Coming off an exhilarating and uplifting season opening win against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the (1-0) New York Jets will travel to Gillette Stadium to face off against the (1-0) New England Patriots. New England has won the previous five regular season match-ups, but these games are (almost) always close slug-fests between two sworn enemies. With a battered New England roster playing on a short week schedule, the Jets may have an opportunity to snatch this game, but the defensive line has to dominate for this to happen. This brings me to my first key.
Antwan Barnes & Muhammad Wilkerson: With Shane Vereen reportedly out with an injured left wrist and Stevan Ridley still running laps after fumbling (and being benched) on Sunday, the Patriots will undoubtedly try to keep the ball in Tom Brady's hands. Luckily for them, this Brady fellow is pretty good, although he looked decidedly mortal against the Bills—288 yards on 55.8% passing, with 2 touchdowns and 1 interception, adding up to a 76.4 QB Rating. The Bills came after Brady, racking up only 2 sacks but generating some pretty consistent pressure. The Jets have experimented with various ways to stop Brady, even finding success by toning down the blitzing and dropping more men into coverage. However, the Jets' present personnel does not dictate that type of defense, and is much better suited to bring the pressure hard and often. Barnes registered the first sack of his Jets' career against the Bucs, displaying a speed off the edge that the Jets have been lacking for years. Barnes hurried Josh Freeman one other time (leading to a sack for a teammate) and was in on the safety, forcing Freeman to kick it out of the back of his own endzone. Wilkerson had a bit of a down game (PFF gave him an uncharacteristically low -2.2 grade), but he was double-teamed most of the day—which opened things up for his teammates—and still managed to sack the opposing quarterback once. The Jets' front seven looked spry and dynamic against the Buccaneers, hurrying Freeman 10 times, sacking him 3 times, and hitting him 1 other time. This was against a good offensive line that only allowed 26 sacks last season, good for 3rd least in the NFL. The front seven needs to continue to dominate for the Jets to have a chance, and Barnes and Wilkerson are going to have to play a large role on Thursday.
Kyle Wilson vs. Danny Amendola/Julian Edelman: With Wes Welker gone and Rob Gronkowski nursing his back and/or forearm, Brady was throwing to the likes of Danny Amendola, Kenbrell Thompkins, Zach Sudfeld and Michael (deep breath) Hoomanawanui in week 1. To top it off, Amendola pulled a groin and was limited in practice on Monday. Against the Bills, Amendola racked up 10 catches on 14 targets, but Thompkins only reeled in 4 of his 14 targets. Julian Edelman did much of the damage with 2 touchdowns among his 7 receptions, and Vereen (who will be out this week), was Brady's other preferred target. Regardless, it appears that covering the slot—whether Amendola or Edelman occupy it—will be critical this week, and that is usually Kyle Wilson's domain. Darrelle Revis has blanketed notorious Patriots slot weapon Wes Welker in the past, but obviously that is not an option, and Antonio Cromartie is not suited for the role in his stead. Isaiah Trufant did a good job of it in Revis' absence, so perhaps he is an option should Wilson prove inept. Against the Buccaneers, Trufant and Wilson shared slot duties, with all 3 attempts at Wilson falling incomplete and Trufant not seeing any targets. Covering the slot will be critical, given the interesting trend that emerged on Sunday:
The Patriots' game-winning drive was telling as all seven passes were thrown to Vereen and Amendola, to go with two attempts for Vereen on the ground as New England's top offensive weapons became quite clear on Sunday.
-Per Steve Palazzolo, via Pro Football Focus
With Gronkowski's status uncertain and Shane Vereen ruled out, Wilson (or Trufant) holding up against Brady's favorite target(s) in the slot will be key to stopping the passing game.
Geno Smith vs. Patriots' Pass Rush: Here is an interesting stat, again courtesy of PFF: Geno Smith had 256 yards passing, but only 25 of those were on plays where he was under pressure. Another nugget: Geno held the ball longer than any quarterback this weekend, averaging 3.32 seconds per dropback. The Patriots had an average pass rush last season (tied for 15th overall with 37 sacks), and failed to sack E.J. Manuel in their first game. Last season, the Patriots gave up the 4th most passing yards in the NFL, and didn't do much to address the issue in the offseason. Having a healthy Chandler Jones and Aqib Talib for a full season should help, and Devin McCourtey has responded well since moving to free safety, but through the air is still where the Pats' defense is most vulnerable. The run defense was stout last season (3.9 yards per carry allowed), and looked good against two studs in C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson, so Chris Ivory and Bilal Powell might have some trouble again. Geno could make some noise against the Patriots pass defense, especially if the pass rush is slow to pressure him. Either way, this match-up is not all on the offensive line. If Geno manages the rush better (and gets rid of the ball sooner), he should improve on his debut.
Players to Watch: The Jets' tailbacks averaged 2 yards per carry against the Buccaneers, but the Bucs do boast a historically good run-defense—they allowed an NFL low 3.5 yards per carry last year and have blue-chippers all over the front seven. The Patriots run defense was also good last year (3.9 yards allowed), but the Jets did have some success against them last season (225 yards in 2 games). I'm going to be watching Chris Ivory and Bilal Powell (particularly Ivory), and hope to see much more than we saw against the Bucs. The Jets were lucky to win with no running game, but a big game this week out of the running backs would be quite encouraging. I will also be watching Kellen Winslow—the supposedly "finished" tight end that caught 7 passes for 79 yards and a touchdown against the Bucs. The Patriots tend to be vulnerable against tight ends: Dustin Keller had 12 catches for 157 yards and 2 touchdowns against the Patriots in their two games last season, and other teams capitalized on this weakness as well. For a rookie quarterback like Geno, Winslow can be a valuable security blanket.
It was apparent that Winslow is developing a special bond with Smith..."Kellen always tells me," Smith said, " 'If you're ever scrambling, if you're ever breaking the pocket, just find me. I'll find you and get open.' And he did that on that play."
-Per Jarrett Bell, via USA TODAY
Prediction: Whenever these two teams play, records and reputations are checked at the door. Yes, the Pats crushed the Jets 49-19 in their last meeting, but the previous meeting was a 29-26 overtime nail-biter—a Stephen Hill drop away from a Jets victory. The Patriots are weakened by multiple injuries, but still hold the division championship belt until someone takes it from them. Nevertheless, the Jets' first game sent the message that they were not to be trifled with. We don't know what this team's potential is, but we do know that this would be a signature win in any potential postseason chase. I wholeheartedly believe it'll be a close game regardless. The Jets pulling it out would be a major upset, but that is what I am predicting. How can I bet against the Jets when the Patriots are on the opposing sideline!