FOXBORO -- He started his professional career as an afterthought, an unassuming, undrafted free agent out of Ole Miss with a funny name. BenJarvus Green-Ellis? What, you couldn’t wedge one more name in there?
Signed as a rookie free agent in 2008, he was lucky to survive in his first season, cut before being added to the practice squad in August 2008. He quickly made his way up the depth chart, and when Fred Taylor and the rest of the New England’s veterans proved themselves unable to carry the load over the course of a full season, it was the guy with the funny name who became the closest thing the Patriots had to a feature back.
Even now -- after one of the unlikeliest 1,000-yard rushing seasons in franchise history -- people are quick to forget about him. The Patriots even went out and drafted two running backs this past spring, and after rookie Stevan Ridley ran for 97 yards last week against the Raiders, led some to again wonder if his days were numbered.
But here’s the thing: In almost every way, he’s Bill Belichick’s perfect running back: He consistently hits four yards a carry, and is eminently reliable and durable. He never fumbles. He’s relatively inexpensive. And he’s the sort of guy you never have to worry about complaining when it comes to getting enough reps, or thinking the quarterback is throwing the ball too much.
And on Sunday against the Jets, with Ridley ineffective and Danny Woodhead and Shane Vereen unable to go, Green-Ellis again proved why he remains the perfect running back for the New England offense, finishing with a career-high 136 yards on 27 carries and leading the way for the Patriots in the 30-21 win over the Jets (click here for the full recap).
“Benny ran well, of course, like he always does,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said of the 5-foot-11, 215-pound Green-Ellis, who now has 18 rushing touchdowns since the start of the 2010 season, most in the NFL. “He runs hard, gets a lot of runs after contact. It was a good solid job all the way around.”
As important as Tom Brady was to the Patriots in their first three wins of the season, Sunday against the Jets about Green-Ellis. He had 85 yards in the second half and allowed New England to engineer 11-play and 13-play drives to keep the clock moving and close out the game. On the 13-yard drive, Green-Ellis got the ball on nine of the plays and came away with 59 of the 69 yards (including runs of 15, 14, eight and seven yards) that led to a 28-yard field goal from Stephen Gostkowski to make it a two-score game with just over a minute left.
While much of it came while New York had extra defensive backs on the field in hopes of slowing down the Patriots passing game, it was a series of runs in the mold of Corey Dillon: tough, mean yards that allowed the Patriots to bleed the clock.
“The guy ran the ball kind of hard at the end,” Jets coach Rex Ryan said. “Kind of surprised me, I thought [Tom] Brady would throw it there. We did have a loaded zone over there, but he found a way to get through and get that first down.”
“When you get in those situations, you have to play situational football, and obviously, you don’t want to give them the ball back and give them a chance to go down and score, and we were kind of able to do that tonight,” Green-Ellis said. “That’s always a plus -- we had a game where we weren’t able to finish with the ball in our hands. ... We pride ourselves on being able to do that.
“You always want to be able to step up to the plate and knock it out of the park, and we were able to do those things,” Green-Ellis added. “But it’s not just an individual effort. It was all 11 guys out there. Nothing happens without those guys up front, and I think they did an extremely good job of allowing me to make reads and get cuts off those guys.”
“The first thing you notice about him is that he works so hard,” offensive lineman Brian Waters said of Green-Ellis. “He tries to get every yard. He definitely has always run the ball the right way, and he always makes sure to give full effort to get every yard, and you can count on him finishing every run.”
“Benny, he’s a great guy to block for,” said offensive lineman Logan Mankins. “He’s going to read the play, he’s going to find the right hole. He’s not going to fumble. He’s going to do the right thing. He’s going to give you everything he’s got. He’s a great guy to block for.”
Before the end of the season -- likely after one of the rookies or Danny Woodhead has a lights-out game -- Green-Ellis will inevitably be forgotten once more. But as surely as winter follows autumn, he will return again to remind us all of his dependability, durability and consistency, and why he remains the perfect running back for the Patriots’ system.
