Breaking Down the Jets vs the Bills
I probably wonít have time to do many (if any) more previews of games, but its week 1 so I thought I would put together a preview of the Jets/Bills season opener.
Bills Offense vs Jets Defense
For Buffalo this is a major test. Last season the Bills offense was really cooking on all cylinders for about a 7 week stretch before the wheels fell off in a game against the Jets which seemed to derail the Bills entire season. The Bills went from averaging around 30 points and 380 yards a game to just under 18 points and 330 yards a game with the team only winning 1 of their last 9 games of the season. They come back with largely the same cast of players on offense, led by Ryan Fitzpatrick, a journeyman QB who the Bills rewarded with a nice little contract for his play in the first few games of the year. By the end of the season the numbers for the Bills passers were bad: 13.9% below expected YPC, 48% above expected interceptions, 31% below expected 20+ yard plays. By seasonís end the Bills understood they may have made a mistake and have been working all offseason to hedge their bets on Fitzpatrick by finding a viable backup that can step in if he is ineffective. The strength of the team last season came from an unheralded offensive line that was the best pass blocking unit in the NFL. Their sacks they allowed were 53% below expectations and their increased negative play contribution was only 3.9% (the league average is over 6%). Some of their success is based on quick drop/short pass approach to the game, which is also a reason why the Bills pass success was so poor in terms of yardage, but make no mistake this is a very strong unit. The question will be how does LT Cordy Glenn, a 2nd round draft pick, mesh with everyone on the team.
Buffalo is going to hope that 31 year old RB Fred Jackson continues to be productive and is fully healed from a broken leg. His loss last year was devastating to the offense as he was the safety blanket for Fitzpatrick. In his 9 games before injury Jackson was responsible for over 40% of his teams yardage. With CJ Spiller that number fell to 30%. Still the Bills did finish as the third most efficient rushing team in the NFL and the hope is that a 1-2 punch can be effective now that Spiller has shown flashes of being a worthy player. The passing game weapons are not much. WR Stevie Johnson is a good WR that took an under market deal to remain in Buffalo. He doesnít have the best hands but is a versatile player that can play a possession type role if needed while also stretching a field deep. He did play well against the Jets last season, though hes an injury question this week. The remainder of the receivers are all question marks.
For the Jets to be a success they need the defense to play extremely well and turn back the clock to 2009 if the team wants to compete for the playoffs. The Jets have made improvements to the team in the secondary and up front getting more athletic in hopes of preventing the big plays that doomed them last season. I think everyone is curious to see how new safeties Yeremiah Bell and Laron Landry fit in the defense. Both are talent upgrades over Eric Smith and Jim Leonhard, though talent doesnít always mean results. If they play well and complement starting corners Antonio Cromartie and Darrelle Revis you have the makings of a secondary that will be the best in the NFL. Last season much of Cromarties and Revisí work was negated by the occasional big play given up by Smith and Leonhard. The Jets held teams to 10.8% below their normal completion percentage last season, 3rd in the NFL, but they allowed 13% more 40+ yard pass plays which led to teams actually gaining more YPC than expected. When your offense leaves you no room for error those big plays are magnified.
Really the big question mark is the slot coverage where Kyle Wilson has been below average since coming into the league and was abused in the preseason. Wilson is a tough player to get a handle on. He plays so well against preseason backups but just seems overmatched against starting players. The disparity is gigantic.
Everyone is excited to see the debut of DE Quinton Coples, the Jets first round draft pick. He has flashed in the preseason and shown the athletic ability that makes you think the Jets may have finally found their natural pass rusher that can cut down on all the blitzing. Iíd expect he and Aaron Maybin to be the players primarily used in passing situations since neither can play the run. The Jets will need their linebackers- Bart Scott, David Harris, Calvin Pace, and Bryan Thomas- to show improvement. Harris is a fine player but needs to start making more impactful plays behind the line. Scott has a terrible 2011 campaign to the point where the team would have traded him for anything but could not find any takers for him. He has cut weight and looked better in run support in the preseason than he did last year. Itís doubtful he will play much on passing downs. Pace is really the big enigma. He started out really well last season, almost at a pro bowl level, and then just completely regressed and gave the team nothing down the stretch. Up front there will be expectations on DT Kenrick Ellis who looks ready to assume the mantle of a starting player. With Sione Pouha banged up his impact may be limited putting more responsibility of Ellis. The team has always done well against the run and as long as Ellis maintains his ground there is no reason to think that this group wonít continue to be effective.
