Game of Week 7: Jets-Patriots
Despite trying to fix it, Pats are struggling in the secondary for third straight year
Backfield injuries might lead to more snaps for Tim Tebow as a running back
Patriots struck gold with rookie Chandler Jones, who leads the team in sacks
New York Jets (3-3) at New England Patriots (3-3)
1. New England's secondary is a primary concern
It's not for lack of trying that the Patriots haven't fixed the problems in the back end of their defense. Since 2007, they have invested two first-round draft picks and four second-round selections on defensive backs (that's not counting a big contract for free agent Leigh Bodden) in an effort to resolve the issue. But like a conspicuous weed in an otherwise pristine garden, it just won't go away.
After ranking 30th in the league in 2010 and 31st in 2011, New England's pass defense is ranked 28th through the first six games of this season. The Patriots have allowed an alarming 33 pass plays of 20 yards or more (most in the league), including nine that went for touchdowns. Overall, they have given up 15 scoring passes (tied for most).
In last Sunday's 24-23 loss in Seattle, Seahawks rookie quarterback Russell Wilson scorched the Patriots for touchdown passes of 24 yards to Doug Baldwin and 46 to Sidney Rice. In addition, Golden Tate was on the receiving end of a 51-yarder, Baldwin a 50-yarder and officials flagged Pats safety Patrick Chung for a 40-yard interference penalty.
Because of injuries to Steve Gregory (hip), who has missed the last two games, and Chung (shoulder), who went out in the Seattle game, rookies Tavon Wilson and Nate Ebner were on the field late in the game when Rice hauled in the game-winning TD pass. Another rookie, cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, wound up playing 48 snaps after he replaced veteran Kyle Arrington, who gave up the pass to Baldwin.
The Patriots could go to battle Sunday afternoon without both Gregory and Chung, which would put them at a disadvantage. The good thing is Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez isn't exactly Peyton Manning. Sanchez has completed less than 50 percent of his passes, has eight touchdowns and six interceptions, and a passer rating of only 70.9.
2. Running on (half) empty
You won't find any sympathy in the Jets' locker room for the Patriots' problems. Coach Rex Ryan's team has issues of its own.
Just when it looked like the Jets had rediscovered their "ground and pound" offensive personality -- fourth-year back Shonn Greene rushed for a career-high 161 yards and three touchdowns against Indianapolis and New York ran for 252 yards overall -- the ground force has been diminished.
Backup running back Bilal Powell, who had been the team's best third-down back, suffered a dislocated shoulder in the Indianapolis game. Another backup, Joe McKnight, has the dreaded high-ankle sprain. Neither is expected to be able to play Sunday.
That leaves Greene as the sole healthy back with experience. The only other running back on the roster, Jonathan Grimes, originally was an undrafted rookie signed by Houston and has no NFL experience.
Greene looked like a new back against the Colts. He exploded to the holes, cut back when the lanes were clogged, eluded tacklers, and even made a spin move to escape a tackle. The Jets set up their running game for success with liberal uses of two tight ends and two-back sets.
"He's a guy you have to stop before he gets started," Patriots coach Bill Belichick told reporters, talking about Greene. "Once he gets going, he's a load out there."
Given the Jets' reduced force at running back, it's possible the versatile Tim Tebow could get more carries Sunday afternoon, especially in short-yardage situations. The Jets also might be wise to test the Patriots' wounded secondary. Perhaps Ryan should let quarterback Mark Sanchez release his inner passing passion (he attempted only 18 passes against the Colts).
3. No ordinary Jones
The Patriots were so eager to draft Syracuse defensive end Chandler Jones last April that they traded up from the 27th spot in the first round to No. 21 (they also gave the Bengals a third-rounder in the trade). So far, it looks like a good move.
Ever since his strip-sack of Tennessee quarterback Jack Locker, which led to a touchdown in the season opener, Jones has played up to the Patriots' high expectations. He leads the team with five sacks, has forced three fumbles (the team single-season record is five, held by former linebacker Mike Vrabel), and he was the AFC Rookie of the Month in September.
The 6-foot-5, 260-pound Jones, who had his first two-sack game last week against Seattle, has drawn comparisons to Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul because of his athleticism.
"He's doing a tremendous job rushing the passer," Jets coach Rex Ryan told New York reporters. "If he's anything like his brother, I'm not fighting him."
Ryan was referring to Jon "Bones" Jones, currently No. 1 in the light heavyweight division of the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Arthur Jones, Chandler's other brother, is a 6-3, 301-pound defensive end for the Ravens.
