It’s essential for the New York Jets to lock down the New England Patriots on the outside, but something else has to happen first
If the New York Jets are going to snap their 14-game losing streak against the New England Patriots, it’s likely going to start with defensive dominance.
The Jets’ defense is equipped to silence New England’s offense. Since the start of 2022, New York has allowed the fifth-fewest points per game (19.1) while New England is ranked 19th in points per game (21.1).
There is one area where the Patriots will be especially overmatched against the Jets’ defense: their wide receivers against the Jets’ cornerbacks.
New England’s wide receiver unit has been one of the least efficient in the NFL through two weeks, ranking 31st in the league with an average of just 4.8 yards per target. The Patriots’ receivers have generated only 279 receiving yards on 58 targets.
These struggling wideouts will have to go toe-to-toe against the Jets’ stellar cornerback unit – which allowed the fewest yards per coverage snap (0.81) of any cornerback unit in football last season.
While the Jets’ cornerback unit hasn’t quite met those dominant standards in the early goings of 2023, it has still been very solid.
Through two games, the Jets’ cornerbacks are allowing 0.89 yards per coverage snap, which ranks 10th-best among cornerback units. Considering they’ve faced two elite passing offenses in Buffalo and Dallas, that ranking is quite impressive and is due to rise as the schedule evens out. Make no mistake: this is the same lockdown group we saw a year ago.
In 2022, the Jets’ cornerbacks silenced New England’s wide receivers. The Patriots’ wide receivers posted just 177 yards (88.5 per game) on 31 targets (5.7 yards per target) across the teams’ two matchups.
New York’s lockdown performance on the outside was a leading factor in the Jets’ overall defensive success against New England. The Patriots offense averaged 12.5 points and 292.5 total yards against the Jets.
While the Patriots scored 22 points in the first matchup, they only scored 13 points on drives that started in their own territory. New England scored three field goals on drives that started inside of the Jets’ 40-yard line, with two of those being set up by an interception and another being set up by a long punt return. The defense continuously bailed out the offense and the special teams for its killer mistakes.
Overall, the Jets’ defense was stellar against the Patriots in both matchups last season, and it all started with the cornerback play. Considering how much the Patriots’ wide receivers have already struggled this year – especially since both of their first two games were at home, and Sunday marks their first road game – the Jets’ cornerbacks have a chance to utterly dominate on Sunday.
But there is room for the Jets to be even more successful defensively against New England. While the defense was undeniably excellent in both outings – and the Jets would have won those games easily if the offense was merely average – there were still a few things the defense could have done better.
Most importantly, the Patriots only had one turnover across the two games. Jets fans know that number would have been two if not for an overturned pick-six in the second quarter of the first game, but the Jets failed to record any takeaways over the following six quarters against New England.
If the Jets want to snag more takeaways against the Patriots this year, they have to force New England into uncomfortable positions as it relates to down, distance, and score. Taking an early lead and maintaining it will be crucial, as will forcing the Patriots into third-and-long situations.
To accomplish those things, the Jets have to shut down New England’s bread-and-butter in the passing game: underneath passes to their tight ends and running backs.
While the Patriots’ wide receivers have been stagnant this season, their tight ends and running backs have been very efficient through the air. With a combined total of 265 receiving yards on 38 targets, the Patriots’ non-wide receivers are averaging 7.0 yards per target, ranking eighth-best in the NFL.
New England won’t launch bombs over your head, but they can dink-and-dunk their way down the field in an efficient fashion. They’ve been doing this to the Jets for many years, including both games last season.
Across the two games against New York, the Patriots’ tight ends and running backs combined for 263 receiving yards (131.5 per game) on 27 targets (9.7 yards per target). Of those 263 yards, 226 of them came after the catch (86%). Their average reception was made just 1.4 yards downfield while they gained 8.7 yards after the catch per reception.
This issue contributed heavily to the Jets’ lack of takeaways. Their inability to stop New England’s underneath passing game allowed the Patriots to rely on safe throws and avoid putting the ball in danger.
Mac Jones’ ADOT (average depth of target) in the first Jets game was 4.7 yards – meaning his average pass attempt traveled under five yards past the line of scrimmage. In the second game, it was a nearly identical 4.6 yards.
Those were his two lowest rates among the 14 games he played in the 2022 season. They were barely more than half of his season average in all other games, which was 8.8.
These numbers show that the Patriots knew they could rely on their tight ends and running backs to efficiently pass the ball against the Jets, so they hardly bothered to test their luck with the mismatch between their wide receivers against New York’s cornerbacks.
Obviously, the Jets were more than happy with the results in the end, considering the Patriots offense barely generated any points. But if the Jets want to make life as easy as possible for Zach Wilson against his arch-nemesis, takeaways will be essential.
To get those takeaways, New York needs to funnel more targets toward their cornerbacks. The only way to do that is to prove to the Patriots early in the game that they are fully prepared to shut down the tight ends and running backs, so they had better start targeting the wide receivers if they want any chance of moving the ball.
The Jets’ cornerbacks are a massive mismatch for the Patriots’ wide receivers. Because of how tightly covered the Patriots’ wide receivers will likely be for most of the game, any pass thrown their way will have a high chance of being intercepted.
If you include Michael Carter II’s wiped-out pick-six in Week 8 on a pass intended for WR Jakobi Meyers, Jones threw two interceptions across 32 targets to his wide receivers against the Jets. That’s an interception rate of 6.3%, which is extremely high. For comparison, the league average last season across all pass attempts was 2.3%.
On throws to his tight ends and running backs against the Jets, Jones had zero interceptions across 27 targets.
It’s extremely difficult to get interceptions on screen passes and dump-offs. To create interception opportunities, you need to force your opponent into attempting risky passes downfield.
However, if the Patriots are able to succeed through the dink-and-dunk game, they will simply choose to avoid the Jets’ cornerbacks. That’s what they did last season.
Until the Jets send a clear message that the TE/RB options simply aren’t viable, the Patriots will count on their underneath targets all day long, keeping the football safe in the process. But once the Jets consistently thwart the tight ends and running backs for a few consecutive drives, the Patriots will have no choice but to start relying on their wide receivers.
It’s on the Jets’ linebackers and safeties to accomplish this goal. They must do a great job of communicating in coverage, disallowing New England from scheming their underneath targets wide-open. Then, they have to be consistent at finishing tackles – which they did not do against the Cowboys last week or against the Patriots in 2022.
To force turnovers against the Patriots on Sunday, the Jets need to make Jones throw as many passes as possible toward the Jets’ most favorable mismatch: their cornerbacks against New England’s wide receivers. It all starts with proving they are ready for the underneath passing game so they can force the Patriots into pushing the ball downfield.
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