Florham Park, N.J.– NFL preseason games are quite the paradox. As ESPN’s Mark Schlereth said, “it may not count, but it matters.” Just how much they matter though depends completely on your perspective.
For Peyton Manning a preseason game is essentially worthless. For Mark Sanchez it’s a chance to work on getting sharper and familiarizing himself with his new receivers, but no matter how good or bad he plays it’s impossible to tell it’s relevance because after all it’s just preseason.
And for most starting players around the league that’s exactly what it is, just a preseason game. A chance to iron out the kinks of offseason rust and get back into the football groove. But that’s the ones who are already cemented as starters, for everyone else the preseason means it’s your chance to show what you can do and it could lead to you getting a starting role or quickly being forced to pack your bags and handover your playbooks to some guy you’ve never seen before.
So to do a traditional regular season style preview seems just seems silly (although I will apologize for the length of this preview, just walk with me). Again obviously both teams and their fans want to win, but no one actually thinks the clock striking zero to reveal the final score of a preseason game can be the most meaningful part of the game (so sorry no final score predictions, besides its the Bengals and they don’t even have Carson Palmer, T.O. or Ochocinco to talk about anymore). No, the most meaningful part comes from getting a chance to evaluate your own players in real live game action against another team.
The fact that the Jets lost 20-16 to the Texans wasn’t nearly as important as getting to see who exceeded expectations and who failed to meet them and that will remain the same for this Bengals game as well. Only now some players either have to keep up their quality play to prove it was no fluke (like Josh Mauga) or work extra hard to try and reverse the awful opinions that are forming of them (think Vladimir Ducasse).
So for this preseason game I’m going to simply talk about which specific players to keep an eye on as well as what types of specific things the Jets as a team need to work on and since everyone loves offensive firepower, that’s exactly where I’ll begin.
Plaxico Burress– There’s no sense in beating around the bush, Burress is obviously the player most people will be focused on come Sunday. From the first day of camp Burress has been the headliner, creating varying degrees of both excitement and skepticism. Burress has shown flashes of his old spectacular self in practice, but now it’s time to see if he can show it in game action with his new quarterback.
Rex Ryan has said he expects Burress to probably play a bit longer than many of the other starters in order to get him some extra work, the final tally on his stat sheet won’t matter as much as the impact he has on specific plays and whether or not he and Sanchez are on the same page.
Bilal Powell– With Shonn Greene out with a foot infection (the team expects he will return next week with no issues), Joe McKnight expected to play but probably in a limited fashion as the Jets still want to be careful he doesn’t suffer a setback from the concussion he received in Houston and LT being LT and not likely to get too much work, that leaves Powell as the back that will do the heavy lifting on Sunday.
Powell showed great explosiveness and quickness against the Texans and even had people suggesting he might be pushing McKnight for the number three running back spot. I’m not sure I’d go quite that far yet, as running back coach Anthony Lynn said earlier this week that job is ‘McKnight’s to lose,’ but in today’s NFL a team can never have too many productive running backs, especially a team with Rex Ryan as the coach.
Vladimir Ducasse– Let’s just say things didn’t go so well for big Vlad last Monday, with Rob Turner out with the broken leg that leaves Ducasse as the first backup offensive lineman for the Jets. If he continues to play like he did on Monday that spells doom for the Jets if one of their starters goes down and he will be tested as he is starting in place of Brandon Moore. Regardless of how he plays I expect the Jets to address the depth issues on the O-line, but if Ducasse can show steady improvement than that need becomes far less crucial.
Jeremy Kerley/Patrick Turner/Dan DePalma/Scotty McKnight– The top three receivers for the Jets are set, but there are a lot of young bucks looking to earn some playing time as well. Patrick Turner was very impressive in Houston and with that big frame of his he should be able to help the Jets in many ways, but the coaches and fans will want to see more than just the one game before they feel totally comfortable with him contributing meaningful minutes.
Kerley and DePalma both looked impressive in the return game and both have had solid camps. Kerley is in the lead for the starting return man job, but DePalma will be looking to prove his worth as well. Kerley looked really sharp on some plays against the Texans, but miscalculated his positioning on a couple other plays that could have ended with large gains. Scotty McKnight has continued to flash those steady, reliable, grab anything in sight hands of his, but it’ll be interesting to see if those hands are just as sticky in a game situation.
