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Ryan's adjustment to scale back works perfectly vs. Pats

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The Jets bounced the Patriots from the playoffs Sunday evening by exercising a smart defensive game plan and sticking to it. Expect more of the same against Pittsburgh in the AFC Championship Game.

So what exactly did Rex Ryan and company do that snatched the big road win in New England? It's really more about what they didn't do.

If you're a Jets fan, you've gotten used to watching the front line get little pressure. The Trevor Pryce acquisition last October didn't help. While the team took Jason Taylor on a helicopter-led recruiting trip, his impact has been relatively small. The lack of a pass rush became quite the conundrum for Ryan and his staff as the season went along.

So, if the front three or four guys can't get to the quarterback, what do you do? Blitz the hell out of them right?

Not on Sunday.

Ryan and defensive coordinator Mike Pettine rarely sent the house. Really, they never pushed all of their chips into the middle of the table. Charting the game -- and this is by my unofficial count -- the Jets only blitzed 16 times. That includes plays in which New York sent a corner or safety to the pocket, a linebacker from behind the line of scrimmage, or there were at least five men rushing the passer. In fact, even when the Jets blitzed a safety, like Erik Smith, only five guys total went -- meaning there were still six defenders in coverage. There were few, if any, jailhouse break blitzes with seven pass rushers. Basically, the defense was not going to be exposed on the back end -- period.

In the 45-3 loss to the Patriots last month, the Jets blitzed Tom Brady 22 times and failed miserably. Brady went 13 of 19 for 244 yards and three touchdowns.

You couldn't blame Ryan and Pettine for those tactics. For starters, New York couldn't get any pressure out of its base defense, so the only answer was to send extra defenders after the quarterback. Secondly, Brady's inability to handle the blitz effectively in the two teams' first meeting back in September was a huge factor in the Jets' 28-14 win. In those situations, they forced Brady to go a mediocre 13 of 24, with two costly second half interceptions.

Fast forward to Sunday, and Ryan had a decision to make. Was the plan to send the kitchen sink after the all-world quarterback, hoping for an outcome similar to that early-season game? Or would he scale back, mixing coverage and blitz packages instead of taking risks in an attempt to create pressure? Ryan chose the latter, and it very well might have been the deciding factor in Sunday's divisional playoff game.

On the 16 plays that the Jets blitzed, Brady completed nine of 13 passes. Yet, only one resulted in a big play (a 28-yard pass to tight end Alge Crumpler). On the other three snaps, Brady was sacked. It was a major win for Gang Green. Brady's nine completions resulted in only 91 yards, a far cry from the 244 he got in those same situations in December. Not to mention, Brady's butt hit the ground several times.

Matt Sullivan/Getty Images
Jets OLB Calvin Pace sacks Patriots QB Tom Brady for one of New York's five sacks on Sunday.
Tom Brady vs. Jets' blitz
Game Comp-Att Yds TD-INT Rtg. Result
WK 2 13-24 161 0-2 40.5 L, 28-14
WK 13 13-19 244 3-0 150.8 W, 45-3
Playoffs 9-13* 91 0-0 88.9 L, 28-21
* Brady sacked three times while blitzed

"You can't just give them one thing all the time. Mix your coverages, mix your blitzes, mix your pressures, all that kind of stuff," Ryan said after the game. "Against these great quarterbacks, that's what you have to do. And that's back-to-back weeks. You know, against Peyton Manning at Indy and now, Tom Brady at New England."

Rather than try to force pressure, Ryan has been relying on his corners to take care of the outside, while bringing a safety down to limit all of those short routes that the Patriots have been burning teams with. Whether it's Wes Welker, Deion Branch or Aaron Hernandez, the Pats have systematically destroyed opponents with pick plays, short crosses and bubble screens. That wasn't the case on Sunday, though.

Why? Because the Jets had numbers in coverage. By not blitzing six or seven guys, there was always someone at the second level of the defense to either bump a receiver off his route or make a sure tackle. Not to mention, the defensive line -- especially Shaun Ellis -- was able to get some pressure by itself.

"He's a great football player," Ryan said of Ellis, who had two sacks. "He just needed the opportunity, and we turned him loose."

Ryan relied on his veteran defensive end and the rest of the line to collapse the pocket, rather than constantly running zone blitzes in which safeties and cornerbacks are invading the pocket. The Jets did the latter infrequently, but when they did, it worked -- like Drew Coleman's sack on Brady in the first half.

Expect more of the same next Sunday in Pittsburgh. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's strength is making something big out of broken plays -- including blitzes in which rushers don't bring him down on the first try. By having numbers on the backside of the defense, i.e. six or seven defenders in coverage, the Jets might succeed in neutralizing the speedy Mike Wallace where other teams haven't.

For now, Ryan and his staff can celebrate a solid win for coaching. He said Sunday's playoff game would essentially be about him and Bill Belichick. Sometimes good coaching -- and good game-planning -- is about situationally scaling back and being less aggressive.

The Jets proved that point beautifully in New England.

Elliot Harrison is the research analyst for NFL RedZone on NFL Network.

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