Week 3 preview: Pats need more urgent approach in critical Jets showdown originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston
FOXBORO — Time for the Patriots to show some real urgency. With another slow start, their third in as many games this season, the window to 0-3 would be cracked open in a way they can’t allow.
Falling to the Fightin’ Zach Wilsons, with a tough matchup awaiting them in Dallas in Week 4, would clear the path to self-doubt for a group of Patriots players that isn’t accustomed to success in a way that previous iterations of this roster have been.
What does urgency look like, exactly?
It might be best defined by what it’s not.
It’s not falling behind 16-0 in the first quarter, as the Patriots did against the Eagles. It’s not falling behind 17-3 in the first half, as they did against the Dolphins. It’s not turning it over. It’s not getting inside the opponent 30-yard line and leaving empty-handed, as they’ve done six times over two weeks.
Urgency is running the football with bad intentions and sticking with it, which they haven’t been able to do to this point in the season (more on that below). Urgency is taking a shot down the field with the intention of taking an early lead, not because it’s a desperate reaction to facing a double-digit deficit.
The Patriots haven’t exactly oozed urgency in some time, in a variety of facets, at a variety of different points on the calendar.
It certainly hasn’t defined their approach through two weeks of the regular season.
It didn’t define their preseason, when injury-prevention seemed to be the choice over preparation for competitive football.
It didn’t define their offseason, when they watched their best receiver depart and allowed expensive tackles to sign elsewhere.
It hasn’t defined their spending, as they’ve not re-upped promising young players headed into contract years. The salary sweeteners dished out to Trent Brown and Matthew Judon came only after their respective participation levels early in spring and summer practices were low.
It hasn’t defined the team’s handling of its young quarterback, whose time on an inexpensive rookie contract is ticking down.
There often seems to be an umbrella let-the-game-come-to-us tactic deployed in Foxboro, whether it’s in-game or in team building. But because of the importance of Sunday’s outcome, this is an opportune time to dictate the terms and put the other guys on their heels.
Bill Belichick was asked Friday to describe the level of urgency his team has exhibited this week as it faces a critical divisional matchup.
“Good,” he said. “It’s Jets week. Division game.”
Belichick, of course, has chosen creative methods in the past to convey urgency to his teams. He famously buried a football — he even buried tape once — to encourage his players to press onward when facing adverse situations.
Anything along those lines this week?
“There’s urgency every week,” he said. “Seventeen games… Get ready to play ’em all.”
Mac Jones may have exhibited some urgency following his team’s Week 2 loss when he encouraged everyone in no uncertain terms to do more. Bill O’Brien made it very clear they need to be better offensively, and soon, when he spoke to reporters this week. And perhaps Belichick’s short answers Friday were an indication of the urgency he was feeling in that moment. Perhaps there was more work for him to get to.
There’s clearly a balance that needs to be struck for a team in the position the Patriots are in now. They shouldn’t want to smash the panic button. But this isn’t exactly one of those just another game games, either.
Judon was asked on Thursday if there was a players-only meeting held after the Dolphins game to address whatever it might be that ails them.
“We don’t got to have a come-to-Jesus meeting after the second week,” he explained. “We got a long season to go…
“I think the good thing about our locker room is that we do that freely. We talk honest. We talk to each other harsh sometimes. But sometimes you just need to hear it. Sometimes you need to hear it from your brother. It’s better to come from somebody that’s actually out there fighting, bleeding with you than somebody that’s chilling on the sideline drinking Gatorade.”
Whether it was a players-only meeting or a more casual locker-room debrief, it’d make sense if there was some honest conversation within the walls of One Patriot Place this week about the importance of turning things around. This game represents what feels like the closest thing to a “must-win” a team can have in Week 3.
On the road. Bad weather. Let the game come to you at your own risk.
Matchup to win the first half
Patriots run defense vs. Jets backs
The Patriots have a good run defense. And they know it. That’s why Deatrich Wise was willing to call Raheem Mostert’s 43-yard touchdown run “lucky” after the game. Defensive line coach DeMarcus Covington didn’t go there when asked about it this week, but he made it clear that their front has — by and large — been good on early downs through two weeks.
“I would say, overall, we had great preparation for the (Dolphins) game,” Covington said. “Especially from an early-down standpoint in the running game. I think what it all boils down to, what you’re asking is really the fundamentals and technique. We really played it poorly on that play, which obviously you can see based off the touchdown.
“We didn’t execute it as well as we needed to execute it. We’ll work harder on our fundamentals and technique. We clean that up, our front plays like it did earlier in the half — or most of the game, really — in the run game, except for that one play… Play it with better fundamentals and technique.”
Had it not been for that Mostert run, ghastly as it was for the Patriots defense, the Dolphins otherwise averaged 3.5 yards per carry. Outside of that carry, the Patriots are allowing 3.7 yards per carry on the season. They’re ninth in rushing success rate allowed against the run.
