By Jeremy Gottlieb, Patriots Daily Staff
It couldn’t happen to them again, right? The Patriots weren’t going to let the hated Jets come into their house, on the heels of two embarrassing losses in a row no less, and push them around again, were they?
No, they weren’t. The Pats threw on the old school uniforms on Sunday and beat the Jets in a new school kind of way, pounding Rex Ryan’s team at their own game, running them over en route to a 30-21 victory. The win showed that the Pats are capable of winning a game that’s not a shootout or a track meet, but grinding, physical, hard fought kind of contest that a finesse team, as a couple of the Oakland Raiders called them a couple weeks ago, would have no business winning. And it also showed that they are capable of taking full advantage of an opponent’s mistakes, of which the Jets committed a multitude, some going back to even before the game even started. The game plan featured more of the balance seen last week out in the Bay Area, with the Pats mixing 35 running plays with 33 pass plays and it was all done neatly and efficiently. Tom Brady’s day wasn’t flashy, but it was excellent nonetheless, culminating in a tidy 24-of-31, 321 yard, one TD performance. And BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who some felt may be in jeopardy of seeing his duties curtailed thanks to the emergence of rookie Stevan Ridley, responded with what was unquestionably the best game of his career (27 carries, 136 yards, two TDs). That, combined with the best defensive effort of the season by far, propelled the Pats to 4-1, and left the blustery Jets grounded at 2-3 and searching for answers. Sure, there’s more than plenty of season left to be played and ample time left before these two teams duke it out again at the New Meadowlands on a Sunday night in mid-November. But for now, as Ryan so succinctly put it in the aftermath of Sunday’s game, the Pats are the far better looking outfit. It’s those red jerseys and gleaming white helmets, I’m telling you. So with that, let’s get to this week’s report card.
Brady threw the first red zone interception at home of his career, a pass that went right off the hands of Aaron Hernandez in the end zone at the tail end of the first half and into the arms of Jets corner Antonio Cromartie. Other than that, it’s hard to imagine a quarterback playing as solidly and efficiently as Brady played on Sunday, especially against a pass defense as vaunted as the Jets. Brady was patient, he was calm, he was terrific, consistently finding the open man, not forcing any throws save for a couple home run tries to Hernandez in the first half, and letting the defense come to him before surgically carving it up. There were a few blitzes that his line had a hard time containing and he was sacked four times and hit a few others. There were a couple of plays on which he held the ball a little too long while waiting for someone to come open. But those instances were few and far between. The rest of the time, Brady was mixing in perfectly timed throws to his tight ends, his two favorite receivers, and even a couple to Chad Ochocinco. And when he wasn’t doing that, he was reading the Jets defensive looks like a totally different QB than the one who was so utterly befuddled in that brutal playoff game from last January. Coach Bill Belichick made a point after the game to remark on how well Brady did diagnosing coverages and looks and changing things up to get the offense in much better position to do good things than the original calls from the sideline presented. That’s what the greatest quarterbacks do. They put up huge numbers, as Brady has done so many times this year and throughout his career. But they also recognize and decipher things that so many other signal callers can’t. Brady did it all on Sunday. Just like the Hall-of-Famer he is.
Running Backs: A
Man, did Ridley fall back to earth on Sunday. After 17 carries, 141 yards and a TD in the previous two weeks, he ended Sunday with just 13 yards on seven attempts and saw more time on the kicking teams than on offense. But that’s OK when you have a guy like the Law Firm of BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who now has 18 TDs since the start of last season, the most in the NFL. Benny played the game of his life on Sunday, bulldozing his way through the Jets thin run defense to the tune of some career-high numbers. BJGE was impressive all day, hitting holes with power and authority, running hard after initial contact, showing more burst than he normally does. He played out of his mind and even though both of his scores came within the first three quarters, he did arguably his best work in the fourth. The Pats led by 10 headed into that final quarter and BJGE, needing to be the horse, the clock killer, the game sealer, did his job to perfection, notching 64 of his yards on 12 of his attempts in that frame. He did it in a variety of ways too; draws, traps, shotgun handoffs, classic off-tackle and outside runs, what have you. The second TD was a perfect example: with the Pats in shotgun, Brady saw a blitz coming up the middle, checked off the direction of the run and sent BJGE off left tackle instead of up the gut. Matt Light sealed off the end perfectly and BJGE ran behind and around him practically untouched into the end zone. It’s great when the Pats passing game is clicking on every cylinder. But there will be times when that’s not going to be the case and in those times, they need to find other ways to move the ball and score points. After the way the running game has looked the past two weeks against two physical defenses, it looks as though they’re going to be OK in that department.
