Chandler Jones’ Impressive Pass-Rushing Performance Among Five Takeaways From Patriots-Jets

Geno Smith, Chandler JonesThere’s a reason NFL games used to be played on Thursdays just once a year.

Unless both teams are given a bye in the previous week, Thursday games are, for the most part, sloppy messes. This week’s game between the Patriots and Jets was no different.

Typically, the better team still prevails, which is what happened at Gillette Stadium on Thursday night. But coming off just three days rest is no way to play an NFL game.

When NFL fans started complaining about Thursday nighters last year, I thought they were nuts. Who in their right mind is going to complain about an extra night of football and an extra game per week to watch? But after witnessing that New York-New England matchup in person, I finally understand. That was a brutal 60 minutes of football.

It was a good test for the hometown team, though. The Patriots were decimated by injuries on offense, putting rookie contributors in the spotlight. If the game didn’t destroy their confidence, it gave Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson some adversity to fight through.

It was obvious both teams were tired. By the second quarter, as the sky opened and rain was pouring down, the players looked like they were running through molasses. It’s tough to judge a game like this, but now that I’m off my soapbox, check out my five takeaways from Thursday night’s action below.

1. The Patriots’ secondary suffers drop from Week 1 but is still impressive: It seems necessary to mention that New England’s defense has faced two rookie quarterbacks every time I discuss the unit. With that out of the way for this column, this defense looks good.

The secondary is a key part of that impressive play. The Patriots’ defense let Geno Smith pass for 214 yards, up from EJ Manuel‘s 150 last week, but with sacks taken into account, the Jets only accounted for 189 yards in the pass game. The defensive backs also picked off three passes after going interception-less in Week 1.

In doing my TV film review, I saw nine Patriots defenders targeted by a Smith pass. Here’s how I saw the receptions and targets break down in Week 2:

Alfonzo Dennard: three receptions on seven targets for 79 yards and an interception
Aqib Talib: 2-5, 47 yards, 2 INTs
Kyle Arrington: 3-9, 37 yards
Steve Gregory: 2-3, 25 yards
Duron Harmon: 1-1, 3 yards
Jerod Mayo: 0-2
Jamie Collins: 0-1
Devin McCourty: 0-1
Dont’a Hightower: 1-2, -3 yards

Those are some pretty solid numbers, overall. Dennard didn’t look quite as dominant as he did in Week 1, but he also tweaked his ankle during the week. That could have affected his speed and cutting ability. On one 34-yard reception, McCourty was a bit late coming over to help the Patriots cornerback, but it’s unclear where the safety was coming over from. That’s a play I’ll need to review once the coaches tape comes out. If it looks to be McCourty’s fault, I’ll revise the statistics.

Dennard was still one of the better defenders on the field Thursday night. He’s great at playing the ball and came up with a near interception before he finally picked off Smith in the final quarter. McCourty, Gregory and Harmon all played well, though McCourty’s best play this season is likely in front of him. He hasn’t been playing quite as strong as he did last year, but that should be one of New England’s smallest areas of concern.

Here’s how the Patriots’ defenders stack up after two weeks of action:

Dennard: 3-9, 79 yards, INT
Arrington: 5-14, 53 yards
Talib: 2-5, 47 yards, 2 INT
Gregory: 3-5, 43 yards
Mayo: 3-7, 27 yards
McCourty: 1-2, 18 yards, TD
Spikes: 1-1, 7 yards
Harmon: 1-1, 3 yards
Ninkovich: 1-1, 2 yards
Hightower: 2-3, 1 yard
Collins: 0-1

If you’ve noticed those numbers don’t equal the 364 passing yards the Patriots have given up this season, you would be correct. I will not assign blame to a player on every reception. On many passes dumped off to running backs, there is no Patriot defending that player. I could assign blame to Bill Belichick for his scheme design, but it’s actually pretty effective in limiting big plays.

The Patriots’ linebackers are not overly strong in coverage. So those players play in a deeper zone and can come downhill to attack those backs and prevent first downs.

