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 Aug 2012
by Andy Benoit
(Ed. Note: Thanks to The New York Times for allowing us to re-run Andy Benoit's annual team previews. Please be aware that these previews are more scouting-oriented than what we run in Football Outsiders Almanac 2012, and they represent one man's opinion so they may differ from the forecast from our statistical team projection system. -- Aaron Schatz)
Here’s a guarantee: The New York Jets will be full of drama in 2012. Even if Rex Ryan doesn’t run his mouth. Even if Santonio Holmes doesn’t act like, well, Santonio Holmes. Even if Darrelle Revis doesn’t gripe about his contract. Even if some faceless coward doesn’t give a reporter an anonymous quotation. Even if Bart Scott doesn’t go maniacal. Even if Tim Tebow says the right things about Mark Sanchez. Even if Antonio Cromartie doesn’t yet again reveal a new depth of immaturity.
Let’s face it: the Jets are about drama. Some of that comes from playing in New York. Most of it comes from the Jets just being the way they are. They might be the only team in football that is actually strongly influenced by the pressure of living up to their own chutzpah and hype, which is precisely why they claim to be interested in quelling the chutzpah and hype this year. Give them a B for effort (Rex Ryan has said publicly that he regrets some of his "guarantees") and a D for execution (trading for perhaps the most hyped player of this generation, then often playing along with the media circus that comes with him).
What can get lost in the drama and hype is an understanding of what this team really is. In short, it’s a franchise that’s generally well run upstairs, where general manager Mike Tannenbaum has a good eye for maximizing the depth of his roster, as well as in the meeting rooms, where Ryan and his staff always concoct a wide range of shrewd game plans over the course of a season. This has led to surprisingly deep postseason runs in two of the last three seasons.
But this is also a team with inherent limitations, particularly on offense. The Jets are weak in some of the worst areas to be weak. Last season, that caught up to them. Some would say that a fractured locker room led to the downfall; locker rooms rarely fracture when guys are playing well, though.
There have been changes over the off-season. Former Dolphins head coach Tony Sparano was hired to reconstruct the anemic offense, while Ryan and his top assistant, Mike Pettine, are tweaking the defensive scheme. Quality hands-on coaching has propelled the Jets to overachieve before, but as last year showed, that can only take you so far. So here’s another guarantee: the New York Jets will miss the playoffs for the second straight year unless some key players improve.
There will be a quarterback controversy in New York. That’s what you sign up for when you bring in Tim Tebow. Tebow himself is not a distraction, but his image and legions of worshipers are. And so are his naysayers. The initial plan seems to be for Tebow to replace Mark Sanchez in the red zone. For the worshipers, that’s not enough. For the naysayers, that’s too much.
Red zone offense has not been the Jets’ problem, though. Getting to the red zone has. That’s why Sanchez’s job security may be in question all season. In truth, no matter what the Jets do at quarterback, they’re going to have issues there: From a passing standpoint, Sanchez is iffy and Tebow is poor.
It’s natural to assume that the Jets will install a Wildcat-heavy offense like the one Tony Sparano ran in Miami. That’s why they traded a fourth-round pick to get Tebow, right? But there’s much more to Sparano’s offense than direct snaps to a running back. Sparano’s passing game, though not particularly complex, will be more demanding than what his predecessor Brian Schottenheimer ran.
Schottenheimer’s tightly structured system was complicated in terms of verbiage and presnap motions, but in execution, it had a lot of either-or reads that allowed Sanchez to spend more time dialing in on one or two specific targets. Sparano’s system is theoretically simpler, but it will feature more combination routes for the receivers, which means Sanchez will have to read coverages more and work through progressions quicker. That’s not his strength.
Sanchez is very good at deciphering defenses before the snap. He mixes his cadences well and is fairly fine-tuned when it comes to dummy gestures. He has a good feel for determining where to go with the ball. The problem is, once the ball is snapped, Sanchez becomes his own foil. If his first read isn’t there, his focus often shifts to what’s happening around his pocket, rather than what’s happening downfield. Occasionally, this frenetic approach will lead to a fantastic sandlot-style third-and-long conversion. But, more often, it is what puts the Jets in third-and-long in the first place, and most of the time, it leads to stalled drives.
It was surprising to see the Jets give Sanchez a new contract over the offseason, some in the NFL have even called the deal "lipstick on a pig." Sanchez was set to earn $17.75 million over 2012 and 2013; he’ll now earn $20.5 million. That’s a relatively minor increase, but the difference is the $20.5 million is guaranteed, so they’re committed to him for at least two more years. After that, the contract essentially features three consecutive one-year options. This is a one foot in, one foot out move by the Jets, which makes sense. They’ve had some success with Sanchez. They know he's accurate throwing between the numbers but lacks the arm strength to zip the ball downfield or outside. They also know his next step in Sparano’s system is as likely to be backward as forward.
