Chum in the water.
That’s how Jets quarterback Zach Wilson was jokingly described to a few Patriots defenders this week during their afternoon press conferences at Gillette Stadium. Like every joke, there was a kernel of truth to how the kid was portrayed.
Wilson will be making his second career start against a multiple-veteran defense known for its ability to confuse quarterbacks. Just ask his predecessor, ghost-seeing Sam Darnold. Though naturally, when asked to pounce on Wilson’s inexperience, none of the Pats took the bait.
Instead, safety Adrian Phillips, cornerback Joejuan Williams and others described him as talented and aggressive. His physical talent is rare, just as you’d expect from a former second overall pick. Like Wilson, the Jets are a work in progress, now under first-year head coach Robert Saleh and new offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur, a branch off the Mike Shanahan coaching tree.
Despite their flaws, Gang Green can threaten a fortified Pats defense. Wilson’s unpredictability as a rookie cuts both ways, and his receiving corps is formidable enough. Not to mention, a LaFleur-led 49ers offense rang up 467 yards and 33 points on the Pats less than a year ago.
Here’s how the Patriots defense can ground Wilson and the Jets this weekend:
1. Shadow Corey Davis with J.C. Jackson
Jets wideouts Jamison Crowder and Keelan Cole are both expected to play Sunday after missing the team’s season opener, a solid boost for their offense.
There’s no doubt New York is better off with those two players. But it should be said with the same certainty that neither Crowder or Cole can beat the Patriots. The only Jets receiver capable of that is Corey Davis.
“Tough. He’s an outstanding player,” Bill Belichick said of Davis this week. “Catches the ball and makes a lot of contested catches. Tough guy to tackle, good blocker. He really competes hard, does everything well. He’s a key guy for them.”
Davis caught five passes for 97 yards and two touchdowns in his Jets debut last week at Carolina. He was one of the more coveted wideouts in free agency, after starting his career with a four-year stint in Tennessee. The former fifth overall pick was slow to blossom with the Titans, but now ranks among the NFL’s better receivers.
The simplest solution is to shadow Davis with Jackson, just as Stephon Gilmore would have if available. If Jackson can shut Davis down, the Pats won’t have to bother with double-teams on third down or in the red zone and can allocate extra resources to keep Wilson in the pocket or another defender deep. Without his top receiver or the ability to scramble, the kid will be boxed in.
2. Deny Zach Wilson the deep ball
Between the rookie quarterback and suspect offensive line — which lost stud left tackle Mehki Becton Sunday — this version of the Jets offense is not built to sustain long drives.
Both of New York’s touchdown drives against the Panthers were sustained by two explosive passing plays. Every other series resulted in a punt or a turnover. Wilson wants to get yards in chunks, not patiently march downfield.
“He’s a guy that’s going through each progression, and he wants to throw the ball downfield,” Phillips said this week. “He wants to make that play.”
To generate chunk plays, the Patriots can expect the Jets to dial up deep play-action shots on early downs; plays designed to target the soft zone coverage NFL defenses most often employ on first and second downs. According to Pro Football Focus, the Pats played more single-high coverage last week than any other defense in the league. By calling more two-high coverage and prioritizing pass defense over stopping the run on 1st-and-10, the Patriots should force Wilson to be patient and inevitably reap the benefits of facing a young, overaggressive QB.
3. Tackle well
Aside from allowing Davis to run free in the secondary and Wilson to drop bombs, the Pats’ surest way to another loss Sunday is poor tackling.
New York will scheme its running backs and wide receivers into open space on the edge, just as the Dolphins game-planned last week. The Patriots only missed six tackles versus Miami, a palatable number, but most led to big gains. Here were the top offenders in Week 1: Jackson 2, Ja’Whaun Bentley, Kyle Dugger, Jalen Mills and Davon Godchaux.
Last season, the Pats missed 11 tackles against the 49ers, who successfully exploited their slow linebacking corps on virtually every drive. The Patriots have since received reinforcements, with the return of Dont’a Hightower and arrival of Matt Judon, but they aren’t any faster. The Jets know this.
But if the Pats can anticipate these plays, and wrap up 1-on-1 or gang tackle, it won’t matter. Force the Jets to earn their yards, instead of giving them away, and they’ll stumble into trouble soon enough.