The Jets have two capable backs in Breece Hall and Dalvin Cook, and it’s looking like it could be a mini-monsoon in East Rutherford, meaning they’ll get plenty of touches with Zach Wilson running the ship. But, through two weeks, the Jets are only 21st in expected points added per rush. This is a matchup the Patriots should win, ultimately forcing the ball into Wilson’s hands, which the Jets clearly don’t want (31st in the NFL in attempts).
Matchup that will surprise you
Christian Gonzalez vs. Garrett Wilson
Maybe this shouldn’t surprise you at this point. Because Gonzalez held his own against A.J. Brown and then did the same the next week when pressed into duty on Tyreek Hill, arguably the toughest cover in the NFL.
But Gonzalez is well-equipped to handle what is a better matchup than either of those others this week against the reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year. Wilson is excellent at the catch point, and he’s a next-level athlete in his own right. But he’s not as physical as A.J. Brown. And he’s not as explosive as Hill.
Gonzalez — who currently sits as the fourth-highest graded corner in football, per Pro Football Focus — is allowing a 58.5 rating when targeted, which is ninth among all corners with at least 100 snaps this season. My expectation? That won’t skyrocket this week, and — with some safety help, no doubt — he’ll further cement himself as one of the best young corners in football very early in his rookie year.
Matchup that will bring you joy
Jerod Mayo/Steve Belichick vs. Zach Wilson
This is an easy one. This matchup has brought you joy since Wilson entered the league in 2021. He’s 0-4 against the Mayo-and-Belichick brain trust, with a 50.6 rating that’s been racked up in part as a result of throwing seven picks against just two touchdowns. He’s taken 11 sacks while trying to decipher that which the Patriots have thrown at him in four games.
Suffice it to say, it’s been a mess for Wilson against the Patriots. The weather won’t help. Expect more of the same this time around.
Matchup that could take years off your life
Patriots receivers vs. D.J. Reed
Maybe this would also fall under the header of the matchup that will surprise you. But it could come as a surprise in a less-than-positive manner for Patriots fans.
Reed is one of the best cornerbacks in football. He just so happens to be not quite as good as Sauce Gardner and therefore he doesn’t get as much attention. He’s ninth in PFF grade among NFL corners through two weeks, and last season he checked in at 19th. Wherever he falls on that spectrum ultimately, he’s good enough to be a bad matchup for each and every one of New England’s receivers. He allowed just 56.6 percent of targets sent his way to be completed in 2023 (18th among corners) to go along with a 75.7 rating allowed (11th).
If the Patriots can’t run the ball (more on that later), then they’ll need to continue to chuck it at a record pace. And yes they are on a record pace through two weeks. Mac Jones’ 96 attempts to this point would put him at 816 by season’s end if it keeps up, shattering Tom Brady’s 2022 record of 733 passes. That just may not be a winning formula against a deep and talented Jets defensive front — not to mention two high-end corners — in the middle of Tropical Storm Ophelia.
Matchup that will determine the outcome
Patriots offensive line vs. Jets defensive line
It’s been messy through two weeks. They’re 22nd in the NFL in yards per carry. They’re 17th in EPA per rush. They’re 23rd in rushing attempts. They simply have not been able to run the football consistently against either the Eagles or the Dolphins. In two games, lead back Rhamondre Stevenson is averaging 2.8 yards per carry.
In the passing game, it hasn’t been much better. According to ESPN Stats and Info, they’re losing their pass-protection reps at a rate that is higher than any other team in the league other than… the Jets. They have one of the quickest-triggers (2.46 seconds to throw, fourth-fastest) and least-explosive passing games (5.7 yards per attempt, 28th) in the NFL due in large part because of their struggles in protection.
The good news is that, with more reps, the offensive line should improve.
That’s the expectation at One Patriots Place. Why time will help in pass-protection is self-explanatory. Communication matters. Reps matter. Seeing things through the same set of eyes is vital.
But it’s true in the run game as well. They do what they can with the fully-padded reps they have in order to try to make up for lost training camp time. Cole Strange, Mike Onwenu and Calvin Anderson all missed most of (or all of) training camp. But there are only so many of those padded practice reps to go around. After that? It’s about “stealing” time where possible, players have told me this week.
Non-padded practices. Walkthroughs. Between practice periods. Put it all together, and perhaps by Sunday there’s a greater understanding developed of how a particular teammate is going to handle a specific kind of block. How long should you linger on a double-team? Where should your hands be to most effectively execute a certain play? How does a certain teammate move, and when might he need some help?
The bad news for the Patriots is that this is a tough week to try to get right up front. Led by All-Pro Quinnen Williams, the Jets are in possession of one of the deepest and most talented fronts in football. They’re sixth in EPA allowed per rush and they’ve generated pressure on 37 percent of opponent dropbacks through two weeks.
If the Patriots can figure out a way to run the football… If that helps them create some explosive plays in the play-action passing game… If they can protect Mac Jones consistently. They’ll win. Simple as that. It may not be pretty. In fact, it’s very likely to be ugly. But that’s what this game will boil down to.