Wide Receivers: B+
On the first play of the second half, Brady and Wes Welker noticed a safety inching up toward Welker, who was lined up in the right slot. On the snap, Welker took off down the middle of the field, right past both the safety and Jets all-world corner Darrelle Revis, who was on him. Brady lofted a perfect pass over both defenders and into Welker’s bread basket. He was gone and if not for Revis’s great speed, it would have been a TD (Welker was run down at the 7). The entire day wasn’t that successful for the Pats receiving corps, but that play proved that patience is the ultimate virtue against the Jets secondary and that the Pats are capable of it. Welker caught four other passes for 51 more yards and in doing so, set a record for the most receiving yards in the first five games of a season in NFL history with 740. He had a couple of drops, though one was slightly overthrown and the other may have been tipped at the last second by Jets corner Kyle Wilson. Who cares? Welker is still the best player on this team not named Brady and the fact the he was occupying Revis for a majority of the afternoon opened things up for Deion Branch. Branch had his best game since Week 2, catching seven passes for 74 yards and a TD on which he and Brady played the overmatched Cromartie for a fool. It was a delayed out route where Branch ran a quick slant, took Cromartie to the middle, cut off the pattern and flipped himself back outside in time to be standing so alone when Brady’s pass arrived, he may as well have been on the moon. It was Brady’s only TD pass of the day and the execution was priceless, showing again that the Pats can have their way with the Jets secondary if they play their cards right. Ochocinco had his requisite, super quiet, two-catch game but both were important and he also contributed to the running game with some decent blocking on the outside. This group felt like it might be in some trouble headed into this one. They dispelled any of those notions with a collectively solid performance.
Tight Ends: A-
A-Herb really busted his ass to be able to get out there after missing two weeks with an MCL sprain and boy was it helpful that he could. After shaking off some rust in the first half (the tipped pass that led to Brady’s red zone INT was brutal), he was huge, opening up the passing game in the second half in a big way. He finished with five catches for 56 yards but he was on the field for 65 plays and his influence was all over the offense. The Pats got back to their preferred, multiple tight end alignments, running 59 of 81 plays with at least two tight ends and Brady was 16-of-21 for 235 yards and a score out of those formations, according to ESPN Stats and Info. After a return to the lineup like on Sunday, A-Herb had to have been feeling high all night long afterward. Elsewhere, Rob Gronkowski almost didn’t play thanks to an illness. Gronk didn’t participate in pregame warmups and Brady commended him afterward for his toughness. He only caught four passes for 31 yards but one was a crucial first down reception on the Pats final, clock-killing drive of the game. And as he did last week in Oakland, Gronk proved immense in the running game. On several occasions, BJGE ran left, where Gronk was flanking Light and it seemed like there was always daylight there. His size and strength doesn’t just help him when running downfield and catching passes; it’s just as important when he’s blocking. The tight end position is perhaps the biggest key to the Pats success on offense and when A-Herb and Gronk are both out there playing as they were on Sunday, they’re so, so tough to beat.
Offensive Line: A-
True, Brady was sacked/hurried/hit more than in any other game so far this year. But some of that pressure was because receivers were blanketed downfield and even the best O-linemen can’t block all day. For the most part, the O-line had its way with the Jets defensive front and that was again without Sebastian Vollmer. The Jets have had some issues stopping the run all year up to this point but it’s safe to assume they didn’t see the Pats pushing them around like this when planning for Sunday’s game. Everyone played well up front, starting with Light, continuing with Logan Mankins and featuring Brian Waters, who is proving by the week to be one of the shrewdest pickups for the Pats in a long time. Waters pulling from right to left and taking out a Jets linebacker was the key aspect of BJGE’s first TD run and as he has on multiple occasions in the past few weeks he was up, out in front of the play and looking for someone to wipe out. Rookie Nate Solder has locked down the right tackle spot in Vollmer’s absence and Dan Connolly still looks more than solid in place of Dan Koppen at center. Again, Brady spent a little more time on his ass that you’d like if you’re in any way associated with the Pats. But 152 yards rushing at over four yards a pop is more than fine, it’s great. And it’s a comfort to know that this group can do it.
Defensive Line: B-
In a huge surprise, this group got little to no pressure on the opposing quarterback! Can you imagine? And especially after the position coach, Pepper Johnson, was so effusive last week in his praise for what a fantastic job the D-line has done all year and how good it’s been at getting after the QB (note to Pepper – the next time you feel the urge to completely insult the entire fan base of the team and treat them like idiots who have never watched a football game before, just don’t). At any rate, the only guy who has proven he can get anywhere near the QB, Mark Anderson, again barely played (19 of 54 snaps) but still managed a sack and a half, including one that sealed the win in the waning moments, and got to mark Sanchez a couple more times. And Andre Carter played pretty well against the run, which for whatever reason the Jets decided they had to establish even though the Patriots pass defense is so horrendous, even Sanchez could probably throw on it (note: when he was allowed to, he sort of did). All in all, with the exception of a second quarter TD drive on which they dominated the Pats front seven, the Jets couldn’t really get anything going consistently. Shonn Greene ran hard and was very tough and physical, but his longest run of the day was nine yards and he finished with just 83 on 21 attempts. Overall, the Jets insistence on running the ball and their lack of success in doing so really cost them. They made only 14 first downs, converted just three of 11 third downs and were forced into eight three-and-outs. They may not be able to rush the passer, and the Jets may have inflicted at least a decent portion of their problems on themselves, but you have to give a fair amount of credit to the defensive linemen for those stats. Oh yeah almost forgot – Albert Haynesworth played about a third of the defensive snaps, had no tackles and left for a spell with an injury. What a pickup.
