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Third Down Chess

NFL: New England Patriots at New York Jets Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

In Sunday’s game there was an interesting back and forth battle on third downs between Jets defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich and Patriots quarterback Mac Jones and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.

On the game’s first third down the Jets load the area close to the line of scrimmage with defenders.

This is meant to confuse the quarterback. The offense needs to figure out which players are blitzing and make sure they are all blocked. It’s possible some of these players will drop into coverage and won’t need to be blocked. If the defense gets its way, the offense will get it wrong and one of the pass rushers will go unblocked. On this play, however, the Jets drop everybody into zone coverage except the four defensive linemen.

Jones goes on to hit James White out of the backfield to extend the drive.

Later in the drive the Patriots faced another third down. The Jets again load the line of scrimmage with potential blitzers.

This time the Jets are coming after Jones. Six of the seven men at the line are coming. Only CJ Mosley goes into coverage. He plays man against the tight end.

Jones is looking left at the snap. He has a route combination with a vertical route on the outside and an out from the slot. This is difficult to defend in zone because the outside receiver carries the outside corner up the field, vacating his spot for the slot receiver.

If the Jets had dropped everybody back again and played zone, there is a good chance this would have been a completion to extend the drive. However, because the Jets are blitzing they are in tight man coverage, and this route isn’t open because Michael Carter II shuts down the window from the slot.

The blitz also gets home, and Marcus Maye delivers the sack to knock New England out of field goal range.

As we move to the second quarter, prior to a third down play Jones is setting the protection and seems to be calling out Marcus Maye on the right side of the formation to alert his blockers about a potential blitz. You might remember that Maye had a sack blitzing off the right side on the last play we discussed.

At the snap the Patriots slide three of their offensive linemen to Maye’s right side. However, Maye and Bryce Huff both drop. There are only two blitzers against the three offensive linemen on that side. Meanwhile on the left side there are four blitzers against two offensive linemen and a back.

The Jets are able to generate pressure. Jones takes a deep shot to Jacobi Meyers, but it is incomplete perhaps influenced by the pass rush.

Moving to a third down late in the first half, Josh McDaniels has seen enough. He’s going to help out his rookie quarterback rather than subject him to a blitz guessing game.

With the Jets again loading bodies near the line, New England puts tight end Hunter Henry in motion.

Henry draws Adrian Colbert with him.

One player following Henry is a sign of man coverage.

New England also stacks Henry behind another receiver in the formation, getting him a free release off the line. This is a play designed to beat the blitz by getting the ball out quickly, and it works as the Patriots move the chains.

We move to the second half, and it is third down again. New England is again sending a receiver in motion.

The Jets defense doesn’t really change, however. Nobody follows the receiver.

The Jets are playing zone here, which means you don’t need a defender to chase a motioning receiver and give away the matchups. We are back to where we began, a four man rush and zone coverage. There is a twist, however. The defensive call is what is known as a zone blitz, which is when defensive linemen drop into coverage, and either linebackers or defensive backs take their place as pass rushers. Huff and John Franklin-Myers (orange) are dropping while CJ Mosley and Quincy Williams (red rectangles) are blitzing.

Because Williams is standing up and a linebacker, he is more mobile than a big defensive lineman with his hand in the turf. He is able to shoot to a gap far to his left. The Patriots aren’t expecting him to get that far. They haven’t set up their blocking to pick him up. Williams then forces Jones to throw before he wants to his checkdown.

And because he’s sitting back in zone with the ability to scan the play, Marcus Maye is able to go get the football.

Given the outsized role of Jets turnovers in this game, the third down battle when New England had the ball did not have much of an impact on the outcome. I did find the cat and mouse game interesting, though, as the two teams kept adjusting to each other’s adjustments.

Perhaps in the second meeting the outcome will depend on which side adjusts better on third down.