The Jets got an extra week to prepare for Bill Belichick’s defense. But which version of Belichick will they face?
Bill Belichick is arguably the best football coach of all time.
Additionally, he is arguably the all-time most unlikeable figure in the eyes of New York Jets fans.
All things considered, Belichick is one of the few guys in football history whose deification is justified. The New England Patriots head coach is simply fantastic at his job. He prepares better than most of the coaches around the league and puts together great game plans on a weekly basis.
His latest great job against the Jets, as we all know, happened around a month ago, in Week 2.
After struggling to build anything against an aggressive Panthers defense in Week 1, Jets offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur and company wouldn’t allow themselves to be smothered again.
So, the Jets’ staff prepared as if the Patriots were going to bring the house on every snap.
Belichick, more than anyone, is well known for his blitz-zero packages. The Panthers game was a good indication that the Jets would struggle with those. It seemed like the perfect opportunity for New England to go all-out.
But it didn’t happen. While LaFleur relied on max protection and three-man route concepts to beat pressure, Belichick game-planned in the opposite way.
The Patriots’ coach surprised the Jets’ staff and played coverage. New England often kept seven or eight guys on the back end, mixing it up according to the Jets’ personnel. Upfront, Belichick knew simple stunts would be enough to pressure Zach Wilson from time to time.
The first play of the game, an interception by Wilson, paints that picture perfectly.
The Jets have three skill guys running routes against various Patriots in coverage.
Upfront, the Patriots run a delayed blitz and get to Wilson despite the Jets using an eight-man protection.
It was, indeed, a perfect plan by Bill.
Wilson panicked when he didn’t spot open receivers, throwing four interceptions. The Jets’ pass-catchers struggled to separate from the Patriots’ aggressive man coverage. The Jets’ offensive line struggled with stunts.
To top it all off, LaFleur failed to adjust, neglecting the ground game (which was working just fine when given the chance ) and quick throws.
It was a learning experience for the young Jets, who fell by a score of 25-6.
Over one month later, the past is the past. In Week 7, It would be foolish to simply expect Belichick to repeat his Week 2 plan.
Sure, it could happen. But the Jets have to be prepared for anything – and that’s the genius of Belichick. He usually has a good idea of what his opponent expects from him and does the complete opposite.
Before this week’s game, I lay out the Jets’ ideal responses for each version of Belichick they might face.
Aggressive or lagged, there are ways out of the traps that Belichick will lay, and the Jets must exploit them.
Aggressive Patriots: 3 ways to go.
Jets fans probably remember Sam Darnold’s “seeing ghosts” game well.
After an exciting win against the Cowboys, everybody thought that the Jets could give the Patriots some fits.
It didn’t happen. The Patriots came into the game with an aggressive game plan and the Jets offense got outmatched.
Nonetheless, Adam Gase’s plan was far from crazy.
1. Throwing hot
Knowing he had a struggling offensive line, Gase knew he couldn’t trust seven or eight-man protections to hold. His response, then, was to throw hot – i.e., right at the blitz, quickly.
It is a fair response to this Patriots’ defense, especially if you have a veteran quarterback behind center. Go with empty protections (five OL blocking) and trust your signal-caller to identify the proper matchup.
However, with Darnold only being in his second year and 16th career start, he failed to process the Patriots’ pre-snap looks and identify the quick post-snap responses.
The former Jets quarterback didn’t know when the Patriots were blitzing or bluffing, which led to multiple turnover-worthy plays and, ultimately, a five-turnover game by No. 14.
Interception No. 1 is a good example of how tricky it is to throw hot against zero.
Throwing hot is one of the answers against the Patriots, indeed. But for young, struggling quarterbacks like Zach Wilson or Sam Darnold, throwing hot is an answer that I particularly dislike.
It requires an incredible amount of experience to process everything that the Patriots’ show pre-snap correctly.
For Wilson, specifically, throwing hot means throwing short, accurately, and on-time – three things he hasn’t done thus far.
So, what else is there to do?
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2. Screens and sweeps: the substitutes of the hot
While throwing hot is usually a hard task for a young quarterback, asking them to execute a horizontal offense is not.
