Commentary

Monday night can't get here fast enough

Pinpointing keys for the Patriots against the Jets in what will be the game of the year

Updated: December 3, 2010, 4:31 PM ET
By Tedy Bruschi and Mike Reiss | ESPNBoston.com

Every week during the season, Mike Reiss and Tedy Bruschi break down the New England Patriots' upcoming game. This week's breakdown is on Monday's game against the New York Jets (ESPN, 8:30 p.m.).

Mike: This will be the 103rd time these teams have met and one could make the case it's the biggest game of all of them. Both teams are 9-2 and the winner will have the inside track on the AFC's top seed and a first-round playoff bye. When you think back to your playing days, what was it was like in the week you were preparing to face the Jets?

Tedy: Throughout my career, with all the rivalries -- Steelers, Colts, Jets -- I always felt it more coming from the coaches during Jets week. That's all the way back to Bill Parcells' years when Al Groh was here, the whole drama of Coach Belichick being the "HC of the NYJ" for one day, and when Eric Mangini was here. You could feel the tension and motivation that coaches had to win this game when it was against the Jets. This may go back to when the coaches had ties. They coached you harder. When they were in front of you in defensive meetings, there was urgency in their voices. You knew it was Jets week and the coaches would lead the way. Colts, Steelers, we knew, and we really wanted to establish ourselves as the tough guys in the league against them. But this, against the Jets, was more of an organization versus another organization and we really felt that.

Mike: The Jets are 9-2 and some have viewed their success as a result of luck. They've had some remarkable late-game comebacks, but it seems some look at those wins as the other team collapsing as much as the Jets winning. How do you see it?

Tedy: I've been on championship teams that have beaten opponents badly that by the end of the second quarter you're laughing, but I've been on championship teams that were also "lucky." There are plenty of plays back in that '01 championship season that if the ball bounced a certain way, or a call went a certain way, we wouldn't have had that first Super Bowl championship. That isn't really luck. That's just the way this game is. Sometimes you get the breaks, sometimes you don't get the breaks, and to call a team lucky that is 9-2 is something I don't do. I think this is a legit team that battles over the course of the game and makes plays when it has to.

Mike: Answering a behind-the-scenes football question from a reader has become a weekly part of this breakdown. The Patriots have committed just nine turnovers this year, the second lowest total in the NFL. What type of drills did you work on in practice to avoid turnovers and create them?

Tedy: Turnovers often occur based on violent collisions and that is hard to simulate in practice. You don't want your players beating each other up before a game. So verbal emphasis is how coaches usually approach coaching a team during the week to emphasize taking care of the ball or taking it away. The usual drills can also be implemented. Have the running back run through a line of defenders while the defenders swipe at the ball. Defensive players practice stripping the ball from each other. I remember times when our offense would be preparing to go up against a ball-hawking defense and we would give players on the scout team $50 every time they got the ball. The guys would be trying to strip at the ball even after the play was over. The defense would get such a kick out of it because it made the offense furious.

Patriots defense vs. Jets offense

Mike: You had said this week that you've been impressed by quarterback Mark Sanchez. Earlier this season, you had expressed some doubts.

[+] EnlargeSantonio Holmes
Icon SMIThe Patriots are going to have to stop Santonio Holmes and the Jets' slant passing game.

Tedy: I thought this team would do well based on its running game and solid defense, but there is another aspect of the team that has developed -- the leadership and play they've received from Sanchez. I think he is a legitimate leader. I had called him a front-runner earlier in the year and I was wrong. He is a huge reason why the Jets are a strong football team.

Mike: I think a good place to start when looking at the Jets is along the offensive line. This is a durable, tough group that paves the way for the NFL's second-rated rushing attack (148.1 yards per game). Center Nick Mangold and left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson have started the first 76 regular-season games of their careers since they were both drafted in the first round in 2006, which is the first time that's happened on the same line since 1970.

Tedy: Those two have been the model of consistency, and I'll focus on a different player up there -- Matt Slauson. The big question the Jets had at the beginning of the season was how things would work out at left guard without Alan Faneca. People doubted Slauson and he was beaten a few times in the preseason. But during the season, you know an offensive lineman is doing well when he's not talked about and I haven't heard Slauson's name very much. He's been coming along, developing along that offensive line. I'm sure Nick Mangold has taken him under his wing and it looks like they've further solidified their line.

Mike: If Slauson has flown under the radar a bit, receiver Santonio Holmes is at the opposite end of the spectrum. It's been hard to miss him as he's come up with some big plays at the end of games. He was serving a four-game suspension to open the season, so the Patriots didn't see him Sept. 19 in the Meadowlands.

