What To Watch For: Can Patriots’ offense get right against the Jets?

FOXBORO — Teams don’t usually face a must-win game in Week 3, especially the New England Patriots. Yet after an 0-2 start to the season, the Patriots very much need to beat an Aaron Rodgers-less Jets team this weekend.

It’s not that an 0-3 start is insurmountable, but losing to the Jets for the first time in eight years — especially one led by Zach Wilson at quarterback — would be quite demoralizing for this Patriots team. So expect the Patriots to play like a desperate bunch on Sunday.

The Patriots seem close to putting it all together. The defense is solid and special teams — which was a nightmare last year — has been stellar through two weeks. The offense has also shown promise, despite having a swiss cheese offensive line and zero ground attack thus far, but has been bringing the rest of the group down.

If this game still had Rodgers at quarterback for the Jets, the Patriots were probably in for a long and disappointing trip home from New Jersey. The Jets still have a great collection of playmakers on both sides of the ball, but having Wilson at the most important position on the field will sink anyone’s Super Bowl dreams. In Week 3, it gives the Patriots an edge in the matchup, despite the Jets having a better roster overall.

Of course, that edge won’t mean anything if the Patriots keep beating themselves. That is just one of the storylines we’ll be watching for in Sunday afternoon’s AFC East clash.

Can run game get going behind a “healthy” offensive line?

New England’s ground attack was supposed to be a strongpoint of the team. It has been non-existent to start the season. 

That needs to change this weekend. A tropical cyclone may bring downpours and heavy wind to MetLife Stadium, so the Patriots must get Rhamondre Stevenson and Ezekiel Elliott going on the ground. The Pats have rushed the ball 47 times so far and have just 164 yards — an average of 3.48 yards per carry. That just isn’t acceptable, especially considering Stevenson is their most dynamic player on offense.

In last year’s matchup in New Jersey, Stevenson had 143 total yards (71 on 16 carries and another 72 on seven receptions). A repeat of that would work wonders for the Patriots’ offense this weekend.

A lot of New England’s inability to get it going on the ground has to do with the state of the offensive line. Injuries throughout camp  and into the season kept the line from building any cohesion. It’s been an absolute mess over the first two weeks.

The Patriots should be a lot healthier along the line this weekend, thanks to the return of Trent Brown. With the big fella out last weekend with a concussion, Stevenson had just 50 yards on his 15 carries, and Mac Jones was consistently under pressure by the Miami pass rush. It got real ugly at times.

If Brown is back, the Pats should be able to line up (from left to right) with a line of Brown-Cole Strange-David Andrews-Mike Onwenu-Calvin Anderson. Minus the absence of Riley Rief (who is on IR) that is the O-line we expected heading into the season. It should be able to open up holes for rushers, and it should be able to protect Mac Jones better than what we saw the first two weeks.

But that iteration still has some major question marks, especially this weekend against a very tough Jets defensive line.

Strange was real shaky in his return to action last weekend, and now he’s going to get a healthy serving of one of the NFL’s best defensive tackles in Quinnen Williams. Strange was no match for Williams in their first matchup last season, which led to the rookie guard getting benched. He at least played the whole game in the second Pats-Jets matchup of the season, but Jones was sacked six times by six different Jets. Stevenson has just 26 yards on his 15 carries that weekend.

Right tackle is even more worrisome after Anderson’s performance last week against Miami’s Andrew Van Ginkel, who became a household name because of Anderson’s inability to keep him away from Jones. Anderson was an open gate last Sunday, and is now going to have to handle edge rusher Bryce Huff, who has a pair of QB hits and eight pressures so far this season. The Jets also send John Franklin-Myers from the right side, so Anderson is going to really have his hands full. (Or his hands will be empty and New York’s pass rushers will have an easy route to Mac.)

Improved offensive line play will make a world of difference for the Patriots. It will help get the ground game going, which will be imperative if the skies really open up on Sunday.  It will take a lot of the weight off of Jones’ shoulders, with the QB leading the NFL with 96 pass attempts so far. 