“He ran great. He always does,” quarterback Tom Brady said. “He’s a tough runner. He’s a real smart runner. He’s patient. He sees the holes. That was a big part of the win.”
Here are nine other things we learned Sunday at Gillette Stadium.
THE PATRIOTS DEFENSE IS CAPABLE OF STRINGING TOGETHER FOUR GOOD QUARTERS OF FOOTBALL
As Vince Wilfork said, it wasn’t perfect, but it was certainly a step in the right direction.
Sunday against the Jets, the much-maligned New England defense was able to force seven three-and-outs against New York, including three in a row at one point in the second half. (The Jets were 3-for-11 overall on the afternoon on third down for 27 percent.) New York’s ground-and-pound offense ended up averaging 3.9 yards per carry; only one receiver had more than three catches and 45 yards. And the Jets didn’t register a first down until midway through the second quarter.
For a defense that had to rely on turnovers if they were going to stem the tide over the first four weeks of the season, to come away with a win despite being unable to force any fumbles or have an opposing quarterback toss a pick -- all without their defensive leader in Jerod Mayo -- is nothing less than a moral victory.
“We had our moments. We had our moments,” Belichick said of the New England defense, which came into Sunday’s contest against the Jets last in total defense and pass defense. “We had some three-and-outs. We didn’t play very well in the red area, and we still gave up 21 points, but it was enough to win. Certainly, there are things we can improve on, but I think we have improved and hopefully we keep building on that and continue to get better each week.”
Wilfork said the consecutive three-and-outs, which came at the end of the third quarter, were a good way for the New England defense to build some momentum heading into the final frame.
“I just remember guys saying to each other ‘Hey let’s do it again.’ Because we knew eventually our offense was going to get back on track and put some points up,” Wilfork said. “I think it is a start in the right direction. That’s one thing we are going to need to continue to build on.”
And that success on third down had its roots in good play on first and second down.
“One of the things we really harp on in practice and putting us in the position to getting us off the field after third down,” said defensive end Mark Anderson, who had the Patriots first sack since the end of the Week Two win over the Chargers. “We executed the game plan well stopping them on first and second down and putting them into a position of third and long.”
“They did a good job,” Jets coach Rex Ryan said of the New England defense. “We’re productive on first and second down, but when you’re 27 percent, you obviously have to be better on third down.”
THE PATRIOTS OFFENSIVE LINE WAS A MIXED BAG
The Patriots’ offensive line was able to do some very good things on Sunday against the Jets. They cleared the way for a dominant second half for Green-Ellis, and overall, the running game averaged 4.3 yards per carry. And after being far and away the most-penalized position on the field (nine of the Patriots 28 penalties through the first four games were on the offensive line), they had just one penalty on Sunday against the Jets.
But Brady was sacked four times on Sunday (as many sacks as the Patriots had allowed in the first four games), and New York had five quarterback hits on the afternoon. Some of it was a product of blitzing from the Jets’ secondary, but Thomas Welch (working as an extra tight end) was beat by Jamaal Westerman (who had two sacks) on a third-quarter sack, while Logan Mankins had major issues against Mike DeVito.
“It wasn’t as pretty as we’d like it to be,” Mankins concluded. “I think we had too many mental errors. We confused the [defensive] line a few times. Tom got hit a few too many times. But overall we got the job done when we needed to and pulled out a (win).”
“They start it and they finish it,’’ said wide receiver Deion Branch of the offensive line, which saw Matt Light, Logan Mankins, Dan Connolly, Brian Waters and Solder start on Sunday. “It starts with them. How far this team is going to go, (it) starts with that front line and it’s going to end with the front line. As long as they protect in the pass game and they run block, we’ll be okay.
“Hey we all get the extra credit on the outside, but the credit truly goes to those guys. The things that they do and what coach Scarnecchia puts them through – one of the best offensive line coaches in the game – I mean those guys push through everything. We’ve got to protect our pride and joy. And they do it.’’
