Commentary

Time to keep it simple

With their defensive leaders sidelined, Pats have new challenges vs. Jets

Updated: October 18, 2013, 4:41 PM ET
By Tedy Bruschi and Mike Reiss | ESPNBoston.com

Every week leading into the Patriots' next game, ESPN NFL analyst Tedy Bruschi and ESPNBoston.com Patriots reporter Mike Reiss preview the matchup. This week, it's a Sunday road game against the New York Jets (CBS, 1 p.m. ET):

Mike: Let's start with the injuries on defense, Tedy. The Patriots are without their leader along the line in Vince Wilfork. They are now without their leader at linebacker in Jerod Mayo. And it looks like they will also be without cornerback Aqib Talib. When you played, you led the huddle, so let's get into what that means without Mayo, who handled that important responsibility.

Tedy: Jerod was the main communicator, meaning he set everything from the defensive front to making all the adjustments. To not only lose him, but also Vince Wilfork, that's a problem with the interior of your defense. It would be one thing to break in a new communicator knowing you had Vince at defensive tackle to help out. So that's a double hit. Whenever I needed help communicating, Mike Vrabel would help me out, so maybe Rob Ninkovich takes on that role and helps out and communicates multiple adjustments.

[+] EnlargeDont'a Hightower
Greg M. Cooper/USA TODAY SportsLinebacker Dont'a Hightower said this week that he'll be wearing the communication device in his helmet in place of defensive leader Jerod Mayo. But is he up to the task?

Mike: Second-year linebacker Dont'a Hightower said this week that he will have the communication device in his helmet, taking over that important role.

Tedy: I think Hightower can handle it, but handle it at what level? How quickly can he get things communicated? How quickly can he see adjustments? It's not at the level that Mayo is right now. Jets offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg has been creative this year in terms of using the Wildcat formation, and complex formations and motions, so that's another thing to consider. If you're not able to get things communicated quickly, you're going to have a player who is thinking about getting everyone else in the right place and he'll have less time to think about his own job. That could be something that affects defensive coordinator Matt Patricia. He might have to keep things less complex this week because of the fear it can't be communicated. That decision will be decided after the week of practice. Mayo is a communication security blanket; with him, other players can focus on what they have to do and that's it because they just have to wait to be told what to do from Mayo. Now some responsibility could be spread around. Does that affect their job performance? We will see.

Mike: The team's top draft pick, Jamie Collins, could be asked to step in for Mayo on the weak side of the 4-3 defense; either him or four-year veteran Dane Fletcher. And it probably means that Brandon Spikes and Hightower are the two linebackers in the nickel, with Hightower staying on in the dime.

Tedy: When this defense truly gets complex is often third down, which is when they involve Mayo with running pick stunts with the defensive line, or when they involve him with combination coverage when he's taking away the inside like he did on Jimmy Graham on occasion last week, or when he's covering running back Darren Sproles when he is displaced from the formation. Mayo often handled the difficult portion of whatever defense was called. If you have a defensive call, and there is one problem you're going to have, a coach can say "Just put Mayo on that. He'll take care of it." Now you don't have that. So it remains a problem where you have to scheme to use other players or a combination of players. While you are getting all that communicated, what happens when the Jets decide to try to pound it down your throat? You still have to remember to be physical when they attack you inside. It can be a tough situation.

Mike: And we haven't even touched on cornerback Aqib Talib, although this might be one week where his absence wouldn't be felt as much because the Jets don't have a dynamic passing attack. The teams met Sept. 12, with the Patriots winning 13-10. Now they meet again just five weeks later, so let's get into that dynamic of the matchup.

Tedy: You saw them once, so you know what they were: a team that played you tough, but had a quarterback that couldn't handle the load that the coaching staff put on him. Now you're seeing them twice and can look at what they've become since that time. That's especially true when it comes to a team with a rookie quarterback like Geno Smith and his development over four more games. How far has he come? Or has he regressed at all? Same thing with Mornhinweg, the offensive coordinator: Has the playbook expanded at all for Smith? The last two weeks, the Jets have beaten the Falcons and lost to the Steelers, and those are teams that do things differently from each other defensively. So if you're the Patriots, you're looking closer at what he did well against and what did he struggle with in those games. Smith did much better against the Falcons, so maybe you take some of the Steelers' looks and use them.

