Thursday, October 6, 2011 Updated: October 7, 9:35 AM ET
Pats face Jets team looking for identity
By Tedy Bruschi and Mike Reiss ESPNBoston.com
Every week during the season, Mike Reiss and Tedy Bruschi break down the New England Patriots' upcoming game. This week's breakdown is on Sunday's home contest against the New York Jets:Mike: Something seems a bit different about this rivalry game -- less hype than the norm -- and that's not a bad thing. There has been a lot going on sports-wise in the region, with the Red Sox and Terry Francona parting ways and the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins opening the 2011-12 season on Thursday night. That has almost pushed some of the build-up to Patriots-Jets to the back burner. However, some of the biggest chatter for those locked in to the Patriots is the defense.
Tedy: They're giving up an average of 477 yards per game, worst in the NFL. One of the things that stood out to me last Sunday in Oakland was the way the game ended. The Patriots got stopped on fourth-and-1 at the goal line and there was a chance for the defense to make a statement, maybe with a safety or a big play. But instead, they give up a 58-yard pass to Darrius Heyward-Bey and then a quick 35-yard pass to Michael Bush where it didn't look like they wanted to tackle him. So instead of a statement, you had two plays for 93 yards, which led to a quick touchdown on another red-area breakdown. Yes, the game was in hand, but that series of plays reflected to me a defense that is still trying to find its way.
Mike: What can they do to get better?
Tedy: The main thing is win more one-on-one battles. As a pass-rusher, it's beating the man in front of you. Same thing in man-to-man coverage. They're losing too many of those battles right now. More zone coverage can mask poor man-to-man defense.
Patriots' defense vs. Jets' offense
Mike: If the biggest questions surrounding the Patriots are on defense, it looks like the opposite is true with the Jets. One of the big questions seems to be what they want to be on offense.
Tedy: I don't think they know who they are. I think they are in somewhat of an identity crisis. When Rex Ryan first got there, it was clear who they were. It was that ground and pound mentality, run the ball, trust your defense. As Mark Sanchez has started to develop, Brian Schottenheimer, the offensive coordinator, has tried to mold him into the quarterback he wants him to be -- spread it out and open things up a little bit. Now Rex Ryan is pulling the reins in a bit and it looks like they're in flux. It's an identity crisis. Last week against the Ravens, they had just 38 yards rushing.
Mike: The Ravens will do that to a lot of teams, but even before that, the Jets were struggling to consistently run the ball.
Tedy: They've been hurting along the offensive line. Center Nick Mangold missed the last two games. Damien Woody is now working for ESPN, and they have Wayne Hunter at right tackle. He's not as solid as Woody.
Mike: Because of that, more has fallen on Sanchez. He was pummeled Sunday night in Baltimore. Where do you see him right now in his development?
Tedy: He's coming off a game where it was the most I've ever seen him frustrated. A quarterback is only going to be as good as his offensive line is going to protect him. Put that same type of pressure on Tom Brady and he'll look terrible. So I see a frustrated quarterback right now in Sanchez, someone looking for answers. It hurts that he hasn't had a running game to help him out.
Mike: Signs are pointing to Mangold returning this week and that would be big for the Jets. He's arguably the best center in the NFL. When the Jets can get Sanchez going, like other teams, they have things that can hurt a defense.
Tedy: The biggest weapon for Sanchez is the slant routes, the quick routes, the play-action X slants and things like that. But even those weren't working against the Ravens. So this is an offense that has some identity questions. You ask, "Who are they going to be against the Patriots?" I know Rex Ryan has talked about getting back to ground and pound, but I don't know if they can just turn that switch. So maybe they spread it out and get Plaxico Burress, Santonio Holmes and Dustin Keller going.
Mike: What have you noticed Burress bringing to the Jets' attack?
Tedy: He brings a physical presence on the outside. Watching him on tape, it looks to me like he's desperately wanting to break out and have that big game, that big touchdown, to show the entire NFL world that he's back. This is a stage right here, against the Patriots, where he's probably looking at the film and seeing all the yards the team is giving up and his eyes light up a bit. You have him on one side, and then with Santonio Holmes on the other, that's a guy I've gushed about in recent years. He's one of the best in the NFL after he catches the ball.
Mike: The Jets also have Derrick Mason at receiver, and I'd imagine we'll probably hear a bit about Bill Belichick's trash talking with Mason from the NFL Films documentary "Bill Belichick: A Football Life." Belichick was really giving it to Mason, a player I know he thinks highly of because he hosted him on a free-agent visit in 2005 and has cited his toughness and production in the past. Were you surprised at that trash talk?
Tedy: No. What happens during the game, on the sideline, I think anyone watching that documentary got a good perspective. Coach Belichick can get very intense on the sideline, and if a player digs him the wrong way, he will respond. I've seen him do that. Derrick Mason should be careful this week of getting into a player/head coach back-and-forth. You remember what happened last year with Wes Welker and Rex Ryan.
Mike: And we shouldn't get to the next part of the breakdown without mentioning running backs Shonn Greene, LaDainian Tomlinson and Joe McKnight. I saw where Ryan said something along the lines of "Why don't we give Shonn Greene a chance to run?" That's what former Jet Shaun Ellis is expecting on Sunday, a return to a ground-and-pound approach.
