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Breaking Down the Jets vs the Chargers

After a very good all around effort on Sunday the Jets now enter the divisional round of the NFL playoffs for the first time in six years. The whispers of the words “Super Bowl” can be heard throughout the city and surrounding areas this week, as teams that make it to this level are looked at as special teams by the hometown fans and the Jets are no exception. Standing in the way of their journey is arguably the best team in the NFL, the San Diego Chargers, winners of 11 straight games and four straight AFC West crowns.

Jets Defense vs. Chargers Offense

The only QB from the acclaimed 2004 QB class to not win a Super Bowl is hands down the most talented QB of the three. Phillip Rivers has separated himself from both Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger by showing that he can put a team on his back and carry them through the NFL season to division title after division title. Rivers has put himself on the elite QB level in the NFL, just a notch below Peyton Manning, and looks to be a legit MVP contender from this point onward, something neither of his two draft mates will likely ever be. Rivers is brash and cocky, but he backs it up with his play on the field. He has been spectacular in 2009. 9 games of at least 250 yards passing. Over 4200 yards on the season. 28 Tds to only 9 interceptions. The worst single game passer rating he received was an 84.5. Quite simply nobody has been able to even come close to stopping Rivers from controlling and taking over the football game. Rivers is extremely accurate and is able to quickly find his receivers to eliminate pressure from getting to him. He does an excellent job spreading the football around and is not afraid to let the ball fly deep to his targets. The Chargers believe in one thing in their passing game and that is size. They have receivers who can out stride the opposition and go up and grab the football over a defender in the red zone. The Chargers three main pass catchers are all 6 ‘5” and their smallest wideout is 6’2”. The Chargers two primary passing weapons- are WR Vincent Jackson and TE Antonio Gates. Jackson has begun to come into his own as a big play threat, averaging over 17 yards per catch, using his height and size to create the separation needed to make the big plays. Jackson is one of the few wide receivers in the NFL capable of the monster 130+ yard type of game and his size makes him an ideal red zone target. Gates is a monster at TE and one of the most gifted players at his position in the NFL. Like Jackson, Gates has great size and tremendous hands. He runs routes as well as a receiver and is a big threat around the goalline. Malcom Floyd is another big down the field threat who averages over 17 yards per catch while Legedu Naanee makes the grabs in traffic as a safety for Rivers. The running game for the Chargers is non-existent. Future Hall of Famer LaDainian Tomlinson gets almost all of the carriers for the team on 1st and 2nd downs, but is a shell of his former self. The grind of being used for so many years as option A, B, and C for the Chargers has taken its toll on Tomlinson as he looks slow and no longer can change directions to escape the defense. His best trait is that he does still show enough effectiveness to be a good goalline back and the Chargers will likely call his number before anyone elses once they get deep inside the opponents territory. RB Darren Sproles, who made a name for himself during last postseason, has been unable to live up to the expectations as a runner. The Chargers do use swing passes to Sproles, who can be dangerous in the open field, in place of the run game. FB Mike Tolbert finds is often able to leak out into the passing routes for some nice gains or scores.

Unlike any other team the Jets have faced this season, the Chargers mantra is to attack through the air and attack deep at all costs. Most offenses send one player deep, hoping that pulls a safety leaving some soft spots for their second and third receivers underneath. The Chargers don’t believe in that. They will send Gates deep up the seam with Floyd and Jackson both just running go routes down the field. They force the secondary to make quick decisions and Rivers is excellent at spotting the single coverage and then airing it out. What gives the Jets an advantage here is that CB Darrelle Revis is one of the only corners in the NFL that can play single coverage which will make it much harder for the Chargers to get their single coverage anywhere else on the field. Revis is going to get the task of covering Jackson and has done extremely well against the big physical types who just go down the field this season, whether it was Randy Moss, Andre Johnson, or Terrell Owens. The only receiver this year that gave Revis any trouble was Reggie Wayne and Jackson is not that kind of route runner, so the assumption the Jets will make is that Revis will take Jackson completely away. Revis needs to be careful about two things this week. One is that there will be no margin or error for Revis this week as he rarely will have any over the top help. The second is that Revis has to be careful with how he plays Jackson. Jackson is going to initiate contact, but Revis must be careful to not get in a shoving match with Jackson as the referees have made it known that they are going to call anything and everything against players in the secondary now that the playoffs have begun. The Jets will need a big game from S Kerry Rhodes if they want to win. He is the only player on the team with the skill and size to matchup with Gates. He will likely get help underneath from Bryan Thomas who is the teams best LB in coverage. Last year when these teams met the Jets did an excellent job of taking Gates out of the game. If Revis and Rhodes do their jobs this week it will allow Sheppard to get some deep help against Floyd from either Eric Smith or Jim Leonhard. If this proves effective it can take the Chargers out of their usual gameplan, something no team has had the personnel to do this season.

