Let’s be honest. When the 2017 schedule was first released, very few thought that the New England Patriots Week Six showdown with their bitter division rival, the New York Jets, would be a battle of two teams fighting for first place in the AFC East. However, as the old pigskin adage states, ‘that’s why we play the games.’
The Jets have impressed, while the Pats have struggled. I caution everyone not to misinterpret this. The Patriots are sporting a respectable 3-2 record, and still have an abundantly talented roster. They also employ, arguably, the greatest quarterback and head coach in NFL history. Most other NFL teams would eagerly embrace that kind of ‘struggle.’
However, the facts cannot be ignored. The Patriots have not been THE Patriots as of late. Their defense is among the cellar-dwellers of the NFL, and even their wins have caused as many questions as answers.
In their Week Five victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Patriots helped to calm some collective New England nerves by proving that the defense was capable of protecting a lead, when the offense lets down their guard (back to that one, in a moment). All in all, the Patriots still have some problems to correct. Those corrections should be easier to achieve this week against the Jets, right? …Wrong!
Protect Your Quarterback!
The eye-opening problem in Week Five was not the defense. Instead, the major concern was the alarming rate at which quarterback Tom Brady was pressured, hit and sacked. Brady was pressured on 40 percent of his snaps against the Bucs and incurred three sacks. For those of you tracking at home, that makes 16 times thus far in 2017. At this rate, it is possible that we might see him sacked nearly 50 times by season’s end. As durable as Brady has been throughout his career, no one can be expected to continually endure that kind of damage.
In fact, the Patriots were reminded of that fact, this week, when Brady was conspicuously missing from practice to care for an injury. As reported by NBC Sports Boston’s Tom E. Curran, and expanded upon by his colleague Mike Giardi, Brady’s injury is an AC joint sprain to his left shoulder, which he initially suffered on a sack by Julius Peppers in their Week Four loss to the Carolina Panthers. He re-aggravated the injury against the Buccaneers last week.
Despite the obvious concern, New Englanders may breathe a loud sigh of relief. The injury is not to Brady’s throwing shoulder, and should be ok with proper rest. Brady told reporters on Tuesday that he will be ready to play on Sunday. In his weekly Wednesday’s press conference, head coach Bill Belichick described Brady “as physically and mentally tough of a player” as he as ever coached.
While that is certainly true, one can assume that Belichick would rather not test that toughness for too much longer. The Pats need to protect their quarterback to keep him healthy. That is their first order of business, this week.
Toe the Lines
If protecting the quarterback is priority one for the Pats this week, improved play on the lines is a close second. The offensive line has been much maligned for their lack of protection for Tom Brady, but their troubles run a bit deeper than that. The offensive line has looked undisciplined, which is very uncharacteristic of a unit coached by Dante Scarnecchia. However, the numbers don’t lie. Overall, the offensive line was responsible for 46 yards of penalties on Thursday. This repeatedly damaged the Pats offensive momentum, leading to potentially promising drives ending in disappointment. Discipline will be a key element this week in practice, and no one knows it’s value better than Scarnecchia.
The defensive line is also not above criticism. Although they have made improvements, the d-line is having trouble pressuring the quarterback. As a result, the linebackers have been forced into coverage, opening seams through which running backs have traveled with ease. When they have been able to apply that much-needed pressure, penalties have plagued them, as well. Crucial hands-to-the-face, roughing the passer, and other coverage penalties have extended drives, which have often led to scoring opportunities for their opponents.
To his credit, Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia knows that this is a high priority for him. On Tuesday, he said in a conference call that it’s up to him to re-acclimate the players to more complex coverages. His quote was:
“I think it’s got to start with me and I’ve got to teach and coach better week in, week out. I’ve got to try to make sure that it (the coverage scheme) is in a format where they can understand it, they can digest it, process it and they can make sure that they can execute it at a high level. All of that is going to start with me.”
Hopefully, those improvements will be evident on Sunday, or it may be a long day in East Rutherford, New Jersey.
Keep the Yellow Flags Off the Field
On his weekly radio appearance on WEEI’s Kirk & Callahan, Brady said he believes that part of the reason that the Pats have committed so many penalties (opponents have accepted 19 against them in the last two games) is that the officials are calling tighter games. Brady was careful not to point the finger at the officials, but acknowledged that the Pats need to more rapidly adjust to the style of the officiating crew. Brady said:
“I feel like it is more of a part of games than ever. We just have to adjust to that play style. If we get the calls, great. If we don’t, we still have to win. From the players’ standpoint, a little contact, I don’t think guys ever complain about not getting the call. It’s just we have to play through them. Look, the refs are trying to do the best they can do. I don’t know what they are being instructed, but sometimes they call it tight, sometimes they don’t.”
Especially in the past two games, the Pats have seemed more undisciplined than they have in recent memory. Brady’s comments indicate that he and the team need to quickly recognize the tendencies of the particular crew officiating the game on that day. By adjusting to that style, they can avoid many of the frivolous penalty yards surrendered by the defending champs so far, in 2017.
Same Old Jets? Not Quite…
The surprising and surging New York Jets sit at 3-2, tied for the AFC East lead with the Patriots and Buffalo Bills. Contrary to the popular belief of many New England fans, it’s no accident. The Jets have played well-beyond expectation, thus far. Quite simply, they have played well. Luckily, the Patriots coaches and players aren’t in the business of looking past a team, and will not do so at MetLife Stadium on Sunday.
After an 0-2 start, the Jets appeared to be living up to low expectations. For the past three weeks, however, they have looked like a different team. They have been solid in all three phases of the game; offensively, defensively and in special teams. Gang Green has made some big plays in all three areas. Quarterback Josh McCown has been stellar, and does not seem prone to a ‘butt-fumble’-like moment. Most importantly, they have done a great job in protecting the football by limiting turnovers. As a result, they own wins over the Miami Dolphins, Cleveland Browns and another surprise force in 2017, the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Wait…are we sure we are taking about the Jets? Yes…you bet.
In order to succeed on Sunday, the Patriots need to acclimate themselves with the tendencies of the Jets revamped defense. New York has proved to be a hard-nosed, physical defensive team, with a surprisingly stingy secondary. Look for Brady and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to scheme for a different, but always formidable Jets defensive attack.
No matter their record, it hasn’t been easy for the Patriots to visit the Jets in recent seasons. New England has split its last four road games with Gang Green, with the two losses coming in overtime. In each of these contests, the average margin of victory has been slim. Much to everyone’s surprise, Sunday’s game looks to be one that will come down to the wire.
In the final analysis, it appears that the New York Jets are for real, and will provide the Patriots with quite a full workload in the week ahead.
-Mike D’Abate is the Managing Editor for cover32.com/Chargers and covers the Los Angeles Chargers and New England Patriots. He is also a National Content Writer and covers the NFL for cover32.com.
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