Entering the 2017 season, many expected the New York Jets to be one of the worst teams and a frontrunner for the No. 1 pick. On the other hand, the New England Patriots garnered preseason hype about going undefeated after a splashy offseason.
Boy were we wrong.
In a surprising twist of fate, the Jets, Patriots and Buffalo Bills enter Week 6 with identical 3-2 records. For a team that most expected to win three or four games at best, the Jets’ hot start qualifies as one of the most eye-opening developments this season.
In New England, a toxic combination of injuries, lack of communication on defense, and poor play from the offensive line has led to a slow start for the defending Super Bowl champions. Coming off an uninspiring 19-14 win in Tampa, the Patriots need to start playing with more consistency on both lines of scrimmage if they want to regain the top spot in the AFC East.
Sunday’s showdown at the Meadowlands promises to be a tough, physical matchup between two of the most bitter rivals in football. Let us take a look at three key matchups the Patriots must win against the Jets.
Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon vs. Leonard Williams and Muhammad Wilkerson
The most pivotal matchup to watch features four mountainous men who happen to be off to slow starts. New England’s tackle tandem of Nate Solder (6-foot-8, 325 pounds) and Marcus Cannon (6-foot-6, 335 pounds) is one of the most physically imposing in the NFL, but neither player has performed at the same level as a year ago.
Solder has not looked healthy, and his streaky pass protection has him ranked as Pro Football Focus’s 51st tackle. His bookend has not fared much better: Cannon ranks 33rd after finishing 2016 as PFF’s third-best tackle in the league. With both tackles struggling, Tom Brady has been exposed to far too many hits for any quarterback, let alone a 40-year-old one.
Solder and Cannon will be tasked with slowing down the equally talented tandem of Leonard Williams (6-foot-5, 302 pounds) and Muhammad Wilkerson (6-foot-4, 315 pounds). Like its New England counterparts, the Williams-Wilkerson combo has been underwhelming so far — neither player has recorded a single sack. Despite the slow start, the former first-round picks can wreak havoc with their length, strength and surprising quickness.
New York’s run defense has been absolutely abysmal, so look for the Patriots to try to establish the ground game to take pressure off TB12. Of course, that will not be possible if Solder and Cannon get pushed around by the twin towers. Whoever wins this matchup will set the tone not only for this game, but possibly the rest of the season.
Rob Gronkowski vs. Jamal Adams
Blue-chip talents are few and far between, but this matchup features two bona fide ones. Despite more injury concerns, Rob Gronkowski has been the most productive tight end in football. Even after missing the Tampa Bay game, Gronk still ranks third in receiving yards (318) among tight ends.
The 6-foot-6, 265-pounder is still one of the most difficult matchups for any defender due to his size, catch radius and physicality after the catch. Throw in the fact that he is also a highly capable blocker, and the future Hall of Famer is clearly the best and most complete tight end in the NFL.
While Gronk has embarrassed slow linebackers and undersized safeties since 2010, the Jets’ decision to draft Jamal Adams with the sixth pick could take away a thorn in their side. The former LSU standout is truly a rare breed in that he has the size (6-foot-1, 213 pounds) and speed (4.40 at his pro day) to take on the NFL’s growing number of towering, athletic tight ends. Rookie safeties typically struggle, but Adams has acquitted himself well with a Pro Football grade of 72.7 that places him 47th among all safeties.
Earlier this season, Kansas City’s Eric Berry shut down Gronkowski before suffering an Achilles tear. Interestingly, the player Adams was compared to in the pre-draft process: Berry. If Adams can get physical and prevent Gronkowski from getting a free release, that could spell trouble for the Patriots’ passing game.
Trey Flowers vs. Kelvin Beachum
New England’s defense has been the subject of criticism from the season opener. However, third-year defensive end Trey Flowers has been one of the rare bright spots on the league’s 31st-ranked scoring defense. After recording 2.5 sacks in the Super Bowl, Flowers has continued to grow into one of the better defensive linemen in the NFL. The 6-foot-2, 265-pounder utilizes his freakishly long arms and strong hands to power through and slither by blockers both as a traditional defensive end and as an interior rusher. With 3.5 sacks, eight hits, five pressures and three drawn flags, Flowers has easily been the most Patriots’ most productive pass-rusher.
The player likely tasked with slowing down Flowers is sixth-year pro Kelvin Beachum. The former seventh-round pick grew into an above-average starter in Pittsburgh before signing a one-year deal with the Jacksonville Jaguars last season that included a four-year, $40 million option. Jacksonville declined to pick up the option after Beachum surrendered 49 pressures, yet the Jets still handed him a three-year, $24 million deal to be their left tackle.
So far the results have been mixed: Beachum ranks 27th among tackles with a grade of 71. Tipping the scales at 6-foot-3, 308 pounds with 33 1/4-inch arms, Beachum is undersized for a left tackle and has never been the most physical blocker in the run game. Flowers’ 34 1/4-inch arms and powerful punch could present problems for Josh McCown’s blindside protector.
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