The Chargers do certain things that will force the Jets into trying different methods of attack. The Chargers will keep two backs in the backfield to help pick up the blitz which helps neutralize some of the different blitz packages. Tomlinson and Tolbert are both excellent at identifying and picking up the blitz. They do not hesitate if they realize there is nobody to block and will both leak into the field to provide the safe out for Rivers if the bomb is not there. Sproles is not as good at the blitz pickup but is much more dangerous if he catches the football. The Jets will likely pick their spots to bring their blitzes, but have to be very aware of Sproles. The Jets were terrible against RB Cedric Benson last week and Sproles is far faster than Benson. Players like Leonhard can not whiff on Sproles if he gets the ball. At the very least they must provide some type of effort to slow him down so David Harris or Bart Scott can make a play. If the Jets want to pressure Rivers they are going to have to dial up the inside blitzes from the ILBs and hope that DE Shaun Ellis and LB Calvin Pace have the kind of games where they can dial up the pressure. If the Jets want to advance past this round the defense has to play better than last week. They can’t just be good this week, they have to be great.

Jets Offense vs. Chargers Defense

The one area that stands in the way of San Diego winning a championship is that they are far from having a championship caliber defense. The weakest part of the Charger defense is in their run defense, which at times has been run over this season. San Diego often gets away with this weakness because they have such an explosive offense that teams abandon the run in order to try to keep up with San Diego’s offense. The main cause of the problems are in a thin and inexperienced Defensive Line. Ian Scott and Travis Johnson have had the unenviable task of replacing NT Jamal Williams, lost to injury early this year. Neither is able to hold up the way Williams was in the past and that has helped make running into the Chargers interior a priority for other teams, something that has not been the case in the past. The DE’s both do a terrible job containing the outside and teams are having good success running both at Jacques Cesaire and Luis Castillo. The linebackers play hard but have no real standouts in the group. OLB Shawne Merriman is a big name player, but has not shown any of the pass rushing ability that made him great as he has tried to recover from injury. He has been nursing a foot injury for the last six weeks which has slowed him down even more, but the staff insists this will be the healthiest he has been in a long time. Stephen Cooper is the steadiest LB the team has as he does a good job of holding up runners and covering the middle of the field. He isn’t a game changer by any means, but does his job. Brandon Siler and Kevin Burnett split time at ILB and do a decent job against the run. OLB Shaun Phillips is the teams best pass rusher and has 7 sacks on the season. He does not blow anyone away, but is a good athlete and a good all around player and would likely grade out similar to Jet Calvin Pace. The best part of the Chargers run defense is actually provided by the secondary who do a good job shedding their receivers and making a play on the runners. This helps eliminate any big run plays that could cause a quick score. The pass defense is not great, but they have two cornerbacks in Quentin Jammer and Antonio Cromartie who are both very good. Both do a good job of keeping plays in front of them and not allowing plays to break deep over top. The Chargers biggest problem in this area are with the nickel and dime packages as they do not have great secondary depth behind the two starting corners and S Eric Weddle. Teams with the ability to go three and four wide find openings in the game.

