The Jets and Patriots, both 3-2, will meet up at MetLife Stadium this Sunday with first place in the AFC East on the line.
The teams have split their last four meetings in the Meadowlands, with the Jets taking two overtime wins in 2013 and 2015 and the Patriots taking one possession victories in 2014 and 2016.
To get a view from the dark side, I asked Rich Hill from Pats Pulpit five questions on the reigning champs heading into Week 6’s game.
1. How have the Patriots kept their offense going despite their offseason losses and some of the injuries they've had to deal with?
The Patriots have had to overcome the offseason losses of Martellus Bennett and LeGarrette Blount and the preseason losses of Julian Edelman and Malcolm Mitchell, but the offense was put in a good position to succeed. They added Brandin Cooks, Phillip Dorsett, Dwayne Allen, Mike Gillislee, and Rex Burkhead to the roster, while Rob Gronkowski returned from his back injury. Cooks is already playing like one of the best receivers Tom Brady has ever had the fortune to line up with, while Gronkowski is looking like his old self. Add in the continued development of Chris Hogan in his second season with the team and Danny Amendola’s continuous availability as Edelman’s back-up and the Patriots offense is still one of the best in the league.
Now the Patriots offense isn’t playing in their typical old fashion. Brady’s throwing the ball deeper a lot more this year than in years past, exposing him to more opportunities for hits in the pocket, but also churning out one of the most efficient offenses of his career. Look for the Patriots to try and test the Jets on the sidelines and deep down the field, as opposed to their typical play in the middle of the field.
2. What is the biggest reason for the team's struggles on the defensive side?
Well the biggest problem with the Patriots defense this year- and this is important- has been the fact that they’re not very good at playing defense. They can’t stop the run. They can’t defend the pass. They can’t rush the quarterback. They can’t play zone coverage. All of those are necessary in order to be considered a “not terrible defense.”
Alan Branch, who had been outstanding for the Patriots, was a healthy scratch last week for his poor performance. The concerns about the Patriots losing Rob Ninkovich, Chris Long, and Jabaal Sheard in a single offseason have come true as the inexperienced Patriots edge defenders haven’t done enough. Dont’a Hightower missed time with an injury. Stephon Gilmore was a major let down through four games and his poor play seemed to affect the communication of the entire secondary. So every level of the defense has been responsible for their bad play.
Now it seemed like the defense simplified their strategy against the Buccaneers last week and it worked. The Patriots limited Jameis Winston to 109 passing yards through three quarters with press coverage before moving to soft zone coverage to drain the clock. The run defense wasn’t stellar, but the Buccaneers never felt comfortable relying on the run. New England has to hope that was the first good step to having a good defense for 2017.
3. The Patriots have always had a knack for turning unheralded players into stars. Who has most fit that profile this year?
On offense, you probably know of Chris Hogan and James White by now, so my unheralded player is right guard Shaq Mason. He was the Patriots fourth round pick from the 2015 NFL Draft and he’s started since he was a rookie. He came from Georgia Tech’s triple option offense so he is still learning how to be a good pass blocker, but he’s adequate in that area and is outstanding as a run blocker. He’s athletic and the Patriots love to use him on pull blocks and get him in the open field. He sometimes doesn’t have the length to reach linebackers in the open field, which quicker linebackers can take advantage of (Darron Lee and Demario Davis fit that profile), but he’s as solid as they come. He should be a household name in the next couple years.
On defense, rookie fourth round edge defender Deatrich Wise is taking over as the Rob Ninkovich Memorial Clutch Player Of the Day™ on the defense and he seems to have a crucial sack or hit every single week. He’s primarily used against the pass and he’s developing as an overall player, but he’s already a very good pass defender.
4. Now that the season has begun to play out, what would the Patriots do today if they could go back and change one move they made in the offseason? Would it instead be a move or addition they didn't make?
Fantastic question. The most immediate and obvious change would be to not let Martellus Bennett go. The Patriots let Bennett walk to the Green Bay Packers and acquired Dwayne Allen from the Indianapolis Colts and James O’Shaughnessy from the Kansas City Chiefs. O’Shaughnessy didn’t make the final roster and Allen hasn’t recorded a single catch, even with Rob Gronkowski not playing last week. Allen’s been an okay blocker, but he’s been a huge drop from Bennett on the offense.
Alternatively, and this is a bigger domino effect, would be retaining Logan Ryan instead of signing Stephon Gilmore. That probably could have saved the Patriots $4 million per year, assuming a minor discount by Ryan, and the Patriots could’ve bolstered another position on their defense, preferably in the defensive front seven. And maybe they would’ve combined that $4 million with what they gave to Alan Branch ($4.25 million per year), and signed a player line Bennie Logan, Nick Fairley, Dontari Poe, or Jonathan Hankins.
5. At what point would there be legitimate reason to wonder if the Patriots might not be the guaranteed deep playoff team they have been for the past six years and beyond?
I think it’s when Tom Brady is no longer able to overcome any of the defensive deficiencies. For now, he’s still playing like the top 2 quarterback he’s been for the past 15 years and that alone makes the Patriots a contender, never mind the team’s track record of sorting out its problems by the final stretch of the regular season. Bill Belichick will always be Belichick and he’s building a coaching and front office staff to continue to succeed without a drop off; it’s when Brady stops being Brady that the conference championship is no longer a guarantee.
When will they happen? Who knows. Maybe this shoulder injury is the beginning of the end. Maybe Jimmy Garoppolo is the Next Big Thing and the Patriots will continue to win. Maybe Brady will still play at this ridiculous level for the next five years. For now, he’s the best 40+ year old quarterback in NFL history and that’s enough to make the Patriots a contender.