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Oh, how this unit struggled

By Greg A. Bedard
Globe Staff / January 18, 2011

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The Patriots no doubt are licking their wounds from Sunday’s 28-21 loss to the Jets that ended their season.

Season-ending losses are never easy. But having to endure one because of your own critical mistakes and, even worse, having the opponent dictate the game and losing on its terms? Well, it doesn’t get any tougher than that.

A review of the game — looking strictly at the offensive performance — showed that’s what happened to the Patriots.

It was obvious the Jets came in with a much different approach and mentality than in the 45-3 loss fewer than six weeks earlier. In that mismatch, the Jets seemed to try their best just to contain Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.

Obviously that didn’t work, as Brady threw for 326 yards, completed 72.4 percent of his passes, and tossed four touchdowns.

This time around, Jets coach Rex Ryan and defensive coordinator Mike Pettine figured if the Jets were going to go out, at least they would go out on their terms. And the indication is that they had at least 12 scripted schemes to throw at Brady in the early going.

How could you tell?

On the first 12 plays of the game, the Jets ran four plays each out of their base 3-4, their nickel package (four linemen, two linebackers), and their dime package (six defensive backs).

The plan was to make Brady, offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien, and coach Bill Belichick react to what the Jets were doing. Normally it’s the other way around.

The Patriots didn’t adjust until after halftime, and it was almost too late by then.

Some of the other things the Jets did Sunday:

Be physical: More often than not, when tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez and running back Danny Woodhead released on the line, they were hit by a Jet trying to throw off the timing and precision of their route. And it wasn’t just the player matched up on the Patriot doing the hitting. Defensive linemen, after showing rush, would drop back into a shallow zone and get a piece of any Patriot near them.

This caused a lot of Brady’s inaccuracy. Receivers simply weren’t running the same routes with the same timing that they had been. And there’s no mistaking that the Jets just played tighter coverage. They realized they could match the Patriots’ speed so they didn’t allow them to breathe.

Play coverage: Not counting the Patriots’ final touchdown drive or short-yardage situations, the Jets played just 11 of the other 67 snaps in their base 3-4 defense. The Jets played just as much in their nickel package (28 snaps) as they did with six, seven, and eight defensive backs combined (28). This is where the Patriots’ big problem was in the first half, when the Jets ran seven snaps of 3-4 and 24 snaps in their sub packages. If one team wants to play coverage, the other team should be able to run it. Thus it’s strange that BenJarvus Green-Ellis wasn’t given more than four carries — on which he averaged 5.3 yards — in the first half.

The Jets were daring the Patriots to run — probably part of the plan to slow Brady down — and the Patriots simply decided not to. New England did adjust at halftime, running on five of its first six plays of the second half. Brady also was given more latitude to call running plays against the Jets’ coverage, but that really wasn’t utilized until the excruciating 14-play, 48-yard drive in the fourth quarter when New England was trailing, 21-11.

Mix it up: The Jets played the same personnel with the same look on back-to-back plays just twice. Whether it was overloading one side of the Patriots’ offensive line with pressure and dropping off the other, or sending defensive backs on four-man rushes as linebackers, the Jets changed their pressures almost on every down. The Patriots offensive line just couldn’t get a fix on what the Jets were doing because there seemingly was no pattern.

The illusion was that the Jets were bringing pressure. In reality they blitzed with five players just six times. And never with more than that.

Other than that, the Patriots’ wounds were self-inflicted.

Brady’s interception obviously gave the Jets life, even if they didn’t capitalize on it right away. But more than that, it took points off the board, because the Patriots were rolling after eight plays, getting down to the Jets’ 28. The Patriots almost always get points from there — at least 3 and possibly 7 — and getting none compounded the error by Brady.

He probably could have completed the pass to Green-Ellis, but the wise play probably would have been to throw it away. David Harris, who picked off the pass, was in perfect position to take down Green-Ellis if he caught it.

Alge Crumpler saved a touchdown by taking down Harris, but his drop of a Brady pass in the end zone on the next possession really hurt. If the Patriots weren’t rusty — as they obviously were — they would have been ahead at least 10-0 at that point, and would have been in position to do the dictating.

The offensive line had its struggles, namely the interior of Dan Connolly, Dan Koppen, and Logan Mankins.

Connolly, who missed the final two games of the season, didn’t play his normal solid game, perhaps because of the layoff and what the Jets were doing. Connolly gave up 1 1/2 sacks, a quarterback hit, three additional pressures, and two bad runs (less than 2 yards). Mankins gave up a pressure and a bad run. Koppen yielded a half-sack and 1 1/2 bad runs.

Two of the five Jets sacks appeared to be on Brady. One he ran into after feeling pressure that was not there. On the other, Brady and Koppen were fooled by the Jets, thinking the blitz was coming from the right side. Drew Coleman blitzed from the other side. Brady probably should have been on alert for pressure from that side.

The Patriots didn’t seem to call many vertical pass routes and that played into the Jets’ hands. Brady threw two passes of more than 10 yards in the air in each half. The near hookup with Brandon Tate (51 yards in the air) helped to loosen the middle of the field up a little bit.

All in all, it was an uncharacteristic poor game — from the coaches to the players — for the Patriots’ offense after such sustained excellence the final eight games of the season.

Some of it was their doing, some of it was because of the Jets.

It all added up to an early exit from the playoffs — and a lot of second thoughts in the offseason.

Greg A. Bedard can be reached at gbedard@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @greg_a_bedard.

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