You don't see many fifth-round rookie wideouts with real expectations, but Tajae Sharpe is one. Tennessee's poor history of developing wideouts has led to a rare opportunity that Sharpe can seize this season.
03 Jan 2007
by Michael David Smith
Back in August, the playoffs seemed like a pipe dream for the New York Jets. Coming off a 4-12 season in 2005, it would have seemed crazy to suggest that the Jets would still be playing in January of 2007. But now that it's January and they're still playing, it's a good time to analyze their offensive line, which has played well this year even though it consists of two rookies, two Arizona Cardinals cast-offs, and a guy who's spent five years making peanuts, at least by professional-athlete standards.
How well have the two rookies, center Nick Mangold and left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson, played? How much gas does 33-year-old guard Pete Kendall have left in the tank? Is this a unit that can keep quarterback Chad Pennington upright when the Jets take on the New England Patriots on Sunday? To find out, I examined the Jets' offensive line on every play of their season-ending 23-3 win over the Oakland Raiders on Sunday. Overall, I came away very impressed with Mangold, Kendall, and right tackle Anthony Clement, but not particularly impressed with Ferguson and guard Brandon Moore.
The most common criticism of Ferguson when he was in college still holds true at the end of his rookie year: He struggles at the point of attack. On the Jets' first play, a reverse around the left end to Jerricho Cotchery, Ferguson needed to block Raiders defensive lineman Tommy Kelly to the inside so Cotchery would be able to break the play to the outside. Ferguson failed, though, and Pennington even ran in to try to help Ferguson with Kelly. (When was the last time you saw a quarterback-left tackle double team?) Kelly forced Cotchery to cut the play inside, and Cotchery lost three yards.
Two plays later, Pennington dropped back to pass. Raiders tackle Warren Sapp rushed to the outside while end Kevin Huntley looped around him to the inside. That meant Ferguson had to take on Sapp, which was a major mismatch. Sapp manhandled Ferguson, pushing him straight back and getting past him easily to sack Pennington.
That was the only time all day that Pennington was sacked, in large part because for much of the rest of the game Ferguson got help in pass blocking. On a third-and-1 quick pass from Pennington to Cotchery, for instance, tight end Sean Ryan stayed in to help Ferguson with Huntley. Pennington took just a three-step drop before hitting Cotchery for three yards, and the fact that the Jets gave Ferguson help on that and other short passes -- instead of having the extra blocker run a pass route -- indicates that they're not fully comfortable with his ability to protect Pennington's blind side.
Ferguson has quick feet and looks like a smart player who knows his assignments on every play, but he just doesn't hold his blocks well enough. On a second-and-4 draw play to Washington, Ferguson sold the draw by setting up as if to pass block when he engaged Huntley, but as soon as Huntley realized it was a run, he had no trouble cutting to the inside, past Ferguson, and making the tackle.
Still, there are times when it's clear why Ferguson was so highly regarded when the Jets chose him with the fourth pick in the 2006 NFL draft. On the Jets' second drive they tried another running play to a receiver around the left end, and this time Ferguson did exactly what was asked of him. He took a hard step out of his stance and drove Kelly straight down the line, opening up a huge area of real estate for wide receiver Brad Smith on the end-around. Smith picked up 20 yards, and Ferguson's block was the key to the play.
But overall, Ferguson was nowhere near as impressive Sunday as the Jets' other tackle, Clement. On running plays, Clement had an easy job blocking Oakland defensive end Derrick Burgess. On a second-and-8 handoff to Leon Washington, Burgess rushed straight upfield and Clement just let him go on his way as Washington ran into the area Burgess had vacated for a gain of six yards.
Passing plays should have been a challenge for Clement, though: Burgess is a speedy pass rusher who has 27 sacks in his two seasons in Oakland, and he usually lined up directly across from Clement. But Clement got the better of their individual matchup. On a second-and-goal in the third quarter, Pennington threw a quick swing pass to the right to Cotchery four yards behind the line of scrimmage. For the play to work, Clement had to not just block Burgess, but block him well enough that he couldn't get a hand up to knock down Pennington's pass. That's exactly what Clement did, using his 6-foot-8 frame to get great position against Burgess and push him inside. Jets coach Eric Mangini said after the game that he gave Clement a game ball, and it's easy to see why.
Moore, who lines up next to Clement, is the least talented of the Jets' linemen. On a second-and-13, the entire pocket collapsed, Pennington had to run, and Burgess tackled him for a gain of just a yard. The problem wasn't Clement's block on Burgess, which was fine. The problem was the way Moore was beaten on the inside and pushed directly back. That inside pressure is what forced Pennington to take off running, and Burgess simply cleaned up the mess that Moore left.
Moore also committed the Jets' only offensive penalty Sunday, getting called for holding on a second-and-11 in the third quarter and negating an 18-yard pass from Pennington to Laveranues Coles. Moore isn't a bad player to have on the team because he's durable (he has started every game the last two years) and plays for a minimal salary (he joined the Jets as an undrafted free agent out of Illinois in 2002 and makes less than $1 million a year), but he's definitely the weak link in the Jets' line.
The strength of the Jets' line is the combination of Mangold and Kendall in the middle. On a third-and-2, the Jets tried one of many trick plays, lining Pennington up in the shotgun and having Smith motion into the middle and take Mangold's snap from under center. Smith picked up the first down, but the credit should go to Mangold and Kendall, whose surge forward cleared the middle of the line.
Mangold also showed toughness against the Raiders, suffering what looked like a painful knee injury on the Jets' last play of the first half but returning for the first play of the second half. Combine the straight-ahead blocking style, the toughness, and the comments his teammates have made that Mangold picked up the Jets' line calls immediately and hasn't made rookie mistakes, and it appears that the Jets made a great choice when they drafted him.
Mangold has properly been recognized as one of the league's top rookie linemen, but of all the players who have helped the Jets reach the playoffs, Kendall is probably the most overlooked. On a sweep around the left by Leon Washington, Kendall pulled to the outside and cleared the way for an eight-yard gain. And Kendall made my favorite block of the day on the Jets' first drive of the second half when he looped around Mangold and buried Oakland linebacker Thomas Howard. The play didn't show up on any highlights because Raiders strong safety Derrick Gibson tackled Washington for no gain, but Kendall's block on Howard was textbook-perfect.
As I watched Kendall and Clement, I thought about how they were teammates in Arizona, but Dennis Green cut both of them. Do you think Green's horrible line in Arizona could have used steady, dependable players like Kendall and Clement? When Green was fired on Monday, I wonder if he thought back to his personnel decisions, especially cutting those two.
In addition to the five starters I've already mentioned, the Jets have one other wrinkle on their offensive line that bears mentioning. On first-and-goal at the 2-yard line, reserve tackle Adrian Jones came in as an eligible receiver and lined up at tight end. He had a good block on Raiders defensive end Tyler Brayton, although the run went up the middle and didn't get much. On the next play, Jones again lined up at tight end and ran a pass route. Pennington's pass went to an actual tight end, Chris Baker, for a touchdown, but I have a feeling Jones will be more than just a decoy the next time he's out there, and Pennington might actually throw to him. You can bet Bill Belichick is spending plenty of time preparing for such a scenario.
The Jets will need some tricks up their sleeves against New England, and even if those tricks work, their season will probably end on Sunday. Still, it was far more successful than anyone imagined four months ago. The offensive line is a major part of that.
Each week, Michael David Smith looks at one specific player or one aspect of a team on every single play of the previous game. Standard caveat applies: Yes, one game is not necessarily an indicator of performance over the entire season.
53 comments, Last at 06 Jan 2007, 3:02pm by Chris