The issue behind the Jets' struggles appears to be obvious. Their personnel has turned over in the front seven to a large extent since the start of the 2010 season, when they started out with defensive end Shaun Ellis, nose tackle Kris Jenkins (who only played one game due to injury), outside linebacker Bryan Thomas and outside linebacker Jason Taylor.
Ellis and Taylor left town after 2010, while Jenkins retired and Thomas was placed on injured reserve this season. They've been replaced by rookie defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson, defensive end Mike DeVito (who started most of last season once Sione Pouha moved to the nose to replace Jenkins), outside linebacker Jamaal Westerman and outside linebacker Calvin Pace. Rookie defensive lineman Kenrick Ellis has also worked himself into the rotation in the last two weeks.
The difference in the front seven could be debatable in some areas, and Pace is actually an upgrade over Taylor. Plus, with inside linebackers Bart Scott and Davis Harris in the mix during the last two seasons, it's hard to imagine them falling off too much. And the difference in the long haul could be the development of Wilkerson, who has improved since struggling at the start of the season.
"That defense is very fast, and they're going to throw a lot of looks at you," Patriots running back Stevan Ridley said. "For us to go out there and win, we have to go out there and execute our game plan, and that's on the ground and through the air. We've got to do both. It has to be balanced, and that's what we've been focusing on all year. I don't think we have to do one more than the other. We just have to be a balanced offense and go out there and let our playmakers make the plays."
The Jets have given up 123 rushing yards per game this season, which ranks 22nd in the NFL. They've also given up nine rushing touchdowns, tied for the fifth-most in the league.
Last season, the Jets were ranked third in rushing defense and 12th in rushing touchdowns allowed. In 2009, head coach Rex Ryan's first season with the team, the Jets ranked eighth against the run and 11th in rushing touchdowns allowed.
The Jets have been better in recent weeks, allowing 96 yards on the ground in each victory against the Chargers and Bills. That ended an atrocious five-game stretch in which the Jets allowed 145.6 rushing yards per game, and they lost three times during that run.
"It doesn't matter what they had a problem with," Patriots running back Kevin Faulk said. "The previous two games, they've done everything right. They've won. They've stopped the run. Like they've done on third down, they've been the best in the league. They've improved on a lot of different things from the last time we've played them."
The Patriots ran for 152 yards against the Jets in their 30-21 victory in Week 5 — the second-most rushing yards for the Patriots this season — and running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis amassed a career-high 136 yards and two touchdowns. He also had 10 carries for 59 yards and two first downs during the Patriots' final possession to put the game away.
The importance of the rush is twofold for the Patriots this weekend. First, it won't allow the Jets to gear up to hit quarterback Tom Brady or overload his receivers in pass coverage. Second, for whatever reason, Brady has been in a funk in recent weeks, so he could use a little extra help.
And if the Jets are vulnerable in that area, the Patriots have to make sure they expose that weakness.
"I don't want to say I've seen something specific [as a Jets weakness]," Ridley said. "We'll play them just like we've always played them, and that's just going in there and doing our job. Coach will have a game plan ready for us."