in the last game was the McCourty kickoff return for a touchdown. I think the Patriots' special-teams unit will need to be a difference-maker again. I'm looking forward to which coaching staff will come up with a creative game plan that makes a difference. When two teams know each other so well, coaching is the difference, and as Rex Ryan has said himself, Belichick gets the nod. Patriots 24, Jets 20

Tedy Bruschi

Columnist, ESPN.com
Tedy Bruschi spent his entire 13-year career with the New England Patriots after being drafted in the third round out of Arizona. He played in five Super Bowls, winning three. He retired prior to the 2009 season.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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