2. The Patriots’ pass rush was much improved: It seems like the two biggest areas of uproar in this region for the past five seasons or so have been pass rush and pass defense. If the Patriots’ play is any indication, those facets are fixed in 2013.

Here’s how New England’s pressure broke down in Week 2:

Chandler Jones: 2 sacks, 4 pressures, 2 QB hits
Rob Ninkovich: 5 pressures, 1 QB hit
Tommy Kelly: 1 sack, 2 pressures
Michael Buchanan: 1 sack, 2 pressures, 1 QB hit
Dont’a Hightower: 1 pressure, 1 QB hit
Brandon Spikes: 1 pressure
Vince Wilfork: 1 QB hit

That’s a major improvement over Week 1, when the team had zero sacks. Jones seems to be fitting into his third-down defensive tackle role swimmingly (that’s a pass rush pun). Buchanan has had no problem turning up the pressure in his limited snaps when Jones kicks inside. Ninkovich has yet to get a sack, but he’s delivering more than enough pressure from the left side, and Kelly is providing more of a push than the Patriots saw from Brandon Deaderick and Kyle Love last season.

If there’s an issue with the Patriots’ front four, it’s interior depth. If Wilfork or Kelly went down, it would be down to Joe Vellano, who was struggled, to start. Vellano has yet to get pressure on the quarterback in 53 total snaps and gets pushed out and down far too easily by offensive linemen. Fortunately, Vellano is just a rookie, and he could show big improvement by the time the season is through.

The Patriots did bring in some added depth on Thursday in Chris Jones, a sixth-round pick by the Houston Texans who was picked up off waivers from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He had 12 1/2 sacks his senior year at Bowling Green.

The team still didn’t blitz its linebackers much, but with less of a mobile threat in Week 3, Spikes, Hightower and Jerod Mayo could get their chance to shine against the Buccaneers.

Here’s how the pressure stacks up for the season:

Jones: 2 sacks, 7 pressures, 4 QB hits
Ninkovich: 6 pressures, 2 QB hit
Buchanan: 1 sack, 3 pressures, 1 QB hit
Kelly: 1 sack, 3 pressures, 1 QB hit
Hightower: 2 pressure, 1 QB hit
Wilfork: 2 pressures, 1 QB hit
Spikes: 2 pressure

3. Rookie wide receivers had major issues catching the football: This one’s a bit obvious, but since I took the time to watch every incompletion to chart drops, it was worth including. Patriots receivers had seven total drops. Aaron Dobson accounted for four on 10 targets, Kenbrell Thompkins had two (one diving) on seven targets and Julian Edelman had just one in 18 targets.

It’s rare to see a wide receiver have more drops than receptions, but thems the breaks for Dobson. Tom Brady looked mighty frustrated at times, and there’s good reason. The rookies were pretty brutal. The good news? They can only improve. Oh, and Danny Amendola and Rob Gronkowski are returning, so there’s no need to panic.

4. Running backs, tight ends are not contributing in pass game: It might be a little easier on Brady and the rookies if there were some weapons at running back and tight end to catch the ball. That has not been the case.

On Thursday, Brady targeted his backs and tight ends four times. Only James Develin wound up with a reception, and it went for only four yards.

During the preseason, we saw plenty of reps when Stevan Ridley, Leon Washington, Shane Vereen and Brandon Bolden would catch passes while lined up as receivers. We’ve seen backs split out, but it doesn’t seem to be fooling defenders much.

I expected Ridley to be a much bigger part of the passing game this year. With zero receptions on zero targets, I couldn’t be more wrong so far.

5. Patriots win game off turnovers, penalties: When games are as close as this one was, sometimes it just comes down to the little things, that being: penalties, turnovers and time of possession.

The Patriots lost the time of possession battle 34 minutes to 26 minutes, but they forced four turnovers to New York’s zero and had just three penalties for 30 yards to the Jets’ eight for 66 yards.

Brady and Ridley didn’t look at the top of their game on Thursday, but at least they didn’t turn the ball over.

Have a question for Doug Kyed? Send it to him via Twitter at @DougKyedNESN or send it here.

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