Mike: How would you sum up your thoughts on Smith?

Tedy: I'd say it's been a typical rookie season. I've seen him play good football. I've also seen him make you say "he's just a rookie." With that in mind, you figure the Jets, with the running game, will try to exploit that interior defensive line of the Patriots more than the Saints did. This is the best center the Patriots have gone against this season in Nick Mangold. Whenever these two teams would meet, we'd highlight the Vince Wilfork matchup against Mangold. Now that Wilfork isn't there, does that make it a decided advantage for the Jets? This is a West Coast offense with college principles.

Mike: One thing stood out to me from the Jets' offense last week against the Steelers, and it is that there is a lot of motion, shifts, play fakes, end-arounds and all that stuff. It forces a defense to really be disciplined. Turnovers, as they often are, will be critical. One statistic that stood out to me in contrasting the teams is turnover differential. The Patriots are plus-5 on the season (12 takeaways, 7 giveaways), while the Jets are minus-11 (3 takeaways, 14 giveaways). The Patriots have forced at least one turnover in 33 straight games.

Tedy: The Patriots are going to have to find a way to scrap it out. When I look at their offensive line against the Jets' defensive line, it's a stalemate. The Jets' defensive line is very good and in Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson, you have two stars in the making, especially Wilkerson. In the first matchup with the Patriots, they had their way with the New England offensive line. So they won't be sneaking up on the Patriots and this offensive line should be ready to play. Even Damon Harrison is doing well. Quinton Coples is a big body playing at outside linebacker. Another linebacker, DeMario Davis, has been showing up. This is a good front seven and the Patriots will have their hands full. Rex Ryan's attitude shines through with this front -- physical, aggressive and nasty.

Mike: The Patriots will need to run the ball better than they did Sept. 12 when they were limited to 54 yards on 24 carries, but that might be easier said than done because, like you said, this Jets defense is real solid in that area of the game. They might have to use the short passing game as an extension of the running game.

Tedy: Yes, there may come a point when the Patriots realize that running the ball is going to be very difficult, and it could be another game like Week 2 where Kenbrell Thompkins, Aaron Dobson and Julian Edelman will be counted on. I don't want to get into whether Rob Gronkowski is going to play, because it just seems like drama now. Who knows when it's going to be?  [Editor's note: Gronkowski's agent says the tight end has been medically cleared to play; he is listed as questionable.] Dobson may be the guy who the Jets look at and say, "You're the one who is going to have to beat us."

Mike: Dobson is coming off a season high for snaps played, and while he is still victimized by some drops, it seems like he's taking some positive steps. He was a big part of that game-winning drive last week. You mentioned Gronkowski and I think whenever he does come back, the biggest help will be in the red zone, where the Patriots aren't converting as many trips (22) into touchdowns (9) as they desire.

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What's your prediction for Patriots-Jets?

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Tedy: With Rex Ryan, you never know what kind of combination coverages that you're going to see, especially in the red area. He did a good job of that in the first matchup, and always does a good job there. Rex also has some film that he can look at, specific to what his brother, Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, was thinking about last week. Then he can talk to him directly about what worked and what didn't work. Antonio Cromartie is a savvy cornerback with good physical tools. He has good length and knows when to grab and hold to get himself in better position and knows when to let go.

Mike: We won't overlook special-teams impact either, as the Jets have signed returner Josh Cribbs, who can be dangerous. As for predictions, I think this is the week that the offense is going to be asked to carry more of the load, and I think it delivers. I'm thinking it's a breakout game for the offense, with more points than maybe some would have anticipated. Patriots 31, Jets 21.

Tedy: We disagree on that, Reiss. I think this is going to be a low-scoring game. This Jets defense has impressed me and I think it will be motivated to perform well. Geno Smith will continue to make rookie mistakes and the Patriots will capitalize on them. Patriots 20, Jets 10.

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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