Do not overlook the third aspect of football in the second Jets-Patriots meeting
In Week 8, when the New York Jets lost 22-17 to the New England Patriots, their special teams DVOA ranking dropped from third to 10th in the NFL.
That drop may have been the single biggest swing in the game, Zach Wilson’s three interceptions and John Franklin-Myers’s roughing the passer penalty notwithstanding.
The Jets came into the game thinking that they’d have the special teams advantage, mainly in punt returning. After all, New England’s special teams DVOA was 15th-ranked at the time, largely based on the weakness of their punter, Jake Bailey.
At that point, Bailey was averaging just 43.1 yards per punt, 31st out of 32 punters. His net average was 35.2, the worst in the league by over 2.7 yards. Bailey’s punts were yielding 10.4 yards per return, and he ranked 21st with 46.4% of his punts generating returns. Meanwhile, at the time, Braxton Berrios was averaging 12.9 yards per return, the fifth-highest mark among 34 punt returners.
Instead, the Patriots completely flipped the script on the Jets. In the punting game, Braden Mann averaged just 34.0 net yards per punt, based mainly on a 22-yard shanked punt. The punt coverage, which had been one of the tops in the league to that point, allowed a 32-yard return to Marcus Jones, which led directly to a Patriots field goal despite the defense giving up no yardage on the drive.
The Jets’ return game, on the other hand, was nonexistent. Braxton Berrios had three fair catches, including one at the Jets’ 8-yard line. In the kick return game, Berrios fell right into the Patriots’ trap. New England tends to try to kick off short and pin their opponents inside the 25. On the opening kickoff of the game, though, Bailey kicked three yards deep in the end zone. Instead of taking a knee and starting on the 25, Berrios ran it out and was promptly tackled at the 18, already setting the Jets up with an extra long field.
I understand Berrios’s aggressiveness there. After all, he was an All-Pro returner last season and has some strong returns this year, too. However, considering the strength of New England’s kickoff coverage (currently ninth in kickoff DVOA), it would be wise to take the yards given to you. The potential reward is not worth the risk in this case.
On the flip side, in the Jets’ kickoff game, there’s something somewhat puzzling going on. The Jets have switched back and forth between Braden Mann and Greg Zuerlein kicking off. On 29 kickoffs, Zuerlein has 25 touchbacks, an 86.2% rate that ranks second in the NFL. While Mann has 10 touchbacks on 12 non-onside kick attempts, a similar 83.3% rate, he botched the opening kickoff against the Bills in Week 9, giving Buffalo field position at their own 45. It was somewhat fluky, but taken together with Mann’s two shanked punts this season, there does seem to be a theme that Mann is not as reliable as Zuerlein. So why would you have Mann continue to kick off?
In theory, it’s possible that the Jets want Mann to kick short of the end zone to pin teams inside the 25, but that seemingly has not happened. Zuerlein has not messed up in this area, while Mann has. Zuerlein is called Greg the Leg for a reason. Let Zuerlein kick off and minimize the risk of a boneheaded error.
In the kicking game, there isn’t much a team can do except ask its kicker to convert. Although Zuerlein has mostly been solid this season, his 45-yard miss was a huge momentum swing in the first Patriots game. It came on the Jets’ opening drive of the second half immediately after the Patriots had marched right down the field for a touchdown. A conversion in that situation would have tied the score at 13 and restored the balance in the game. Instead, the missed field goal allowed New England to drive down for a field goal of their own, and that’s when Zach Wilson’s struggles started. It is reasonable to wonder if Wilson felt the pressure to do it all himself after seeing that swing.
Overall, in Week 8, New England ranked first in the league with a 19.4% special teams DVOA, while the Jets ranked dead-last with a -15.7% number. For reference, each of those numbers ranks in the top 10 single-game best and worst results this season, respectively.
The Jets did many things far better than the Patriots in Week 8. However, crushing mistakes turned the game around. Gang Green must do their part to eliminate the mistakes, and changing their approach on special teams is a part of that.