I donít view this game as a measuring stick for the defense since the Bills skills have never matched up well with the Jets. They donít have deep threats to exploit the safety nor the receiver depth to test the third corner, and their running game lives off big plays which the Jets have always done a good job against. If the Jets were to play poorly that would be reason for concern, at least until it was proven that the Bills offense was much improved. The Jets need to key on the Bills running game to keep the team in 3rd and longer situations. Fitzpatrickís accuracy goes away as soon as he is asked to throw the ball over 10 yards, completing under 50% of his passes. It also gives the team an opportunity to pressure him since the 3 step and throw plays that Buffalo likes canít pick up the necessary yards for a first down. Fitzpatrick is one of the worst pressure QBs in the NFL. His completion percentage falls from over 66% to under 44%, while his interception rate rises from just over 3% to nearly 7.7% per attempt. He also takes off and runs 9.6% of the time compared to just over 3% in normal conditions. When you consider the strength of the Jets secondary that could lead to nightmarish numbers for the Bills QB, but they are only going to create pressure if they force those 3rd and longs.
Jets Offense vs Bills Defense
No defense has been talked about more this offseason than that of the Buffalo Bills. They went out and spent tons of money to bring in Mario Williams and Mark Anderson to anchor the defensive line and bring about a devastating pass rush that creates havoc for other teams. I would imagine that the team was built with the Giants in mind, but similar to the Giants there should be questions about how successful this strategy is in the regular season. In terms of overall pass rush effectiveness the Giants DEís ranked 5th, 20th, and 40th in the regular season. Their tackles ranked 23rd and 24th. The difference is in the playoffs they turned things up to incredible levels and all clicked at the same time. But what happened in the 2012 opener against the Cowboys where you wondered where the rush was in the 2nd half is what normally happened with the Giants last season. Jason Pierre Paul gets a ton of sacks but that doesnít mean he actually gets to the QB all the time. That is similar to Williams who wasnít a top 10 end in either 2009 or 2010 in terms of rushes created per opportunity. Itís not as if his presence created more opportunities for others, including Anderson who was great last season for the Patriots, either so I donít know if it will or will not work here. The Bills do have tremendous interior players in Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams that are better than what the Giants have to offer and they have the potential to make the biggest impact on games this year. Three of their starters are coming off injury.
Its really all or nothing with the pass rush. The linebackers on the team are all non descript. They arenít bad players or good players. They are average NFL types that fight for jobs every season. If the rush doesnít get to the QB the Bills cornerbacks will be tested as all are unproven. Rookie Stephon Gilmore has high expectations, but seemed to have a difficult time in the preseason. Aaron Williams is just in his second season while veteran Terrence McGee is barely hanging on in the league. They do have decent safeties in Jairus Byrd and George Wilson with Wilson being a run support player and Byrd being a good coverage guy. Byrd likely wont be the playmaker he looked to be two seasons ago, but he is one of the more promising safeties in the NFL.
All eyes are on the Jets offense this week. Nobody knows what they are, but if it is anything close to the product we saw in the preseason they stand to be the worst offense in the NFL. QB Mark Sanchez enters his fourth season with talk of Eli Manning, but the majority of players who have tracked like Sanchez are compared with Joey Harrington. That doesnít mean Sanchez can not do it, but I fear for his confidence if things start slow. He has Tim Tebow right behind him, but Tebow was so bad in the preseason Sanchez may have a longer leash than expected. Sanchez and the Jets need more from WR Santonio Holmes than they got last season. Holmes is a talented player, but he destroyed the locker room last season. Holmes does all the right things with his teammates on the sidelines but when the ball doesnít come his way he gets too upset. Dustin Keller is in his contract season and is playing for a big payday. Though he may be limited this week the Jets expect a lot of him this season. Outside of those two the passing game has little. 2nd round draft pick Stephen Hill is going to get the confidence start this week, but I would think Patrick Turner and Chaz Schillens will get as many snaps as Hill. Hill is in a tough spot because he is a big time developmental prospect on a team with no depth at the position and with a very demanding fanbase. If he drops the ball like he did in the summer he is going to hear it from the crowd.
