We check in with Jets beat writer Greg Bishop of the New York Times to give us some insight into what the Patriots will see from the Jets on Monday night:
1. So about the Jets…lucky or good?
GB: You could make an argument either way. On one hand, the Jets have won heart-thumpers at Denver, Detroit and Cleveland and at home against Houston. They did not look particularly dominating against Cincinnati on Thanksgiving, even in victory. They are prone to slow starts. They commit way too many penalties. Their quarterback in particular is inconsistent. On the other hand … they’re 9-2. Teams don’t arrive at that kind of record by accident. They’ve played parts of this season without their best defensive lineman (Kris Jenkins), their best cornerback/defensive player (Darrelle Revis), their best offensive player/playmaker (Santonio Holmes) and other missing role players. Their defense has looked, crazy as it sounds for a Rex Ryan unit, average at times. Yet they continue to win games. At the end of the day, the best answer is probably yes. On both counts. The Jets are lucky. And the Jets are good. All at the same time.
2. Who is the one Jets player most Patriots fans don’t know right now, but will by the end of the game on Monday?
GB: Safety Eric Smith. He is perhaps the Jets’ smartest player. He turned down scholarship offers from Ivy League schools, including Harvard. He knows more quarter words than most sportswriters (OK, so that doesn’t necessarily make him smart). He’s also going to start at safety in place of Jim Leonhard, who broke the tibia in his right leg during Friday’s practice. Leonhard played an important and overlooked role for the Jets. He called all the defensive signals. He served as a leader in the defensive backfield. Smith will need to step into those roles, but he is capable. In fact, he replaced a struggling Brodney Pool last week at the other safety slot. One Jets strength lately has been their pass defense, with Revis rounding back into his All Pro form. The drop-off from Leonhard to Smith shouldn’t be that pronounced. If it is, the Jets are in trouble.
3. What’s the biggest weakness on the Jets’ offense you expect the Patriots to try to exploit?
GB: The Jets have struggled running the ball more lately, but with the way they’re passing it, that hasn’t been a major issue. What has been an issue lately is injuries on the offensive line. The biggest strength of the Jets line is its continuity. I’ve covered this team for a little over three years, and in that time,they’ve never had their five starters not start together. They replaced guard Alan Faneca this season with Matt Slauson, but still sent the same five guys out every game. This season, the streak has been in jeopardy, though. Slauson has struggled with injuries. So has offensive tackle Damien Woody. Both are expected to start Monday against the Patriots. But will the Jets’ line be at full strength, enough to shut down the Patriots pass rush? That remains to be seen.
4. What’s the biggest weakness on the Jets’ defense you expect the Patriots to try to exploit?
GB: This ties into No. 2. The Jets have been solid against the run all season. For most of the season, in particular recently, their starting cornerbacks, Revis and Antonio Cromartie, have shut down opposing wide receivers. Where the Jets have been particularly vulnerable is over the middle of their zones, against slot receivers and tight ends. I’d imagine Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski are in for big games on Monday night. Part of that comes from the Jets’ scheme. Because of how they play — man coverage outside, safeties often blitzing — they leave themselves vulnerable to soft spots in their zone. Say Revis takes Wes Welker, for the most part, and Cromartie takes Deion Branch. That will leave the middle open. Plug the middle and Welker could have a field day, like he did last year in Foxborough against the Jets.
5. Finally, Jets win on Monday if….
GB: Quarterback Mark Sanchez does not turn the ball over, if right tackle Damien Woody can play the entire game, if safety Eric Smith can replace the injured Jim Leonhard, if the Jets can knock Brady down and around and slow the Patriots’ passing offense, and if Sanchez can exploit the worst Patriots’ pass defense in recent memory. Lot of ifs there. But there are reasons the Patriots have won 25 straight regular season games under Brady at home.
Thanks to Greg for taking the time out to help us out. Make sure you follow him on Twitter at @nytbishop.