The Patriots, despite being well-coached, have one clear weakness: slow linebackers.
New England’s off-ball linebackers have below-average speed, kindly saying. They are often in the right spot, but lack of speed is a capital sin in today’s game and sometimes can’t be overcome by smarts.
Starting linebackers Dont’a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy (both 31 years old) are on the downside of their careers. Exploiting them is a must for the Jets.
With an offense that’s predicated on stretching the defense horizontally, the Jets might find themselves in a good spot against the Patriots if they choose the sweeps and screens route to counter the Pats’ pressure looks.
Elijah Moore, Tevin Coleman, Michael Carter, Braxton Berrios – all of them should see plenty of touches.
For this game, the Jets should utilize 21 PONY personnel (2 running backs on the field).
It’s a way to force outside linebacker Matt Judon to play coverage sometimes and to stress Hightower and Van Noy, forcing them to make tackles on quick, horizontal throws.
Utilizing Michael Carter and Tevin Coleman in the underneath game is a must for Mike LaFleur.
Quick screens and jet sweeps might be an important part of the Jets’ game plan against the Patriots.
It works both ways, helping to take the pressure away from Zach Wilson and exploiting the Patriots’ lack of speed in their linebacker group.
3. Max protection
This was the Jets’ plan in Week 2. Play protection and burn the Patriots deep with Wilson’s strong arm.
It didn’t work, but it was a valid idea.
Had the Patriots blitzed the Jets more often in Week 2, Wilson probably would be able to connect down the field with Elijah Moore a few times. Unfortunately, New England didn’t blitz nearly as much as expected.
Still, against an aggressive game plan, max protection and deep shots are a good answer. That is especially true with Wilson, a quarterback who is better at throwing deep than short right now and can use his legs to extend plays.
This was, in fact, probably LaFleur’s thinking prior to the last matchup – play to Wilson’s strengths.
Here’s the problem: the Jets can’t get too fixated on that.
Playing max protection and throwing deep balls can’t be your go-to against New England. It has to be sporadic, merely a part of the game plan to be used when there’s a good indication of aggressiveness to come.
Look at this play by Aaron Rodgers and the Packers against Bill Belichick three years ago. Max protection, three-man route, big play. It can happen, but there’s a timing element to it.
While maxing the protection and looking for the big play has to be a part of the Jets game plan, they must mix and match.
Screens, sweeps, and running back routes out of the backfield also must be used. LaFleur must throw the max-protection strategy in there only when he feels the blitz is coming.
Game feel is everything as a play-caller, and LaFleur must be up to the task to beat Belichick. If the Patriots choose the route of an aggressive game plan, LaFleur has plenty of options to beat them.
The key is calling each one at the right time.
Strong coverage Patriots: take what the defense gives you
If the Patriots replicate their Week 2 game plan, the answer is easy for the Jets: take what the defense gives you. In other words, run the football.
The Jets must run the football more and better. That’s how their offense gets going. There are situations where running the ball constantly is useless (see: Week 1 vs. Panthers), but there are times where running the ball is a must.
In Week 2 against New England, running was a must for the Jets, and LaFleur simply failed to recognize that.
If New England shows a willingness to play coverage again, the Jets must force them to change. LaFleur has to run the ball up to a point where Belichick feels he needs to adjust. After that, hitting the Pats with a max protection deep ball can come into play.
The only way to play X’s and O’s chess in football is by being able to accept what your opponent is giving you.
The genius calls will only come when you can force the other team to adjust.
Look at how easy the Jets were running on the Patriots in Week 2.
All things considered, the Jets have many ways to at least create some trouble for the Patriots. New York has a speed advantage and the flexibility at the skill positions to exploit the Patriots’ defense in multiple ways.
In the end, it’s all up to Mike LaFleur. Can the Jets’ OC feel the game and let the game flow dictate his calls? Or will he get stuck in his gameplan thoughts again?
LaFleur must be multiple, and, ultimately, adaptable. He has to understand that the Patriots defense only solidifies itself come game time and realize everything that happens from Monday to Saturday can be left behind if it is not working.
After all, that’s exactly what Belichick would do.