There is an old cliche, "The best defense is a good offense." The theory goes that if an offense scores a lot of points, there is less pressure on the defense. I won't say that the best pass defense is a good run defense, but the same concept will be at work when the Jets play the New England Patriots. New England has a future Hall of Famer playing quarterback. They do most of their damage through the air. The last thing the Jets need is to have to focus more of their attention on the run. It is a zero sum game. That is time taken away from playing the pass.
I think the Jets are in strong position to limit the damage New England can do on the ground. The Pats only gained 2.6 yards per carry in the first meeting as Gang Green controlled the point of attack. Guard Logan Mankins was holding out that day. Danny Woodhead, who now features prominently in the New England run game didn't get a carry. Even so, the Jets really shut down the run and controlled the point of attack.
One stat which might help us display how teams well teams do in the trenches while run blocking is yards their backs gain before contact. It shows how clean of a path the backs have. It also shows how well the backs read their blocks and cut. It's best to compile these numbers by team because in this era of splitting carries, a lot of teams give their backs different kinds of carries (or if their offensive coordinator is Brian Schottenheimer, provide a completely different playbook for their two backs). A run outside is more likely to gain yardage without contact, and some backs play that role on their teams. Every club has a different playbook and a different ratio of run styles, but comparing them by team over the course of a season still seems like a decent gauge.
New England relies on Danny Woodhead and Benjarvis Green-Ellis. They average 1.79 yards before contact combined. On its own, that number means nothing. This isn't a well-known stat. We have no context for what is good and what is bad. Let's take a team we know has a great offensive line. The obvious one would be the Jets, who feature Shonn Greene and LaDainian Tomlinson. This duo averages 1.94 per carry. How about a team we know has a terrible offensive line? I'll pick the Bears. Their duo of Matt Forte and Chester Taylor average 1.44 per carry.
How have things changed since Mankins returned to the lineup? Not that much. While Mankins is definitely an upgrade, the Pats are averaging 1.81 before contact in the four games since he returned.
I still like this matchup for the Jets, though, because of how strong the defense has been against the run this year. This defense shut down a Baltimore team whose backs gain 1.81 before contact, the same as New England with Mankins.
What does this all mean? The Pats have done a decent job keeping their backs clean. They aren't as good as the Jets, but they are pretty good. It also shows us that less than half of yardage for good backs is generally going to be gained prior to contact, which thrusts the focus to what happens after contact.
It is very difficult to gain yardage on the Jets after contact. Shaun Ellis and Mike Devito are both good at not only holding the point of attack but also getting off their blocks to make tackles. They both rate in the top ten in tackles at their position according to Pro Football Focus. Sione Pouha rates eleventh in the league among all tackles, which is impressive because he faces a double team on virtually every play unlike a lot of tackles. Bart Scott and David Harris are among the best in the league at working in traffic and wrapping up backs.
Both Benjarvis Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead rate in the top fifteen after contact according to Focus, but I am confident in New York's ability to slow them down.
The Jets held Green-Ellis 0.9 yards under his season average after contact in the first meeting. This has been a theme through the season. Ray Rice averaged a full yard less after contact. Cedric Benson was 0.9 below his average after contact last week. Peyton Hillis also went for 0.9 below his average. Adrian Peterson was more successful but still 0.3 below his average.
If the Jets cannot limit New England's effectiveness on the ground, they will have to commit more players to do so, which means less players can focus on the pass. Conversely, a strong front will give the Jets more options in defending the pass. I think this second option is more likely, which will give Gang Green flexibility against Brady's bunch. We will discuss this in more detail later.