The worst part about playing the New York Jets on Thursday Night Football is only getting a few days of Rex Ryan media appearances. The best part: only getting a few days of Rex Ryan media appearances. Yes, the Jets head coach is a classic double-edged sword. He can be both hilarious and cantankerous, motivational and outright idiotic. Say what you want about Ryan, but it’s hard to argue that he’s not entertaining and that’s why he’s perfect for the New York media market and a good laugh for us twice a year. Because of Ryan, there are few teams Patriots fans like to see their team beat more (probably true for head coach Bill Belichick too, though you’ll never hear him say it). Nothing says shut up like a good old fashioned beat down.
But both the Patriots and the Jets have more to worry about than the loquacious Ryan. Both teams eaked out week one wins, the Jets only because of a dumb personal foul on Tampa Bay linebacker Lavonte David that put them in position to attempt a last second field goal. The Patriots are 1-0 because of a gutsy game-winning drive and because the uncoverable Stevie Johnson couldn’t make a routine catch in the flat. It didn’t hurt that Bills head coach Doug Marrone decided to stick with a no-huddle offense when his team was leading in the fourth quarter with five minutes to go (paging Dr. Foolish). Regardless of the circumstances, both the Patriots and the Jets now stand with one win and no losses and will be battling for first place in the AFC East tonight at Gillette Stadium.
After one week, both teams have serious questions going into this game. Here are a few of the key factors that will affect the outcome of the first 2013 meeting of the rival New England Patriots and New York Jets.
1. The Patriots pass rush
Going into the season, many analysts felt the area most likely to improve on the Patriots defense was their pass rush. Well, that certainly didn’t come to fruition in week one as they struggled to generate any pressure against the Bills offensive line. This will be a key area to watch tonight as the Patriots must find a way to get more consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks if they want to be competitive in the AFC this season. The Jets appear to be a good matchup for the Pats pass rush to get on track, as Geno Smith was sacked four times against the Buccaneers and was pressured numerous other times. Look for a big game from Rob Ninkovich and Brandon Spikes as the Patriots try to bring more pressure off the edge and with linebackers blitzing behind interior linemen.
2. The progression of Geno Smith
The Jets rookie quarterback had an up and down NFL debut, but he made some savvy plays in week one and will be looking to positively progress against the Patriots. Smith’s teammates spoke volumes of the rookie’s leadership and poise in his first professional start and clearly believe in their young field general. Narrowly defeating Tampa Bay is one thing, but if the young Jets quarterback can lead his team to a win on the road against the hated Patriots he will have officially arrived. If that does transpire, you can forget about Mark Sanchez playing for the New York Jets anytime soon.
3. The return of Stevan Ridley
Stevan Ridley’s return to action may have the most significant effect on the Patriots offense. Given the unfortunate injury to the dynamic and versatile Shane Vereen, it’s very likely that Bill Belichick gives his talented young running back another chance after his costly fumble against the Bills. If it were another player, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Belichick feature a different back, but the talented Mr. Ridley is too dynamic not to take another chance with. Expect the Patriots to use him early and often, but keep him on a very short leash. If Ridley runs with the determination one would expect from a starter who watched his team rally from behind helplessly from the sideline in week one, he could have a serious impact on this game.
4. The performance of the Jets new-look secondary
If Patriots quarterback Tom Brady can get in sync with his young wide receivers it could be a long day for the New York Jets secondary. With the departure of Darrelle Revis, this is not the talented, veteran defensive backfield we’ve seen the Patriots face in the past. Of course, the Jets still have talent in their secondary with Brady-hater Antonio Cromartie still in the fold. With the departure of Revis, however, the Jets have a lot of new faces in their defensive backfield, such as promising rookie Dee Milliner and safety Dawan Landry acquired through free agency in the offseason. The performance of this unit will be key to the outcome of this game. With veteran Danny Amendola listed as doubtful with a groin injury and Rob Gronkowski still not ready to return, the Patriots will be relying heavily on their young wide receivers. Whether the Jets secondary can shut the rookies down could be the key to the game.
5. How young Patriots respond to adversity
Game speed is not practice speed and boy did it show with the Patriots young receivers in week one. Their collective debut went about as poorly as it could have as they often looked confused with their assignments and overwhelmed with the pace of the game. The promising Kenbrell Thompkins came down with only four catches despite being targeted fourteen times. Josh Boyce was targeted twice, both incompletions, and Aaron Dobson watched from the sidelines injured. To compound issues more, rookie tight end Zach Sudfeld, who showed such promise in training camp, stumbled on the one route he was targeted on which resulted in a game changing interception. In order for the Patriots offense to become anything resembling what its been in recent years these rookies must produce. Thompkins, particularly, will need to shake off his rough debut and be more consistent or the Patriots will start to look elsewhere for production. Whether he can respond positively to this adversity will have a significant effect not just on this game, but on the future role he plays in the Patriots offense. With all the injuries the Patriots are facing on offense, Thompkins, Josh Boyce and Aaron Dobson are going to get their opportunities tonight. Whoever seizes the opportunity will be a big part of the Patriots offense tonight and likely for the immediate future.