It’s a special kind of terror that grips a home crowd when they suddenly, collectively, consider the possibility of an unfathomable loss. The Meadowlands turned into a tomb following Mark Sanchez’s fifth and final interception in overtime against the Bills, and the fans certainly couldn’t be blamed for an overwhelming case of disillusionment. Here were the Jets, laying the groundwork for defeat despite succeeding on several different levels.
Their struggling defense employed a nasty streak, viciously removing Trent Edwards from the proceedings early. Thomas Jones set a franchise record for rushing yards in a single week, flying through gaping holes engineered by the offensive line, who simply dominated.
These strong performances were undone by the play of a rookie quarterback, who never approached anything resembling a rhythm, despite ample opportunity. Sanchez’s overriding responsibility for the twisted proceedings was painfully apparent, as the turgid contest unfolded to a cruel conclusion.
Buffalo stumbled into Jersey following a similarly inexplicable setback at the hands of the Cleveland Browns, who somehow converted two completed passes into a win on the road. As Rian Lindell’s kick sailed through the uprights, a merciful end, a rush of realization may have washed over New York as they limped to the locker room. They had lost three straight. Without an especially atrocious performance by Ryan Mouton of Tennessee, the losing streak could be a season wrecking four. The same Titans who had completely suffocated the Jets following the first quarter in week three had just been totally embarrassed by divisional rival New England Patriots. Kris Jenkins, the most vital ingredient of the interior defense, had taken his last snaps of 2009, felled by a devastating knee injury. An upcoming tilt with the woeful Raiders will be played in their building, on the west coast, where the Jets so often appeared pathetic just a year ago. And the Silver and Black, featuring a signal caller setting the forward pass backward fifty years, shockingly possess momentum after upsetting the Eagles.
The Jets may have been a holding penalty away from fleeing last Sunday winners, but this hindsight thinking obscures their deficiencies. This is a team that can no longer afford critical mistakes, margin of error dangerously narrow. Even with players maintaining their composure and high morale, a once promising campaign rests perilously on the brink.
Which way will it go? Well, there are three solid arguments either way.
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Kris Jenkins’ injury: The Jets’ run defense has appeared suspect since a slightly illusory start. This stagnancy will be exacerbated without Jenkins, whose presence fortified the entire line. Despite a commendable performance last week, there were definitely times where the Bills ripped through the Green Curtain, devouring healthy chunks of yardage on the ground in early down situations. While Buffalo met strong resistance in the red-zone, undone by an awful passing game operated by backup Ryan Fitzpatrick, New York’s inability to gain defensive penetration will definitely haunt them against teams with competent air attacks. No matter how strong a talent base the Jets may boast in the secondary, they will be exposed vertically if the interior line is constantly forced backward. Howard Green may be a solid pro, but he simply can’t be counted on to replicate the respect opposing coaches afford Jenkins. The same could be said for Sione Pouha.
The calamity itself is hardly shocking. The Panthers were weary of Jenkins’ constant leg maladies when they dealt him to the Jets. New York’s depthless defensive line was a very real concern dating back to training camp, but the salary cap practically demands an Achilles heel. There are no perfect teams, and plenty of ruined ones. The Jets may be slipping toward the latter category.
Mark Sanchez’s downward spiral: Before the season kicked off, I wrote a brief column on this blog comparing the rookie performances of Matt Ryan and Eli Manning. Now, both of them are superb passers, rare talents worthy of the “franchise” label. But, as rookies anyway, there was a healthy difference. While Ryan played like a veteran immediately, joining forces with Michael Turner to reinvigorate an entire organization, Manning was absolutely awful, lost and hopeless after taking over for Kurt Warner midway through the 2004 season.
While the Giants began that journey 4-1 with Warner at the helm, their expectations were minimal, and Manning dodged the derision now being heaped upon Mark Sanchez. As Manning turned in the statistical equivalent of barf with each passing week, the Giants circling the drain, media coverage bordered on pitying. After the Jets galloped from the gates 3-0, Sanchez slinging passes and flashing charisma, he would not be party to the same favorable treatment. For the hype was now reality, condensed into solid form. Through his initial travails, Eli Manning’s future was still a dreamlike fantasy, distracting press and fans from his temporary plummet and lending proper perspective. The immediate, swaggering success of the Jets made Sanchez a legitimate target. His future was today. There would be no pity.
