FOXBOROUGH - When teams meet for the second time in a season, as the Patriots and Jets will tomorrow night, it helps to rewind the tape and see what ultimately determined the outcome of their initial joust.
That's where coaches often start their second-time-around game plans, because if they don't study history and correct mistakes from the past, they're setting their teams up to die by the same sword.
So when it comes to the latest chapter of the spicy Patriots-Jets rivalry, it's safe to assume there has been plenty of yakking about YAC-ing among both teams this week. YAC - a.k.a. yards after the catch - was a defining aspect of the Patriots' 19-10 victory over the Jets Sept. 14.
The Patriots' calling card that day, in quarterback Matt Cassel's first career start, was a short aerial attack that relied on receivers to roll up yardage after the catch.
Of the Patriots' 165 passing yards, 123 came after the catch. In all, 19 of Cassel's 23 pass attempts didn't travel 10 yards past the line of scrimmage.
The YAC attack was in effect, in part, because the Jets were so focused on eliminating the big play downfield from Randy Moss. Some poor angles taken by Jets defensive backs, coupled with some poor tackling and a failure to shed the blocks of Patriots receivers downfield, also contributed to the performance.
So when assessing this rematch, one can point to a number of areas that figure to play a significant role - such as a brutal battle of physicality at the line of scrimmage, turnovers, potential bad weather, and coaching wits - but based on the first game, nothing trumps this:
Will the YAC be back for the Patriots? And have the Jets come up with a response to it?
No player in the NFL this season has more yards after the catch than Wes Welker, whose total of 324 edges Saints running back Reggie Bush's 317. Of Welker's total, 68 came in that meeting against the Jets, as he knifed, sliced, and diced a secondary that initially had overmatched third-year cornerback Drew Coleman covering him.
Coleman (5 feet 9 inches, 175 pounds) has been shaky as the Jets' slot corner in nickel packages, and that's where Welker - whose 66 receptions rank second in the NFL - often lines up.
So perhaps that's what the Jets had in mind when they signed Ty Law to a one-year deal. While Law seemingly would be a bad matchup against Welker as well, his insertion into the lineup could help the Jets move some parts around to give them a better chance at limiting Welker and the YAC attack. Not to mention that Law's tackling always has been considered above average for a defensive back.
On the flip side, what makes Welker so effective after the catch is his quickness, vision, and balance, combined with a 5-9, 185-pound build that makes him hard for defenders to locate at times. He gets his feet moving quickly after the catch, turning from receiver to running back on those quick screens.
"For us, it's about trying to find that extra room and separation, and trying to get it up the field as quickly as possible - getting guys covered up and getting the runner started," said Welker, who executed four receiver screens for 43 yards against the Jets. "It also helps that we're all willing to block for each other down the field to try to spring each other. The receivers are the ones often with the key blocks."
Welker wasn't the only Patriot to gash the Jets after the catch in Week 2, as running back Kevin Faulk totaled 35 yards after receptions, including a key 22-yard gain to set up the team's lone touchdown, in the third quarter. On the season, Faulk has 26 catches for 214 yards. Because many of his catches are screen plays behind the line, he has been credited with 224 yards after the catch, ranking him 25th in the NFL.
"Once you have that ball in your hands, it's just your ability and showing what you can do with that ball," he said, noting the Patriots emphasize YAC, especially against defenses that might not attack the ball aggressively or that struggle with their tackling.
With Welker, Faulk, and Moss (209 yards, 30th), the Patriots are the only NFL team with three players in the top 30 of the YAC statistic.
As for the Jets, they've allowed 949 yards after the catch, which ties for ninth worst in the 32-team NFL. Yet coach Eric Mangini said yesterday he doesn't feel there has been "a significant amount of missed tackles over the course of the season" and that "we're better tackling this year than we were at this time last year."
The Patriots, as they have with most opponents this season, figure to test the Jets in that area tomorrow night, just as they successfully did Sept. 14.
Of the many compelling subplots to the game, the battle after the catch just might be the most important.
Mike Reiss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org