The New York Jets take the short trip up I-95 to visit the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium for Thursday Night Football. The last time the Jets and Patriots linked up on Thursday Night Football, Mark Sanchez committed the most befuddling play in NFL History -- running into Jets guard Brandon Moore’s backside, fumbling the ball and Patriots defensive back Steve Gregory returning it for a touchdown.
The play was forever immortalized as the “Butt Fumble”, the 40-time “Worst of the Worst Champion” on ESPN’s Not Top 10 plays of the week -- being retired prior to 2013’s start of the regular season without a serious competitor.
Unlike Sanchez’s buttfumble, Sanchez had a serious competitor at the quarterback position, thirty-ninth overall pick Geno Smith. Smith won the starting job out of training camp over Sanchez and rallied the Jets to a miraculous 18-17 home victory against Darrelle Revis and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Left for dead by NFL pundits and experts around the nation, the Jets are set out to prove that last season’s debauchery was last season. A win against the rivaled Patriots, affectionately named “That Team Up North” by former special teams coach Mike Westhoff, will go a long way in proving their doubters wrong
The Patriots earned their first victory of the season against rookie quarterback E.J. Manuel and the Buffalo Bills, but it came with a cost. Already without tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez as well as wide receiver Wes Welker, the Pats lost running back Shane Vereen (the only running back to register 100+ rushing yards Week 1) to a broken wrist and are likely to be without Welker’s replacement Danny Amendola due to a nagging groin injury.These aren’t your older brother’s Patriots, but nonetheless, they still have Bill Belichick and Tom Brady controlling the reins and boast an up-and-coming defense that will look to carry the load as the offense transitions to a younger core.
Here are five players worth watching in tonight’s AFC East matchup.
Sheldon Richardson, DT, Jets -- In his first professional game Richardson racked up four tackles including a sack while playing damn-near every down for the Jets against Tampa Bay last week. The 16th overall pick from Missouri received high praise from the coaching staff throughout the team’s training camp, expect more praise after playing on a national stage Thursday night. Richardson is a five-technique defensive lineman that can wreak havoc anywhere he’s placed, however against Tampa Bay he continually brought pressure up the middle as opposing offensive lines zero in on linemate Muhammad Wilkerson. Against the Bills, the Patriots offensive line didn’t allow a sack, but they did give up seven QB hits on Brady -- including four by defensive tackles. Disrupting the sure-fire Hall-of-Famer Brady’s timing, who’s shown he can be mortal when facing pressure up the middle, will be key in stopping the Patriots
Rob Ninkovich, DE, Patriots -- Ninkovich has a nose for the ball, his four interceptions and 11 fumble recoveries since 2010 are proof of that. And he loves to play against the Jets. In seven career games Ninkovich has a sack, two interceptions and a defensive touchdown against Rex Ryan. He doesn’t fill up the stat sheet by any means, however he’s displayed a knack for coming up with a game-changing play when it matters most. With Belichick boasting a 12-6 record against rookie quarterbacks and the defense’s 113 takeaways since 2010, by far the most in the NFL during that time, Ninkovich will play a pivotal role rattling Smith’s cage early and often. As a hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker he’ll also be asked to curb Smith’s running game (47 yards vs TB), securing the edge on any potential pistol offense plays.
Stephen Hill, WR, Jets -- He’ll be out for revenge in the stadium where his biggest NFL blunder occurred -- a costly drop on third down that forced the Jets to tie the game instead of go for the go-ahead touchdown in the Jets 29-26 overtime loss last season. Revenge aside, Hill has quickly developed a connection with Smith -- targeted a team-high nine times while hauling in six passes for 39 yards last week. With Jeremy Kerley, the team’s leading receiver in 2012, out with a concussion the connection between Hill and Smith will only grow as the season progresses.
4. Stevan Ridley, RB, Patriots -- Fear not fantasy owners, it can’t get much worse than last week! With no Vereen and third-string running back Brandon Bolden doubtful with a knee injury, Ridley will get the call to carry the rock despite being benched last week against Buffalo. In four games against the Jets, he’s been pedestrian, averaging 3.58 yards per carry (44.8 yards per game) and a touchdown. It’s no secret that the Jets defense fares better against bruising backs like Ridley more so than versatile backs like Vereen, but with no Amendola and Vereen the Patriots offensive game plan should involve a healthy dose of the former LSU Tiger. The Jets gave up a mere 65-yards to Doug Martin last week.
5. Geno Smith, QB, Jets: There were a couple of different directions to go in with the final selection: the Patriots rookie wideout Kenbrell Thompkins, who shined in preseason; the Jets starting running back Chris Ivory, who had sizzling expectations coming into preseason but has simmered since; or the Jets star cornerback Antonio Cromartie, who was torched for seven receptions for 154 yards by Tampa Bay’s Vincent Jackson. But ultimately it all comes back to the quarterback position. It wasn’t a pretty start to the career of Smith, who lost a fumble and was intercepted on back-to-back possessions in the second quarter. But in the second half offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg dialed things back for his rookie quarterback and allowed him to gain some confidence that sparked a poised two-minute drill that lead to the game-winning field goal by Nick Folk. A dialed back offense won’t work against Belichick, who’ll be chomping at the bit to get after Smith Thursday night. Smith doesn’t need to win to win over supporters, but he does need to show poise in the pocket, command of the offense, ability to read and react to the defense and just a dash of dynamic plays with his feet to put faith in fans for the future.