By Jeff Capellini, WFAN.com
Talk about your walking wounded.
Two weeks ago if anyone had said the Jets had a legitimate shot to go into Foxboro in Week 2 and win that person likely would have been laughed out of the room.
But the NFL has a strange way of leveling the playing field. The Jets are still big underdogs heading into Thursday’s contest against the Patriots at Gillette Stadium, but, as fate may have it, they at least now have a puncher’s chance of springing the upset.
That’s because the Patriots will not have their best running back, may not have their top wide receiver and lack the firepower at the one position they’ve used to crucify the Jets for the last 15 years.
Shane Vereen was on the cusp of becoming one of the NFL’s breakout stars in 2013, before a wrist injury landed him in the operating room. He’s now a serious headache the Jets won’t have to worry about heading into Thursday.
Vereen had quietly morphed into a presumed fantasy darling this offseason, a multi-threat running back who was expected to kill teams with both his running ability and his hands. The Patriots may have to wait up to a month to resume using him all over the field, as they did in earnest during last Sunday’s 23-21 win up in Buffalo. Vereen, now in his third season out of Cal-Berkley, dislocated a small bone in one of his wrists on the first play from scrimmage. He played the entire game and still put up 101 yards on 14 carries and another 58 yards on seven receptions.
He has been particularly hard on the Jets during his short career, running for more than 5 yards per carry and becoming a dynamic pass-catching threat. During the infamous Mark Sanchez “buttfumble” game at MetLife Stadium last season, Vereen had 42 yards rushing and another 91 receiving, including an 83-yard touchdown.
The Jets figure to benefit greatly from his absence, considering they did an exceptional job against Tampa Bay’s Doug Martin last Sunday, holding one of the NFL’s most dangerous backs to just 65 yards on the ground and to the tune of just 2.7 yards per carry.
New England will likely split the workload between fumble-prone Stevan Ridley, little-used Brandon Bolden and LaGarrette Blount, who hasn’t done much of anything since rushing for 1,007 yards for Tampa Bay back in 2010.
Health at running back is not the Patriots’ only problem. Danny Amendola, who was brought in during the offseason via free agency as a replacement for Wes Welker, is once again battling the injury bug. Amendola, who when healthy is about as difficult a wide receiver to cover as any in the NFL, has been battling a groin injury and missed practice on Tuesday. Considering the short work week, that’s a major red flag for Bill Belichick’s offense.
Amendola had 10 receptions for 104 yards against Buffalo and is thought to be a receiver capable of catching 100 passes in the Patriots’ high-octane offense.
Then there’s the Patriots’ problems at tight end, long the team’s source of strength.
With Aaron Hernandez no longer on the team and Rob Gronkowski still not ready to return from a laundry list of ailments, New England had hoped to plug rookie Zach Sudfeld in and not miss a beat. However, his status for Thursday is in question after suffering a hamstring injury in the opener. The belief is he will play, but just how much of an impact he’ll make remains to be seen
In addition to Sudfeld, the Patriots have just one other active tight end, Michael Hoomanawanui.
The Patriots have killed the Jets for years with their tight ends. Tom Brady hasn’t had to worry about a perceived lack of star power out wide because guys like Gronkowski and Hernandez redefined the position, turning into incredibly versatile pass-catching options that became simply unstoppable regardless of field position or game situations.
The Jets have struggled to cover tight ends for a very long time and the situation may not get much better this season, considering their lack of ability at linebacker outside of an aging David Harris and second-year man DeMario Davis, who is still learning the ropes.
What figured in the offseason to be a stacked New England offensive attack now has some question marks. That’s not to say the cupboard is bare, however. Amendola, when healthy, is an elusive handful to deal with and Julian Edelman is turning into a target tailor-made for the Brady offense. As evidenced by their struggles to control Vincent Jackson last weekend, the Jets, primarily Antonio Cromartie and rookie Dee Milliner, could certainly have their hands full if both Amendola and Edelman are on the field at the same time.
However, without Vereen and with the other health question marks they do have, the Patriots may not have the punch on offense we’ve seen in years’ past. That’s not to say they won’t do enough to win, considering the Jets’ many issues offensively, but if Rex Ryan’s defensive line picks up where it left off in Week 1 the Jets should be in Thursday’s game for the duration.
HIT BRADY EARLY AND OFTEN — OR ELSE
That’s been the Jets’ recipe for success against the Patriots. They have sacked Brady 36 times in 22 career regular season matchups, but only sustained pressure against him has ever truly altered his production. The bottom line is when Brady has time to throw he shreds the Jets — and it’s often very ugly.
Brady’s numbers against the Jets during his career are ridiculous. He’s thrown for 5,172 yards, 31 TDs and has been picked just 10 times. He also has a 94.6 passer rating and has completed 63.6 percent of his throws against New York.
The interesting aspect of Thursday’s game when the Patriots have the ball will be how Belichick will adjust to what figures to be a fierce Jets pass rush. I realize that last week’s success harassing Josh Freeman isn’t the same as trying to get close to Brady, but the Jets without question have one of the up-and-coming defensive lines in football. The “SONS of Mayhem,” as I like to call them — Muhammad Wilkerson, Damon Harrison and Sheldon Richardson — have more speed, power and agility than any collection of Jets defensive linemen in some time. And they don’t even have perhaps their most gifted guy, Quinton Coples, in the lineup yet. He’s still recovering from a fractured leg and is probably a few weeks away.
As much as the Jets have plenty of work to do to bring their own offense up to a level that can consistently scare teams on a weekly basis, as far as Thursday goes, if they are in Brady’s face all night they are going to have a shot to win the game. Ryan is capable of developing a scheme to at least slow Brady down. He’s done it before. Add in New England’s rash of injuries and we should have ourselves a very competitive game.
PUTTING THE ‘RUN’ BACK INTO THE RUNNING GAME
The Jets absolutely have to get their running game on track. They did little against Tampa Bay last week. Bilal Powell and Chris Ivory combined for just 44 yards on 22 carries. Smith, of all people, led the Jets with 47 yards on the ground.
It’s bad enough the Jets are going to have to live with a rookie quarterback who is going to make mistakes. They really cannot afford to have a ground game that fails to at the very least move the sticks. Powell is a nice player, but he’s more of a change-of-pace back. He’s not someone the Jets should be feeding 15-20 times a game, so the onus falls on Ivory and the offensive line to get in sync.
Without Ivory doing the types of things he’s capable of doing the Jets will be forced to ask a lot more of Smith than he may be ready to produce.
It’s a bit of soul-searching time for Nick Mangold, D’Brickashaw Ferguson, Willie Colon, Austin Howard and Vladimir Ducasse, who, despite all the hatred Jets fans have for him, actually played pretty well against Tampa Bay.
Ivory time needs to start and it needs to start soon.
Read more columns by Jeff Capellini and follow him on Twitter at @GreenLanternJet
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