For this week’s Turning Point, we’ll break down the coin flip. Only kidding of course, but more on that in a moment.
Last Thursday night’s contest was full of momentum shifts. The Jets scored on their first four possessions (one of them a kickoff return touchdown) to jump out to an early 24-6 lead. Afterwards the Patriot defense/special teams adjusted, allowing New York nothing on their next five non-kneeldown drives. Meanwhile, New England’s offense gradually chipped away at the deficit, finally tying the game early in the 4th quarter. The Jets subsequently rattled off a sustained, clock-killing drive (14 plays, 63 yards, 7:06 elapsed) that ended with a go-ahead touchdown. The teams traded three-and-outs, with the Patriots using their time outs, the two minute warning and a stout defensive effort to give them one last shot with 1:04 remaining. It took Cassel only 1:03 to erase any lingering doubts about his clutchness as he delivered an on-the-run game-tying TD to a perfectly-covered Moss in the corner of the end zone (time index; 4:44). Cassel led his team on two game-tying 4th quarter drives, although officially it only counts as one comeback.
Due to sudden death overtime rules, however, he was unable to build on it, making the eventual overtime loss all the more bitter. Ranting about overtime invites hypocrisy given New England’s 7-0 record under Belichick & Brady (with plenty of fortunate bounces and breaks) prior to Thursday night. And griping about rules that have been in place for 34 years may ring hollow compared to the NFL’s other glaring problems, among them horrific, consequence-free officiating and a humorless, dictatorial commissioner. Therefore the author begs your indulgence.
This season we’ve witnessed the greatest amount of parity, Tennessee and the defending champs aside, since 2002. Former commissioner Pete Rozelle’s dying legacy was to establish an even economic playing field, the idea being that the talent level would likewise equilibrate and give every team a chance to succeed. What does parity have to do with overtime? If the spirit of the former is to promote competitiveness, why not do the same for the latter by giving each team at least one possession? Under the current archaic system, the winner of the overtime coin toss prevails 60% of the time. In a league of parity, the stakes are too high for the outcome of games to be determined at random; as the PD editor pointed out yesterday, the overtime loss dropped the Patriots from the #3 AFC seed to being out of the playoff picture entirely.
However inconvenient the current rules, if the Patriots wanted to avoid being in that hole they certainly had their opportunities defensively in overtime. The drive actually began well for the Patriots as they sacked Favre for a five yard loss. On the next play, rookie Gary Guyton demonstrated his progress as a coverage linebacker by breaking up a pass intended for running back Leon Washington. Faced with a 3rd and long and in danger of giving the ball back to a red-hot Patriot offense, Favre used his short spread passing attack to exploit the Patriots soft zone coverage, the subject of this week’s Turning Point:
Situation: 3-15-NYJ 15 (14:19)
New York Formation: Shotgun 4 WR, Washington offset right
Personnel: WR 87 Coles, WR 83 Stuckey, LT 60 Ferguson. LG 66 Faneca, C 74 Mangold, RG 65 Moore, RT 67 Big Wood, WR/TE 81 Keller, WR 89 Cotchery, QB 4 Hero, RB 29 Washington
New England Formation: Nickel 2-4-5
Personnel: DL 97 Green, DL 93 Seymour, OLB 50 Vrabel, ILB 51 Mayo, ILB 59 Guyton, OLB 58 Woods, LCB 21 O’Neil, SS 31 Meriweather, FS 36 Sanders, NB 23 Webster, RCB 27 Trey Hobbs
Play result: B.Favre pass short middle to D.Keller to NYJ 31 for 16 yards
Play Summary: Cover 2 safeties Sanders and Meriweather visited the ISS while O’Neal and Trey Hobbs respectively lined up tight on Cotchery and Coles. Meanwhile, Webster allowed Stuckey, who was already lined up behind the LOS, a 13 yard cushion, which Favre noted during his pre-snap reads. He quickly changed his mind however after observing Vrabel rush off the left edge and Mayo (the left inside linebacker or LILB) drop back to the right, leaving Keller with approximately 254 square yards (a conservative estimate) of open field. By the time Meriweather returned from orbit to deliver a jarring hit, the tight end had plenty of momentum to lean for the critical 3rd down conversion.
Why oh why was Mayo playing on the right defensive half of the field to begin with? His shifting there seemed premeditated in spite of the fact that Stuckey and Washington were already covered. An absolute backbreaker.