EVEN AT LESS THAN HIS BEST, AARON HERNANDEZ IS A FORCE TO BE RECKONED WITH
It has been a tough couple of weeks for Aaron Hernandez, as the tight end has struggled through a knee injury that has kept him sidelined since the end of Week Two. He was a question mark entering Sunday’s game, but the Florida product gutted his way through an afternoon where he finished with five catches for 56 yards, including a 21-yard catch late in the third quarter that was one of the key plays in an 11-play, 77-yard drive that ended with a touchdown from Green-Ellis to give New England a 24-14 lead.
Hernandez clearly wasn’t at 100 percent -- he was wearing a sizable brace on his left knee, and he ducked down into the locker room in the first half for a few moments. He was flexing his knee for much of the afternoon in between snaps, had a couple of missed connections with the quarterback (they were unable to hook up on at least two deep balls early) and committed a bad bobble on the goal-line at the end of the first half that led to an Antonio Cromartie interception right before halftime.
“Big-time players make big-time plays,” he said. “I came up short there. (Tom Brady) is always positive. He said, ‘Don’t worry about it. Let it go.’ But as a player who loves this game, it hurts you. I’ve got to turn it around for next week.”
But the mere presence of the 6-foot-1, 245-pounder altered the New York pass defense: if you were the Jets, you had to pay attention to him out there, even if he was just a decoy. He did such a good job attracting attention that he drew a pair of pass interference calls in the opening quarter, and was shadowed all over the field all afternoon.
“He was able to come out and practice later on in the week and handle a little more each day, and kept getting better, so we felt confident going into the game – and he felt confident going into the game,” Belichick said. “He got behind the defense a couple times, so he obviously got his speed back. I thought he had a good couple days of practice at the end of the week, and was able to carry it over into the game. He’s a tough guy to match up against. He’s a good player.”
Hernandez said he struggled at times with the knee brace -- he talked to Welker about how to play with a brace – but in the end, it wasn’t a problem.
“Wes told me it’s going to feel a little weird,” he said. “But when you’re in the moment at a game with all them fans out there, national TV, you kind of forget about the brace.”
STATS HAVEN’T NECESSARILY DEFINED HOW GOOD TOM BRADY HAS BEEN OVER THE LAST TWO GAMES
Over the first three games of the season, everyone became caught up in Brady’s ridiculous yardage numbers. And while he still remains on pace to break Dan Marino’s record for most passing yards in a season (5,084, set in 1984), Brady’s subtleties as a quarterback have been far more important to the overall success of the Patriots the last two weeks.
Even though he “only” had 226 passing yards against the Raiders, Bill Belichick praised his quarterback for his decision-making skills and work as a game manager. On Sunday against the Jets, those skills were on display again, as Brady dictated the tempo to the feisty Jets. He utilized the no-huddle on 16 of New England’s 72 plays from scrimmage, keeping them off-balance while changing plays and protection schemes on multiple occasions in hopes of keeping New York at bay.
Sometimes it wouldn’t work (Brady was sacked a season-high four times and had a red-zone pick at home for the first time in his career), but more often than not, it did (he finished 24-of-33 for 321 yards, with one touchdown pass and one interception.)
“(The Jets) give you a lot of different looks,” Belichick said. “They stem in and out of things and overload and then switch it and just change things up on you, so you’ve got to be careful about running plays that just have no chance. You want to stay out of those and try to give yourself something that you at least have an even fight, fair numbers on.
“That’s the quarterback’s responsibility and a couple times we just got caught in it. They did a good job. They maneuvered in a way that we weren’t able to do that, but I thought (Brady) did a good job handling that.”
One thing that was certainly working in Brady’s favor over the last two weeks was a consistent running game and balanced offensive scheme. On Sunday, Green-Elliis had a career-day with his 136-yard output, and for the second consecutive week, the run/pass split was virtually 50-50. (Last week, it was 30-30. This week, it was 35-33.) In the end, it all added up to the second win in the last three games against Ryan and the Jets.
But Brady didn’t sound like he was in the mood to celebrate after the game.
“I thought we could have done a lot better offensively but it was a good win. We won at home, that’s important, a division game and we’re 4-1,” Brady said. “I thought we could have run it better, obviously. We could have thrown it better. We could have done a lot of things better on offense, and we’re going to need to.”
