Marquee Matchups: The Hidden Battle
By now we all know the Patriots crushed the Jets on Thanksgiving. But, as Ben Stockwell recounts, New England's victory was keyed by their dominant run game.
Marquee Matchups: The Hidden Battle
The biggest story to come out of the late kickoff last Thanksgiving was the New York Jets complete capitulation at the hands of the New England Patriots. Scoring points in bunches, the quick strike Patriots put the Jets to the sword in a manner that left the home team powerless to respond.
However, suggesting that the game rested on those few minutes of play in which the Patriots scored 35 of their 49 points is somewhat misleading. In reality, the Patriots had this game in hand not only because of their passing game, but because of a hidden battle in which they comfortably got the upper hand. In battling for column inches with the likes of Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski and Wes Welker, the Patriots’ running game is always going to come off second best. This season though, the dirty little secret around the Patriots is they have the running game to balance their offense and terrify the rest of the AFC.
The Jets’ run defense has been inconsistent this season, but led by a terrific defensive line has always had the potential to shut opposing teams down and really dominate in the trenches. This week though, they were conclusively second-best and all of this with giving up only one rush of 10 yards or more. This week, Marquee Matchups casts an eye over how the Patriots so conclusively and consistently put the Jets’ run defense in the shade.
Start As You Mean To Go On
If you can remember that far back, the Patriots got off to a terrible start in this game, registering a 10-yard loss courtesy of a penalty on the very first snap of the game. This came as a result of standout Jets’ DE Muhammad Wilkerson blowing past Donald Thomas to take down Tom Brady who grounded the ball in an attempt to limit the loss of yardage, something Mike Carey didn’t allow him to do.
This sort of dominance up front was the Jets’ only real hope to slow down the Patriots’ offense and keep pace in this Primetime game, but it didn’t last. On the very next play the Patriots fired a warning shot at the Jets’ run defense that was not heeded. The rush only went for 5 yards, but the Patriots were able to wriggle through a run defense spread along the line of scrimmage rather than conventionally set up with a first and second level. The Patriots didn’t open a clean point of attack for Stevan Ridley, but he was still able to get through a crease and spin through the tackle of Kyle Wilson to collect a 5-yard gain. On 2nd-and-19 this was not an offensive success, but it was one of only four of their 13 first quarter rushes that didn’t result in what we would deem a success for the offense.
From the first play of their second drive, the Patriots’ offense got itself into gear and wasn’t knocked out of it for the remainder of the quarter. Typically, you would expect the Patriots to spread out a defense like the Jets, but they aligned with a traditional TE and two-back alignment, allowing the Jets to respond with an eight-man box. From here the new look Patriots offensive line simply went about splitting the Jets’ defense right up the middle. Their guards turned out the Jets’ defensive tackle to split the A-gaps wide open and, with two blocks through to the second level, a pair of cuts by Ridley saw him through the crease for 9 yards. Ryan Wendell’s block on David Harris may not have been conclusive, but he pushed Harris wide enough that Ridley was able to cut upfield off the block of Daniel Fells who sealed Bart Scott without dominating the soon-to-be-benched linebacker.
The Patriots followed that up with another carry right up the middle at the Jets’ defense as they quickly established their up-tempo offense. Again, the Jets offered the Patriots a big target through the middle and New England took it, hitting up the wide gap between the Jets’ defensive tackles. This time the Patriots ran a trap play, but the effect was the same, cutting a wide seam through the A-gaps as the defensive tackles were handled one-on-one allowing two linemen to get through onto the pairing of Harris and Scott. This time the Jets did better at squeezing down on the gap, but Ridley was still able to squeeze through and pick up a comfortable conversion on 2nd-and-short.
After only three rushes the Jets had a massive problem in run defense — 19 yards on three carries is problem enough, but on none of these carries did anyone in the heart of the Jets’ run defense look like beating a Patriot run blocker one-on-one. Yes, they had stymied movement to an extent, but unless someone sheds and makes the tackle that isn’t going to halt the running game, at least not without bringing an unblocked defender into the box, and Tom Brady is not a quarterback against whom you can risk overloading the box.