The problems with the offensive line are well documented by the player to watch closely this season is DíBrickashaw Ferguson. Ferguson was dreadful last year, especially after the first few games. While he is not an elite tackle he normally has been just one step below. A team can deal with struggles from one tackle position, but when you get it from both ends itís a problem. Nobody expects the right side of the line to be good, but the left side has to be. The running game is expected to be the life of the team, which is scary since the line isnít really built for that nor are the runners anything special. Shonn Greene will get the majority of playing time but he needs to do more to keep the legs churning and pick up short yards. Right now he is a plodder that hesitates at the line when itís clogged. Tebow is going to get his share of running opportunities either as a QB or a halfback and he will be the most dangerous runner they have. The problem is he is also the type of player to take a 10 yard loss on some type of run/option play as he tries to make something happen. The offense can not afford negative plays of any kind.
Unlike for the defense, for the offense this is a big test. Nobody believes in them at all. I donít think anyone in that locker room even believes in them. Nobody believes that the Jets line can hold up against the Buffalo line. The track record is so poor that every game they struggle, especially at home, is going to amp up the pressure on Sanchez and company and it is not something they can deal with. Two or three drives without a first down is going to lead to an ugly scene at Metlife. Week 1 is all about doing things teams donít expect and if the Jets come out and look to run the ball every first down chance their offense is sunk. Holmes should be able to get open in the secondary, but could be used as a decoy more than anything else. The other receivers are not going to get any respect so if coverage rolls his way the Jets need to take their chances with their other players and make big plays down the field. To expect the Jets to just grind out 13 play drives isnít realistic. Itís going to be a game where they need to pick some spots and try to move the ball quickly down the field . If they can make the Bills begin to adjust early they may be able to sneak some quick points on the board before the Bills really settle in to play. If they decide to get into max protection and overloaded jumbo lines early on its going to be a long game.
The Bills have an excellent punter in Brian Moorman, perhaps the best in the entire league. They are carrying two kickers this season- steady veteran Rian Lindell and rookie John Potter. Potter will be used for kickoffs and likely long field goal attempts. The Bills return game should not be a factor.
The Jets quickly switched punters before the season was officially underway replacing TJ Conley, who was extremely inconsistent, with Robert Malone who has been pretty terrible in his brief stints in the NFL. The Jets know that a punter is very important to the team and Iím sure the feeling was that Conley was not good enough so they may as well try someone different. I wouldnít be surprised if Malone is one of three punters signed this year. Nick Folk retained the kicking job and he had a decent 2011 but struggled late. Joe McKnight could be dangerous on returns and most likely only made the team because of that, but will not likely be a factor due to Potterís leg.
I get the sense that Rex Ryan is fed up with all the negative predictions and sentiments about the Jets. He has kept his mouth shut, but you can tell he is frustrated with the way the team has been looked at. Is it unfair? In some ways it is. I mean the team was 8-8 last season, not 4-12, and has made the playoffs 2 of the last 3 seasons. The defense is very good and they do have a number of Pro Bowl players on the team. They are being held to a different standard because A. in NY the Giants won another Super Bowl which has begun to crush the Jets fan and B. Nationally people cant wait to stick it to a guy like Ryan who brought a lot of this on himself in his first three seasons coaching the team.
