Evil Empire No More

Having defeated a nasty, tough and resilient Broncos team in Denver last week, the Jets return home for the first time in three weeks to face the Patriots, a division rival that has effectively dominated the matchup between the two teams. The Jets have not beaten the Patriots and Bill Belichick's Evil Empire in seven years, during which time they have lost twelve straight divisional games. Over the past twenty two meetings and dating back, unbelievably, to 2011, the Jets have only beaten New England twice.

That was then, however, and this is now. Over the course of the past month, the Jets have won four straight games, three on the road, and most recently in one of the most hostile environments of all of professional football. They didn’t come out of Mile High unscathed; having lost three straight and heading for irrelevance at the bottom of the tough AFC West, the Broncs came out guns blazing, all hands on deck, literally, take no prisoners. Part of the result was we lost our two best young players, both on offense, and both of whose loss will be felt for the rest of the season. Still, the Jets emerged from Mile High with a 5-2 record, firmly in second place in the division, and only one game behind the Bills, who they play at home next week before going into a week nine bye.

As for the Patriots, they are no longer the dominant presence in the AFC East they once were, and after a home loss to the upstart Bears on Monday night, they fell into last place in the division at 3-4. Belichick currently finds himself in the midst of a quarterback controversy surrounding Mac Jones, who in his rookie season won ten games and led the Patriots to the playoffs. After an early leg injury this season, Jones was replaced by upstart rookie and fourth round pick Bailey Zappe, who lost to the Packers, beat the Lions and the Browns, then, after starting, then leaving the game for Jones, then coming back in after Jones pooped the bed, lost to the Bears on Monday night. Right now, however, Jones has been deemed to be healthy enough to play, and Belichick has named him starter for Sunday’s game at the Meadowlands.

When he’s healthy, Jones isn’t really a whole lot more than a glorified game manager. He has fairly good intelligence, and when he is given time behind a massive, mobile and talented offensive line, he finds open receivers in either zone or man coverage. The entire offensive setup is predicated on size and execution; they’re all big, including the QB, receivers, and running backs. And they play a punishing, physical style of NFL football. Their backs are both built with low centers of gravity, power and speed; the plan is to get them through the initial point of attack, then on to the second level, where they grind out yardage, wear down your secondary and support defenders, and secure field position as they methodically move down the field. Not pretty, but effective. Their receivers are long enough to exploit smaller corners and get behind safeties; don’t be fooled by the short game, because Belichick always reserves the right to test you deep. If you all asleep trying to crowd the run, he will make you pay when you forget to cover the long pass—Agholor and especially Devonte Parker have enough to cash in on big plays.

Fortunately, the Jets are built to counter New England’s strengths. We may not be able to physically match up pound for pound up front, but the Jets defensive line is better in space than will be the Pats’ offensive line. Prepare for sixty minutes, fight hard to maintain integrity at the line of scrimmage, play the run like you mean it; then get after the QB and put his ass on the ground. Jones looked disorganized, discombobulated, and, at times, lost against the Bears. Pinch the pocket around him, move him to his left, and hit him when you get close, and the ball will come out funny—whether he intends to or not, Jones will throw the ball to the other team if he feels enough duress. Look for that turnover to get him and the Patriot offense on the run. Stay close in coverage and dont lose contact outside. And keep the pressure on at all costs.

On d, their base three man d is anchored at the nose, rounded out by big defensive ends, and built solid at the second level with strong, physical and nasty linebackers-- led by Matthew Judon, who leads the league with eight and a half sacks. They dare you to run, and when they stop it, they turn Judon and the others loose in the backfield, to wreak havoc and bring down your qb. For the Jets to have success against this aggressive front, they will have to get movement against the nose tackle in the three man alignment—they will have to run the ball. Play action or not, they can then contemplate setting up Zack to attack vulnerabilities in the Patriot secondary. Jones is a stud back there, listed with an ankle, but will play. After that, find Jalen Mills and exploit him. Mc Courtey has also lost a step and may be vulnerable in coverage. If the Jets can get New England backed out of the box, dump offs, counters, and misdirection may not be enough. Belichick will not expect La Fleur to throw deep; if the matchups suggest it and the Jets o line can get set and find Zack time in five step, the move might be to go after the New England secondary with the pass. And attack the Patriots where they know they are most vulnerable.

All in all, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, this is a very winnable game. Losing AVT and Breece Hall will hurt, there is no doubt. But the Jets still have weapons on offense, they just have to figure out when and where to use them. Sunday may not be a coming out party for Zack Wilson, but expect him to start progressing beyond the soft and intermediate targets and pressing the ball downfield to his young and talented corps of receivers. On d, look for Clemons, Lawson, Vinny Curry, Jfm and Q to move that pocket back and into Mac Jones lap; get the hands up, and look for the turnover to swing momentum. Contain that run game, then get to the quarterback with that four man rush, attack attack attack. There is a lot at stake in this game, if the Jets win to go to 6-2, they will likely remain in second place in the AFC East, one game behind Buffalo, with two divisional wins in the bag, and three games up on New England, who will be buried in the cellar behind Miami. This would be a big step towards securing position not simply in the Division, but looking at the Conference and down the line for playoff position as well. Big test for Saleh and the boys. Big opportunity to give the Patriots, who have been doing it to us for years, a good swift kick first in the pants. Then straight down into the basement. Gang Green all day, Jets 27-17….

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