The Patriots got away from the run in the second quarter as they piled on 35 points, but through the first three quarters of the game they averaged 4.7 yards per carry on backfield runs. This success in the running game set the underlying pulse of their offensive execution. The Patriots recorded an offensive success on more than 50% of their carries, and lost yardage on only two attempts, one of which came from an unblocked defender finding Ridley in the backfield late in the second quarter. The Patriots’ consistency was simply unstoppable and a product of a complete team effort without any individual excellence. Not one of the Patriots’ running backs forced a missed tackle in this game, but both of their lead backs averaged around 2 yards per carry after contact, taking and extending everything that their offensive line was giving them.
The Patriots’ longest rush of the game came late in the first quarter on a rush where, once again, the Jets were sliced open through the heart of their once formidable defense. On this play the Jets were spread out, the Patriots aligned four-wide before motioning Aaron Hernandez down into the box, and New England exploited a seven-man box with another well executed trap play. Even though the score was still tied, the Jets were already on the ropes as the running game started to rack up the yardage and leave them waiting for the knockout blow.
This time Quinton Coples was on the field but easily handled at RE by Thomas, and Wilkerson surrendered himself to Hernandez’s trap block as he pulled inside, resigned to his defeat on the play. Once again, the Jets’ complete inability to create any disruption at the line of scrimmage was their undoing as New England got two linemen immediately to the second level to neutralize the pairing of Harris and Eric Smith, on this occasion hopelessly outmatched in a linebacker alignment.
This time Marcus Cannon got to Harris at the second level, with RG Connolly moving out to give a different look to the prior trap play. All of this left Shane Vereen with an acre of space to knife through the Jets’ defense almost untouched until he reached the markers on 1st-and-10.
Would a more explosive back have broken this play open for a massive gain for the Patriots? Perhaps, but plays like this are why the Patriots are so dangerous on offense this season. Now from under center and in the shotgun, where they have worked well in the past, they can exploit teams that leave them with favorable matchups in the running game. They have backs with discipline and an offensive line that is executing a variety of plays extremely well to keep defenses as off balance on the ground as they are through the air.
This game was over after the second quarter, but you still have to take care of business down the stretch and the Patriots did just that. Though they encountered the usual issues of running the game out against a team playing run, they still gained yardage on all but two of their fourth-quarter carries. Prior to a 3-yard loss by Vereen, at which point the Patriots had backups in, New England were averaging nearly 6 yards per carry in the fourth quarter. This was in spite of a longest rush of 8 yards in the final stanza — a mark of the consistency of the New England running game.
The Patriots only served to emphasize their physical dominance in this game, and really put an exclamation point on the matchup, on the second play of the quarter. Once again, the Jets were handled at the line of scrimmage but they were able to quickly locate the gap and have two players in position to hit and stop Ridley as he came through off left tackle. Both Harris and Wilson were untouched and had a clean angle on Ridley to sandwich the runner and absolutely stone him in the gap.
That didn’t happen though, as both players were slow to the gap and weak to stop the run when they met the runner. Rather than going shoulder to shoulder and beating the Patriots’ runner with the numbers game, they left a gap between them and Ridley exploited it, hitting them hard and driving between the pair of tacklers for a full 6 yards after contact before he was finally dragged down.
The Jets have talked themselves up in the past as the big, nasty, powerful, old-school team that would knock lumps out of the finesse Patriots. This was the exclamation point on a game that proved once and for all that the tables have turned. The Patriots are no longer that one dimensional offense where if you stymie the passing game at the line you can knock them off their rhythm. Off the back of an underrated offensive line, and a pair of powerful and disciplined ball carriers, the Patriots can carry the fight to any run defense and they put the Jets in their place on Thanksgiving.
This game was just a case of the Patriots taking care of business, now this running game must show its steel when it counts — in December and January to prove it is a worthy complement to Tom Brady and the rest of the Patriots’ passing attack.
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Ben Stockwell | Director of Analysis
Ben joined Pro Football Focus in 2007, and has since been in charge of the company’s analysis process. He also contributes to PFF’s weekly NFL podcast.