In the NFL, the difference between winning and losing is often a matter of ego.
Coaches and players must be willing to sacrifice their individual agendas for the greater good of the team. As a player, this means playing in a selfless manner that stays consistent with the team approach that every coach stresses in the locker room.
For coaches, it is the ability to remain adaptable in their tactical methods to give their respective team a chance to win each week. While it seems simple in theory, most coaches are unable to comply with this tenet, and it is one of the reasons why the AFC Divisional Game between the New York Jets and New England Patriots is a compelling matchup this weekend.
Jets coach Rex Ryan is regarded as one of the most aggressive and creative defensive play-callers in the league, but his best chance to slow the Patriots' offensive juggernaut could require the bodacious coach to abandon his blitz-happy tactics. As one of the last proponents of the "46" defense, the thought of scaling back on pressures is akin to a no-huddle offense trying to milk the clock, but it might be necessary to slow an offense that averaged a league-high 32.4 points a game this season.
The Patriots have defeated their opponents by an average of 17.1 points, and have blown out four of their last five foes by at least 29 points. The Jets were on the receiving end of a 45-3 thumping in Week 13, which evened up the season series and propelled New England to the AFC East crown.
In that contest, Ryan's refusal to back off the blitz allowed Tom Brady to pick the Jets apart with a host of quick-rhythm throws that exploited the middle of the field. Using a variety of slants, short crossers and bubble screens, the Patriots routinely picked up positive yards against the Jets' pressure. Brady, who finished the regular season with a 99.9 passer rating against the blitz, appeared unfazed by the host of extra rushers and solved the riddle of the exotic pressure scheme early in the game. On his 25-yard touchdown to Deion Branch in the first quarter, his anticipation of the pressure resulted in the audible to the slant that took advantage of the vacant space in the middle of the field.
The Patriots helped Brady identify the pressure by using multiple spread formations. The diverse deployment of personnel made it easy to identify man coverage due to linebackers and safeties aligning in unfamiliar spots. With defenders out of their comfort zone, Brady was able to pinpoint the favorable matchup and exploit it with a quick blitz-beater. His 18-yard touchdown pass to Wes Welker was a prime example of targeting a mismatch for an explosive play.
While it is easy to pick apart Ryan's decision to attack Brady with pressure in hindsight, it is important to note that the Jets tallied three sacks in the game, and recorded a few more hits in the pocket.
Given their success at getting to Brady, it is not likely that the Jets will completely abandon their pressure tactics. Rather than using man pressures without safety help in the middle of the field, the Jets might incorporate more zone dogs and simulated pressures (four-man rushes out of blitz looks) with a variety of pre-snap disguises. By bluffing overload and gut pressures, the Jets might be able to bait Brady into a blitz check that is ineffective against zone coverage. If they can create hesitation in his mind, they can eventually take him down by collapsing the pocket with a relentless four-man rush.
Ryan could also take a page from his game plan against the Indianapolis Colts, and use a variety of zone coverage to slow down the Patriots. With Darrelle Revis capable of locking up a side, the Jets could use "quarters" coverage or some form of "quarter-quarter-half" (strong-side corner and safety are responsible for a quarter of the field with the weak corner and free safety playing a Cover 2-like coverage). By playing bracket coverage, the Jets can eliminate some of the crossers that hurt them in their Week 13 matchup, and provide inside help for Antonio Cromartie in his matchup with Branch.
Another tactic that could be effective against the Patriots is using a linebacker or rusher to bang or collision Danny Woodhead out of the backfield. The crafty running back hurt the Jets on check downs and dump offs, so making contact with him before he gets into his route could disrupt his rhythm and make it tough for Brady to find him in a timely manner. The Cleveland Browns were extremely physical with the Patriots' receivers and running backs in their 34-14 win, so copying elements from their game plan could be beneficial to Ryan.
Ryan has ruffled feathers with his brash talk and aggressive tactics. However, a revamped game plan with a more conservative approach could yield big results for New York.