Thursday, November 25, 2010

For Fans of The Big Kovalsky...

I'm happy to announce that these posts are now also being linked on The Sports Blog Network at Feel free to visit the site, as there are many interesting articles written from the fan's perspective. Here is a link to last week's article on that site.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

A Thanksgiving Treat for Jets Fans

The New York Jets are off to their best start in 24 years. The past few weeks have been a roller coaster ride, as young Mark Sanchez has been forced each week to lead the team to crucial scores to win. Last week against the Texans, he took the Jets 72 yards in five plays using 39 seconds with no timeouts to score. Santonio Holmes scored the game-winner with 10 seconds left, making yet another huge play in crunch time.

By all accounts, Sanchez is a playbook nerd, the kind of steady and driven pro that succeeds on Sunday. He is the first to arrive at the complex and the last to leave, and takes his leadership responsibilities with the rest of the offense seriously. When the moment arrives to make plays in crucial times of the game, he has been well prepared by offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, quarterback coach Matt Cavanaugh, and ancient backup QB Mark Brunell to constantly assess and process key information, like who's on the field for the defense, which two plays he wants to start with, which matchup is most advantageous, where does he need to get to for a FG, and so on. It's easy for a young quarterback to be consumed by the big moment, but Sanchez seems to embrace it. He seems to prefer the frenetic pace of the two-minute drill, where he can force the defense to react to him, instead of having to react to the defense.

When Sanchez was a rookie and suffered through a terrible stretch in the middle of the season, Schotteheimer simplified the game for him. There were more bootlegs off of play action where Sanchez would have one primary read and an easy decision. The Jets used this look repeatedly in the postseason, especially against the Bengals in the wild card round. He wasn't put in a position to drop straight back and manipulate the safeties with his eyes. In the closing drive against the Texans, Sanchez hit a big play down the sideline to Braylon Edwards to set up the TD by moving the safety to the slot with his eyes, then throwing a perfect ball outside the numbers to Edwards. He couldn't make that play last year.

As Jets fans, we have a lot to be thankful for on turkey day. This team could easily be 5-5, so most of us will gladly take 8-2. There are plenty of things to address moving forward, troubling tendencies that will ruin this great start if they are not fixed quickly. For two consecutive weeks, the defense has been given an opportunity to close out in the fourth quarter and has proceeded to give up chunks of yardage and the lead. The Houston game was quite troubling, as the defense totally blew multiple assignments on the Texans two fourth-quarter TD drives. Following Shonn Greene's fumble, the Texans needed only one play to run a corner route with TE Joel Dreessen and cut the lead to 23-17. After the game, the coaching staff revealed that it was Jason Taylor's assignment to drop into the short zone and pick up Dreessen. Of course, it's a little unclear why you would be asking Jason Taylor to cover a pass catching tight end in crunch time when he is primarily a pass rusher at this stage of his career.

Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine has taken a greater responsibility over the playcalling duties for the defense, but no one has come forward and claimed this gaffe from last week. Recognizing what you're asking your personnel to do from play to play is coaching 101, and if Ryan has acquiesced this part of his coaching duties, he needs to take it back. If he hasn't, he needs to pay greater attention to who is out there every play. The defense was outstanding for three quarters last week before they completely fell apart. Rex Ryan wants this team to be a defensive team first, but if this trend continues it won't be long before even the weakest of opponents that the Jets face will feel like they're never out of the game.

The Jets look like they may be without RT Damien Woody after Woody sprained his MCL against the Texans. A totally overmatched Wayne Hunter came in to battle with the frightening Mario Williams, and Williams wound up being a pain in the ass for the rest of the game. If you get me talking about football long enough, I will tell you at some point that one of the most important ingredients to consistent offensive success is offensive line continuity. Every job the offensive line has is a group assignment. With solid communication, they can cover for each other and never leave their backs and receivers in the types of bad situations that lead to negative plays and turnovers. If Woody can't go this week against the Bengals, I expect Wayne Hunter to see overload blitzes to his side. The Jets may have to help Hunter by using a back to chip or by leaving a tight end in, or by moving Sanchez around. The Jets running game is nowhere near where it was last season, but they've kept a fairly clean pocket all season. The Bengals don't have a Mario Williams rushing the passer on the strong side, so if Woody is held out for the Patriots in 11 days, the offensive line should survive. It may even help down the road that Hunter is getting these reps now.