Tedy: The one thing that has stood out about Holmes, going back to when he was with Pittsburgh, is his ability to pick up yards after the catch. He was one of the best in the NFL at breaking tackles and we've seen that in recent weeks, him taking a quick little slant -- which the Jets love to do -- and doing damage with it. They keep it simple for Mark Sanchez. So I think for the Patriots' defense, a big thing in this game is going to be stopping the slants. That's when Sanchez looks the best, the most decisive, when that window opens and he knows those guys are going to be there. Once they catch it, the Patriots will have to tackle -- whether it's Holmes, Braylon Edwards, Brad Smith or someone else. They want to get the ball in the hands of those guys, whether it's a 3-yard route, running it out of the backfield, whatever it is, as they've broken tackles and taken it the distance.

Mike: At the same time, Patriots defenders have explained this week that they view the Jets as a big-play passing team. They said they will run comeback route after comeback route, and just when you might sit on one of them, boom, there they go deep. So they're preparing for the big-play strikes as well. And, of course, they have to be concerned with tight end Dustin Keller, who hurt them with seven receptions for 115 yards and a touchdown. That will be a key matchup, as will the Patriots' ability to slow down LaDainian Tomlinson.

Tedy: I think Tomlinson is a classic example of a player who is discarded by one organization -- in this case the San Diego Chargers -- which said, "We don't want you anymore, we don't think you're good enough to play anymore." With a fresh start with another team, he rededicates himself to get himself healthy and strong again. Then you couple that with a solid offensive line and you have him succeeding the way he's done. Another way he's helped them is as an extra pass-catcher for Sanchez as a check-down option, as a receiver out of the backfield on third down.

Mike: Tomlinson leads the Jets with 45 receptions, a statistic that reflects that. That can be a factor on third down.

Tedy: That's going to be huge in this game, those third downs. The Patriots' defense has struggled mightily on third down (opponents are converting 50.7 percent of the time). The Jets don't have an offense that will consistently pick up that 15-yard chunk, that 20-yard chunk. They're the ground-and-pound philosophy. They get the 3, 4, 5 yards on first down and then again on second down. So there are going to be third-and-2s and third-and-4s that the Patriots have to win. In the first game, the Jets did a great job of sustaining drives and moving it down the field on that defense.

Mike: The Patriots have forced 20 turnovers on the season and they are 8-0 when they have a positive turnover differential. That has helped bail them out on some of those third-down struggles.

Tedy: All year, Sanchez has harped on being smart with the ball, saying that an incompletion or a punt is good at times. That's part of his progression of being a leader on that team, and a quarterback who takes his time. If it's not there, you live to fight another day. The Patriots' defense will have to make these big plays to win the game, because when you're the NFL's worst defense on third down, that means drives are going to be longer. How do you stop the bleeding? Through turnovers.

Patriots offense vs. Jets defense

Mike: The Patriots enter this game with a much different attack than what we saw Sept. 19 in the Meadowlands. Randy Moss has been replaced by Deion Branch, running back Danny Woodhead has emerged, and starting left guard Logan Mankins is back.

[+] EnlargeTom Brady  and New York Jets
Ed Mulholland/US PresswireThe Jets caught Tom Brady off guard in Week 2 by not blitzing as much in the second half.

Tedy: One of the big things is that there are no stars on this offense. After Tom Brady, you look to Wes Welker and you look to Deion Branch. None of them is putting up numbers that are Pro Bowl-level, so it's becoming more of an offense that is distributing the wealth, to the tight ends, to the running backs. I think that's what they wanted -- to be able to spread the entire field out because defenses today can take away one guy, and possibly two guys at times. To have those weapons all over the place, I think they're getting this offense to look like what they want it to be.

Mike: The Jets' defense doesn't have many big changes from the first meeting between the teams. Calvin Pace is back at outside linebacker and veteran Trevor Pryce is part of the defensive line rotation after getting picked up from the Ravens.

Tedy: One other thing that is different is that cornerback Darrelle Revis is healthy. He wasn't himself the last time and that's what happens when you don't have a training camp and you don't train properly to prepare for a season. When you hit those games and you're playing those "sprinter" positions like receiver and defensive back, you have to be able to open up with those hips and those hamstrings. We saw that when Revis was covering Moss on that one-handed touchdown catch.

Mike: It will be interesting to see what the Jets do with Revis coverage-wise -- if they match him up with someone like Wes Welker or Deion Branch, or have him play a side regardless of who is lined up where. Overall, what type of approach do you think we'll see from the Jets in this game?

