FOXBORO, Mass. — The Patriots sound like a team that is poised to make sure Jets tight end Dustin Keller won’t beat them again. Keller, who had seven receptions for 115 yards and a touchdown in Week 2 against New England, will see a multitude of looks Monday night.
Expect the Patriots to use the Brandon Marshall plan on Keller, chipping him at the line, doubling him, bracketing him and using just about everyone in coverage on Keller. The Patriots can also exploit another weakness in Keller’s game, and that’s his subpar blocking ability. The Jets won’t typically run behind Keller, and his placement on the line of scrimmage could be an indicator of which direction the Jets will run, or how the Jets will try to attack through the air.
The Jets’ passing game has also improved since the return of wide receiver Santonio Holmes, who is quick, shifty and speedy, and he’s a really good route runner. He can pose problems in each level of the defense, running short routes and also by splitting up toward the safeties. His return has also freed up some room for wideout Braylon Edwards, who is bigger and more physical and is the Jets’ primary deep threat. The Patriots are also preparing for the return of wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery, who is a quick slot receiver with sound route-running skills and reliable hands.
And then there’s Brad Smith, who is a Josh Cribbs type. The Jets will do a multitude of things to get the ball in Smith’s hands, whether they run a bubble screen, an end-around or use him as the quarterback in the Wildcat. And on every play, Smith is a threat to score, which makes gap discipline of the utmost importance when Smith has the ball.
The Patriots might have to try some different things on the outside receivers, using cornerback Devin McCourty to man up Holmes and cornerback Kyle Arrington on Edwards. Arrington’s strength and physicality are his best assets, and Edwards can be frustrated. If Arrington can continually beat him up at the line, the Patriots might win the battle on that side of the field.
Of course, the Jets’ passing game will only be as effective as their running game. Running back LaDainian Tomlinson, an early-season MVP candidate, has fallen off in the last month, but running back of the future Shonn Greene has picked up that slack. Greene is more of a downhill runner who will keep it between the tackles, and Tomlinson is someone they try to get into space, especially in the passing game.
It’s no secret the Jets are a run-first team, but their success in the running game will dictate how well quarterback Mark Sanchez plays. Sanchez, while improved, isn’t going to be able to do it himself, and if the Patriots can contain the run and force passing situations on second and third down, Sanchez will be more prone to make a mistake.
Sanchez completed a season-high 70 percent of his passes against the Patriots in Week 2, but he’s only eclipsed 60 percent one other time this season. It’s of the utmost importance the Patriots don’t allow Sanchez to get comfortable while the Jets’ running game controls the tempo.
On the other side, the Jets’ blitz packages are the key to their defense. They’ve only recorded 24 sacks this season — four more than the Patriots — but their ability to cause pressure and disrupt quarterbacks’ timing leads to incompletions and turnovers.
For Tom Brady, it’s about recognizing situations, who the Jets like to blitz in specific packages on down-and-distance situations and making sure his blockers have it all picked up appropriately. Surely, it’s intimidating when the Jets overload one side of the line, but Brady will know which players are more prone to blitz and which ones are more effective in coverage. That’s how he’s got to direct the offense pre-snap.
It would be surprising if wide receiver Wes Welker didn’t draw man coverage from cornerback Darrelle Revis, who is elite at his position, and that means the Patriots need to win the one-on-one battle they have opposite of cornerback Antonio Cromartie. If that happens to be wide receiver Deion Branch, the Patriots might take that trade-off because Branch’s quickness and route-running ability could counter Cromartie’s length and strength.
The weakness in the Jets’ defense might be over the middle, especially if they run heavy with their blitzes. That could yield another big game from one of the tight ends. Aaron Hernandez had a big game in their first meeting, and Rob Gronkowski has been streaking of late. Gronkowski and Alge Crumpler will be important either way because of their blocking abilities.
The Jets’ blitzes are dangerous because of sheer numbers. The Patriots have to hope their passing attack can be effective for similar reasons — they’ve got more talented pass catchers than the Jets can cover.
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