Tedy: Greene is running hard. He's still a tough tackle. Tomlinson remains a threat in the passing game. In the game against the Raiders two weeks ago, he caught a touchdown pass and made linebacker Quentin Groves look like he was just standing there. I'm sure they'll try to get Tomlinson going in that area Sunday.
Patriots' offense vs. Jets' defense
Mike: After three weeks of leaning heavily on the pass to open the season, the Patriots showed they can also be a physical running team in Sunday's win over the Raiders. That could serve them well against a Jets team that has been struggling to stop the run.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis rushed for 75 yards and a TD last Sunday against the Raiders.
Tedy: The Patriots had 30 rushes and 30 passes in that game, and it's so important to establish that balance. It proves to teams that the Patriots can make a concerted effort to run the ball. It's amazing how much precision is required when you throw the ball. And when you throw it 40, 50 times the way they were, all it takes is one tipped ball and it could go the other way, which we saw in Buffalo. To limit that a bit, and run it more, it helps Tom Brady. You don't want him throwing for more than 7,000 yards, so getting BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Stevan Ridley going was very important, taking some of the pressure off Tom.
Mike: I thought that was some good coaching and play-calling by Bill O'Brien last week. The approach and mindset put the players in position to execute in that area, as it's hard to ask an offense to be hard-charging when you're dropping back to pass 40-50 times per game. I liked the idea of O'Brien calling on an offensive lineman (Thomas Welch) as a second tight end. That was an attitude decision, and now there is a lot of talk about the two running backs, Green-Ellis and Stevan Ridley.
Tedy: There is a lot of excitement about Ridley, and there are questions on whether he should get the ball more. But I think Green-Ellis is still the top guy I'd give it to, especially on a third-and-1 or fourth-and-1 situation. Ridley is more of that off-tackle type of runner. In between the tackles, I still like Green-Ellis.
Mike: Of course, any discussion of this aspect of the matchup should probably start with Wes Welker. He's off to a great start to the season with 40 receptions for 616 yards, both NFL highs. He also has five touchdowns.
Tedy: It's still amazing to me how defenses are letting Wes Welker run clean, how they don't have someone on the line of scrimmage jamming him to disrupt the timing, even if that means taking someone out of the rush. If it's that much of a problem, you double team him off the line of scrimmage. We used to do that in the old days, putting two guys up there against a tight end like Antonio Gates, Marcus Pollard and Dallas Clark. Pre-snap, a quarterback would look at that and say, "He's done. I have to go somewhere else." Last year, the Jets used the Jason Taylor-type of player, the Bryan Thomas-type of player, to re-route receivers like Welker. If there is any defensive coordinator to come with that type of plan, it would be Rex Ryan, and that's one of the matchups I'll be watching. You take away Wes Welker and see who else can win the game.
Mike: One could make the case that too much of the Patriots' offense is Welker-centric right now.
Tedy: In the end, the Patriots don't want Welker catching 160 balls; it's too one-sided. You want Deion Branch, Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Julian Edelman and Chad Ochocinco getting into the mix too because it helps you be more balanced. There will be a time when a defense says, "Wes Welker is not going to beat us" and they take him away. That's when Tom is going to have to look at those other options.
Mike: The Jets' defense has had some early-season issues, ranking 27th in rushing yards allowed per game (130.5). One area they stand out in is third down, where they rank first in holding opponents to a 26 percent success rate. The Patriots' third-down offense is excellent (fourth in NFL, 52.4 percent), so that is a big part of this matchup -- strength on strength.
Tedy: You also have to look at turnovers, as we saw how those turned the playoff game between the teams. Linebacker David Harris' first-quarter interception helped change the course of that playoff game, and he did it again Sunday night, taking an interception back to the house. He reads quarterbacks very well. Overall, it's a good tackling defense. Players take the plans of Rex Ryan and execute them well, and that's what makes them so good.
Mike: They have some youth along the defensive line, starting first-round draft choice Muhammad Wilkerson at one end spot. And in the defensive backfield, of course, you always have to be aware of cornerback Darrelle Revis.
Tedy: Based on the first four games, you're not sure what Jets unit is going to be there. They've shown some vulnerability. Sometimes, a wounded team with something to prove, they come in with added motivation.
Mike: That leads us into our predictions. This is the Jets' third road game in a row, so you give the Patriots the edge there. I think the Jets will play a good defensive game against an offensive scheme they are know quite well, and thus, I envision the Patriots' streak of scoring 30 or more points coming to an end in this one. On the flip side, I still have questions about the Patriots' defense, and when factoring in the growing team's growing injury list, I see a very close game. Let's call an overtime game. Patriots 27, Jets 24, with Stephen Gostkowski delivering a dramatic game-winning field goal in the extra session.
Tedy: I think Rob Gronkowski will be big in this game. Rex Ryan will do his best to take away Wes Welker and that's when Brady will look to his big tight end. Gronkowski will win versus the Jets safeties and linebackers. The Patriots' defense will continue to struggle, especially with the loss of Jerod Mayo, but I don't think Sanchez has what it takes to put enough points on the board. As long as the Patriots don't let the Jets' defense and special teams ruin the game they will win. Patriots 31, Jets 21.Tedy Bruschi played 13 seasons for the New England Patriots and is a member of the franchise's 50th-anniversary team. Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.