For the first time, they used a four-man front that included defensive ends Andre Carter and Mark Anderson and defensive tackles Brandon Deaderick and Vince Wilfork. It was a pass-rushing fit that that essentially dared the Jets to run the ball, and New York failed to adjust.
Wilfork and Carter have been the Patriots' two irreplaceable defensive linemen this season, both against the run and pass. Anderson has been used in pass-rush situations, but he hasn't been as strong against the run, which has limited his playing time. And Deaderick had only played at defensive end — typically on the left side, opposite of Carter — until Sunday's 37-16 victory against the Jets.
Deaderick had played well in his first two games against the Steelers and Giants, and he had been solid against the run from his spot at defensive end. However, he's smaller than most interior players, so he wasn't as strong against the run from his spot at defensive tackle against the Jets. The Patriots tried not to greatly expose themselves to the Jets' running attack by making sure Deaderick and Anderson never lined up next to one another.
"That's something we didn't do the first time we played against them, but that's something we discussed probably three or four weeks ago," said Carter, who set a franchise record with 4.5 sacks. "We just constantly worked on it. We didn't get frustrated. It was great."
Carter was the beneficiary of the new look with his sack total, and he also hit quarterback Mark Sanchez eight times. Anderson contributed with a half sack, but the four-man combination put the Patriots' best pass-rushing linemen on the field at the same time.
The strategy behind it was brilliant. They wanted the Jets to try to run the ball to protect a secondary that was without safety Patrick Chung for the entire game and cornerback Devin McCourty for the better part of three quarters. Linebacker Brandon Spikes also didn't play, leaving guys like Sterling Moore (who played safety for the first time in his life in his first career start), linebacker Jeff Tarpinian (his first extended action on defense), linebacker Tracy White (a solid special teamer) and cornerback Antwaun Molden (who was benched two weeks ago) playing a significant role.
There were holes over the middle of the field, but Sanchez didn't have time to find them and make the seldom-used players pay. And though the Jets tried like heck to expose a pass defense that, as Jets linebacker Bart Scott once said, hasn't been able to stop a nosebleed, Sanchez was never comfortable enough.
"We were hungry," Anderson said. "We made a lot of plays."
While a four-man pass rush doesn't look sophisticated, Carter said the defensive line communicated as well as it had all season. On any given play, certain players were responsible for rushing Sanchez, while others were charged with hanging back and making sure Sanchez couldn't scramble. They also worked diligently to control his sightlines.
"It felt good out there working together, playing hard, rushing hard, and the proof is in the pudding," Deaderick said.
The Jets ran the ball 25 times for 110 yards, with Shonn Greene's 13 carries for 61 yards leading the way. But they never controlled the game on the ground. If they did, the thinking is the Patriots would have used a more traditional four-man front with Kyle Love on the inside and either Deaderick or Shaun Ellis on the outside.
That combination has been great against the run this season, but they haven't generated consistent levels of pressure on the quarterback. The fear for the Patriots, most likely, would have been using those four players and watching the Jets simply ignore the running game. And with that, Sanchez probably would have had more time to hit the dead spots in a defense that almost exclusively played zone over the middle of the field.
Chalk it up as the best adjustment the Patriots have made this season, and they were ecstatic that it threw off the Jets in the way that it did.
"It felt great," Anderson said. "That was something we worked on to get after the quarterback. I don't think they were ready for it, and we capitalized on it. We had a good game."