So...are we lucky or are we good? That seems to be the $64,000 question this week in the media. There is a fair amount of fortune involved when a team is put in a position to make plays at the end of games and is consistently successful, however, those who would say it's pure luck are foolish. Most often in the NFL, those who are most prepared are the fortunate ones. Since the same teams always seem to be lucky, it should be obvious by now that most teams make their own luck. It's a game of inches and no team is going to get the breaks every week. The best you can hope for is that when your team is given a chance to make plays, they are prepared and ready. The Jets certainly seem to be prepared and ready, especially when the game is on the line.

This week, Cincinnati comes to town riding a long losing streak, including losing a 28-7 lead against the Bills last week at home on their way to a 49-31 loss (Yikes!). The Bengals have the ability to score, but their defense has been a mess and they are nicked up in the secondary. With the short week, the challenge for the Jets will be to remain focused on the task at hand, especially with a trip to Foxborough looming in the distance. With the AFC East race so tight, the Jets can't afford a lapse in concentration.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Strengths and Questions

We're nine games into the 2010 season and New York Jets stand at seven and two, tied for the best record in the NFL. The Jets lack glaring weaknesses but have a few question marks that will help determine the rest of the regular season. Before we get to the questions, let's go over a few strengths.

The Offensive Line-The Jets have mostly been winning because of their strength up front. Damien Woody, Brandon Moore, Nick Mangold, Matt Slauson, and D'Brickashaw Ferguson have been the primary reason why the Jets have a top five running game, and have been able to keep Mark Sanchez clean through the first nine games. Any potential opponent of the Jets knows that they have to have an outside chance of bringing pressure and controlling the ground game to have a chance to win. So far, few opponents have been able to win this matchup. Today against the Texans, I expect the ball to come out of Sanchez' hand quickly to limit his exposure to hits, especially considering the problems the Texans have had in coverage.

Run Defense-The Jets adjusted well when Kris Jenkins went out in 2009 with season-ending knee surgery, and they were prepared for the same scenario this season. Just like 2009, Mike DeVito and Sione Pouha have stepped in and occupied offensive lineman to allow David Harris and Bart Scott to control the middle of the field. The Jets have yet to allow a hundred yard rusher this season, and the unsung play of the interior line is the primary reason. Last week against Cleveland, Peyton Hillis had a big first half, then was neutralized in the second half and overtime.

Pass Defense Outside the Numbers-There was a feeling among the Jets fan base at the start of the season that Darrelle Revis' absence from camp and the uneven play of CB Dwight Lowery and perennial whipping boy CB Drew Coleman, as well as the inexperience of CB Kyle Wilson was going to cost the Jets' pass defense. By and large, the fan base was correct for the first few weeks of the season, as Revis struggled to overcome a nagging hamstring injury, and the weak links in coverage, primarily Wilson, were being exposed weekly by every QB the Jets faced. As the season has progressed, Revis has returned to the form that made him the most effective defensive player in the NFL in 2009, and Coleman, Lowery, and Wilson are all improving quickly and have made huge plays in victory.

Somewhat lost in the shuffle has been the stellar play of Antonio Cromartie. The Jets threw Cromartie to the wolves early in the season, forcing him to handle Randy Moss by himself in the second half against New England, and for the entire Minnesota game. Cromartie responded tremendously well to the challenge, and he looks like a serious candidate to be offered a deal for 2011 and beyond, especially if he can continue to conduct himself professionally on and off the field. He has been a perfect fit for the bump and run scheme that Rex Ryan prefers.

There have been several areas of the team that have been inconsistent, and how they play the rest of the second half can be the difference between seven and nine and fourteen and two, and all the records in between.