Although he sometimes gets lost in the shadow (and vociferousness) of Bart Scott, the sixth-year linebacker is on pace to lead the Jets in tackles for the fourth time in his career. In 2010, Harris was voted the team's MVP. Here are excerpts from his chat with SI.com.
Are you more disappointed about the team's 3-3 record or more encouraged that it will be in first place in the AFC East if it can beat New England?
Of course we'd like to have no losses, but in the NFL every team has talent. We're still tied for first place in our division and this is a huge test Sunday against a quality New England team. It's a rivalry game, so it's always important to win these games.
How is Patriots week more special than other weeks of the season?
We try to win each game, but this week is a little bit more intense in practice because we know about the rivalry and what has gone on in the past. They're a good team. They play well on offense and have big playmakers. Everybody knows what Tom Brady is capable of, as well as Wes Welker in the slot, and they have two great pass-catching tight ends (Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Fernandez). They're going to be a challenge.
What makes Tom Brady so challenging to play against?
He always seems to put the offense in the right place. If he knows what coverage you're in, it's going to be a long day for the defense because he's so precise and very good in his film study. He sees and reads the coverage of the defense, so you have to try to mix it up and not make him comfortable back there in the pocket. If he stands back there and has all day to make his reads, he'll light up the scoreboard on you.
Your teammate, Calvin Pace, called the Patriots' up-tempo offense "borderline illegal." What do you call it, and how much extra pressure does it put on a defense?
They play at breakneck speed. What Calvin meant was that sometimes they're just getting down in their stances and still putting their hands down when the ball is snapped, and the referee doesn't blow the whistle and penalize them. They put pressure on the defense because you have to think that much quicker and react. One of the reasons why they go no-huddle and so fast is it keeps you from from substituting on defense.
It seems like tackling has become something of a lost art in the NFL. What is your philosophy about tackling?
I just try to line up and chase the ball on every play. You have to attack the ball carrier and keep on trying to make the tackle. If there's a big hit there, I'll jump in, but more importantly you try to get a guy down. That's always first.
Does it seem like the Jets are always playing second fiddle to the Giants?
All we can do is worry about ourselves. We can't help what the media says. All we can do is handle what we do and try to play good football. Everything else is extra. I guess when (the Giants) win the Super Bowl, they deserve what they get.
What's something interesting about Rex Ryan that fans might not know?
I have no idea (laughs). The same Rex you see on TV is the same guy off the field. He's the head coach and he's not afraid to say what he thinks, and I think the players appreciate that.
With 10 games left, what would be your message to Fireman Ed and the rest of the Jets fans right now?
Keep supporting us. It's a long season and there are good things ahead.
For all the fuss that was raised -- and has continued to rage -- over the offseason acquisition of Tim Tebow, the former Denver quarterback who engineered multiple fourth-quarter comeback victories and led the Broncos to the playoffs last season hasn't had a big impact on the Jets. Versatile? Yes. He has played snaps on offense (passing and running) and special teams, where he is the personal protector on punts. Tebow's biggest contributions have been on fake punts: He threw a jump-pass to linebacker Nick Bellore for a 23-yard gain on 4th-and-11 against the Colts and he ran for a first down on a 4th-and-1 against Houston. Here are Tebow's numbers through six games.
The Patriots will wear their throwback uniforms from the 1985 season -- red jerseys and white helmets with the old "Pat Patriot" logo -- but it won't slow down their approach on offense. New England has always been known for its no-huddle, up-tempo offense, but this season they're moving at warp speed.
Through the first six games, the Patriots are averaging 81 offensive snaps (they had 94 against Denver in Week 5, when they set a franchise record with 35 first downs). That frenetic pace puts a lot of pressure on the defense, which not only can get worn down but also can get caught in situations where its top players can't get on the field. In the Denver game, Broncos linebacker Von Miller was tethered to the sideline for 30 snaps because of New England's tempo.
"They try to trap guys off the field," Ryan said. "You take your best player off the field, then they're going to keep him on the sideline with their tempo. You can't substitute."
Although their records suggest that the Patriots and Jets are mediocre teams to this point, there is one big distinction. New England's three losses have been by a combined four points (two to Arizona, one to Baltimore, one to Seattle) while New York has lost by seven to Pittsburgh, 34 to San Francisco (at home), and six to Houston.
All four AFC East teams are 3-3. Miami has a bye this weekend and Buffalo plays Tennessee. By the end of the day, the Patriots will either be tied for first place or have it all to themselves.
Patriots 34, Jets 20
Last week: Texans 33, Packers 27
Season record: 3-3