8:25 PM EST, CBS/NFL Network – Line: New England -10
Bitter AFC East rivals face off in Foxboro, as the New England Patriots host the New York Jets in yet another installment of their annual blood feud. With that said, tonight’s meeting does not hold the promise of deciding the division, for at the moment these teams occupy opposite ends of the spectrum. At one end we have the Jets (1-5), who after defeating the Raiders in the Opener (19-14) have since lost five consecutive games for the first time since Rex Ryan became the Head Coach back in 2009. Many of the same problems that have plagued New York over the last couple of seasons continue to do damage, yet it’s as if someone turned up the dial to the maximum in 2014; Ryan’s outfit is still a mess offensively, as Geno Smith hasn’t developed as anticipated in his second year under center, while the defense, which has long been the team’s backbone, has regressed significantly. This is not what Management was looking for after an overachieving 8-8 campaign, followed by an offseason spending spree to plug their plethora of holes. So once again, the Jets look like a dumpster fire, and with the Patriots looming one could only wonder just how much longer will Ryan and Co. be in place?
So what in the name of Mark Gastineau is going on in the Big Apple? Quite simply, the majority of the Jets’ problems lie on offense, where they simply haven’t been consistent nor disciplined enough to reach the end zone, let alone move the chains. Through six games, Marty Mornhinweg’s offense ranks thirtieth in both points per game (16.0) and total offense (318.9), and dead-last in both passing offense (197.7) and net yards per attempt (4.8). This of course brings us to Geno Smith, the Sophomore Second Round Pick whose play has declined with each passing week. After a solid performance against Oakland to open the season in which he completed 23-of-28 passes for 221 yards, a touchdown and an interception, the young Quarterback has struggled mightily; since that point he has completed just 52.8% of his attempts for 183.6 yards per game (5.6 yards/attempt), with five touchdowns and six interceptions, highlighted by a 4-of-12, 27-yard performance at San Diego in which he was pulled in favor of Michael Vick in a dreadful 31-0 shutout defeat. Curiously, the majority of his problems originate on First Down, where his fifteen turnovers in such situations lead the NFL, while his completion percentage (55.0%) ranks last among starting Quarterbacks on those downs. Basically, he’s putting his team in long down and distance early in the drive, akin to a hitter that falls behind in the count after just a few pitches. This does not bode well with the Patriots on deck, whom he played very poorly against in his two meetings last season; despite splitting the pair of encounters, Smith completed just a mere 47.1% of his passes for an average of 223.5 yards per game with one touchdown and four interceptions, including three in his previous trip to Gillette Stadium, a 13-10 loss in just the second start of his career.
However, even though the Quarterback far too often reaps the rewards of victory and shoulders the blame in defeat, all of the Jets’ woes cannot be laid squarely on Smith. New York spent quite a bit of money on Eric Decker, prying the receiver from Denver, where he was a key cog in the league’s most prolific offense. The grass may have seemed greener on the other side of the country, but it definitely hasn’t parlayed into production; Decker has seen his receptions per game (4.0), yards per game (51.6), and yards per catch (12.9) each drop precipitously this season, as he continues to be plagued by a lingering hamstring injury that he suffered in Week Two at Green Bay. Going from Peyton Manning to Geno Smith will do that to a Wideout as well. Then there’s Chris Johnson, whom Ryan acquired to augment the running game with the hopes that he could regain the form in which he had rushed for 2,006 yards back in 2009. Instead, CJ2k has struggled for snaps behind fellow Tailback Chris Ivory, averaging just 33.3 yards per game on 3.9 yards per carry, both career-worsts. His versatility was to be a key component of Mornhinweg’s passing attack, but that hasn’t gone according to plan either, for Johnson has caught just ten passes for 40 yards and a score. Simply put, the explosive plays have been few and far between, and at the age of 29, they could become even more of a rarity. With that said, the aforementioned Ivory has been the lone bright-spot on offense, averaging 54.2 yards on a healthy 4.9 yards per attempt, spearheading the league’s twelfth-ranked rushing attack at 121.2 yards per contest.
