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Keys to the Starting Lineup presented by Carmax: Week 7 - Patriots at Jets

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The 6-0 Patriots travel to New Jersey on Monday night to take on the 1-4 Jets who are fresh off their first victory of the season. With starting quarterback Sam Darnold back after missing a month with mono, the Jets will be looking to knock off the Patriots and get the kind of win that any young franchise in rebuild mode longs for. But these aren't the same old Patriots that the Jets are used to seeing, no longer are they built on a precision offense that carves defenses up scalpel-like precision and complimented by a defense that mostly relies on preventing big plays and sound tackling.

No, this Patriots team features the kind of dominance on the defensive side that we're used to seeing from the offense. Instead it's the offense that has looked sporadic and still searching for their identity as they navigate compounding injury issues. After 11 days off, the Patriots will take two new tight ends and perhaps no true outside X-receiver into the divisional match up.

Will that time off be a good thing for the Pats? Will the new personnel and chance to re-evaluate themselves pay dividends in a tough road environment? Or will they be rusty and allow the Jets to change the complexion of this game from the others New England has played? As always, AFC East games can be unexpectedly close and this one has the makings of a far more interesting tilt than you might expect from 6-0 vs. 1-4.

Here are the Keys to the Starting Lineup presented by Carmax!

Defense Leads the Way

It's a bit weird to have the defense be the defining trait of this Patriots team and that's saying a lot considering who the quarterback is. But that's where we're at in 2019 because the defense is off to a historic start and is the biggest reason why the team is 6-0 for just the fourth time in team history. While there are still questions about the offense, what's not in question is that if the defense continues to dominate like they have been the Jets simply won't be able to score enough to beat even a below-average offensive performance. And for all their inconsistencies, the Patriots offense is still a pretty good one even as they try to figure themselves out.

The match ups would seem pretty clear - Stephon Gilmore on Robby Anderson, Jonathan Jones on Jamison Crowder, Jason McCourty on Demaryius Thomas - and those are three pretty good targets for the Patriots secondary to deal with. The trio combined for 21 catches against the Cowboys and are reason to believe this is the best passing offense the Patriots have seen, at least based off of how they looked last week. The bigger piece is the confidence the Jets will take into this game, which could provide a similar road atmosphere to what we saw from Rex Ryan's Jets in 2009 and 2010, where an energized fan base helped spark their team to a win over the hated Patriots.

Patriots.com's Mike Dussault shares his players to watch during the Patriots Week 7 matchup against the New York Jets at MetLife Stadium on Monday, October 21, 2019.

Ring the Bell

Darnold has some passing weaponry but where the game will likely be won or lost is how well the Patriots deal with Le'Veon Bell. Bell was quiet last week despite the Jets' offensive outburst and had just 63 total yards against the Pats in Week 3. But now, with a better supporting cast, it could open things up for Bell to become the offensive catalyst he once was with the Steelers. The biggest advantage of having a dual-threat back like Bell is that it will enable to Jets to get him matched up on inside linebackers like Elandon Roberts or Ja'Whaun Bentley, two thumpers whose games are not conducive to covering a running back in space.

The Jets should do their best to maximize Bell and keep the Patriots front seven thinking about covering him rather than attacking Darnold on every play. Any time Jamie Collins or Kyle Van Noy are in coverage it is a win for the pass protection. Ty Montgomery can be another effective receiver and change-of-pace player from the back field. Together, Bell and Montgomery could help take some of the heat off of Darnold, as dictating what the Patriots linebackers do is a critical component to making any plays against this defense.

The Patriots should have a heavy focus on not letting Bell get going and making him pay for any carries or catches he gets. A one-dimensional Jets passing offense will be in trouble.

Passing Options After Edelman and White

After the holy trinity of Brady-Edelman-White, nothing else is set in stone for the Patriots offense, and really, that trio could be just enough given the state of the AFC and NFL offenses in general this season. But for the team to truly reach their offensive potential they need other contributors to finally step up and turn in significant play-making performances. There have been flashes from Sony Michel and Rex Burkhead, along with Phillip Dorsett and Josh Gordon. Rookie Jakobi Meyers is doing about all you can expect from an undrafted rookie. But none have emerged as consistent weapons that give opponents any kind of pause.

Asking Edelman and White to make all the big plays is not a recipe for consistent success and could even result in getting one of them injured. Combined, the duo had 24 targets against the Giants, the rest of the team had 17 total. Ben Watson was expendable last week, but this week he's the biggest hope for renewed production in the passing game. At least we know at one time he had Brady's trust and firm grasp of the system. It might be asking too much to squeeze a prolific 10-games-plus-playoffs from the 38-year-old. But after six weeks and just nine total catches from the tight end position, it isn't a high bar to surpass.

Are You There, Run Game?

The Patriots run game is currently ranked 18th in DVOA, their lowest ranking in 13 years. They're 26th in Open Field Yards, which are carries beyond 10 yards. This is an extreme departure for an offense that rode their running game to a Super Bowl title last season. There are plenty of different faces now, but not enough to justify this kind of drop off, especially considering the defenses they've faced. Sony Michel is averaging 3.5 yards-per-carry, a full yard below the 4.5 he averaged last season. He had nine carries for 11 yards in Week 3 against the Jets.

Two weeks ago, it looked like the run game was finding some success against the Redskins, especially in the second half, but things were once against stagnant on the short week against the Giants. So is this the week the run game gets going? Rex Burkhead could be back after missing two weeks and his presence could help loosen things up for everyone, he was more effective against the Jets the last time around. The Jets have the 9th-ranked run defense DVOA, the best run defense the Pats have seen this year. There are new parts now, including a former Jet, blocking tight end Eric Tomlinson to go with Watson. There aren't a ton of reasons to feel like this will suddenly be the breakout week for the Pats run game but one thing about those kind of games, they can sneak up on you, especially when Dante Scarnecchia is coaching the offensive line, aka the guys opening up the holes.

Prediction

Unless the Patriots are able to find a new offensive gear, this could be a challenging game similar to their hard-fought Week 4 win in Buffalo. The Jets should be loose and confident with Darnold back under center. He's been a far better player at home and this is the first time he has faced the Patriots at his home stadium. As always this season, the wild card is the Patriots defense. If they give up less than 10 points nothing else really matters, but if the Jets get a couple early bounces or turnovers and capitalize, forcing the Patriots offense out of their comfort zone, this game could quickly get interesting.

The Pats are 4-2 over the last six seasons at MetLife Stadium, but the average margin of victory is just six points. Expect a close game and one that the Patriots might have to pull out late.

Patriots 17, Jets 13

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