With the memory of their Week One loss to the Miami Dolphins firmly behind them, the New England Patriots have turned their full attention to the New York Jets. The two AFC East divisional rivals will meet on Sunday, September 19 at MetLIfe Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey.
Like New England, the Jets will also enter Sunday’s contest at 0-1, following a 19-14 loss to the Carolina Panthers. While (by most accounts) rookie quarterback Zach Wilson had an impressive debut, the second overall selection in the 2021 NFL Draft spent a great deal of time under duress…far too often for the young quarterback to be effective.
Despite numerous attempts to improve their production, the Jets finished the 2020 season with an offensive line that ranked 29th in the league. In fact, many believed that the perceived futility of the line was the primary reason for former quarterback Sam Darnold’s success in New York. Darnold often found himself under pressure, while taking unnecessary hits.
As they begin the 2021 season, the Jets difficulties along their offensive line appear to remain. New York’s pass protection struggled mightily in Sunday’s opener. Wilson took six sacks, 10 quarterback hits, and found himself under unrelenting pressure in his NFL debut. The Jets’ run protection did not fare much better. As a team, New York amassed only 45 yards on the ground. As a result, offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur had a very difficult day devising ways to move the ball against the Panthers defensive front; mostly due to their inability to win battles in the trenches.
Enter the Patriots ‘new and improved’ front seven for 2021.
Heading into their week two matchup with the Jets, the Pats boast an impressive rotation of talent at both linebacker and along the defensive line. With their aggressive pursuit of several key offseason acquisitions, the Pats had clearly targeted two major areas for improvement: setting the edge and stopping the run. Having ranked 26th in the NFL in run-defense in 2020, head coach Bill Belichick and the Pats team-building braintrust set out to remake the interior of the defensive line. Defensive tackle Davon Godchaux looks to be the stabilizing force in the middle, alongside Lawrence Guy and former Jet Henry Andrerson. On Sunday against Miami, the Patriots run defense showed signs of improvement. The Pats held their divisional rivals to just 74 rushing yards as a team; averaging 3.2 yards per rush on its 23 carries, with a 43% success rate. Still, the run defense had some struggles in short-yardage situations. Miami kept the Pats defense on its heels in their first scoring drive of the day. The Dolphins were also able to penetrate the Pats’ defense in the closing moments of the game, using three straight runs to gain a game-clinching first down.
In addition to their improvements when preventing the run, the Pats also enhanced their pass rush abilities in the offseason. Linebackers Matt Judon and Kyle Van Noy have given a new dynamic to the capabilities of edge lineman Deatrich Wise, and incumbent linebackers Dont’a Hightower, Josh Uche and Ja’Whaun Bentley. Rookie Christian Barmore also had several key pushes of the pocket, aiding in both the run and pass defense. The Pats are especially proficient when defending the pass on third down. In Week One against the Dolphins, New England allowed only one completion in seven third-down pass attempts, compiling two sacks and an interception.
On Sunday, the Patriots will look to build on the momentum against a largely porous Jets offensive line. Against the Panthers, New York’s o-line routinely failed to open up rushing lanes, stifling the abilities of backs Tevin Coleman, Ty Johnson and rookie Michael Carter. Should this trend continue into Sunday, the Jets will once again employ a largely one-dimensional offensive attack. Wilson is likely to see a greater amount of pressure from the Pats aggressive front seven. To make matters more difficult for New York, left tackle Mehki Becton, (arguably the team's best overall lineman) will miss 4-6 weeks with a knee injury. As a result, George Fant will be forced to move from the right side while Morgan Moses will assume the left tackle spot.
When speaking to the media earlier this week, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick was cautious to remind fans, media and especially his team that Becton’s absence is not an automatic declaration of open-season on Wilson. When asked about the Jets’ line without Becton’s presence, Belichick replied:
“I mean he's a good player, obviously, but [Morgan] Moses has been a starting tackle in this league for a number of years, so flipping [George] Fant over and bringing Moses in, I mean Moses has a pretty good track record as a tackle in this league, too, so Fant's a guy that made the switch. I think they're still pretty good at that position, and they have [Chuma] Edoga, too, so I mean that's really, I'd say, that's probably one of the deepest positions on their rosters is tackle even without Becton. Obviously he's an outstanding player. Outstanding young prospect, but even without him, they’ve got pretty good depth there.”
With Belichick’s penchant for creating confusion against young quarterbacks, Sunday’s game in the Meadowlands seems to be the ideal stage for the Pats improved front seven to put on a dominant performance. However, the Pats head coach also knows the value of never taking any situation for granted. After all, Wilson may be young, but he has a tremendous arm, while also demonstrating an ability to make things happen outside the pocket when under pressure. It will take a concerted team effort for New England to contain the Jets’ offense on Sunday, and it starts on the defensive front. Fortunately for the Patriots, they are well-equipped in that area…and they may be catching New York at just the right time to show it.