Mark Sanchez-Through the first season and a half of Mark Sanchez' career, he has shown the normal growing pains of any young QB, especially one who started for only one full season at USC. Being a young quarterback is one of the toughest jobs in sports, as professional coaches and defenses expose your weaknesses every week, and your ability to adjust and learn, as well as the physical tools you bring to the table determine your success. The best friend of a young QB is not just a solid running game, but a solid team in all phases, which the Jets are. What should make the Jets excited is Sanchez' composure and improvisation. Poise and pocket presence are hard to quantify, and are therefore often discounted by the myriad of analysts we're exposed to as fans. So far, even with his struggles to remain efficient, Sanchez passes the smell test. His teammates trust him as a leader. When he is forced to make plays with the game on the line, he does so. It's not always pretty, but Sanchez is excellent on the move, and is already adept at identifying where pressure is coming from, then moving in the pocket and delivering a catchable ball. Last season, Sanchez through almost twice as many picks as TDs. This season, those numbers have been reversed. The jury must still be out on Sanchez until he shows he can be consistent, but anyone who doesn't notice the improvement isn't paying attention.

Pass Defense in the Middle of the Field-When the Patriots jettisoned Randy Moss early in the season, conventional wisdom was that the Patriots were hoping for addition by subtraction, but it was hard to imagine they would be more difficult to defend. Moss gave the Patriots an extra gear, a way to stretch the field against what most teams in today's game have difficulty with, which is a vertical threat that can find seams in a zone defense.

The problem for Belichick and company was that the Jets were built to handle Moss. Belichick recognized that the 2010 Jets had not just one, but two corners they could use on Moss to neutralize him. Since Tom Brady excels at small ball (hitting receivers short and letting them run after the catch) and since the Pats have several options at receiver and tight end that allow them to play this way, Belichick sent Moss packing. After watching the Jets dominate the Pats play after play in Week 2, it's hard to argue with his theory. Belichick knew he couldn't beat New York with the 2010 Pats, so he's trying the 2001 Pats instead. I'll give it to Belichick, he's pretty crafty. The idea of trying to cover the Patriots' tight ends with Eric Smith, or Brodney Pool, or Jim Leonhard is a little scary. The Jets haven't been able to handle tight ends all season. The game in Foxborough in two weeks should be much tougher than the first one.

The Running Game-The most important part of the 2009 Jets identity has been inconsistent of late. Using LaDainian Tomlinson like he's twenty-five instead of thirty-one with three thousand touches under his belt is starting to take a toll on his efficiency. LT hasn't been as effective over the last month, and Shonn Greene hasn't really been a factor until last week in Cleveland. When the Jets sent Alan Faneca packing last offseason, the effectiveness of the run game, especially to the weak side of the formation, took a hit. Matt Slauson has played fairly well as a replacement, and he's been pretty effective in pass protection, but he's not the run blocker Faneca was. Rex Ryan wants to pound the ball when the weather grows cold, and the running game's usage should increase as the regular season winds down. If the Jets can become more efficient in the run game, they will control the clock and the pace of the game. If the Jets want to win a title, the running game has to operate at a level approaching last season.

The Pass Rush-The Jets array of blitz packages have been nowhere near as effective this season. It seems every team we face is more prepared to slide protection towards the overloaded side. Bringing five and six people on third and long has been the wrong strategy thus far. Full credit must go to Rex Ryan and defensive coordinator Mike Pettine for adjusting on the fly and dropping seven and eight DBs in third and long out of necessity. The key to success in the NFL is recognizing when a philosophy doesn't fit your personnel, and making the necessary adjustments. It must burn Ryan to take a more passive approach, but, as he says, he's in the results business. Whatever works should be the plan. Mike Tannenbaum should be looking at pass rushing options for 2011, so Rex can go back to being Rex on third and long.

Keeping the Receivers Happy-The Jets have more talent at the receiver position that they've had in about twenty-five years. Not since the days of Al Toon and Wesley Walker have the Jets had an ability to win outside like they can with Holmes, Edwards, Cotchery, and Keller. The fact of the matter is that the Jets don't have enough footballs to keep everyone happy. The Jets want to run the ball and keep Sanchez around thirty attempts. The only way to keep all this talent happy is to win.

