|Can Aaron Hernandez replace Rob Gronkowski?
During a season in which both the New England Patriots and New York Jets have endured setback after setback, the teams face off against each other for the second time after the Patriots suffered their biggest loss of the season. To this point, the list of players who have missed time or not been there when their teams hoped to have them includes Brian Waters, Robert Gallery, Logan Mankins, Julian Edelman, Aqib Talib, Pat Chung, Steve Gregory, Brandon Bolden, Aaron Hernandez, Dont'a Hightower, Chandler Jones, Stephen Hill, Santonio Holmes, Darrelle Revis, Sione Pouha, Bart Scott, Bryan Thomas and Rob Gronkowski.
Of all the losses both teams have had to deal with, none have been greater than Darrelle Revis' torn ACL and Rob Gronkowski's broken arm. Both players are scheme defining players who have had their units built around them. In Revis' case, he was lost for the season after just two starts and three weeks. Without him the Jets were forced to adjust on defense, but the impressive play of Antonio Cromartie eased the transition. No longer could they completely forget about one side of the field, but they could trust him to trail receivers.
Gronkowski may have only broken his arm, and is expected to return for the end of the regular season or the playoffs, but for the short term, he will be a significantly worse loss than Revis. The Patriots' whole offensive scheme is built around Gronkowski's ability to dominate in both the running and passing game. He is both the offense's primary receiver and the equivalent to a sixth offensive linemen on the field at all times. His ability to beat one-on-one matchups breaks down coverages and prevents teams from blitzing, while also allowing the running game to create numbers advantages.
In a very short week for the Patriots, going against a team that generally schemes well to compete with them despite their lack of talent on occasion, making drastic adjustments to the offense is not an option. Furthermore, the Patriots must also travel to New York and give their players time to recover from the weekend's victory over the Colts. So even though the Patriots have significantly more talent and better individual players, they still can't expect to have an easy victory on Thanksgiving day.
The Jets and Patriots met previously in the season, at Foxboro with a healthy Gronkowski, but the home side only came out as three point winners. In fact, over their last three meetings the teams have been within one score of each other in the fourth quarter in every game. Even though the Patriots are 7-3 compared to the Jets' 4-6 record, this should continue that recent record of close contests.
Offensively, the Patriots will at the very least get Aaron Hernandez back from his ankle injury, but nobody is certain how effective he can be and he definitely cannot fill Gronkowski's role. Hernandez should see a lot of LaRon Landry, a player who was signed by the Jets to specifically track Gronkowski. He will have the speed advantage over the safety, but Landry's physicality may prove to be too much for the slight body of a player coming off of an extended period out of the game. Should Hernandez not be able to take advantage over the middle, Brady is likely going to be throwing to Visanthe Shiancoe, who will replace Gronkowski.
Shiancoe is a veteran two way tight end who is nowhere near the level of Gronkowski, but should be a reliable fit with his teammates. While he will be a reliable target, he won't be a game-changing one. Instead, Gronkowski will look to Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd a lot for big plays. Welker will be trailed by Kyle Wilson for much of the day, while Lloyd must deal with Antonio Cromartie. Cromartie gives the Patriots opportunities to go deep for big plays, but it is a risk throwing his direction because he is always viable to pick off a pass or two. That leaves the Patriots with Welker and Julian Edelman, who is coming off of a big day, as their primary playmakers.
Tom Brady should be able to pick apart the secondary of the Jets, that is, if he can get protection. Logan Mankins has already been ruled out for the game, while Dan Connolly was missing on Sunday. Even though Dante Scarnecchia has got the best out of his replacements on the line all season, the Jets have the potential to disrupt the passing game on a consistent basis. Defensive ends Quinton Coples and Muhammed Wilkerson are outstanding interior defensive linemen who were able to hurry Brady a combined seven times in their last matchup. Getting interior pressure on Brady is the best way to stop him, without Gronkowski and Mankins, that becomes a more appealing avenue for Rex Ryan's side to explore.
Gronkowski's impact is so huge, that the Patriots could prove to be a one-dimensional offense in this game. Without him on the end of the offensive line or split out wide, the Jets won't fear crowding the box and taking away any potential numbers advantage upfront. That could see Stevan Ridley lose the running lanes that have been available to him all season long. Considering Rex Ryan has a good track record of scheming to stop the Patriots' offense, doing so against a one-dimensional offense should be much easier than usual.
Defensively, the Patriots took apart Andrew Luck's game at the weekend, so simply logic would say that they should be able to handle Mark Sanchez. However, while the Patriots disrupted Luck's flow as a passer, much of his issues were down to his own individual performance while the Patriots were just opportunistic. Crucially, defensive end Chandler Jones has been ruled out for the game, which severely hurts the team's pass rush. Without Jones, the Patriots will be more tempted to blitz and could expose their secondary to the deep threats of Stephen Hill, Chaz Schillens, Clyde Gates and Jeremy Kerley.
Aqib Talib may have had an interception on his debut for the Patriots, but he also proved to have lapses in coverage on a consistent basis. It is no surprise that Talib is taking time to adjust to his new surroundings after some time on the sidelines with a different team. He, Alfonzo Dennard and Kyle Arrington have to deal with a lot of speed, and some size in Hill, so even though the Jets don't have the best of receivers, they have the potential to make big plays when asked to.
The Jets' offense is not an impressive unit, but it does have the potential to complement the defense if the Patriots' offense is kept in check. For the Patriots to convincingly beat the Jets, they must find a way to get off to a hot-start without Gronkowski. That could prove to be very difficult.