|TOM BRADY It starts with him|
When Bill Belichick and Eric Mangini address the media today, there is a good chance both will cite the importance of playing solid football in all three phases of the game -- offense, defense, and special teams.
Playing complementary football in those areas is a core part of the philosophy both coaches adopt, and is one reason Belichick's Patriots and Mangini's Jets are squaring off in the wild-card round of the playoffs Sunday at Gillette Stadium.
So what happens when two teams focused so intently on complementary play knock heads? How does one begin to analyze such a matchup?
By hitting the NFL trail, of course, and compiling our own team of NFL coordinators to dissect the three facets of play. Our panel consists of Bills offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild; Texans assistant head coach/offense Mike Sherman; Jaguars defensive coordinator Mike Smith; Packers defensive coordinator Bob Sanders; and Texans special teams coordinator Joe Marciano. Each coach game-planned against both the Jets and Patriots this season and can provide an insider's perspective.
DEFENSES IN FOCUS
While much could be made of the similarities between the Patriots and Jets because they both play a 3-4 alignment, Fairchild sees differences.
"Their schemes are similar, which you'd expect because they come from the same background with Coach Mangini having New England ties, but probably one of the big differences is that the Jets are a little more on the move, not quite as big, whereas New England is a stout, physical group," Fairchild said. "Schematically they start out the same, but no matter who you are, like the West Coast offense, you're going to get a hold of it and put your own stamp on it."
When Fairchild assesses the Patriots' defense, he believes the key is at the line of scrimmage.
"Across the board, they're impressive when their down three are healthy," he said of Richard Seymour, Ty Warren, and Vince Wilfork. "In game-planning for the opener, we studied all summer and had great respect for them in that regard, and they were every bit as good as we thought. Very stout.
"The challenge for an offense is that you're trying to get two hats on the down guys to get movement, and it's hard to get to the linebackers, because those guys tie you up and free their linebackers up. We did some real studies about the best approach to run the ball on the 3-4, and we found that New England is impressive, real hard to knock out of there."
Because of that strength up front, and the difficulty of running against the Patriots, Fairchild said the unit is effective at "getting you into a passing game and then rushing the passer well."
How do the Jets compare?
"They're a little different. The same problems exist, because they are a 3-4 defense, but they do more, they scheme you up a little bit. They got us a few times on some blitzes in the first game that we didn't pick up very well. Personnel-wise, [linebacker] Jonathan Vilma is the place to start. He's a playmaker, very impressive, and he's hard to get to, even as you scheme to get a hat on him."
Sherman also sees differences between the teams.
"Each coach has his own personality and does it his own way, even though they're both in the 3-4 family," he said. "We certainly didn't have all the answers for the New England Patriots. I think the beauty of their approach is that they simplify their game plan specific to you, and stop what you do best. We didn't do a lot of things well, so that wasn't a difficult challenge against us, but they allow their players to play, and play with instincts, without overburdening them. Their game plans will be totally different than the previous week, so they're specific to the opponent, and they do a good job of that.
"On the Jets, their blitz and pressure package was challenging for us. They know that if they get you in certain sets, they're going to come with certain blitz packages."
OFFENSES IN FOCUS
As is often the case when speaking with coaches who game-plan against the Patriots' offense, there is little debate about where the problems start.
"The first thing you have to prepare for is Tom Brady, and what offense they're going to roll out, because they do it all," said Smith. "So you're always concerned about matching different personnel groupings when you play the Patriots. To me, that's the thing, because you're not sure which [approach] they'll roll out and they've gone the whole spectrum, and that can get the chalk flying on your sideline, making adjustments. The thing that happens with Tom is that he's very cerebral, and he is going to have a very good idea of what [defensive call] you're in pre-snap. When he's able to do that, you still may know what he's going to do, but he's going to get the ball out of his hands, and get it to the right person."
Sanders echoed those thoughts on Brady, noting, "It all starts with him, because he's so smart and gets them into the right play." Sanders sees considerable differences between the Patriots' offense and the Jets' offense, saying they are "each unique in their own way." "Tempo" and "no-huddle" are two terms that define the Jets' attack, which is directed by quarterback Chad Pennington.
"Pennington is having a great year for them, he does a great job running their offense, and one of the big things you have to be ready for is that they will give you a lot of different looks, and a lot of pre-snap movements. They don't huddle up, which helps them control the tempo of the game, and they do a nice job with that. Sometimes it's a quick tempo, sometimes it's not. So it starts with Pennington and he's doing a great job executing what they're asking him to do."
Smith, thinking back to the Jaguars' early-season meeting against the Jets, said the no-huddle and substitutions had a significant effect on the tempo of the game. In terms of personnel, Smith locked in on Pennington and two of his favorite skill-position weapons, running back Leon Washington and receiver Laveranues Coles. He noted that Pennington is "very accurate and efficient in the short passing game"; he compared Washington to Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew ("both are strong, short guys who are difficult to tackle"); and he called Coles "one of the best clutch receivers and pressure catchers" in the league.
SPECIAL TEAMS IN FOCUS
Marciano has some advice for fans who might be watching Sunday's game.
"I'd say don't go get a beer any time there is a kick in play, because these are two of the best returners in the league -- with Laurence Maroney and Justin Miller, that's worth the price of admission," he said.
While it's possible Maroney will handle kickoff duties, he hasn't taken returns since coming back from torn rib cartilage two weeks ago against Jacksonville, giving way to Ellis Hobbs, who has also excelled.
In terms of schemes, Marciano believes there are differences between the kickoff-return approach of Patriots special teams coach Brad Seely and Jets special teams coach Mike Westhoff.
"Brad has gone more to the wedge this year, whereas in the past, he was not a real wedge team, and Mike uses the wedge but he'll also run some misdirection with Miller, so you have to cover the whole field," he said. "Brad is more straight-ahead, get north stuff.
"On the flip side, the Jets' kickoff coverage will also try to cause confusion, bunching guys up, running motion, it's something different every kick. That can force you to be more simplistic with your scheme, making sure to get hats on hats, getting guys blocked. It's a chess match with the cover game with Mike."
While the schemes might be different, Marciano sees similarities with the personnel. "Overall, these are two of the bigger, physical special teams units we've seen, which is what you get with teams that play the 3-4 defense, those big thumper guys. You also see similarities in that both coaches know how important special teams are, as there are 2-3 players on each team who are there solely to special teams; they may never see the field [on offense or defense]. That's a luxury to have as a special teams coach, and I think you often see that with defensive-minded head coaches."
Marciano also noted the presence of left-footed Jets punter Ben Graham, whose offerings challenged the Texans.
"Sometimes you get a knuckleball from him," he said. "Our guys didn't always feel comfortable catching it."
On the Patriots' side, Marciano doesn't see the changes at punter (Todd Sauerbrun) and field goal holder (Matt Cassel) as a big issue.
Mike Reiss can be reached at email@example.com.