A couple months ago, I wrote that, basically, the Jets were asking Sanchez to play like Matt Ryan, or more realistically Joe Flacco, not Eli Manning. Manning has developed wonderfully, anyway. But for the immediate prize, New York needed something special. They had way higher hopes than the 2004 Giants, or most teams starting a highly drafted rookie at quarterback. I’ll leave the breakdown of game-tape to far more qualified analysts who say the word “football” fifty times per minute, but my simplistic take is this: Sanchez is playing like a rookie. He’s being blindsided by blitzes. He’s being confused by intricate coverage patterns. He’s making awful throws when receivers are open, and awful throws when receivers are well covered. Sanchez may rebound, or he may not. But his performance should not be eviscerated purely because the Jets found themselves in an odd, and unenviable circumstance, owning the talent to compete, without a stabilizing presence at the most critical position.
Let this be said definitively, however: The absolute worst mistake Rex Ryan and Mike Tannenbaum could make would be rolling the dice with Kellen Clemens, setting aside the development of Sanchez in favor of immediate returns. When that choice in training camp was made, it signaled the start of a new era, not the sound of panic, or a preemptive admission of defeat.
Lack of balance and cohesion: The swift fall of Mark Sanchez has had a tangible effect on the surrounding machinery, causing a breakdown. Remember that aforementioned, and thoroughly damaging, overtime hold called on Ben Hartsock last week? Was it an isolated incidence of incompetence by an experienced player, or something else entirely, bought on by the circumstances creating overtime in the first place? Think about it this way: Mark Sanchez played so terribly against the Bills that the running game basically needed to be completely self-reliant. It was on Thomas Jones, Leon Washington, and the teammates blocking for them to get the job done on offense. And they came agonizingly close. But that constant pressure can summon extremes simply not compatible with sustained precision, even for a game. The adversity can inspire, but that extra motivation can be deadly. Players are keyed up enough right from jump, without one specific group believing they have to secure victory by themselves. This can lead to the abandonment of fundamentals, and yes, killer penalties in the most pressing of situations.
This theory can also be applied to the defense, a group that also needs to stay within itself, aggressive and intelligent, instead of overcompensating. The recent trend of missed tackles could reflect a unit attempting to do too much. Rosters win championships.
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The potentially explosive tandem of Braylon Edwards and Jerricho Cotchery can revitalize the entire offense: It’s true. Braylon Edwards certainly made a memorable first impression against the Miami Dolphins on Monday Night, the type of game-breaking threat on offense the Jets have been missing since trading away fleet, fragile Santana Moss after a playoff debacle against Pittsburgh. Edwards was practically invisible against the Bills, but he can hardly be held accountable for his quarterback’s atrocious performance. While Sanchez and Edwards displayed promising cohesion in balmy Miami, they never came close to clicking on a miserable, windswept day on the swamps of Jersey. Whether a vertical passing game could ever blossom for a home team who plays in offensively adverse conditions down the stretch is a question for another day. The more immediate issue of intrigue is whether Edwards and a healthy Cotchery can successfully spread the field and open more passing lanes for Sanchez, who has shown a disturbing propensity to fire passes into traffic.
Disappointingly enough though, the potentially dynamic duo will not be working at full strength for a third consecutive week. Jerricho Cotchery will miss another game with his hamstring injury. This development is especially dispiriting, considering Edwards could be nullified by all-world corner Nnamdi Asomugha, who may even receive help over the top considering the Jets’ other, lesser options in lieu of Cotchery.
Really though, the running game will decide this team’s fate: Brian Schottenheimer has been criticized for being pass-happy, especially in third and short situations. With Brett Favre clearly injured last season, the Jets stubbornly relied on his wounded right-arm in December, instead of playing ball-control football. This inadequate management was thoroughly exposed by the Seattle Seahawks in week sixteen, who controlled the clock on a snow specked field and dominated all afternoon. The Jets have often been chided for lacking a definitive identity. The defense took up this mantle for the entire team out of training camp, but the offense itself has remained undefined. The two-headed monster at running back was out of sync before gashing Buffalo. Mark Sanchez and the pass attack seemed to be emerging, but this course has met with a few nasty potholes. Now, more than ever, it is direly apparent that this offense needs to rely on their halfbacks. And this includes getting Leon Washington touches as a pass catcher in space, a skill Schottenheimer has found success with before, but all too often inexplicably abandons.
Fans may still be hung up on Sanchez’s troubles, especially last week’s woe, but the overall fate of the Jets will be in the hands of Washington and Jones, who both excelled against the Bills. If the offensive line can build on that effort, all hope is not lost.
