FOXBORO, Mass. — The look on Willie Colon’s face, and the tenor of his voice said it all even before the Jets’ guard opened his mouth and spoke the truth.
“We felt like we had them right where we wanted them,” he said after the Patriots’ 30–23 victory on Sunday. “I am (angry), because I feel like we had them. I feel like we were the better team out there, but obviously we were not.”
With precisely 10:46 remaining in the fourth quarter, the Jets had the Patriots in the crosshairs. New York had made just enough plays on offense, frustrated Tom Brady with coverage and pass rush and got just enough poor execution by the Patriots (New England was dropping so many passes, especially Brandon LaFell, that it appeared it was doing tip drills) to lead 20–16. After LeGarrette Blount was dropped for a seven-yard loss, when he momentarily thought he was LeSean McCoy trying to cut back to the other side, and an incomplete pass, the Jets had the Patriots exactly where they wanted them: third and 17 at New England’s 27-yard line.
You could smell a screen or dump off short of the marker coming. Jets fans were probably envisioning a stop and then a touchdown to go up by two scores. Against most quarterbacks and receivers in the league, that would be the case.
As if we needed another reminder, Tom Brady is not just another quarterback. His connection with Julian Edelman is anything but ordinary. And the play, from start to finish, was extraordinary.
There are two schools of thought on defending that down and distance. You can either play coverage, to force a perfect throw. Or you can bring pressure with the hope of getting the quarterback to get rid of the ball quickly before the deeper routes can develop. With the latter, of course, you risk more because if they do block it, there are less players in coverage.
Most of the game, the Jets played some version of man defense, with former Patriot Darrelle Revis on Edelman. On third down, the Jets decided to go conservative with a four-deep (both safeties and edge cornerbacks) and three under zone.
“We played in the zone—we played normal,” said Jets coach Todd Bowles. “You’ve got to play cat and mouse with them. You can’t give them what they want all the time, so we were trying to do that all game and it didn't work that time.”
The Jets rushed four, and they were probably confident that Calvin Pace, Leonard Williams, Sheldon Richardson and Muhammad Wilkerson (all former first-round picks) could bring ample pressure since Brady would have to hold the ball a little longer to pick up the first down. Also the Patriots were answering the Jets’ Rolls Royce line with Bill’s Used Car Lot: right tackle Sebastian Vollmer playing left tackle, undrafted free agents Josh Kline and David Andrews at left guard and center, rookie Tre’ Jackson at right guard and right tackle Cameron Fleming, who was released and signed to the practice squad.
But they were more than up to the challenge. Vollmer was beat by Pace, but Brady stepped up to avoid the threat. Jackson chucked Richardson to start the play and then helped Fleming handle Wilkerson. The key blocks, both of the one-on-one variety, were thrown by Kline against Williams and Andrews vs. Richardson. Both misfit toys stood their rushers up and would not give ground. That gave Brady the pocket he needed.
“I thought overall our line gave us pretty good protection today—obviously not perfect, they have a good front and we took some hits,” Belichick said. “But they hung in there.”
Down the field, Edelman screamed down the hash mark to find the opening in the zone between the two safeties but over the coverage of linebacker David Harris underneath.
“We got split safety coverage on that,” Belichick said. “You know when you get split safety coverage, generally speaking, somewhere on the inside part of the field is where you want to go.”
A key was Edelman’s route running. If a receiver runs precise routes, he can usually get open against every coverage. If a receiver is content just running down the field and cutting, the defense is going to recognize what’s going on.
Edelman ran hard at Dion Bailey, the safety claimed off waivers from the Seahawks less than a month ago who was in the game because starter Calvin Pryor (ankle) was out. Bailey admitted he had no idea where Edelman was headed, and that’s good route running. While running at full speed, Edelman faked a corner route by shifting his hips. That caused Bailey to open his hips to the sideline to cover the corner, and then Edelman broke it back to the middle. Bailey was so fooled he had to turn round to recover.
“He was running full speed at the safety, and he finally got the safety to turn his hips to run and then Jules broke across his body,” Brady said. “Jules made a real smart play. It's not exactly how we drew it up.”
Bailey was so lost on the play he wasn’t sure which of the Patriots’ small, wide receivers he was covering. He probably knows now.
“What’s his name, Edelman-dela?” said Bailey, combining Edelman and similarly built Danny Amendola together. “He just stemmed his route good. I hadn’t really studied him in particular that much and he just stemmed it. I thought he gave me a corner stem and then he crossed my face. He fooled me with the stem, got me going the other way.”
Brady, meanwhile, gave a master class on elite-level quarterbacking. He knew he was going to Edelman the whole way with the split safety coverage, but he dropped back looking left, which moved the other safety and linebacker just enough. Finally, Brady threw Edelman open by throwing to a void in the coverage 10 yards to the left of Edelman and 33 yards in the air.
“It was well anticipated by Tom,” Bailey said. “The ball was out well before he crossed my face so I didn’t have any time to recover, really. It was just a bang-bang play. The pass was greatly anticipated. It wasn’t no room for error. He didn’t have to put any air under it, it was right on a rope so when I turned around … it wasn’t like he just clearly beat me. He made a great throw and catch. There wasn’t anything I could do if I wasn’t anticipating the route already.”
While Bailey admitted he should have slow played the corner stem and trailed Edelman there if that’s where he wanted to go, instead of trying to jump it, Bailey’s correct. There wasn’t much he could do because, from the Patriots’ blocking to Edelman’s route and Brady’s pass, it was basically football perfection that beat him, not himself.
The Patriots scored five plays later to take a lead they would not relinquish.
“That was a big play for us,” said Belichick.
The Jets, who were handed their third-straight loss to the Patriots by a touchdown or less, were close again. New York did have New England exactly where it wanted. But the Patriots still have Brady, and he makes all the difference. One play, with some help from his teammates, showed that.