If the line plays well, the Patriots’ offense may finally be able to put everything together.

Will the Pats stop beating themselves?

Going against a tough Jets defense is going to be hard enough for the New England offense. Life will be even tougher if they keep coughing up the ball and tripping over themselves with needless penalties.

It seems like any time something good happens for the Patriots, disaster strikes shortly after. Promising plays have been followed by the offensive line giving someone a clear path to the QB for an easy, back-breaking sack. Others have been wiped out by dumb penalties or turnovers.

The Patriots have also had their chances to completely swing momentum in both of their games, but the offense has squandered those opportunities. The Pats have driven into enemy territory 16 times this season, but only six of those drives have ended with them putting points on the board. For a team with such a small margin of error, this is not a winning recipe.

Neither is turning the ball over twice a game and losing the turnover battle in each of the first two weeks, or getting flagged 12 times over the first 120 minutes of the season. The Patriots always talk about controlling what they can control. Cut out the turnovers and penalties, and their record could look much different.

Will Douglas bounce back with a pop?

All summer we heard about Demario Douglas’ potential as a big-play receiver. The rookie has looked impressive, but his fumble in Week 2 was crushing. The Pats’ D had held Miami to a field goal on their opening drive, and the offense looked destined to score when Douglas brought in Mac Jones’ pass from the Miami 10.

But then Bradley Chubb chased Douglas down as he raced down the field and made an incredible play to knock the ball out. Miami recovered, and scored a touchdown on its next possession to go up 10-0 early in the second quarter. 

The fumble was enough for Belichick to write the speedy receiver out of the offensive game plan, as he didn’t play another offensive snap the rest of the way. It was a pretty harsh punishment, but Douglas learned a valuable lesson: Always be ready for a defender to come out of nowhere and try to knock the ball loose.

The benching hurt the Patriots, taking a playmaker off the field for an offense that doesn’t have many playmakers. Hopefully Douglas practices much better ball-security going forward.

The rookie was showered with support from teammates all week, and everyone is confident he’ll bounce back. It won’t be easy for Douglas to do so against a tough New York secondary, but we’ll see if he can come back with a “Pop” in New Jersey this weekend.

Christian Gonzalez vs. Garrett Wilson

Oh boy, this is going to be a good one. Wilson is an absolute stud receiver, and while Gonzalez has only two NFL games uder his belt, he looks like he’ll be a stud corner for years to come.

Despite being thrown right into the fire, Gonzalez is making an early case to be Defensive Rookie of the Year. He’s had to match up with other studs like A.J. Brown, DeVonta Smith, Jaylen Waddle, and Tyreek Hill. He’s played like a true No. 1 corner in each of those matchups.

Now he’s set to cover last year’s Offensive Rookie of the Year in Wilson, one of the most dangerous receivers in the game — even with Zach Wilson throwing to him. Before last week’s loss to the Cowboys got out of hand, Wilson outran the Cowboys’ D for a 68-yard touchdown on a nice play-action find from Zach Wilson. (One of the few passes the Jets QB didn’t throw to Dallas during his three-interception day.)

Wilson had success against the Pats last season, catching eight of the 10 passes that went his way for 127 yards over two games. But that was mostly with Jalen Mills chasing him around. This time, he’ll be matching up with the athletically gifted and technically sound Gonzalez.

The Patriots need to make Zach Wilson make mistakes, and having Gonzalez take away his best receiving option will be a big part of that. Hopefully this is the first of many incredible matchups between Gonzalez and Wilson over the years.

Tune in to Patriots-Jets on WBZ-TV — the television home of the New England Patriots. Coverage continues Friday with Patriots All Access at 7 p.m. on WBZ-TV. We have everything you need come Sunday, starting at 11:30 a.m. with Patriots GameDay, the Pats and the Jets will kick off at 1 p.m., and we’ll have full reaction and analysis of the game on Patriots 5th Quarter after the game — all on WBZ-TV!

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