The play that Jerricho Cotchery made in OT against Cleveland just may make him a legend for life with Jets fans. You can't ask for more as a fan that to see an obviously injured player sell out his body to make a play. If I tore my groin, I would most likely be in the fetal position, not laying out to convert a crucial third down. As important as Cotchery is in the Jets scheme, his injury may have come at the right time. The Jets passing game seemed more effective early in the season without Holmes. It isn't Holmes fault, of course, as he has been huge at the end of the last three victories. Sanchez is more effective when he isn't as concerned about spreading the football evenly. Having four main options (when you include LT as a receiver out of the backfield) has served better than having five options for Sanchez. Until Sanchez fully trusts that he doesn't have to ensure that everyone has enough footballs to play with, less may turn out to be more. It will be interesting to see how he responds Sunday against Houston without Cotchery.

The Kicking Game-Nick Folk had been outstanding until last week. I would imagine if he struggles this week against the Texans, he may be competing for his job on Monday. The life of a kicker must be awfully tough. You're always a few misses from unemployment. I imagine there are antacids involved with your day to day life. Lots of them.

That's enough for now. Let's hope we come to play at home today. The Texans will be ready.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Having An Old Friend For Dinner

I won't spend too much time dwelling on last week's come from behind victory over the Lions. The game left far more questions than answers as to what's to come in 2010. The New York Jets have now had four consecutive uneven performances, with no portion of the team playing consistently well, except for Mike Westhoff's special teams and our run defense. The offense has not been able to break any big plays in the run game, and QB Mark Sanchez has struggled to complete passes, with a percentage of 50.3% combined against Minnesota, Denver, Green Bay, and Detroit. LaDainian Tomlinson seems to be slowing down. The defense has been unable to get pressure on the QB, which means they're not forcing any mistakes by opposing offenses. After briefly leading the NFL in turnover margin a few weeks ago, the defense hasn't forced a turnover in two straight games. The Jets are a minus six over the last three games, and they've been very fortunate to win two of these games.

The inconsistency that the Jets have shown over the last few weeks is a common occurrence in the modern game. Even the best of teams often have to play from behind, and rarely look great for every moment of every game. New York stands at 6-2 heading into the the second half of the regular season, tied for the best record in football with a few other midseason contenders. If the Jets can feel good about any one thing coming out of the first half, it's that they've had a chance to win every week this season, and they look like they can play with anyone in the league.

That may sound like I'm justifying the uneven play, but, in the modern NFL, it's hard to expect perfection, or even consistent performance by any one unit. This week, the running game may get going and the passing game may be inefficient. That trend may reverse the following week. At the end of the day, the W is what counts.

For the first time since being fired after the 2008 collapse, former Jet head coach Eric Mangini faces his old team in Cleveland later this afternoon. Judging by the way he treated another ex-employer last Sunday, the Jets will have their hands full. The Browns are coming off two huge victories, including a 20-point victory over the Patriots that wasn't as close as the final score. Cleveland wins by pounding the ball with the gigantic Peyton Hillis, and by stopping the run and forcing mistakes in the passing game in obvious passing situations, namely third and long.

Cleveland is a well-coached team, but they lack big play talent on the outside, and they are likely starting a rookie QB in Colt McCoy. McCoy has been solid in his first few starts, although they aren't asking very much of him at this point. The job of the defense will be to stuff Hillis and force McCoy to attempt to make decisions about where the football should go, and make those throws outside the numbers, where Revis and Cromarite have a chance at a big play.

While the pass defense has been fairly efficient in recent weeks as far as limiting big plays, it's hard to win when you aren't forcing any mistakes by your opposition. If the Jets hope to have the kind of big second half that can propel them to the postseason, this is an area that must improve in the weeks to come. The Jets face the Browns today before coming home to face Houston and Cincinnati. After this stretch New York goes into the most important part of the season, which is at the Patriots, home for Miami, then at Pittsburgh and at Chicago.

The best thing about the 2010 season so far is that the Jets haven't had to pay a heavy price to learn valuable lessons about themselves so far. The Jets could very easily be 4-4. It's always better to find out your weaknesses without having to lose football games. The Jets may have to play the frantic style they've exhibited the last few weeks in order to win football games for the rest of the season, for all we know.