If it’s a dramatic step backward, the Jets will feel pressure to do what the Broncos did last season: turn to Tebow and pray that his unique style can grind them to victory. The Broncos did this because, in all likelihood, they knew that their wide receivers weren’t good enough to regularly get open in a timing-based system anyway. So, they might as well just go to the ground. The Jets won’t have problems that extreme at receiver, though aside from Santonio Holmes, this is an underwhelming group.
If the season began today, constantly injured ex-Raider Chaz Schilens would start opposite Holmes. Schilens is basically what Plaxico Burress was. If second-round rookie Stephen Hill can adapt to the pro game as quickly as expected, he’ll start. Hill is a 6-foot-4 athletic dynamo, but he played in Georgia Tech’s triple option system, so his only known skills right now are downfield blocking and fly patterns. Even if Hill is as raw as sushi, he’ll probably see regular action given that veteran Patrick Turner has little speed. Like Hill, though, Turner is a good blocker, which will serve this offense well if it has to go to the Tebow-cat.
It’s important that Holmes bounce back from a disastrous 2011 season. Not only is he the lone wideout worth double-teaming, but aside from developing second-year slot man Jeremy Kerley, he’s the only wideout with true change-of-direction quickness. Holmes’s attitude was bad enough last year, but even worse was his sudden inability to consistently beat man coverage. At his best, he’s the most effective route runner in the NFL; there’s no reason he should continue to struggle.
The No. 2 receiving option will be tight end Dustin Keller, who has a good rapport with Sanchez because it’s easier for a quarterback of Sanchez’s style to throw inside to a big-bodied target. The sinewy Keller moves well, leading to solid underneath route running. Sparano needs to capitalize on this by using the fifth-year pro in more ways. (Keller would appreciate the extra workload given that he’s in a contract year.)
The only way the Jets are going to be an upper echelon rushing team in 2012 is if they wind up featuring Tebow regularly. They don’t have enough quality at running back for a great traditional ground attack. Fourth-year veteran Shonn Greene is coming off his first 1,000-yard season, but he’s not diverse enough to be a featured ball carrier. Greene is strictly a one-speed, downhill runner, which means he depends on great blocking and favorable play designs. The Jets are hoping that third-year pro Joe McKnight can be a change-of-pace weapon capable of creating his own space. It’s doubtful he can. McKnight has shown awful stamina since coming into the league (and not just in his infamous vomiting episode on Hard Knocks). Chances are, the 16 pounds he added in the off-season from eating a "lot of McDonald’s" won’t help.
If Greene becomes unavailable for some reason, 2011 fourth-round pick Bilal Powell or sixth-round rookie Terrance Ganaway could get the nod ahead of McKnight. Powell was unimpressive as a supposed "power runner" in small doses last season, but he has played better at camp and at least has the style to operate behind the lead-blocking of fullback John Conner, who figures to be a big part of the ground game. Ganaway offers a similar style.
New York’s offensive line is hit or miss. Nick Mangold is the best center in the business. He does everything well. Left tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson is still a little more finesse than you’d like, but that style has worked for him. He wasn’t as reliable as usual in pass protection last season, though overall, there’s no reason to worry about him. At right guard, Brandon Moore has been one of the most underrated players in the game over the past few seasons.
So there are three excellent linemen, but the other two are genuine question marks. Left guard Matt Slauson is just a so-so puller, though he did exhibit pretty good run-blocking down the stretch last year. Right tackle Wayne Hunter is an outright liability. He’s athletic, but it just doesn’t translate. The plan was for the 2010 second-round pick Vladimir Ducasse to be starting by now, but he hasn’t even pushed Slauson or Hunter. If he does play in 2012, it will likely be at guard, as the Jets signed stiff-legged swing tackle Stephon Heyer.
We think of Rex Ryan’s system as always putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks. That’s fair, but that pressure has not led to enough sacks. The Jets have ranked 18th, 17th and 17th in sacks under Ryan. To improve here, they plan on shifting their base package from a 3-4 to a 4-3.
To aid this transition, the Jets spent their first-round pick on defensive end Quinton Coples. The comparisons of Coples to Julius Peppers are likely just a result of their shared alma mater (North Carolina), but Coples does have impressively supple athleticism. He’s gifted enough to impact plays even when he doesn’t win the battle.
Before we get too far along in analyzing the rest of the front seven ... just because the Jets say they’ll use more 4-3 looks doesn’t mean they’re overhauling their defense. A lot of their 3-4 looks over the years have featured 4-3 principles, as this coaching staff has always instructed its defensive linemen not to clog two gaps but to do whatever it takes to get into the backfield. The closest thing to a "gap-clogger" up front is nose tackle Sione Pouha, and even his game is predicated largely on penetration. The Jets believe you stop the run by obliterating the blocking scheme, not just "holding your ground."
