Friday, September 13, 2013

New York Jets 10 New England Patriots 13

This was a familiar sight for Patriots fans on Thursday night

What: New York Jets vs. New England Patriots, NFL Week 2

Where: Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, MA

When: 12 September 2013

I've watched pretty much every Patriots game for the last three years (okay, longer than that, but let's focus on those three). In that span, New England has finished 1st, 3rd and 1st in the NFL in points per game. As much as Pats fans would like to claim that their defense has continually improved, New England cannot depend on that group against good teams. To beat the tough teams on their schedule (beginning in Week 4 with a brutal stretch of @Atlanta, @Cincinnati and home for New Orleans), the Patriots have to outscore them. Yes, that sentence is tautological, but you get what I mean: the New England offense must outplay its opposition for the Patriots to have success. 

In 2012, New England allowed an average of 20.7 points per game, 9th in the NFL. But in the six games against playoff teams last year (in the regular season), that average jumped to 25.8 points per game. Not surprising -- playoff teams generally have better offenses than non-playoff teams, so everything else being equal, the Patriots should allow more points against playoff teams. 

What was odd was how the Patriots did on offense against those same playoff teams. In 2012, New England scored an average of 34.8 points per game, 1st in the NFL. But in the six games against playoff teams last year, that average also jumped, to 36.5 points per game. That's strange in and of itself. But then consider that the Patritos played three of the four stingiest defenses (by points per game) last year. Seattle, San Francisco and Denver collectively averaged 16.8 points allowed per game last year. New England averaged 29.3 points against those three teams, a mark that would have placed them 3rd in the NFL if they held that rate for the entire season. Yes, the sample size is small (with a 16-game season, most results-based samples are small in the NFL), but the message is clear -- New England relies on its offense to win games against good teams. 

You'll hear a lot of people saying that "style points don't matter in the NFL" and that the most important number for New England right now is 2 -- as in 2-0. But in the opening weeks of the NFL season, style points are important. The first two games give a coach 120 minutes of film to see what he's working with. There is plenty of evidence of teams starting poorly and still putting together a successful season -- look no further than the 2001 Patriots, who started 0-2 and ended that season by winning the Super Bowl. The reason why they were able to improve wasn't just the insertion of Tom Brady into the starting lineup (look at his numbers -- Brady was in the "game manager" phase of his career). Rather, Bill Belichick was able to use the film from those first two games to determine which areas the Patriots needed to improve on moving forward. Now, 12 years later, he will look to do the same thing.

Unfortunately for Belichick, the biggest way the Patriots can improve right now is also the hardest to accomplish -- getting healthier. You can coach up players to a degree, but you can't trot a 50% Rob Gronkowski out there and hope to have success (see: Super Bowl XLVI). Both Gronkowksi and injured wideout Danny Amendola would significantly upgrade a receiving corps that submitted what has to rank as one of the poorest pass-catching performances of the Brady era on Thursday against the Jets. Forget about the win, forget about Aqib Talib's three forced turnovers, forget about the defense's four sacks. The biggest takeaway by far was the poor play of New England's two rookie wide receivers, Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins (Julian Edelman was much more reliable, but even he made a couple mistakes). The two were targeted a combined 17 times and hauled in just five balls. It's not fair to expect a pair of rookies to catch everything thrown their way, but I would estimate that five to ten of those incompletions were drops. Those drops weren't all easy plays, but they were plays that above-average NFL receivers make about 70-80 percent of the time. Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins are not above-average NFL receivers. 

They will get better (it will be hard for them to get much worse), but that will take time, time New England doesn't have. Tom Brady is 36 and one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time. He gives you a chance to win the Super Bowl every year. But all athletes have an expiration date. Eventually, his play will begin to slip. It could happen this season, or four years from now. With great athletes, you never know. The Patriots cannot afford to waste a year of Brady's prime -- of which there are an indeterminate, but undoubtedly small number left -- by surrounding him with precisely one receiver that he trusts (Edelman). Gronkowski and Amendola will ameliorate things when (if?) they come back, but they were known injury risks heading into the season. Belichick had no contingency plan, and now we're here. 

Now onto my thoughts on the game:

Why the Patriots won

  • The New England defense relied on one of its favorite strategies: forcing turnovers. New England was outgained in almost every category: rushing yards (129 to 54), passing yards (189 to 178) and first downs (15 to 9). The Jets were even better on third-down conversions, normally a Patriots strength. But New England forced four turnovers to the Jets' zero ("forced" might be a generous term for Geno Smith's final two interceptions), and that allowed them to win the game. The turnovers were more the Jets' fault than the Patriots -- except the first one, for which Talib deserves credit for making a quick recovery. Talib did get beat one or two other times in coverage, but any time you win and force three turnovers, it's a good day. But, as Bill Belichick would say, "the Patriots made more plays than the Jets."
  • Likewise, New England did a good job holding onto the ball (when they were able to catch it) and surrendered no turnovers, even in monsoon-like conditions in the second half. Geno Smith essentially played Tom Brady to a draw through three quarters, but the difference between the two quarterbacks was that Brady made none of the poor throws that Smith did. All three of his picks were bad throws -- Brady made no such mistakes.
  • Julian Edelman had an outstanding game. He made a couple mistakes -- notably a miscommunication with Brady when he failed to extend a route in the first quarter -- but played very well overall, catching 13 balls for 78 yards. The rest of the Pats' receiving corps combined for just six catches. Edelman deserves major props for making some tough grabs over the middle and for remaining effective even when it became apparent that he was the only receiver that Brady trusted.
  • After failing to pressure Buffalo rookie QB E.J. Manuel in the season-opener, the Patriots' pass rush was much-improved against the Jets' rookie Smith. Though Belichick doesn't like to blitz a ton, New England still generated pressure by having players such as Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones move laterally before rushing, allowing them to attack different gaps in the line. The plan worked, allowing Jones to collect two sacks and linemen Tommy Kelly and Michael Buchanan to grab one each.
  • The O-line did a better job protecting Brady, surrendering just one sack and giving Brady more time to throw than last week, even against a good Jets' front. Brady still felt the heat at times, but this unit's performance was miles better than what they showed against the Bills.

