Patriots vs. Jets preview: Five matchups that will determine high-stakes clash
Perry: Patriots will need to make adjustments to complete Jets sweep originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston
FOXBORO -- Before we launch into the matchups that will determine Sunday's massively important divisional game between the Patriots and Jets, a reminder: No one knew anything in March.
Just imagine telling someone eight months ago that the Jets would be 6-3 in mid-November, second in the division, and the young quarterback once (not at all ironically, believe it or not) referred to as "Mormon Mahomes" would be rumored to have had a relationship with his mom's best friend. You might've been slapped before that last bit of scuttlebutt ever passed your lips.
Then imagine telling that same person that Mac Jones would rank statistically right alongside Wilson in certain categories, that two of New England's best players would hit injured reserve just before their Week 11 rematch, and that Bill Belichick's club would still be favored by three points. You'd be roundly mocked by friends and family.
Yet here we are.
As the oddities fly, the Patriots have to hope they can make it seem as though all's right with the world by continuing to dominate Wilson and the Jets. It's been 13 straight wins for the Patriots in this rivalry, and in three games against Wilson they've come away with seven picks.
Keep those trends going, and the Patriots playoff chances survive. Stumble? Their postseason hopes all but extinguish, according to FiveThirtyEight. With a win, per the site's projections, the Patriots would have a 54 percent chance of making the tournament. A loss would drop that number to 17 percent.
Lots at stake. Let's get to the matchups that matter...
Matchup that will decide the first half
Michael Palardy v. Mother Nature
According to Weather.com and Windfinder.com, the Patriots and Jets could be playing in winds that reach between 20 and 30 miles per hour on Sunday. Good news for the home team?
The Patriots lead the league in average starting offensive field position, so if ever there were return units -- led by rookie returner Marcus Jones -- equipped to handle wonky conditions, it should be them. Jones got a chance to gauge the wind, something he told me was a focus, during an in-stadium practice Friday.
However, when it's the Patriots kicking the ball away, they'll have a new punter. Patriots punter Jake Bailey (back) was placed on injured reserve Saturday after participating in a limited fashion in all Patriots practices this week, according to the team's injury report. He'll miss the next four weeks.
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Bailey is 31st in the NFL in net punting (35.3) despite having signed a four-year, $13.5 million contract over the summer that included $6.5 million guaranteed. Taking his place on the active roster is punter Michael Palardy, who had been on the practice squad until Saturday when he was signed to the 53.
For a team that looks like it needs to win the field-position battle to beat good teams, having Palardy perform in the wind on Sunday will be key. How he holds for Nick Folk on field goals and extra points matters, too. He may also end up kicking off, which is typically one of Bailey's roles on game days.
"He's been a good punter, a good athlete," Belichick said of Palardy on Friday. "High school quarterback, kicked off, punted... He's [held], and he's kicked. So, this a pretty athletic kid."
As long as the Patriots can find themselves avoiding key mistakes in the kicking game through the first 30 minutes, this one should be within striking distance for them.
Matchup that will surprise you
Robert Saleh has been very open about the fact that Elijah Moore will be playing in the slot this weekend. With Braxton Berrios doing next to nothing of late for the Jets (five catches, 27 yards in four games), might as well turn to the second-year player who was positively electric at times as a rookie, right?
It's been an odd season for Moore, who has just 16 catches in eight games, but he's clearly in possession of all kinds of physical talent. The Patriots might prefer it if the Jets waited another week to get Moore more involved. Myles Bryant, who is often in the slot for Jerod Mayo and Steve Belichick, is allowing a quarterback rating of 105.4 when targeted in man coverage this season.
Moore has been quiet for most of this season but could end up a difference-maker on Sunday if, you know, the Jets actually use him.
Matchup that will bring you joy
Jerod Mayo and Steve Belichick v. Zach Wilson
We know how this story has played out through the early portion of Wilson's young career. Play man coverage. Generate pressure. Force interceptions. Rinse. Repeat. It's remarkable, though, just how poorly suited Wilson seems to be for this particular matchup.
Against man coverage -- and the Patriots are once again near the top of the league in how often they deploy man schemes -- Wilson has the highest interception percentage in the league this year (6.3), per Sports Info Solutions.. His completion percentage against man (45.6) is better than only Baker Mayfield (37.5) and Justin Fields (45.0). His "on-target" percentage, per SIS, is second-worst in the league at 54.3 percent, and his rating (44.6) is last.
Matchup that will take years off your life
Mac Jones v. Robert Saleh
What's interesting about Saleh's defense, according to Patriots players, is that there's a little more variation in it relative to the scheme you would've found Pete Carroll running between 2011 and 2013 when Saleh was a defensive assistant in Seattle. The Jets like to show two-high safety looks and then wait until late in the play clock to rotate their safeties and show their hand.
Against the Patriots three weeks ago, they played a lot of zone coverage, mostly Cover 3 (and a variation of Cover 3 known at One Patriot Place as Cover 6) as well as Cover 4. Cover 3 features a safety in the deep middle of the field taking the middle third, with corners on the boundary taking thirds themselves. Cover 4 is also known as "quarters," with four defensive backs splitting the deep part of the field evenly.
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The issue for the Patriots is that without some kind of significant alteration in approach, they may be ramming their heads against a wall in the passing game. Against Cover 3 this season, according to SIS, Mac Jones is 25th in yards per attempt, 36th (out of 37 qualifiers) in rating, 37th in interception percentage, 35th in touchdown percentage and 31st in sack percentage.
Against Cover 4 -- which can look like Cover 3 until a slot receiver's deep route is carried vertically by a slot defender -- Jones is last in rating, and second-to-last in interception percentage (Taylor Heinicke). The Jets have been a particularly good Cover 4 defense this year, based on SIS data, ranking first in rating allowed, first in EPA per play and second in yards per attempt.
Matchup that will determine the outcome
Matt Patricia v. C.J. Mosley
If the Patriots can become less predictable coming out of their bye week, that might be the quickest way to becoming a more efficient offense.
For instance, despite the daunting passing numbers listed above -- which may serve as evidence as to why the Patriots shouldn't pass if they can avoid it this weekend -- they are arguably the league's worst first-down running team. Their EPA per first-down rush is only better than two teams (Broncos, Rams). They're also hit at the line or behind on nearly half (48.6 percent) of their first-down runs, second only to the Browns.
Unfortunately Belichick's offense, they're going against a middle linebacker in C.J. Mosley who was so on top of everything the Patriots did a few weeks ago that the head coach shouted him out in a press conference more than a week later when the topic of the tipping plays arose.
So how can Patricia keep Mosley and the Jets guessing?
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Getting unpredictable may mean veering away from zone runs for a while. The Patriots are among the league leaders in zone runs (sixth in the NFL in zone attempts, per SIS). Getting a little less predictable may mean going with gap runs on a more regular basis, which is where they've excelled this year. They average just 3.5 yards per carry on zone runs and 6.1 yards per carry on gap plays including power, counter, trap and wham calls.
Going to more RPOs may qualify as getting less predictable, too. Though they used a dozen such calls against the Jets the first time these two teams met this year, it hasn't been a significant part of their offensive plan from week to week. Mac Jones still ranks 33rd in the league in RPO attempts, per Pro Football Reference.
The Patriots are going to have to do things differently on the offensive side in the second half of the season, whether they're facing Mosley or not. But a good game plan Sunday, with noticeable changes in approach against a familiar opponent, could serve as a sign that the Patriots are capable of doing more down the stretch than winning games with good defense.