DARRELLE REVIS DOES COVER SLOT RECEIVERS
The matchup everyone was hoping to see developed early, as the Jets appeared to make the decision to move Darrelle Revis down on Wes Welker shortly after the opening snap. And while they did move Revis around in coverage (there was some man, some zone on the part of the Jets), the two were pretty much in each other’s face all afternoon.
The final totals for one of the finest head-to-head matchups of the year? Courtesy of WEEI.com’s Justin Doubleday: The two were matched up in coverage on 42 of the Patriots’ offensive snaps, with 17 runs, 18 passes, two sacks and five penalties. Welker was targeted just three times with Revis on him, and caught two passes for 77 yards total in that time, with his biggest catch of the game came on the first play from scrimmage in the second half.
On that play, Brady used play-action to fool safety Eric Smith just enough and hit Welker over the middle for a 73-yard catch (Welker was caught from behind and tackled by Revis) on a drive that ended with a Deion Branch touchdown. It was questionable who was at fault on the big reception, but it certainly appeared that both Revis and Smith were cheating on the play.
“It was just one of those plays where the safety was a little over-aggressive,” Welker said of his 73-yarder. “We run a similar type play and ran the ball, and so I kind of got a feel for what that safety was doing. I went down and then kind of acted like I was going to block him and then took off on it. Tom [Brady] made a good throw.”
In the end, Welker again topped the 100-yard receiving mark, finishing with five receptions for 124 yards. (His 740 yards through five games is the most in NFL history and for what it’s worth, he is now on pace for 2,368 receiving yards, which would still shatter the NFL record of 1,848 by Jerry Rice in 1995.)
“He’s always a factor. He’s a great player,” Welker said when asked after Revis after the game. “You definitely have to make sure you’re very crisp with all your routes and really set up him up with stuff and be smart about it. Every play is go-time when he’s across from you. He does a great job with all that. It’s a little game of cat and mouse sometimes with him. You just have to keep on plugging away and hopefully get some big plays every once in awhile.”
“We tried to switch it up on them a little bit. I was on him a couple of times and a couple of other people were also on him,” Revis said of Welker. “We were just trying to give them a mixture of things. He made a couple of great plays today, especially with the big one. It was like he was going across the field and got us on a double move and he was gone up the field.”
Overall, Hernandez was targeted seven times when Revis went with Welker, the most of any receiver.
“We’re going to run our offense, regardless of who he’s guarding,” Deion Branch said of Revis. “If it’s Wes [Welker] and he’s guarding Wes and the play is designed to go to Wes, we’re going to try to get Wes the ball. Or if it’s me. The guy’s a great player, but the biggest thing is for us to go out and take care of our business and not worry about who’s guarding who and what defense they’re running. We just have got to go out and execute our plays.”
THIS PATRIOTS DEFENSE DOES A GOOD JOB STOPPING TIGHT ENDS
Regardless of what you think about the play of New England’s safeties through the first five games of the season -- and the tandem of Pat Chung and James Ihedigbo appeared to work well together in extended reps on Sunday -- they have done a very good job containing some very good tight ends, including some who have big days against the Patriots in the past.
This season, they have managed to shut down San Diego’s Antonio Gates and Miami’s Anthony Fasano (an underrated part of the Dolphins’ passing game). On Sunday, they were able to silence a noted Patriots’ killer in Dustin Keller. Keller, who came into the game as the Jets’ leading receiver (18 catches for 261 yards and two touchdowns), had gone off on New England several times in the past, including a nine-catch effort last year in New Jersey. But on Sunday, Keller was targeted twice and had just one catch on the afternoon, a harmless seven-yard reception in the first half.
The Patriots appeared to use a variety of coverages on Keller, and while it didn’t appear like they were concentrating on him at the expense of some of the other Jets’ offensive options (like they did with Gates against the Chargers), there were multiple defenders on him on several occasions.
“I’ve got to give them credit,” Keller said. “They played well against us -- for the most part, they held us down pretty well.”