Playing without Jerod Mayo, the defense had its best game of the year. Coincidence? Maybe. Not that Gary Guyton is the answer here, though he did play every defensive down and hardly embarrassed himself in leading the way in tackles. Still, if it happens again next week against the Cowboys, we may be onto something. Let’s give Brandon Spikes another round of credit too; he had to play on most passing downs in addition to his run stopping responsibilities thanks to Mayo’s injury and he was pretty good in doing so. Belichick must be down on Dane Fletcher because he didn’t play at all with Spikes seeing a lot of the time Fletcher might normally be out there. Rob Ninkovich looked spry a week after missing some plays against Oakland with an injury, posting six tackles, a half a sack and another hit on Sanchez. About the only really disappointing aspect of the linebacking corps on Sunday was yet another week in which Jermaine Cunningham did absolutely nothing. If Cunningham’s not a bust yet, he’s getting there. But other than that, the linebackers held their own. There still are no playmakers in this group, not a single guy who has proven he can consistently get a sack or force a turnover. But on a day like Sunday, when they opposing offense is trading off between not attacking the D’s biggest weakness and shooting itself in the foot, that’s OK.
Defensive Backs: B-
The Jets must have missed the bulletin which pointed out that scrub QBs like Chad Henne, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Jason Campbell all threw for well in excess of 350 yards on this bunch because Sanchez attempted just 26 passes and most of them came in the fourth quarter with the Jets in desperation mode. Sure, when they needed to throw the ball quickly and not take up too much time down 27-14 a few minutes into the fourth, they did it with ease, shredding the Pats zone and making the secondary look just as incompetent as it’s looked all year. But getting their running game going was more important to the Jets in this game and man was that a huge break for the Pats. Devin McCourty distinguished himself for the first time all year by not getting torched a single time; other than that, he was invisible. Kyle Arrington played every down with Leigh Bodden semi-injured and relegated to nickel duty and was fine. Bodden did have the Pats only pass defensed all day and really, at this point shouldn’t someone be keeping track of what the record for fewest passes defensed by one team in a single year is? Because this secondary should shatter that mark. The brightest of bright spots was Amherst guy/former Jet James Ihedigbo, who played pretty much the whole game thanks to Josh Barrett’s injury (and because for all his special teams talent, Sergio Brown can’t play a lick of safety). Ihedigbo was big against the run, registering six tackles, and other than on Sanchez’s second TD pass, a far too easy deep out to Santonio Holmes on which he was about four steps late getting over to help out the singed Arrington, looked OK against the pass. These guys didn’t humiliate itself for the first time all year. And even though that’s mostly because the Jets were too dumb to put them in a position to do so, given the previous four weeks, that earns ‘em a pretty good grade.
Special Teams: C-
Other than Stephen Gostkowski’s perfect day kicking field goals (3-for-3, 44, 28, 24) not much positive to report here. Joe McKnight took a kickoff eight yards deep in his end zone and missed scoring on the play by about 10 yards. If not for a great sprint by McCourty, the Pats awesome, quick strike drive to open the second half would have been answered in about 15 seconds flat (in reality, when the Jets scored a TD three plays later, it was really only about a minute and a half). And both Fletcher and Cunningham (arrrgghhh!) committed brutal penalties on kick return duty. Hey guys, if you think you aren’t playing a lot now, keep crapping out on special teams, then you won’t be playing at all. Our man Zoltan had a nondescript day punting and the return game, now featuring Wes Welker on punts (one of which went for 25 yards) and Ridley on kickoffs, were pretty much of the status quo variety. Not really what anyone’s looking for out of this unit.
What a day for Belichick. He devised a perfect game plan. He sat and watched as his opposite number unveiled a completely flawed and misguided one of his own. And then, for good measure, he challenged two very close, second half calls, won them both, and saw each result in positive points for the Pats. Hard to imagine things going any better for the head man. As per usual, no one said anything all week and afterward, to a man right on down the line, all anyone talked about was how great a week of practice the team had and it definitely showed. It’s still impossible to understand how week after week after week, the pass coverage can be so abominable (the Jets second TD drive, on which the Pats went into an even deeper deep zone than they usually play, made them look for a couple minutes like one of the all-time great offensive juggernauts, that’s how easy it was). But again, that wasn’t a primary worry on Sunday thanks to the Jets dunderheadedness. The bottom line, of course, is that the Pats have four wins, even with a defense that might not stop some college teams and while Belichick will certainly tell you that there’s still room for vast improvement, chances are he’ll take it.