Why the Jets lost

  • Turnovers, turnovers, turnovers. On the first turnover of the game, a fumble, Talib was beaten for a 33-yard completion to Stephen Hill, but was able to dislodge the ball while taking Hill down. That changed what would have been a Jets' first and ten at the NE 48 to a Patriots' first and ten from the NYJ 8. The Pats would get a field goal on that drive -- good enough for the winning margin in a three-point game. The Jets' next turnover was similarly critical. Trailing 13-10 with 11:30 to play in the game and facing third and five at the NE 27, Smith lobbed a pass toward Santonio Holmes.. But Smith failed to lead Holmes enough with his throw, leaving it behind him and allowing Kyle Arrington to deflect it upwards for Talib to pick off. Smith made the right read and if that ball is thrown correctly, it's a first down at the NE 10. An incompletion and the Jets at least have a shot at a makeable 44-yard field goal. (It was raining heavily in the second half, but 44 yards would still have been attainable -- though not guaranteed -- in those conditions.) Instead, they saw what would be their best chance at tying/winning the game evaporate. The Jets would get the ball back three more times but not get further than their own 46. Smith's two other picks didn't come in scoring range but were still badly-underthrown balls that killed potential game-tying/winning drives.
  • It's easy to forget because the Patriots receivers were somehow worse on Thursday and because we take the Jets' awfulness for granted, but New York's receiving corps was poor. But that shouldn't come as a surprise when your top three wideouts are a just-back-from-injury Holmes, Hill and Clyde Gates. Smith was just 15-for-35 passing, and while some of those -- including the three interceptions -- were on him, the Jets' receivers didn't do him many favors, either.
  • The Jets bit about as hard as I've ever seen a team bite on a play fake on New England's touchdown. On third and two early in the game at the NYJ 39, the Pats hurried up to the line in a run formation, with an extra offensive lineman and Edelman and Dobson tight to the line on the left and right, respectively. They sent everyone to the right and the Jets bit, hard. Dobson -- on his first NFL snap -- slipped out unnoticed and was the recipient of an easy throw over the top from Brady for a 39-yard TD. 

Why the Patriots could have lost

  • You can probably guess what I'm going to say based on my intro: the receiving corps. Too many dropped balls. Too many misrun routes. Too much miscommunication. The Patriots barely survived against the Jets; if they can't improve, they'll really struggle next week against Tampa Bay and Darrelle Revis
  • Stephen Gostkowski had a good shot at extending the Pats' 13-3 lead right before haltime but shanked a 43-yarder to the left as time expired. It was an ugly-looking kick and could have been a costly mistake if not for the Jets' turnovers.
  • Any time you're relying on turnovers to win, it's a bit risky. The Patriots traditionally are more careful with the ball than their opponents, but Smith was able to move the ball on them in the second half and looked fantastic in leading a 9-play, 58-yard TD drive midway through the third quarter. A solid performance overall from the D, but they could have been vulnerable to a better quarterback.
  • The Pats struggled on third down and in the red zone. In 2012, they led the league in third-down conversions (48.7 percent) and red-zone TD percentage (70 percent). They were just 4-for-18 on third down on Thursday and 0-for-2 on red-zone TDs.

Why the Jets could have won

  • Vince Wilfork did not have one of his best games as Jets left guard Vladimir Ducasse did some solid work on the big man in the middle. The Jets' per-carry average was identical to Buffalo's a week ago (4.0) but the difference between the games is that New England had success running it against the Bills (4.5 ypc) and none against the Jets (2.3 ypc). That edge in the running game helped the Jets almost pull off the upset, and Ducasse certainly played a role in it. 
  • Rex Ryan trusted Smith a bit more than Doug Marrone trusted Manuel last week, allowing the rookie to test the Patriots deep several times. Though it came back to bite him in the end, Smith threw for gains of 37, 34 and 27 and added a 16-yard scramble for a first down. Through three quarters, he looked promising. In the fourth, he looked like a rookie.
  • On the Jets' third possession of the game, they appeared to have a touchdown when Smith connected with Gates for a 9-yard score. The ball popped out in the process, but it was never shown to hit the ground and it wasn't clear that Gates lost possession to New England's Jerod Mayo. Since the initial ruling was touchdown, the best call probably would have been to stick with that, since evidence must be irrefutable for the call on the field to be overturned. But the call was overturned, and New York had to settle for three, not seven.

Final thought

I didn't like the Jets' strategy of going without a punt returner. The obvious benefit is that you get another guy to try and block the kick, but New York didn't really come close to blocking any of Ryan Allen's franchise-record 11 (11!) punts. Instead, they left themselves vulnerable to a massive punt, which the Pats would have had at the start of the second quarter if Marquice Cole hadn't prematurely downed the kick at the Jets' 22. Allen was punting from his own 34 on the play but the ball could have easily rolled to inside the Jets' 10-yard line. I'd like to know why Ryan made this decision since I can't imagine there's a ton of data on the punt-block success of teams that choose not to field a returner. Who knows, with enough evidence, he might even be right. But right now, I just don't think it's worth sacrificing the field position (not only the yards lost in a potential return, but yards gained by the punting team by letting punts roll) for a slightly better chance at an unlikely event.

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