The bandwagon is clear, it could be perfect time to get to business: In the vein of the paragraph just above, this could be the perfect time for Rex Ryan to really assert his influence on the team. This isn’t a coach interested in creating an aerial show on offense, though he remains admirably open to stockpiling talent. But for the Jets to win, at least in this specific season, they will be entirely reliant on a down and dirty game plan, force-feeding their halfbacks, leaning on their defense. The team’s strengths will favor the aspects preferred by their head coach, hopefully engendering them with his confident attitude.
So, which scenario is more likely? I’m tempted to position my opinion down the middle, predict a .500 season. But with the Jets, it never seems that easy. The answer’s either a breakthrough, or breakdown. We shall see.
Rex Ryan had his daily press conference earlier this afternoon, revealing a few noteworthy nuggets of information.
The big news was the announcement of Cotchery’s absence from this Sunday’s proceedings. “Jerricho (Cotchery) is not going to be able to play this week… I was hoping Jerricho would be able to do it, but to make that trip all the way out there, we feel it’s best for him to stay back and rehab. That’s what we are going to do and hopefully get him 100 percent next week. He’s not playing,” continued the coach. “I was hoping [he would]. He was getting better, but at the end we definitely don’t want this happening all the time and (for it to be where) each week we’re wondering if he is going to be up. We don’t want to make it worse. If we have a chance to get him 100 percent or near 100 percent, that’s probably the best option.”
The services of Brad Smith will also be unavailable. “Brad is getting better,” said Ryan. I thought Brad was less likely to play than Jerricho and I’m not sure if he’ll be able to play next week. He’s probably a little more doubtful than Jerricho will be. I think Jerricho will be up next week.”
The injury wire held more unfortunate news for a team not fighting for it’s athletic life. Lito Sheppard, who returned against the Bills after an extended absence, will not suit up against the Raiders. Sheppard has seen seasons scuttled before due to injury woes, making his acquisition a risk. “Lito Sheppard, we knew he wasn’t going to play,” said Ryan simply, before elaborating. “As far as [him], we have to push him out of this building at night. He’s trying to do everything he can. He’s just not ready yet. ”
It’s my opinion that the Jets really need to go all-in with the running game, allow this aspect to determine their success or failure. Rex Ryan, though, may not feel the same way. When asked if the team would run the ball more this week, Ryan deadpanned, “That’s what I’m telling everybody. That’s our story and we’re sticking to it.” Who knows? Maybe he’s just messing with the Raiders. Or not. “The thing about the Raiders is they’re not shy about getting in your face and going man coverage,” said Ryan, analyzing their pass defense. “That’s what we’re going to get from them and we’ll probably get it 90 percent of the time. It’s about winning those one-on-one battles. You’ve got two excellent corners, one super-corner (Nnamdi Asomugha) and another guy that I think is underrated, (Chris) Johnson. It’s going to be a big challenge for our guys.”
Thomas Jones got together with the press and shared a few thoughts on his record setting performance, along with other insights. “I don’t dislike the media, or doing interviews, or talking. I have no problem doing that. I am just a very focused person. I believe in my routine, it’s worked for me. As soon as practice is over I come in and go to the weight room and I watch film. I am here until 6:00 p.m. or 6:30 p.m. watching film and doing what I need to do to be prepared. That is the way I can be my best on Sunday. It’s not that I run from the spotlight, I’m just one of those people that likes to focus on my job,” Jones said, regarding his relationship with the media.
Jones still has faith in his embattled quarterback. “We have full confidence in Mark (Sanchez). Everyone has days and games where they wish they had played better, but they move on to the next one. He is a rookie, he is learning that. You learn from mistakes. The one good thing about mistakes that you make early is you have a chance to correct them the next week. Mark knows we are behind him 100 percent. He worked really hard this week. I don’t think we’ve simplified things for Mark in particular. We have core things that we can do pretty well.”
He was also asked whether he had a chance to sit back and enjoy his performance against Buffalo. “When you watch the film, you see some good things on film. When you lose the game, the feeling that you have is frustration in not winning that takes over any type of feeling of accomplishment. I want to win, first of all. I will do everything I can in the game to help us win. Any yard that I rush for, or Leon (Washington), or any yards Mark (Sanchez) passes for is to help us win games. At the end of the day it’s pretty much for nothing,” concluded Jones.
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