Sunday, October 2, 2011

Week 4-The Limits of Soft Power

For 2+ years, Rex Ryan has built a solid foundation with the Jets based on several tenets; the ability to run the ball, play solid special teams, tackle well, and stop the run. He has used this formula to record a 26-15 record in his tenure in Florham Park, using a veteran defense and a young QB, as well as one of the best offensive lines in the NFL. Last week in Oakland, the veteran defense was exposed as slower and less physical than previously suspected in a 34-24 loss to the Raiders. The most disconcerting piece of news? The Jets gave up 234 yards rushing to the Oakland offense, even when they knew they had no real reason to respect their passing game.

The Jets are entering the most difficult stretch of the season. The next 4 weeks will likely determine whether or not the Jets are going to compete for a division title, fight for a wild card, or sit home in January; at Ravens on national TV, at Patriots in the late window, home to Miami on Monday Night, and home to San Diego before the bye. The Jets need to emerge from this portion of their schedule with a winning record if they hope to be a playoff team. They need to win at least three of these four games if they hope to compete for the AFC East title.

Normally, even a difficult portion of the schedule would not seem like such a daunting task, but the Jets are a team searching for an identity through the first three weeks of the season. The 2009 and 2010 Jets ran the ball first, but an inability to get a push at the point of attack has rendered the Jets a pass-first team. Rex Ryan hinted at this in the preseason, that the Jets strength was in their receiving corps, but perhaps he was aware that the Jets may struggle to run the ball, needing Mark Sanchez to pick them up and produce yards and points in the passing game.

Sanchez has been far from spectacular through three weeks, but he has been more accurate and far more prolific than usual. The problem for the Jets is that their power running game was such a benefit to the rest of the team; their ball control attack left their defense off of the field, and kept them fresh throughout the season. The Jets are throwing the ball on 62 percent of their offensive plays in 2011, meaning that the way the offense is playing, while more prolific, is not making life easier for the defense. The best teams in the NFL know who they are and always play to their strengths. The mediocre teams struggle to identify how they should attack, how they should defend, and are stuck reacting to their opponents, instead of dictating when and where the game will be decided. So far in 2011, the Jets fit into the second category, although the season is young, and there is plenty of time to turn it around.

The Jets are off to a 2-1 start, so there is no need for alarm, even though the hordes of Jets fans around the country may feel otherwise. The key for this team is to improve every week, and establish an identity that allows the team play their best football. The ground and pound days may be over for the Jets, especially with a young improving quarterback and the need to produce points quickly in today's game (the topic of the modern NFL looking like a glorified seven-on-seven game is one for another day).

Like most Jets fans, I love Rex Ryan, love what he's done for our team and our franchise's brand nationwide. Any opponent on the Jets schedule is not looking forward to the matchup, knowing the Jets bring their defense and a physical attitude to the game. Any way you slice it, the Jets got pushed around in Oakland as Darren McFadden ran over, around, and through the defense. I would imagine that every team on the Jets schedule took notice of the film, and will try to exploit what is now the league's 31st ranked run defense, at least until Rex Ryan and Mike Pettine get it fixed. The first team to try will be the Ravens with Ray Rice tonight, and, if the Jets fail again, we will see this every week until it's fixed. Not being able to stop the run is the most depressing way to lose. No team wants to feel physically overmatched at the line of scrimmage.

There has been a method to Rex's madness through the first 2+years of his tenure. He is bold to the media, thereby taking the pressure and focus off of his team and on to him. As a result, the team can focus away from the distracting, white-hot spotlight of the NY media. There have been times over the last several seasons where the Jets seemed to play with a desperation borne of not wanting to let their coach down, out of trying to prove that his belief is rooted in something real and tangible. There now seems to be limits of this type of co-option, as many in the media have began to dismiss Ryan's yearly Super Bowl predictions as Rex being Rex, and the effort of the team, especially the defense, seems to have waned to the extent that Mike Pettine actually talked about it to the media during the week.

Hopefully, the constant talk about the Jets spongy softness last Sunday will have enough of an effect to produce a win in Baltimore later tonight. The Ravens are a talented squad with perhaps four future Hall of Fame players patrolling their defense. Expect a tightly wound game similar to last season's 10-9 scrap to open the season. The Jets must force mistakes from the Ravens offense, and they must capitalize on those mistakes to produce points is they hope to move to 3-1, and not face another week of questions before heading to Foxborough.

Kickoff from Baltimore is at 8:20 pm EST tonight.

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