For Rex the challenge is going to be what to do if things donít work. He so believes in this Tebow package somehow solving the offensive problems that I think he would be at a complete loss if it doesnít work. All preseason they have refused to show these special packages just for the sake of this game and if those packages come in and do the same as the other personnel there will a ton of questions about why they didnít practice in the summer. This is going to be a very difficult season for Ryan who is going to have to balance his own expectations, the fans expectations, players feelings, and crazy promises made about various personnel as they struggle to find an offensive identity. The cracks are already there between the offense and defense and with each failing possession they are going to get bigger and bigger.
Can the Buffalo Bills win this game? Sure. Week 1 is usually marred by sloppy play and there are few teams that can survive sloppy play less than the Jets. The Jets have been slow starters the last two seasons and were lucky to come out with a win last year against Dallas. If the Jets start turning the ball over the game is finished. If they cant get out of their own way the defense is going to get blown up and be finished down the stretch of the game, especially if Ellis and Coples have to play significant minutes. While I am not certain the Bills pass rush attack will provide the boost that the Bills think it will, those type of players absolutely wear you down as a game goes on, especially if you get into a situation where you have to pass to play catchup. I think its also key for the defense to hold strong over the first two possessions of the game and not put the offense in a position where they press to score.
I do think all the talk of this being a must win game is pretty over the top. I understand hyperbole in the media and the need to turn every week into a Super Bowl, but doing so in week 1 is a little much. Yes you donít want to give away games early, especially against a divisional opponent, but to start playing schedules and guaranteeing losses in week 2 just shows no understanding of how the NFL works from year to year.
That being said I do find this game to be very important for the offense. I think itís a game where they must perform. They need to rinse away the disaster that was last season and whatever garbage the team gave the fans in the preseason. As crazy as it sounds I think the fans, media, and maybe even some on the team would feel better about a 28-24 loss than a 10-7 win. Everyone believes in the defense. One bad game doesnít turn the sentiment against a team. This is why there is no panic about the Giants offense after a pretty poor performance in their opener. But the offense doesnít have the track record the defense has. Most people consider it bad and when you hear members of the defense criticizing the teams GM about the personnel they put on the offensive side of the field, you know the teams internal thoughts on the team. I would say that the worst thing that could happen to the Jets this week is losing the game 13-6 or something along those lines. It just reinforces every negative thought about the team.
The other thing which needs to work this week is the Tebow package. If the team honestly plans to use him 10-15 snaps in the game, of which half are replacing Sanchez, he has to perform better than Sanchez in those spots. If you are going to pull your starting QB from drives for a gimmick those gimmick plays have to be purposeful. The reason Rex Ryan loved Brad Smith so much was because he would come in for 4 plays here and there and one play might end up being 20 or 30 yards. In those two years with Ryan he averaged 7.9 and 11.5 YPA. That is far better than the output you would get with your base offense. No running back was going to have four carries for that kind of yardage. Odds are if Mark Sanchez throws 4 passes he isnít gaining that many yards. Gimmicks have to have outstanding results to merit use and Ryan has made this team believe that this gimmick is the best or all time. If Tebow comes in there and averages 3 or 4 yards a play all you are doing is screwing up the flow of the game on offense.
I do think the Jets will find a way to win this game. I think their defense was embarrassed last year and will rally around their head coach and the challenge of carrying the team to a win. I just think its such a good matchup for the Jets on that side of the ball that Buffalo is not going to be able to score any points. I donít think the Jets offense is going to score many points either and that we will all come out of this game with the same reservations about the team as we had going into the preseason. In many ways the teams are a mirror of one another. Any low scoring game is going to have the fans of both teams raving about their defense and killing their respective quarterback. Both QBís have backups behind them with starting experience just waiting to get an opportunity. But I like having the home field to start the season. While the game is not sold out I do think the fans in the building will rally around the defense and around Tebow. If both are successful there wont be the home field disadvantage that is possible if the base offense struggles and the defense is just average. In my experience a 1PM week 1 game in a season without a ton of expectations will likely see a good deal of fans tailgating and waltzing in midway thru the first period which also gives Sanchez a little breathing room to have a slow start without too many people getting on him. I think the Jets will do just enough to have that energetic crowd to help disrupt Buffalo and get out of week 1 with a win.