The Patriots -- who face one of the best tight ends in the league again next week in Dallas’ Jason Witten -- have now yielded 13 catches for 183 yards and two touchdowns against tight ends in five games.
PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT
Afterward, Belichick and several other players noted that the Patriots were able to put together a second consecutive week of quality practices, which went a long way toward having them ready for this week’s game against the Jets.
“It’s good to win and I’m really proud of our team,” said Belichick. “They had a good week of practice. They worked hard, pushed through a lot of bumps and bruises. (They were) banged up and (had) a long trip back from Oakland and all of that, but they hung in there and I thought they did a really good job this week.
“It was one of our good weeks of practice, so hopefully that was reinforced by what we did in the game,” he added.
“Oh yes -- from coming in here on Tuesday on our day off to watch film all the way to Saturday night leading into the game, we really nailed it,” Wilfork said of the days leading up to the Jets game. “Bill didn’t give up until the last second. We were in here until our 2:15 meeting still talking about things we need to do to win the ball game. I think everybody took it upon themselves to make sure we would be in pretty decent shape as the game went on. And we were.”
“Guys came in very focused, understanding that this was a big game for us and it can really get us a jumpstart in the division,” said wide receiver Wes Welker. “I think the guys did a great job of really understanding our game plan and really moving the ball down the field. It all starts in practice. Whenever we do it there, it always carries over.”
Even five games into the regular season, the new padded practice schedule has taken some getting used to. Under the new CBA, during the regular season, there can be just 14 padded practices for the entirety of the season and teams can hold no more than two padded practices per week. All padded practices are limited to three hours max, which means you have to really have to maximize the time you spend in pads.
“It’s always imperative for us to have a good week of practice,” Green-Ellis said. “We don’t have all day out there, so we have to make sure that we’re running those plays and getting them right the first time.”
THE PATRIOTS MIGHT WANT TO START KICKING AWAY FROM JOE McKNIGHT
The youngster is a flat-out beast as a kick returner. McKnight came into Sunday’s game averaging 53 yards a return on his four opportunities this season, with one of his returns going for 107 yards last week against the Ravens.
He didn’t disappoint on Sunday against New England -- on New York’s first chance in the third quarter, he took one straight up the seam for 88 yards, which set up a quick score from the Jets to pull them to within three early in the second half. All in all, it wasn’t a great day for the Patriots’ coverage teams. There was McKnight’s big return, plus penalties on Jermaine Cunningham (holding on a punt return) and Dane Fletcher (holding on a kickoff return)
However, the Patriots had a good afternoon on other special teams’ areas -- Stephen Gostkowski connected on all three of his field goal attempts (from 24, 28 and 44 yards, with the 28-yarder coming with just over a minute left and making it a two-score game) and put all seven of his kickoffs into the end zone, while Zoltan Mesko averaged 51.3 yards on his four punts, dropping one of them inside the 20. In addition, with Julian Edelman on the sideline, Welker caught four punts, including a 25-yard return that got the team good field position to start the fourth quarter.
THE PATRIOTS HAVE BEEN ABLE TO GET SOME SEPARATION IN THE AFC EAST
Five weeks into the season, the Patriots and Bills sit at 4-1 on top of the AFC East. Meanwhile, Sunday’s loss leaves the Jets at 2-3, and heading in the wrong direction -- New York has lost three straight. That, combined with a recent report that three different wide receivers went to Rex Ryan to complain about the state of the offense, have some believing that the Jets are nearing a crossroads.
“It is a lot of frustration -- we lost three games in row,” Revis said. ”It is tough. It feels tough right now. We have to stop committing the mistakes out on the field. We have to be consistent in our game play.”
“We got a long way to go. I mean, no one said it would be easy,” Ryan said. “We just got to play better and better. And I thought we played better today than we obviously did last week. Hopefully we will play better next week than we did this week, and hopefully we just keep building and building and building. And the team that plays best at the end of the year is usually the team that walks away with the championship.
“I never thought I would be here, losing three straight, but that’s where we are at right now. We’ve earned it and we’ve got to get better. I have seen this team, it’s a resilient team, and I think we will be right there and I think we will get better.”