New England Patriots tight end blocking
The matchup between the New England Patriots’ tight ends and the New York Jets‘ defense will be one of the most important factors in the divisional rivals’ Week 2 matchup – but it’s not as one-sided of a matchup as you might think.
New England formed an intimidating duo of tight ends in free agency with their signings of Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith. Henry and Smith had a solid 2021 debut in the passing game as they caught all eight of their combined targets for 73 yards and four first downs. They will certainly be a matchup problem through the air for the Jets’ paper-thin linebacker and safety groups.
However, the duo was obliterated in the run game. Henry and Smith each earned a run-blocking grade of 44.8 at Pro Football Focus, tying them for the worst mark on the team and the third-worst mark among 64 qualified tight ends in Week 1 (one spot ahead of the Jets’ Ryan Griffin).
Thanks to the blocking struggles of Henry and Smith, the Patriots got terrible results when they tried to run outside. They gained only 14 yards, one first down, and no touchdowns over eight carries directed outside of the tight end (1.8 yards per carry). Of those 14 yards, 28 were gained after contact while negative 14 yards were amassed before contact.
New York’s edge defenders and linebackers must exploit Henry and Smith in the run game to shut down New England’s ground attack and force rookie quarterback Mac Jones to beat them. Starting defensive ends Bryce Huff and John Franklin-Myers – whose games are predicated upon pass-rushing first and run-stopping second – need to bring their best in the run game.
New England Patriots skill-position pass protection
New England’s lack of run-blocking ability at the tight end position is not the team’s only blocking-related problem outside of the offensive line. The Patriots also suffered from bad pass protection at the skill positions in Week 1.
Bill Belichick’s skill position players (FB/RB/TE) combined to give up three pressures on 28 pass-blocking snaps, a rate of 10.7% that ranked 10th-worst in the NFL. The unit looked even worse on tape, as its combined 48.7 pass-blocking grade at PFF ranked seventh-worst.
Henry and Smith each gave up a pressure over only seven and four snaps in protection, respectively. For reference, NFL tight ends allowed pressure on only 6.9% of their pass-blocking snaps in the 2020 season, so the duo would be expected to allow just 0.8 pressures over their combined 11 pass-blocking snaps, far fewer than the total of two they actually gave up.
Running back Damien Harris also allowed a hit on Mac Jones in just four pass-protection snaps .
New England Patriots cornerbacks without Stephon Gilmore
Former NFL Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore is still recovering from quad surgery he received at the end of 2020 and will miss this week’s game in addition to at least the next four, as he remains on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list.
New England has become known for its high-quality physical man-to-man cornerback play over the past few years. Gilmore has been at the center of building that reputation. Without him, the Patriots defense has not been the same.
Gilmore missed five games last year. In those games, New England allowed 24.0 points and 246.2 passing yards per game, a noticeable dip from the 19.9 points and 211.5 passing yards allowed with Gilmore healthy.
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Making the disparity even more noticeable is the fact that two of New England’s five games without Gilmore came against the Jets’ 31st-ranked passing offense (in terms of yards), while another came against Baltimore’s 32nd-ranked passing offense, and yet the Patriots still saw their defensive passing-yardage production tumble significantly.
Patriots cornerback J.C. Jackson has emerged as one of the position’s best producers over the past few years, but he has been exposed without Gilmore on the field.
In five games without Gilmore last season, Jackson allowed 346 yards and four touchdowns (69.2 and 0.80 per game). In 11 games with Gilmore, Jackson gave up just 238 yards and one touchdown (21.6 and 0.09 per game).
Jackson was targeted seven times in New England’s 2021 season opener against Miami, and allowed four catches for 68 yards and three first downs.
Overall, the Patriots’ cornerback unit of Jackson, Jalen Mills, Jonathan Jones, and Joejuan Williams combined for a PFF coverage grade of 52.8 against the Dolphins in Week 1, ranking 26th out of 32 cornerback units.
As he is known to do, Belichick is going to bring heavy pressure on the Zach Wilson and dare the rookie to beat man-to-man coverage on the outside. The problem for Belichick is that New England’s man coverage is simply not anything special without Gilmore on the field. Corey Davis, Elijah Moore, and the rest of the Jets’ receivers need to win their one-on-one battles on the outside to give Wilson options against the blitz.
New England Patriots interior run defense
Miami’s interior run game against the Patriots was strong, consistently producing chunk gains that kept Tua Tagovailoa’s offense on schedule.
Excluding quarterback sneaks, the Dolphins ran into the A or B-gap (in-between the tackles) a total of nine times and gained 43 yards (4.8 per carry). Plus, the two sneaks they did run were both successful.
New England’s interior defensive linemen combined for a PFF run defense grade of 53.8, ranking 22nd out of 32 interior defensive lines groups in Week 1.
The Dolphins had significantly more success when running inside than outside. Their nine directed outside of the tackles resulted in 31 yards (3.4 per carry). Nearly half of those yards came on a single 15-yard carry.
The Jets are looking to get their run game back on track in all directions after averaging 2.6 yards per carry against the Panthers in Week 1. While they are known for being an outside running team, it looks the interior may be the best place to attack the Patriots in Week 2.
New England Patriots ball security
New England tied with Baltimore for an NFL-high four fumbles in Week 1. QB Mac Jones, RB Rhamondre Stevenson, RB Damien Harris, and TE Jonnu Smith each lost the ball once. Stevenson and Harris’s fumbles ended up in the hands of the Dolphins.
You know for sure that Bill Belichick lit into his players for these mishaps. He even benched Stevenson for the rest of the game after fumbling on the team’s second drive. Ball security will be at the forefront of every Patriots ball-handler’s mind on Sunday, so it seems unlikely that they will fumble four times again.
Regardless, when studying them on film this week, Jets’ defenders should still take note of the ball-handling tendencies of New England’s offensive players after their incredibly fumble-prone opener. Opportunities to jar the ball loose for a game-changing play might present themselves more frequently than usual.
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