These Patriots are not an easy bunch to figure out. One week they’ll try to ram the ball down an opponent’s throat with the run, the next they’ll spread it out and attack through the air, and they’ll follow that with an ultra hurry-up approach to rattle a defense and open up holes. What’ll it be this Sunday against the Jets, especially with Rob Gronkowski out of the mix? Our three Patriots reporters try to get into the mind of Bill Belichick and guess the game plan for Sunday.
Share your thoughts on how the Pats should attack or defend the Jets in the comments section.
Mike Reiss: Patriots should go bigger, establish the run
The Patriots need more from their rushing attack and it makes sense to think the game-plan against the Jets will start there. It can be a long afternoon facing a Rex Ryan defense if you’re one-dimensional.
This is where the absence of tight end Rob Gronkowski could actually hurt most, because he’s the team’s best blocking tight end. It wouldn’t be surprising if Bill Belichick taps one of the team’s offensive linemen to serve as an eligible tight end, as that might be the team’s best chance to match Gronkowski’s big presence at the line of scrimmage -- going bigger.
Getting this area going would also open play-action possibilities, an area in which the Patriots have been lethal.
Defensively, tightening up the run defense is where it starts. The Patriots have been shaky in each of the last two weeks, their front six or seven struggling to both tackle and fit correctly. The Patriots are at their best when creating a wall up front, and so this isn’t anything exotic. Defensive lineman Vince Wilfork is the key, and the hope is to create third-and-longs that would help the oft-criticized unit.
Mike Rodak: Heavy dose of RBs; Shiancoe a new end zone target?
This will be one of the more challenging game plans that offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels will have to devise this season, and it will be a bit of a throwback for him. For the first time since 2009, the Patriots won't have All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski at their disposal.
On a short week, McDaniels will need to find a way to move the ball with Gronkowski, who is a big part of the Patriots’ offense in the running game, in the middle of the field passing game, and in the red zone.
Back in 2008, when McDaniels was last the offensive coordinator for the Patriots, his tight ends were Benjamin Watson and David Thomas, who both were largely disappointing based on their draft status in New England. With Matt Cassel at quarterback, McDaniels relied more heavily on the running game that season.
Expect a heavy dose of Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen on the ground, but also through the air. McDaniels comes from the Charlie Weis school of screen passes and getting running backs involved in the passing game. Therefore, it would make sense for Danny Woodhead to take on a larger role as a receiver.
In 2008, Kevin Faulk was the team's third-leading receiver, with 58 catches. Using multiple running back formations -- perhaps both Vereen and Woodhead next to Brady in the shotgun -- would help combat the Jets blitz while also giving Brady more options in the middle of the field.
In the red zone, veteran tight end Visanthe Shiancoe needs to become a factor in Gronkowski's absence. The possible return of Aaron Hernandez could help create opportunities for Shiancoe to get open in the red zone, and at 6-foot-4, 250 pounds, there are battles in that area that he can win.
Field Yates: Pats will win the battle at line of scrimmage
Tossing out the Jets’ loss to the Patriots earlier this season, the prevailing strategy to defeat them has been beating them up at the line of scrimmage.
The Texans, Dolphins, Steelers and others have been able to do so, and the Patriots could look to emulate that tactic on Thursday night.
Look for New England to bring pressure from their linebackers on Thursday, much like they did with Brandon Spikes in Week 11, and attempt to wear down the Jets starting offensive line.
Though Mark Sanchez had over 300 yards passing the last time these two teams played, the Patriots could be just fine with having him try to beat them with underneath and intermediate passing plays.
The Jets don’t have a consistent big play threat (although rookie receiver Stephen Hill has major speed), and if the Patriots can wear the Jets down near the line of scrimmage and keep things tight on the back end of the secondary, they should put themselves in a very good spot to win.
Finally, the Patriots will also look to complementary football from all three phases. The defense has been a big help to the offense in recent weeks, and that will need to keep up going forward.