Jeff Cumberland– If you watched the game against the Texans, then I really shouldn’t have to say anymore. The kid is a beast and has great speed and hands for someone his size. He still needs to improve on his field awareness and developing that raw skill, but he’s going to be a dangerous weapon for the Jets one day. It’s a matter of when, not if.
John Conner– You know all about him by now, but I can’t leave him out because it’s so much fun watching him ‘terminate,’ defenders.
Matt Kroul– I wouldn’t expect too much from him, considering he just made the switch from D-line to O-line, but he’s a good player to keep an eye to see where he is at right now. Backup center Robby Felix is also a player to not hold to too high of a standard, but if these two can show something it could go a long way to helping the Jets problems with their O-line depth.
Greg McElroy– I loved what I saw out of McElroy against the Texans. He started out terribly (0-3 and a fumble), but it’s hard to blame the rookie quarterback when the pocket is collapsing as if you or I were lined up on the O-line. McElroy bounced back rather impressively and showed a great deal of moxie as he navigated he his way behind a shaky O-line. Yes that final play was awful, but he also threw what should have been a game-winning touchdown to rookie receiver Michael Campbell. If McElroy can continue improving as he did during last week’s game he could prove to be a more than solid backup and ease Jets fans fears of relying on Mark Brunell.
One thing is sure though, from an offensive stand point the focal point of the night has to be how the O-line holds up. Makeshift line or not, if they can’t get the job done it’ll be hard to properly judge the rest of the offense.
Kyle Wilson– Wilson looks and sounds like a completely different person from last season and there’s no doubt spending the offseason with Revis played a huge role in that. Wilson looked solid against the Texans, particularly with the fact that he kept his head turned towards the ball, but it would be nice to see him get tested more and see if the newfound confidence can pay off.
Muhammad Wilkerson/Kenrick Ellis– Wilkerson has been the more impressive of the rookies throughout camp so far and their fellow defenders say Wilkerson is ready to start now, while Ellis is more raw and needs to work on his technique, but in Houston it was Ellis who was more effective and showed how physically dominate he could be. It’s not as if Wilkerson played bad, but he played too high and showed he has more work to do, on Sunday we’ll see if he learned a lesson or two from his first live game action.
Josh Mauga– Mauga was probably the player of the game for the Jets in Houston. He was all over the field, creating sacks and snatching an interception. With Bart Scott out with a lower leg injury Mauga will get the start against the Bengals and a chance to prove whether or not he can contribute on a first-team level.
Nick Bellore/Garrett McIntyre– Both rookie linebackers have gotten Ryan’s attention and praise at camp, but Bellore struggled against the Texans and looked out of place at times. McIntyre on the other hand turned in a solid performance, with the Jets not being particularly deep at linebacker Ryan will be keeping a close eye on these two and so should you.
Jammal Westerman/Ropati Pitoitua– Different positions, but both were expected to contribute some last year and a whole lot more this year. Pitoitua suffered the achilles injury last year, but looks to have recovered from that just fine and with his strength and length can pose numerous problems for opposing O-line, which was seen against Houston. The Jets are expecting Westerman to be able to contribute more as an outside pass rusher this year, but they clearly want to see him execute in game situations.
The main focus regarding the Jets defense is always going to be the pass rush, but what I’m more concerned about is the way they defend running backs on screens. That was a problem for them last season and it was what ultimately cost them the game in Houston. The pass rush forced the Texans quarterbacks to get rid of the ball quicker than they wanted, but there was a back wide open with room to run far too often, this is something the Jets must key on unless they feel like being victimized by it all season long.
PLAYERS OUT FOR SUNDAY
Brandon Moore (hip), Marcus Dixon (knee), Sione Pouha (knee), Bart Scott (leg), Trevor Canfield (knee) and Rob Turner (leg). Of those players only Turner wouldn’t be able to play if this was a regular season game. Mark Brunell, Joe McKnight and Calvin Pace might see some action, but all will be closely monitored.
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