On Football

Taking on a Pack mentality?

Jets QB Mark Sanchez is adept at leaving the pocket and passing on the run. Jets QB Mark Sanchez is adept at leaving the pocket and passing on the run. (Al Bello/Getty Images)
By Greg A. Bedard
December 6, 2010

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Normally when a team prepares for an opponent, the film study is concentrated on the previous five games because things change so much during the course of the season.

The Patriots were likely no exception when they studied for the Jets in anticipation for tonight’s megasized “Monday Night Football’’ game at Gillette Stadium.

But the Patriots went a little outside the norm when they concentrated on the Jets’ loss to the Packers (five games ago) and a close victory over the Broncos (six).

“Quite a bit,’’ quarterback Tom Brady said, when asked how much of the Green Bay game he studied. “Quite a bit.’’

“And we watched a lot of Broncos,’’ receiver Deion Branch said.

The reason?

The Packers and Broncos most closely resemble the Patriots on both sides of the ball than any other Jets opponents.

It didn’t hurt that both gave New York fits on offense and defense.

The Jets needed two touchdowns in the final eight minutes to beat former Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and the Broncos, 24-20, at Invesco Field Oct. 17.

The Packers went into New Meadowlands Stadium Oct. 31 — after the Jets’ bye week — and posted an impressive 9-0 victory. It was the last time New York tasted defeat.

The biggest lesson learned?

Hold Jets running backs LaDainian Tomlinson and Shonn Greene to fewer than 100 yards combined and make quarterback Mark Sanchez beat you.

“I thought it started with stopping the run,’’ Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “I think Sanchez is still a young quarterback and I think they’ve got a very good offensive line and two very good running backs. They have another guy in Brad Smith that really gives them versatility in their offense. Their receivers have the ability to make plays and probably the underrated guy is [Dustin] Keller, the tight end, because he can make vertical plays and becomes a little bit of a matchup problem for you.

“But I think you have to stop the run because when they can run the ball and run their play-action pass game, then it makes them doubly tough to stop. Sanchez, I think, is still better with the play-action passing game where he can get out and move on the perimeter to use his athletic ability and that type of thing, than if he just has to sit in the pocket and throw it.’’

In their Week 2 loss to the Jets, the Patriots did a great job limiting the Jets’ backs to 28 yards on eight carries (3.5 average) in the first half, and led, 14-10, at intermission.

Tomlinson and Greene had 18 carries for 100 yards (5.6) in the second half. The Jets outscored the Patriots, 18-0.

While his stats were similar between the first and second halves, Sanchez played much more confidently when the running game was clicking. After punting on their first possession of the second half, the Jets scored on three of their final four possessions to put away the Patriots.

There have been four games this season in which Tomlinson and Greene failed to combine for 100 yards: the two losses (the other being against the Ravens in the season opener), and come-from-behind wins over the Broncos and Texans (72-yard scoring drive in final 45 seconds).

Capers, who runs a zone-blitz, 3-4 scheme, said he brought pressure early but quickly backed out of it when it looked like it was fruitless against a strong Jets line (outside of left guard Matt Slauson). The Jets often kept seven players in to block, presumably to help contain Packers star outside linebacker Clay Matthews.

“[The Jets] will max protect and run two- and three-receiver routes a lot,’’ Capers said. “So we would show pressure, try to get them to max protect, and then try to come out and play more coverage against them.’’

That’s a little bit easier to do when you have cornerbacks Charles Woodson (reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year) and Tramon Williams (an emerging top cover man), and safety Nick Collins (two-time Pro Bowler) in the back end. The Patriots do not have that type of talent.

The Packers didn’t do anything special as far as coverage matchups, although Woodson and Williams made good reads off tendencies to intercept passes headed to Keller and Jerricho Cotchery, respectively.

“For most of the game we kept them from throwing the ball down the field,’’ Capers said. “They did get a long pass in there with Keller matched up with [linebacker A.J. Hawk] down the field. So we tried after that to keep A.J. from having to carry him up the middle of the field.’’

Probably the two players the Packers concentrated on most in the pass game were receivers Santonio Holmes and Braylon Edwards.

“Kind of our whole plan was try to stop the run, get them into predictable situations, and then pressure the quarterback,’’ Capers said.

Offensively, the Packers and Patriots are very similar. They don’t rely on the running game and use a quick, rhythm-style pass offense operated by very accurate quarterbacks who don’t turn the ball over very often.

The personnel is similar, as well. Branch compares with Greg Jennings in short-area quickness and route running. Donald Driver and Wes Welker are tough slot receivers of different styles. Both teams use three tight ends at various points.

The Jets did not line up cornerback Darrelle Revis solely on Jennings, although the strategy of having Jennings work more in the slot may have helped.

Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers had his worst statistical game of the season against the Jets. Brady wasn’t much better in the Week 2 loss.

The struggles didn’t come much from pressure — the Jets blitzed well below their normal rate in both games — but from playing more coverage than Rodgers and Brady anticipated. The receivers also didn’t make the proper adjustments.

“We anticipated a number of big-play opportunities, we were able to get behind them a few times, didn’t convert on any of those,’’ said Packers coach Mike McCarthy. “We felt that we just weren’t very sharp, whether it was finishing blocks, certain reads, depth of routes and so forth.’’

The Packers were aided by some key Jets mistakes: three turnovers, not having a challenge in the fourth quarter, a missed field goal, and an ill-advised failed fake punt.

The Patriots might not be as fortunate. With first place in the AFC East and home field in the playoffs at stake tonight, the Jets and the Patriots will be especially mindful of giving the other any breaks.

But if the Patriots can mind the lessons learned in film study this week — stop the run, keep Sanchez in the pocket, and prepare for coverage — the opportunity is there for them to make a break for themselves as the playoffs draw closer.

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

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