Meanwhile, surprise surprise, but the Patriots (4-2) once again lead the AFC East, a division they’ve won in eleven of the past thirteen seasons. Waintaminute, but wasn’t New England in dire straits just a few weeks ago? Bill Belichick’s charges have a convenient lil’ habit of proving everyone wrong when their backs are against the wall, and that’s precisely what they have done. Despite starting the season 2-1, New England looked uncharacteristically sloppy through the first three games, particularly offensively, where they were held below 300 yards on each occasion. An embarrassing 41-17 drubbing at Kansas City on Monday Night Football served as the lowpoint of that spell, with many pundits predicting that the end of the Patriot’s Dynasty had finally arrived. However, reports of their demise were quickly discarded the following week as they dismantled the previously undefeated Bengals to the tune of 43-17, in a contest where they racked up a season-high 505 yards, with 285 coming via the pass, and another 220 courtesy of the run. Last weekend they stormed into Buffalo and emerged with a 37-22 win that was a lot closer than the final score would indicate. The Pats were hard-pressed to match their rushing success against the Bills’ stout defensive front, but thanks to a virtuoso performance from Tom Brady, were finally able to pull away late; the two-time MVP completed a stellar 27-of-37 passes for 361 yards and four touchdowns, in what was far and away his best output of the young season. So with New England back on top of the division all is right with the world, right? Not so fast, folks, for appearances can sometimes be deceiving…
Just when the Patriots ironed out their problems on the Offensive Line, injuries have mercilessly struck the roster, taking away a pair of key players on both sides of the ball. Tailback and leading rusher Stevan Ridley sustained multiple injuries in last week’s trip to Western New York, including a concussion on top of torn knee ligaments, which have promptly landed him on Injured Reserve. New England’s rushing attack hasn’t been as prolific as it has been in prior seasons, ranking just eighteenth in rushing yards (110.0) and twenty-fifth in yards per carry (3.7), and Ridley hasn’t been as productive as he has been in years past (56.7 yards/game, 3.6 yards/carry), but the loss still leaves the backfield without valuable depth. Fellow tailback Shane Vereen is as versatile as they come, but is far more effective as a receiver than a runner, leaving the majority of the carries likely in the hands of Brandon Bolden, who hasn’t seen much work with just five yards on three carries per contest. The other big blow is on defense, where Jerod Mayo was lost for the season with a broken leg. The seventh-year Linebacker had led the Patriots with 53 tackles (37 solo) and a sack, and was the unquestioned leader in the middle of a unit that ranks fifth in the league in total defense (319.5). With that said, Belichick’s favored unit has been susceptible to the run, allowing 111.0 yards (14th overall) on 4.2 yards per attempt (18th overall), including 207 against the Chiefs and 191 versus the Dolphins in the Season Opener. New York will test them early and often up front, which they did to great effect in each of last year’s meetings; the Jets rushed for 129 in their first encounter before trampling them with 177 yards in the latter.
Perhaps the biggest story heading into tonight’s contest is the reunion of sorts between Patriots’ Cornerback Darrelle Revis and his former team. Two years ago, Revis was traded to the Buccaneers after a nasty knee injury followed by a messy contract dispute for quite a hefty ransom. However, after a largely disappointing campaign, he was released by Tampa Bay, only to be signed in very short order by his former rivals in New England on a very cap-friendly, one-year deal. So after having to face him for six seasons, Bill Belichick now has the supreme luxury of utilizing arguably the league’s top Corner. Through six games, the former Jet looks completely healthy after tearing multiple knee ligaments in 2012, and looks much more comfortable in Belichick’s scheme which utilizes multiple coverages, opposed to the predominant zone looks he played in while in Tampa. Thus far Revis has amassed 21 tackles (18 solo), one interception, three deflected passes, and a forced fumble. His presence has also had a significant effect on the team’s overall pass defense; the Patriots have allowed just 208.5 yards through the air (3rd overall) on 6.0 net yards per attempt (8th overall), with seven interceptions (6th overall). With Belichick incorporating more man coverage, the pass-rush has benefited greatly, accumulating fifteen sacks, with eight different players bringing down the Quarterback at least once. But don’t look now though, for these guys are only going to get stronger in this regard, for offseason acquisition Brandon Browner is now eligible to return after serving a four-game suspension; the physically-imposing 6-4, 221 lbs Cornerback should prove to be the perfect complement to Revis, specializing in Press Coverage in his years in Seattle.