Sunday, October 19, 2014

Big Nickle key going forward for Patriots' run defense despite anomalous performance

Signal caller Dont'a Hightower and his entire defense had their hands full with Chris Johnson and the Jets on Thursday night

On a crisp mid-October evening in Foxborough, Massachusetts, where a massive cold front had passed over earlier in the afternoon and dumped three inches of rain, conventional wisdom would dictate that any football coach worth his weight in bacon would game plan to run the ball and keep the slippery pig close to its' natural habitat.

So while it would normally seem curious that the team that followed the tried and true fundamental of dealing with inclimate weather ended up on the short end of the stick, when one considers that the team in question is the hard-luck New York Jets, it suddenly makes sense...

...and given the manner in which Rex Ryan's charges had dropped their previous five games in excruciating fashion, it only went to figure that their nationally televised contest against their most hated nemesis would end in heartbreak once again.
Walker brings much-needed nastiness to the Patriots' defense

Chris Ivory rushed for 107 yards, Chris Johnson 67, and quarterback Geno Smith 37 yards on seven scrambles as the Jets went for 218 yards overall on 43 carries and scored on five straight possessions to open the game, but New England defensive tackle Chris Jones blocked a last-second 57 yard field goal attempt to preserve a tough 27-25 victory for the Patriots at Gillette Stadium on Thursday night.

But this was no ordinary demoralizing Jets' loss, as it set a new standard for gut-retching defeats in the Rex Ryan era - and not because of the twister-board, back-shoulder touchdown catch by Danny Amendola on 3rd and goal from the 19 yard line to provide the game-winning points for New England, nor because his kicker's last-second 58 yard field goal was blocked..., those things are par for the course when it comes to one of the most star-crossed franchises in professional football - rather, what had Ryan seething and reportedly punching walls in the visitor's locker room is the fact that the Jets had just become the first team in NFL history to enjoy both a two-to-one advantage in time of possession and to rush for over 200 yards while not turning the ball over and still lose the game.

How this is possible is not necessarily rocket science, as most of it can be explained by ineptitude on both sides of the ball by both teams - and the Patriots just happened to be slightly less bumbling.

For the Patriots, their lack of balance on offense contributed to five of their ten possessions in the game going three-and-out, while the loss of their defensive captain and signal caller Jerod Mayo on the other side of the ball just four days earlier contributed to a lack of communication among the linebackers that kept three Jets' scoring drives alive.

The result was a time of possession disparity in favor of New York that fell just shy of a 41-19 minute advantage, and when taken in that context - that the Patriots were able to score 27 points in just 19 minutes while the Jets kept tripping over themselves in putting 25 points on the board in 41 minutes speaks volumes, especially given that the New England offense wasn't necessarily firing on all cylinders.

The Jets were their own worst enemy in the first half when they were forced to settle for field goals on their first four drives of the game, offensive linemen Oday Aboushi and Willie Colon called for drive killing holding penalties on their first two possessions, Smith killing the third drive with his arm...

...and then timely penetration by the newest Patriot Casey Walker to blow up their fourth drive caused the Jets to leave points on the field for four consecutive series before New York finally put together a touchdown drive on their first possession of the second half to take an ever-so-brief lead.

All of those things explain why the score was so tight, as what should have been a resounding Jets' victory that would have offered a sliver of hope to their season turned into a loss that has them on life support - but a little more research is required to understand how New England survived to raise their record to 5-2 despite the defense coughing up a horrifying 218 yards on the ground.

And not by the Jets breaking any long runs, either,  Rather, they were actually tearing off gains of six and seven yards on first down with regularity, their longest run of the night a 16-yard Chris Ivory cave man job - and over two-thirds of that yardage total came on the edges.

Much of the focus on the problems with the run defense has been attributed in the media to the Patriots releasing defensive tackle Tommy Kelly in the preseason, but the issue in this game had little to do with slighted interior pass rush tackles and everything to do with the Patriots' inability to set the edges - and the numbers don't lie.

In 20 carries into the heart of the Patriots' run defense, the Jets gained 77 yards, for an average of 3.85 yards per attempt, which isn't elite by any standard but certainly not numbers that suggest mediocrity - those types of numbers belong to the edge defenders, who gave up a nearly six yards per carry to the left and almost seven yards a carry to the right.

Why?  Team speed that enabled the Jets' runners to gain the edges against a slower and clearly undermanned New England linebacking corps.

To combat that disparity, the Patriots played almost the entire game in the Big Nickle, meaning that they went with three defensive tackles as part of a five man line with Big Vince Wilfork, game hero Chris Jones and spry-looking newcomer Walker clogging the middle, while Chandler Jones and Rob Nikovich brought pressure on Jets' quarterback Geno Smith from the edges.

In this scenario, however, the Jets countered with edge runs off tackle as Jones and Ninkovich were consistently escorted right out of the play up field, leaving huge gaps for Ivory and Johnson to sprint through...

...leaving the only two linebackers in the game, Jaimie Collins and Dont'a Hightower to set the edge - problem was, they were also kept busy defending a base 12-personnel offense for New York, tight ends Jeff Cumberland and rookie Jace Amaro along with wide receiver Eric Decker providing a big picket fence for them to navigate around.

New England was able to pull of the Big Nickle mostly because the Jets are void of any real pass catching talent besides the aforementioned trio, and were able to employ a single high safety and dropping Patrick Chung into the box to try and take some of the load off the linebackers - and while he collected eight tackles, nearly all of them were on the second level and he just isn't quite big enough to handle tight ends.

Of course, the Jets offset the Patriots' plan by running away from the middle and forcing the exhausted New England defenders to chase them all over the field - and the results were predictable.

The Patriots indeed escaped with a tight win that could have just as easily been a loss in the style of the beatdown that the Chiefs handed them in Week 4 had the Jets been able to capitalize on their opportunities.

Be that as it may, the Patriots would do well to stick with the Big Nickle considering their lack of depth in the linebacker corps - only instead of bringing Patrick Chung down into the box to handle the nickle duties, that job should belong to Brandon Browner, whose size and aggressiveness could have voided many longer runs by the Jets by jamming Cumberland or Amaro coming off the line and allowing either Hightower or Collins to set the edge.

A small adjustment, indeed, yet the potential benefit to the defense could be substantial - especially when facing teams that don't consistently shoot themselves in the foot, like the New York Jets....

No comments:

Post a Comment