Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
17 Dec 2012
by Andy Benoit
If ever there was a case for flex scheduling on Monday nights, this is it. There were four games in the 1:00 window yesterday that involved two likely playoff teams. Meanwhile, there is one game Monday night in which neither team is in the thick of the playoff race.
Well, actually, the Jets are "technically" in the AFC Wild Card chase. But given the atrocity of their offense over the past month-and-a-half, it’s inconceivable that they’d do any damage if they were to somehow get in and remove the intrigue from one of the first-round playoff games.
It’s clear that the Mark Sanchez era has to end. Nearly through his fourth season as a pro and starter, Sanchez still hasn’t developed the necessary pocket toughness to thrive in the NFL. His limited arm strength only magnifies New York’s paucity of receiving talent. The Jets offense is basically constricted to operating between the numbers, as that’s where Sanchez is comfortable throwing the football. Lately, that comfort has been unwarranted, as Sanchez has made some really bad decisions over the middle.
Sanchez’s crumbling decision-making is too bad. He has the mental aptitude to lead a successful offense; he’s actually fairly sharp when it comes to diagnosing defenses before the snap. It’s the execution that’s a problem. Also, the part where Sanchez doesn’t have any receivers right now who can beat man coverage. That's a problem.
On Monday, Sanchez will be facing a defense that’s predicated on winning through execution as opposed to through scheme. The Titans make very little effort to create confusion before the snap. Defensive coordinator Jerry Gray likes to keep his men in static two-deep looks, where they can focus on playing fundamentally sound football with all the action in front of them. If this approach seems overly basic, that’s because it is. The Titans got gashed early in the season by offenses that, quite frankly, were all too eager to go against predictable vanilla looks down after down.
To Gray’s credit, he started diversifying the Titans’ coverages a few weeks ago, opting for more man concepts and single-high zone looks. This, along with an improved pass-rush spearheaded by rising third-year end Derrick Morgan, has made the Titans more competitive. Against quality opponents -– like the Texans two weeks ago -– Gray has been inclined to refer back to the simpler, more familiar, two-deep zone approach. But the Jets aren’t a quality opponent. Don’t be surprised if Gray mixes coverages again, if for no other reason than to play an eight-man box. Tennessee will need the extra defender up front; New York’s run game has been clicking lately, particularly between the tackles, with Shonn Greene and Bilal Powell.
The loss of Darrelle Revis was undoubtedly damning to the Jets’ defense. Not so much because they lost a great corner, but because they lost the mask that had been covering their inept pass-rush. Without a shutdown corner, Rex Ryan can’t be as aggressive or creative with his third-down blitzes and zone-exchanges.
Without that creativity, the Jets can’t generate pressure, as they have no fearsome attackers outside. Calvin Pace is a solid edge-setter and puzzle piece pass-rusher, but that’s it -- he has had a very quiet year. Bryan Thomas is a less dynamic Pace. The hope was that Quinton Coples could become a playmaker. With his rookie season nearly in the books, it’s apparent that the first-round pick is simply too methodical to create initial separation as a rusher in space. Coples is equipped to play inside, either as a nickel defensive tackle or base 3-4 end. At best he’ll likely become another Muhammad Wilkerson.
That’s not all bad: the burly, long-armed Wilkerson is one of the toughest one-on-one phone booth matchups in the league today. He and Mike DeVito have singlehandedly (or "doublehandedly," I guess) made New York’s run defense formidable. In fact, it’s formidable enough that, given Tennessee’s depleted offensive line (every starter save for left tackle Michael Roos is injured), interim offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains might be wise to eschew feeding Chris Johnson on the ground.
The problem with this approach is it puts a lot of pressure on Jake Locker. At this point, the second-year pro is too mechanically unsound to drop back and throw 50 times a game. This is evident in the way Locker’s ball tends to sail. Because Locker is more comfortable playing on the move (be it as a scrambler or out-of-the-pocket passer), the Titans passing game is fairly dependent on defenses respecting the run.
Even with no Revis, it’ll be difficult for Tennessee to line up and simply beat New York’s secondary -– especially with tight end Jared Cook out with a shoulder injury. Kenny Britt has not been reliable as a route runner or ball-handler this season. Good press corners (which we’ll classify Antonio Cromartie as, even though he plays an athletic-but-unrefined brand of finesse man coverage) have little trouble taking Britt out of the equation. Rookie wideout Kendall Wright has dynamic speed, particularly trekking east and west, but he’s yet to establish himself as anything more than an occasional catch-and-run threat.
Where the Titans passing game can succeed is on downfield shot plays, assuming the offensive line can hold up. The best time for this is on running downs, where the Jets, in their base personnel, are far less likely to blitz. Safety Yeremiah Bell is serviceable as a downhill player but not very rangy over the top. His running mate, LaRon Landry, has that range, and has shown some improved awareness in coverage. That said, Landry is still most comfortable playing near the box. The Titans, who will struggle to sustain drives with a makeshift line, need to shoot for big plays.
4 comments, Last at 31 Dec 2012, 1:15pm by Johnathon