Part of the 4-3 emphasis is to instill more of a pass-rushing mind-set in second-year defensive lineman Muhammad Wilkerson. The Jets believe that the thundering, long-armed, first-rounder has the potential to be a star. They’re right. If he aligns close to Pouha (or the 2011 third-round pick Kenrick Ellis, a 330-pound force that is still being groomed), he’ll have a chance to face one-on-one blocking and be a hunter. In this sense, Wilkerson can learn from Mike DeVito, an undrafted sixth-year pro who -— mostly under the radar —- plays as well laterally as just about any defensive lineman in the game.
The defensive linemen aim to penetrate the trenches, so Jets linebackers can play with an extremely assertive downhill mind-set. Bart Scott used to be among the best in the league, though at 31, he’s starting to slow down. He could lose snaps, particularly on passing downs, to third-round rookie Demario Davis, whom Ryan loves. Thumping sixth-year pro David Harris has emerged as the true leader of New York’s front seven.
On the outside, Calvin Pace is tremendous against the run. He sets the edge extremely well and must be accounted for when coming from the back side. (Some teams foolishly tried to get away with leaving Pace unblocked on run plays that went away from him last season.) Bryan Thomas, assuming he rebounds from last season’s knee injury, is serviceable as the other outside linebacker. A switch to more 4-3 fronts shouldn’t be a problem for either outside linebacker, as both played defensive end earlier in their careers (though, frankly, they weren’t as effective there).
A lot of the Jets’ sacks won’t come in a 4-3 or a 3-4 alignment; they’ll come in a Whatever The Heck This Third Down Defensive Look Is alignment. Ryan’s famously creative scheme is fairly straightforward on first and second down, then crazy on third down. It’s in obvious passing situations that he unleashes his blitzes, overloads and zone exchanges. The whole idea is to disrupt the offense’s timing by winning early in the down. That’s why so much of Ryan’s scheme is simple chicanery. Ryan just wants to instill in the offense the perception of pressure. If the Jets can do that, then the play’s pace speeds up and timing breaks down.
The Jets’ success at doing this is the primary reason their opponents completed just 54.2 percent of their passes last season. In the name of playing fast, Ryan loves to rush the passer with sheer speed, which is why safeties are often involved in the blitzes and exchanges. The hope is that traditional pass rushers Coples and ex-Bill Aaron Maybin (a first-round bust who seems to have found a niche as a space-oriented attacker in this scheme) can infuse more natural speed into the system. Still, expect to see the defensive backs bringing plenty of heat.
One defensive back who is perfect for this system is LaRon Landry. The former Redskin is not always mentally sharp as a pass defender, but he’s an explosive downhill attacker from the second and third levels. Hopefully the Jets can feature Landry in plenty of blitzes, though doing so might be tough given that ex-Dolphins safety Yeremiah Bell is a sturdy in-the-box player but not a rangy center fielder. The Jets may decide that they need Landry’s speed back deep.
Of course, when you have Darrelle Revis at cornerback, whoever is at safety only has to worry about half the field. Revis is the league’s only true shutdown corner. There’s not a more valuable defender in the game. Opposite him, Antonio Cromartie always brings big-play potential, but it’s a bit of a double-edged sword. Cromartie’s sloppy mechanics leave him prone to mistakes against good opponents. The Jets begrudgingly live with this because the seventh-year pro compensates with such rare athleticism.
Cromartie and Revis are the only Jets defenders who don’t rush the passer, though you could probably add No. 3 cornerback Kyle Wilson to this sentence because it’s doubtful he’ll be asked to blitz much this season, given his disconcerting tendency to ignore the quarterback and worry about blockers. Wilson’s value is in coverage, an area in which he’s improving, but not yet a finished product. The Jets need him to thrive because all three of their AFC East foes will regularly feature three- and four-receiver sets in 2012. The Jets have absolutely no proven depth at corner behind Wilson. And with Jim Leonhard gone, if Eric Smith gets hurt, they’ll be equally thin at safety. That’s a problem given Ryan’s affinity for personnel packages that feature seven defensive backs.
Nick Folk was a somewhat ho-hum 19 of 25 on field-goal attempts last season, so the Jets brought in some competition in the form of the big-footed veteran Josh Brown. Punter T.J. Conley was serviceable in his first season on the job last year and should have little trouble fending off the undrafted rookie Travis Baltz. In the return game, Joe McKnight is dangerous on kicks (he averaged a whopping 31.6 yards per return last season) and Jeremy Kerley has some quickness on punts.
The Jets are, at best, mediocre in the passing game, and their rushing attack is nothing special. So they’re once again dependent on great defense. This defense, however, has less depth than in past years. That could be a problem.
3 comments, Last at 20 Aug 2012, 11:19am by iyarnian