Tedy: When you think about a Rex Ryan-coached defense, and his father Buddy and the "46" defense, you think about bringing pressure and getting after quarterbacks. But in the first game, I think Ryan made great adjustments in incorporating a three-man rush; I checked my notes and it was 6-7 times where they showed blitz but only rushed three, throwing different looks at Brady. I think that caught Tom off guard a little bit because you're so blitz-heavy at times that you think it's coming in critical situations. They always talk about it in meetings, asking, "What is this team going to do in got-to-have-it situations?" You would have thought blitz with the Jets, but they made a nice adjustment.

Mike: I remember Ryan saying part of the coverage-based approach in the second half was because of tight end Aaron Hernandez, who had totaled four receptions for 80 yards in the first half. The Jets took bodies away from the line of scrimmage and put them in the middle of the field at times, with Hernandez in mind. There are quite a few talented players on this Jets' defense, but I know one player you like seems to fly under the radar a bit.

Tedy: Revis gets a lot of talk, and also Bart Scott and Jason Taylor, all bigger-name players, but I really like safety Jim Leonhard. I see him as the glue that keeps it all together back there. He's a great special teams player and on defense, he knows Rex Ryan's system inside and out. Rex brought him over from Baltimore and he keeps everyone on the same page and has made big plays for them. Leonhard, however, suffered a severe shin injury Friday during practice and will miss the game. That's a big loss for the Jets.

Mike: When you look at how the Patriots might attack this defense, what stands out to you? The Jets rank fourth in the NFL for fewest points allowed. They are fourth against the run (86.3 average) and 12th against the pass (210.6).

Tedy: I love the way Bill O'Brien has been using his running game this year. He selectively calls those running plays, mixing them in with spread formations that keep defenses on their heels, and making them think pass, pass, pass. When you go back to the Cleveland game, and consider that Rex Ryan's brother Rob is the Browns' defensive coordinator, look at what the Patriots did. When the Browns got into Tom Brady's head with some of their disguises, what did the Patriots do to counter that? Hurry up. They ran a hurry-up offense because they didn't want the defense to move around a lot. When you see an offense do that, as a defensive player it takes away your ability to disguise, because the more complex your blitzes are, the more time you need to make adjustments to formations. Against hurry-up, you just want to make sure you're lined up correctly at the snap of the ball.

Mike: I think one other aspect that shouldn't be overlooked in this matchup is special teams. The Jets are very good in this area and I believe it's a top area of concern for Belichick and his staff. The Jets feed off their special teams units, which nicely complement their defense.

Tedy: You know special teams are very important to coaches when you look on special teams and see starters out there. Both the Patriots and the Jets do that. So much can happen in that phase of the game -- a change of possession, field position. With Brad Smith, the Jets have a dangerous returner. That could be a big factor in deciding the game. The Patriots' coverage unit will have to be good tacklers.

Mike: And as we do every week in the Breakdown, let's take one question from a reader before getting to our predictions. On Twitter, "BeantownSCOOP" asks about Bill Belichick giving the players Wednesday off. What do you think the thought process was behind that decision?

Tedy: Well Beantown, it's a long week leading up to a Monday night game. It's even longer when you had a Thursday game the week before. So with the long week everything is pushed back a day. Wednesday is Tuesday, Thursday is Wednesday, etc. Coach Belichick always knows what this team needs. I wouldn't read too much into this. Know this, the players still got together on their day off and watched film. That's a great sign.

Mike: I think this game will live up to its hype, two of the NFL's best teams going toe to toe in a super-charged environment. Everywhere I've been in the city and suburbs this week, it seems a lot of people are saying the same thing, "Monday can't get here fast enough." I can't remember this much excitement for a regular-season game in recent memory. I think it will be lower-scoring and close headed into the fourth quarter, before Tom Brady leads a game-winning touchdown drive to lift the Patriots, 24-17.

Tedy: This will be a special night for me and I have tried my hardest to be impartial as an analyst up for the past year and a half. I can't do that this week. Two words -- Pats win!

Mike: One final thought, Tedy. The night will be a special one for many fans, both for the action on the field and at halftime, as you will be honored on "Tedy Bruschi Night." I want to wish you and your family the best for the ceremony.

Tedy Bruschi played 13 seasons for the New England Patriots and is a member of the franchise's 50th-anniversary team. Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.

Tedy Bruschi

Columnist, ESPN.com
Tedy Bruschi spent his entire 13-year career with the New England Patriots after being drafted in the third round out of Arizona. He played in five Super Bowls, winning three. He retired prior to the 2009 season.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

SPONSORED HEADLINES

EDITORS' PICKS

ALSO SEE