By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The Patriots are 0-1. The Jets are 0-1.
We think they’ll end up in different places by the end of the season. But as of now, we can’t know for sure.
Sunday afternoon, though, will provide an opportunity for the Patriots to show that they are indeed in a class above the lowly Jets, who went 2-14 last year and who haven’t been to the playoffs since 2010 — several lifetimes ago in NFL years.
A blowout win for New England is no given, as last year’s last-second game-winning field goal from Nick Folk in the Meadowlands showed. But with several significant upgrades across the board for the Patriots, and with a rookie quarterback and rookie head coach at work in New Jersey, the Patriots should be able to roll to their first win of the year.
Alas, there’s a reason they play the games.
Here’s what to watch for when this one kicks off on Sunday afternoon.
We are a QB-obsessed nation, so we can legally only start here. Zach Wilson. Mac Jones. The No. 2 overall pick. The No. 15 overall pick. The fate of each franchise — and the future of the AFC East — in their hands.
As far as Patriots-Jets drama goes, this is as good as it’s been for some time.
Wilson had a mediocre debut last week in Carolina. He threw for 258 yards and two touchdowns, but he also threw a pick and he also took six sacks. There are some things he may have in his back pocket that the Patriots can’t necessarily prepare for, but he’s also a rookie quarterback facing a Bill Belichick-coached team. Historically, that’s not fared well for the rookies.
We’re also fascinated to see Mac Jones’ follow-up performance to what was really a solid debut last week against Miami. With the Jets coming off a year where they had one of the worst pass defenses in the NFL, there should be some more opportunities for Jones this week, compared to last week vs. Miami. Plus, with Jones looking more and more comfortable as last week’s game went on, we’ll see if he can continue that rapid growth from week to week.
Running Back Usage
The Patriots traded Sony Michel away because they had too many running backs. Just a week into the season, we’ve already got some questions.
That’s not to say they definitely should be regretting the Michel trade. But consider this: Rookie Rhamondre Stevenson got stapled to the bench, Malcolm Butler style, after fumbling the football and getting blown up in pass protection in his NFL debut.
He played just five snaps, and the trickle-down effect of his forced unavailability proved costly. When Damien Harris was gassed on the final drive, the Patriots handed the ball to Brandon Bolden. That surely wasn’t in the game plan. It also forced a winded Harris back into the game, and he promptly fumbled the game away inside the Miami 10-yard line.
If Stevenson could have been trusted to handle his role, we’d likely be talking about a 1-0 Patriots team right now.
That’s why it’ll be fascinating to see how Belichick plays this one. Does he throw Stevenson right back into the mix, or does he put him on the inactive list and activate second-year back J.J. Taylor?
The inactive list will be the first thing we’re eager to see. After that, the distribution of carries and usage will warrant our attention. Here’s one guess as to what might happen: Considering Harris got fatigued and Stevenson quickly lost the coaching staff’s trust … maybe this one turns into a James White game. The veteran pretty much always does everything right, in the run game, in the passing game, and in pass protection. He only played 37 percent of the offensive snaps last week. Expect that number to take a big jump for Jones’ first NFL game featuring road crowd noise (such as it is at MetLife for the Jets).
Sack Mode: Engaged
As previously mentioned, Zach Wilson took six sacks last week. That is not good. It’s also not uncommon for a rookie QB to take extra time in the pocket, running out of time, and quickly learning that playing against NFL defenses is a whole lot different from playing in Boise State and Louisiana Tech.
Can he be better in that regard this week? Maybe. But … maybe not.
The Patriots managed to record just two sacks last week, but that was with the uniquely elusive Tua Tagovailoa escaping pressure a number of times. Matt Judon, Kyle Van Noy and Adrian Phillips were among the best defensive players on the field for New England, but this week, that list figures to grow longer. By disguising coverages and throwing some different looks at Wilson, generating that extra tick to get to the quarterback should be easier this week than most others.
Plus, with Mekhi Becton out, the Jets are without their left tackle.
It looks like it’ll be a tough day to be Zach Wilson. The only question is whether the Patriots will meet or surpass that mark of six sacks set by the Carolina defense a week ago.
Both teams lost starting tackles last week to injury. The Becton injury is more serious than Trent Brown’s calf strain, but both teams are nevertheless working to figure out the best combination for Sunday’s game.
One thing that was clear last weekend is that Justin Herron isn’t ready for the right tackle job. He struggled so badly vs. Miami that he was taken out of the game and replaced by Yasir Durant. In that duty, Durant acquitted himself well, but it will be interesting to see if the team bounces Mike Onwenu out from left guard to right tackle, utilizing Ted Karras at the guard spot. Onwenu was excellent at right tackle last year, but he said this week that he’s enjoyed focusing on just one position. Belichick has said he’ll do whatever is best for the team, and moving “Big Mike” to tackle seems to be in line with that credo.
For the Jets, it might be a bit dire, as they don’t have a standout player like Onwenu and a reliable veteran backup like Karras readily available. The Jets figure to go with George Fant at left tackle and Morgan Moses at right tackle, but if that doesn’t go well, it might make for a long afternoon for the home team.
(While you have your peepers trained on that Jets’ O-line, you can take a look at Alijah Vera-Tucker at the left guard spot. Reports and rumors indicated the Patriots were high on him in the draft. One report said that the Patriots might have taken Vera-Tucker at 15 instead of Mac Jones. Alas, the Jets traded up to take the lineman, perhaps shaping Patriots history in the process.)