For now, this game should be an interesting test to see where the Jets are at heading into the second half. A solid performance in all phases is enough to beat the Browns, but it will take a complete game playing against a team with their confidence at a season-high. If they have to count on coming back from ten down in the last few minutes each week, it's going to be a long second half.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

A Fork In The Road

The New York Jets face an interesting dilemma entering Week 9. This isn't the first time that they've been in this situation as an organization. All it takes is a slow three or four week patch in the middle of November, and you can go from on top of the division, to needing help to get in as a wild card.

The Jets had a taste of how difficult it can be to win three consecutive games on the road in January last season. As Jets fans, we were all hoping to avoid that route this season by winning the AFC East. At first glance, the Jets appear to be a superior team personnel wise to the their immediate rivals in Miami and New England.

What is going to determine what happens next is the following three weeks. For the Jets, it's at Detroit, at Cleveland, Houston. The Jets are superior to their next three opponents. A division champion has to win these games.

Last week's blanking at the hands of the Packers was humiliating enough. With the talent on the Jets offense, there is simply no excuse for not being able to stay on the field and score points. There is plenty of blame to go around. Mark Sanchez suffered through a third consecutive sub-par performance, completing just 16 of 38 in windy NMS. Putting up points and winning football games are a QBs two primary concerns every Sunday. Sanchez has had issues when the wind picks up, and he has been having issues finding the third and fourth option, especially on third down. The Jets receivers did him no favors either, as they dropped six passes and allowed both Sanchez interceptions to be ripped out of their hands.

The offense also turned it over three times, and the Jets committed forty yards more in penalties than their opponents. Despite outgaining Green Bay 360-237, the Jets wound up losing by nine at home. So far this season, the new stadium hasn't been kind to the home team, whether it's the Jets or the Giants. How surprising that when the working class fans who really care about being the 12th man are priced out of the market, your home crowd has a mausoleum like dreariness. Impossible to imagine, right?

But that's a different discussion for a different time.

This week we have the Detroit Lions, who are an improved bunch over the last few years, and are fully capable of defending their home turf against a suddenly offensively challenged unit like the Jets. If there is readily apparent weakness for Detroit, it's their run defense, which means both Schottenheimer and Ryan have to remain committed to the run, even if it only works sporadically at first.

With the assorted receivers the Jets have at their disposal, it's easy to forget what got them to this point. For the Jets to be effective on offense, at least during this phase of Sanchez' career, they must run the ball and make big plays off of play action. Unless Sanchez can prove that he can distribute the ball to all of the weapons at his disposal, Ryan and Schottenheimer have to manage not just the amount of plays available to Sanchez, but the options within those plays.

And, above all else, OC Brian Schottenheimer must avoid getting cute with his playcalling. For three consecutive games, the Jets have been a pass first team with a little too much cuteness for their own good. For one week, I'd like to see less Wildcat and less reverses. Just line up and hit the man in front of you. And for God sakes, get Shonn Greene involved in the game. Six carries for him is not enough. We're on pace to wear LT out by Week 14.

It was nice to see that Rex Ryan is a fan of the Big Kovalsky (well...not really, but he must be a reader since he's blitzing less often the last two weeks, per my suggestion). It may be a time to confuse the young Matthew Stafford with a few odd fronts and blitz packages. He's not Aaron Rodgers yet, so there may be opportunities there to force mistakes.

I don't know how much of Charles Johnson is going to wind up being Darrelle Revis' responsibility, but I hope both he and Antonio Cromartie play well, and perhaps even catch an errant Stafford throw. The defense was great last week, but Stafford likes to take chances, especially in the middle of the field, which means there are opportunities for turnovers.

It's up to you, Jets. New England is on a roll (better now than in January), and the division will get away from us quickly over the next month unless you correct last week's mistakes right now. It's been more than a month since the Jets played well for four quarters. They've been fortunate to escape from the last three games at two and one, when they could have easily lost all three. If they can turn it around today, there's plenty of time to sharpen their skills for the postseason. For now, we'll ignore the alternatives. Let's just say they involve a quiet January.