After re-watching the second half of the Patriots' Week 7 win over the Jets, passing along some notes and observations.
1. We closed our first-half thoughts with an allusion to the Jets overpowering the Patriots down the middle of their defense, and it was more of the same from New York to open the second half. The Jets marched right down the field to start the third quarter, chunking up yardage on the ground and up the gut of the Patriots' D. Surprisingly, the Jets opted to throw the football on third & 2 from the three-yard line, rather than relying on what got them near the goal line. Quarterback Mark Sanchez misfired on a throw to receiver Chaz Schilens, but the bigger error may have been deviating from what had been working.
2. With the return of receiver Julian Edelman to the lineup, there was some intrigue into how his presence would impact the role of Wes Welker. Truth be told, it seems like not much, as Edelman logged just seven snaps on offense (Welker played 64 of 80 offensive snaps), and it was again Welker who was a focal point of the attack. One would think, at least based off what Welker has done in recent weeks, that he will remain a primary offensive target going forward, and that Edelman may re-assume a role-player position.
3. The Patriots have no shortage of tight ends on their roster, and dressed four of them on Sunday. Amazingly, they were able to deploy all four on the field at the same time, which they did near the goal line on their first scoring drive of the second half. With no fullback on the roster, tight end Michael Hoomanawanui has absorbed something of an H-back role, playing from various spots around the formation. The Patriots showed in their three plays with four tight ends that they can do a multitude of different things within that personnel grouping, and eventually scored on a throw from quarterback Tom Brady to tight end Rob Gronkowski.
4. The play before the score, Brady nearly hooked up with tight end Aaron Hernandez, who was isolated in the back corner of the end zone. Brady zipped a throw that grazed Hernandez's finger tips, barely eluding his grasp. The third-year tight end is in just his second game back from an ankle injury that he suffered in Week 2, and appears to be continuing to rehab after three games missed. It's tough to decipher precisely how much the ankle is affecting him, but it looked on that play that Hernandez was a step slower in his cut out of his break than we are typically accustomed to seeing. Back in training camp, Brady referenced Hernandez's unique ability to get in and out of his breaks without hardly slowing down, and it looks like this is an area that will continue to come around as his ankle strengthens.
5. The Patriots didn't generate consistent pressure on Mark Sanchez throughout the day, but a near sack with 10:26 to go in the fourth quarter was a sign of things to come. Defensive end Rob Ninkovich began the play in a two-point stance, jammed tight end Dustin Keller at the line (an adjustment the Patriots appeared to make as the game progressed), and then rushed off the edge. Ninkovich nearly bowled over offensive lineman Vladimir Ducasse, then clutched Sanchez in his grasp, although the quarterback narrowly released the ball before going down. Ninkovich would laugh last, however, as he forced a strip sack in overtime to end the game.
6. Sanchez found Keller for the Jets' lone score of the second half, but it's hard to pin the play as a bad one for the Patriots' secondary. Defensive end Chandler Jones stood Keller up at the line of scrimmage, temporarily slowing down his release. When Keller did break free, he was checked in coverage by safety Tavon Wilson. Wilson closed the gap on Keller, but Sanchez managed to fit a throw right into his frame. Wilson made a break on the ball, but was unable to connect in his attempt at tipping it. Chalk this one up as good execution by the Jets.
7. The full pantheon of emotions was experienced in the closing minutes of regulation, as the Jets looked primed to take the lead while driving down the field, trailing 23-20. The momentum was stunted when receiver Stephen Hill dropped a would-be first-down catch on a third and 7, leading to a field goal from Nick Folk to tie the game. On the ensuing kickoff, the Jets regained a shot of life when Devin McCourty fumbled his return, setting New York up with wonderful field position and a chance to take the lead. Not to be overlooked in the sequence is the fact that the Jets made their recovery precisely one second before the two-minute warning. That, in effect, allowed the Patriots to save a timeout, which would later be used in their game-tying drive. As we've seen with the Patriots in recent weeks, the difference between a win and a loss can come down to a single series, a single play, and even a single second. That timeout saved made a difference in the end, as it afforded the offense the chance to open things up a bit in the final drive, rather than having to rely on sideline-breaking routes.
8. Speaking of: There was a lot to like about the Patriots' final drive in regulation, and it was predicated upon spreading the defense out, while still being able to effectively work the middle of the field. What was also noteworthy was the personnel that was used during the final drive, which included veteran receiver Deion Branch. Branch played less than one-third of the offensive snaps on Sunday (26 of 80), but the fact that he was on the field with the game on the line speaks volumes about the trust his coaching staff has in him. One other facet that seemed to show up in the final drive was the speed advantage the Patriots had in the middle of the field with tight end Rob Gronkowski and running back Danny Woodead working against the Jets' linebackers.
9. Twice on the Patriots' overtime possession, Tom Brady worked toward an isolated Aaron Hernandez down the right sideline, with cornerback Kyle Wilson in coverage on both instances. Both were back-shoulder throws by Brady, an area he likes to target with his receivers down the sideline. Back-shoulder throws are effective when receivers are unable to generate downfield separation, but they afford little margin for error. On the first throw, Wilson was flagged for pass interference after aggressive coverage. The second time around, Brady misfired on third down, leading to a field-goal attempt by Stephen Gostkowski.
10. Breaking down the final play of the game, which resulted in a fumble recovery by Ninkovich to end the overtime: Ninkovich was aligned on the left side of the line, adjacent to defensive end Jermaine Cunningham, who had been reduced down to a tackle alignment. Cunningham took an inside path, squeezing inside right guard Brandon Moore and sliding into Sanchez, while Ninkovich used a deliberate, relentless power-push to beat right tackle Austin Howard around the edge. Cunningham teed Ninkovich up to finish the duty, and credit the reliable end-of-the-line player for dislodging the football and ending the game. It can be argued that the Patriots have been most successful in generating pressure with Jones, Cunningham, and Ninkovich on the field at the same time.