Following a four yard run by Thomas Jones, New York came out in a two tight end set, which offers great versatility despite traditionally being categorized as a run formation.
Situation: 2-6-NYJ 35 (13:05)
New York Formation: Big Ace Twin WR, Cotchery slotted left
Personnel: WR 87 Coles, WR 89 Cotchery, TE 86 Baker, LT 60 Ferguson. LG 66 Faneca, C 74 Mangold, RG 65 Moore, RT 67 Big Wood, TE 81 Keller, QB 4 Gunslinger, RB 29 Washington
New England Formation: 3-4 Over
Personnel: LDE 99 Wright, NT 75 Wilfork, RDE 93 Seymour, OLB 58 Woods, ILB 51 Mayo, ILB 59 Guyton, OLB 50 Vrabel, LCB 21 O’Neil, SS 31 Meriweather, FS 36 Sanders, NB 23 Sanders, RCB 27 Trey Hobbs
Play result: B.Favre pass short right to D.Keller to NYJ 47 for 12 yards
Play Summary: Facing a “Big” set on 2nd and 6, the Patriots countered with their base 3-4 personnel, with Woods and Vrabel lining up over the tight ends (Keller and Baker, respectively). Meriweather came down to cover Cotchery in the left slot while O’Neil acted as the left Cover 2 safety. Bruschi simulated a blitz presnap before dropping back to cover Baker. The actual pass rush consisting of Wright, Wilfork, Seymour and Vrabel succeeded in applying pressure, but Favre rolled out right and bought himself time to once again find Keller, the latter having reached the vacated zone behind Woods (who was keyed with Washington in the flat), beside Mayo (covering the middle of the field) and underneath O’Neil.
The Patriots were determined to keep everything in front of them, and a Cover 2 zone strategy is certainly effective at taking away the deep ball. The drawback is a lack of flexibility: as with the previously described play, Favre simply waited for a receiver to find a (gaping) hole. And once again it was Keller, who is quickly morphing into a Mark Chmura/Bubba Franks security blanket.
The Jets gained only 12 yards over their next four plays, and faced with 2nd and 10 on the New England 40, they needed at least one more first down to be within range of a game-winning field goal.
Situation: 2-10-NE 40 (9:43)
New York Formation: Shotgun 4 WR, Washington offset left
Personnel: WR 89 Cotchery, WR 83 Stuckey, LT 60 Ferguson. LG 66 Faneca, C 74 Mangold, RG 65 Moore, RT 67 Big Wood, WR/TE 81 Keller, WR 87 Coles, QB 4 Hero, RB 29 Washington
New England Formation: Nickel 2-4-5
Personnel: DL 97 Green, DL 93 Seymour, OLB 58 Woods, ILB 51 Mayo, ILB 59 Guyton, OLB 50 Vrabel, LCB 21 O’Neil, SS 31 Meriweather, FS 36 Sanders, NB 23 Webster, RCB 27 Trey Hobbs
Play result: B.Favre pass short middle to L.Coles to NE 24 for 16 yards
Play Summary: Washington went in motion behind Favre to the right. As before, the Patriot pass rush (Green, Seymour and Vrabel) attacked the left side of New Yorks offensive line, prompting Favre to once again roll out right. With Washington being covered by Guyton and Keller now being double-teamed by Woods (initially) and Mayo (jumping on the underneath route), Coles cleared O’Neal’s zone to come open in the middle. Favre made a great on-the-run throw across his body to his #1 receiver.
At this point New England was purely reactionary; having twice been beaten Keller, Mayo overcompensated and left the middle zone vacated. This and prior coverages proved costly, as the Jets subsequently called for three straight runs up the middle to improve positioning for Feely’s game-winning chip shot.
In his Week 2 Turning Point conclusions, the author was highly critical of Favre, implying that his affinity for taking risks might eventually do the Jets more harm then good. Its possible those statements were unfairly premature, especially since at that point he’d only been with the Jets for five weeks. Since then he’s settled in nicely, and the Jets have won six of seven largely on the strength of their 2nd ranked scoring offense.
And although they came up short, the Patriots boasted their best total offense output in nearly 30 years, with Cassel himself having a historic day. If New England plans to play in January however, they’ll need all three phases to play well since the margin for error is practically nil.
Tyler Carter’s ‘The Turning Point’ appears weekly on Patriots Daily. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.