Here are 10 matchups to keep an eye on in Sunday’s game between the Patriots and the Jets at Gillette Stadium:
Tom Brady against the Jets pass defense: So much of this game will be dictated by what New York decides to do with this matchup. Do the Jets flood the middle of the field with defensive backs in zone coverage like they did in last year’s playoff game and take away the area between the numbers ... possibly leaving them vulnerable to the run? Or does New York try and match up in a man to man scheme, dropping Revis on Welker ... and taking their chances that the rest of its defensive backs? The guess here is the Jets do a little of both while mixing things up with their front seven in hopes of getting a sustained pass rush on the Patriots quarterback like they did in January.
Wes Welker against Darrelle Revis: This is one of the finest head-to-head matchups the league will see all season -- the NFL’s leading receiver through the first four games against a cornerback who has only allowed three receptions in coverage all season long. Ryan hinted this week that Revis would see at least some snaps against Welker in man coverage. (For more on this matchup, check out my story from earlier in the week here.) But what does that mean for the rest of the New York defensive backs (Antonio Cromartie, Jim Leonhard, Eric Smith) and New England pass catchers (Deion Branch, Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez)?
Vince Wilfork against Nick Mangold: We detailed this matchup here (as well as the struggles of the Jets offensive line with Mangold and without him), and while it won’t necessarily be a head-to-head matchup if the Patriots utilize a four-man or two-man defensive line, the two cagey veterans still set the tone for their respective units with their play. There remains a question as to how healthy Mangold is heading into Sunday -- he was limited in practice on Friday and his status is questionable -- and there is a huge dropoff behind him on the depth chart. But he has said he expects to play.
The Patriots safeties against Dustin Keller: The Patriots will likely utilize a couple of New England safeties on the tight end who has come up clutch in big moments over the years against the Patriots. In a classic Pats-Jets matchup in November 2008, he had eight catches for 87 yards, including two key third-down conversions on New York’s game-winning drive in overtime. Last September, he had seven catches for 115 yards and a touchdown against New England. Through four games, Keller leads all New York receivers with 18 catches for 261 yards and two touchdowns. Until last week’s effort against Oakland’s Kevin Boss (four catches for 78 yards), the New England defense had done a very good job defending tight ends: through four games, opposing tight ends have 12 catches for 176 yards and a touchdown again the Patriots. (Overall, running backs have 38 catches, 374 receiving yards and two touchdowns against New England, while wide receivers have 48 receptions, 794 receiving yards and four touchdowns and fullbacks have one catch for two yards.)
Devin McCourty against Santonio Holmes or Plaxico Burress: We matched McCourty up against a pair of receivers, because there’s still a question as to how the Patriots are going to try and defend the Jets. Do they leave McCourty on the No. 1 receiver (as they did in Week One against Brandon Marshall and Week Two against Vincent Jackson for most of those two games) and focus the rest of their efforts on slowing down another aspect of the New York offense? Or does he work in concert with the rest of the defensive backs in stopping a variety of receivers, including Holmes, Burress and Derrick Mason? Our guess here is a little of both. (If Ras-I Dowling is healthy enough to go, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him, New England’s tallest corner, matched up on Burress, especially in potential goal-line, jump-ball situations.) Regardless of where McCourty is on the field, it certainly figures to be a big week for him. In my opinion, McCourty is coming off his finest game of the season -- our pals at Pro Football Focus have actually graded his performance the last two weeks at +1.6 -- and if he continues to trend upwards, it could silence some of the critics that have started to whisper the words “sophomore slump” when it comes to the second-year corner out of Rutgers.
Leigh Bodden against Mark Sanchez: This is more of a nostalgia pick than anything else -- when the Patriots met the Jets at Gillette Stadium in November 2009, Bodden intercepted Sanchez three times, tying a franchise record, in a 31-14 win for New England. Bodden has been hobbled by injury over the course of the season (he sat out last week’s game against the Raiders with a groin injury, and is questionable this week against the Jets), but Bodden’s effort against the Jets’ quarterback that afternoon represents the worst outing of Sanchez’s career.
Nate Solder against Muhammad Wilkerson: With Sebastian Vollmer again unlikely to play because of a back problem, the right tackle spot for the Patriots will again be manned by the rookie out of Colorado. It’ll mark the fourth start of the season for Solder, who has yet to allow a sack over the course of his brief professional career. He’ll be going up against fellow rookie (and fellow first-round pick) Muhammad Wilkerson out of Temple, a guy some believed the Patriots had their eye on this past April. Wilkerson has six tackles and a sack through his first four games with the Jets. (For what it’s worth, while Brady has taken some shots the last few weeks, he has been sacked just once in the last 10 quarters of play.)
The Patriots running game against the Jets run defense: New England did an excellent job running the ball last week against the Raiders -- while it wasn’t their finest statistical output of the year across the board, the combination of BenJarvus-Green Ellis and rookie Stevan Ridley did well moving the chains. While the Jets remain excellent statistically against the pass, they yield an average of 130.5 rushing yards to rank 27th in the league. Like so many other aspects of this game, this matchup will be dictated on how the Jets try and defend the pass -- if they try and add extra defensive backs in an attempt to slow down the Patriots’ passing game that will leave them vulnerable to the run. And with the Patriots better now running the football now than they were last January -- New England averages 5.8 yards per carry, fifth-best in the league, and is also in the Top 10 in rushing yards and rushing yards per game -- it could be a big day for the Patriots’ ground game if Rex Ryan commits to nickel and dime coverage in hopes of stopping the pass.
New England’s front seven against the New York offensive line: The Patriots have now gone 121:09 without a sack -- the last time New England was able to bring down a quarterback was when Mark Anderson brought down Philip Rivers in the waning moments of the Patriots win over San Diego. With the Jets struggles on the offensive line -- Sanchez was a man running for his life last week against the Ravens -- you have to figure the Patriots will do more blitzing on Sunday against the Jets than they’ve done this season, as well as in previous games against New York. But can they generate that sort of pressure without Jerod Mayo, their best blitzing linebacker? If pressure does come, it could be in the form of schemes that free up linebacker Dane Fletcher (who leads the team in quarterback hits with four) as well as from guys like Andre Carter and Mark Anderson, specifically on passing downs. Anderson told WEEI.com this week that the sacks are going to come -- given the state of the Jets offensive line, this week appears to be as good a week as any for them to arrive.
Tracy White and Matthew Slater against Joe McKnight: New England two best when it comes to kick and punt coverage (Slater leads the team in special teams tackles) will likely have their hands full in trying to slow down the Jets’ burgeoning kick return game, which will likely led by the speedy McKnight, who is averaging 53 yards on his four returns and took one back 107 yards for a touchdown last week against the Ravens. (The Jets are the only team with three kickoff returns of 40+ yards this season.) The Patriots have done a very good job in kick coverage through four games -- according to Nuggetpalooza, on average, Patriots’ opponents have started their drives at their own 21.4 yard line, giving the Pats the best defensive starting field position in the league to this point in the season.