The Jets really showed some life on offense last week, particularly in the passing game where QB Mark Sanchez, WR Jerricho Cotchery, and TE Dustin Keller all played outstanding football. Going into the playoffs the one weakness the Jets clearly had was in their passing game and if they really turned a corner this past weekend they have everything in place to make a run. That said, you do not want to read too much into one football game and expecting Sanchez and Keller, neither of whom had dome much recently, to both have the same kind of games may be wishful thinking. The Jets biggest advantage this week should once again be in the offensive line vs. defensive line matchups. The Jets O-line has gelled at the perfect time and is playing as well as any group in the league. They manhandled the Bengals these past two weeks and the Chargers have had problems up front all season long. If the Jets can get the running game on track and stick with it they have the personnel to get big gains on this team for a few reasons. Both Alan Faneca and Nick Mangold are proving to be excellent at escaping down the field and blocking linebackers and safeties if the runner breaks free to the outside. Secondly the Jets wide receivers all block extremely well. If the Jets can hold their blocks on the outside and some linemen get to the second level they may be able to break through the bend but don’t break type of approach the Chargers have to the run game. The big question will be how do the Jets split carries between Thomas Jones and Shonn Greene. Jones has clearly slowed down and almost seems to have become the goalline back for the squad, but Jones is a careful runner with minimal chances of putting the ball on the ground. Greene is far more explosive than Jones and shows the ability to turn the outside corner in a way Jones never has. The Jets may opt to use Jones slightly more than usual to test the interior defense early on especially since the Chargers are a well rested team, most of whom have not played in three weeks. Bringing Greene in after a few series will see the Chargers energy level down and give a completely different speed to the Jets offense. That is probably the safest way to use the rookie this week. The final part of the run package will be Brad Smith at QB running the Wildcat. The Chargers faced Miami and Cleveland this year running that same package and had mixed results. Josh Cribbs had a 30 yard gain and the Dolphins gained 42 yards on 7 plays using the Wildcat, so its possible for Smith to have a big play this week. With the teams keyed on Smith, the Jets may actually even run the style Miami runs with the occasional handoff to the runner coming in motion at the snap.

It is going to be very hard for the Jets to win the game if they can not score points and move the ball through the air. Unless the defense completely shuts down the Chargers the Jets are going to likely need to throw the ball more than 15 times this week. The Chargers have good players at the corner spots, but the Jets faced far better players last week in Cincinnati and Cotchery and Braylon Edwards both found themselves open. Edwards is finding ways to burn even the stingiest coverage seemingly very week, but he has to start catching the football. The Jets will take at least one shot to him this week on a deep pass, but he has to play bigger than he has. The Jets also need to make sure Edwards does not press once he catches the ball. He holds the ball looser than perhaps any receiver in the game and ball security is critical this week. Last week the big surprise player was Keller who came out of nowhere to have a huge game. The question is where can they find one this week? The Jets lack of a third receiver for this game could hurt as the Chargers do not have the personnel to stop them, but can Smith, David Clowney or Wright be that guy? Probably not. The one area where the Jets may look at this week is utilizing their running backs in the passing game, something they have not done much of this season. Jets backs outside of Leon Washington have only caught 21 passes for 155 yards on a mere 37 targets. The Jets may actually be able to make use of Danny Woodhead out of the backfield, especially if they utilize a two back set or decide to split Woodhead or Jones wide. The Chargers often lose sight of guys coming out of the backfield and perhaps this could be the surprise of the week. The other thing that came out of the game last week was that Sanchez looked deadly taking short drops and rifling the ball on little timing patterns. The Chargers are going to expect “ground and pound” from the onset of the game and the Jets could try to catch them off guard going to a short passing game with a no huddle approach to it. The Browns caught the Chargers off guard with such a game plan and sliced them up early on. It does not allow the Chargers to substitute their linemen and linebackers, something they like to do, and would change the complexion of the game if successful. Regardless of how they approach the game they have to score points and be efficient inside the red zone. Leaving points on the field as they have done in many games this year will not be an option this week.

Special Teams

The Chargers have an excellent kicker in Nate Kaeding. He has a huge leg and has only missed three field goals on the season. He has kicked in big games before and learned early on about how depressing it can be to miss a playoff field goal. Kaeding gets off solid kickoffs and the return coverage is very good. Mike Scifres is a good punter with a strong leg, averaging 45 yards a punt. The Chargers do not do a good job covering punts and have allowed a few big returns when they fail to make the initial hit. Darren Sproles handles all the return duties and has been average at best this year. He does have one punt return for a score this year, but has averaged only 4.3 yards a return otherwise which would be the worst in the NFL.

The Jets special teams need to figure out whatever their problems are and get them fixed for this week. Outside of K Jay Feely and the two return men they have been a mess. Last week they gave up two big returns and had two offsides that cost the team 3 points. Though Sproles has had a poor season he is dangerous and if the Jets blow their coverage assignments he can get far down the field. The last thing the Jets can allow is the Charger offense to play on a short field. P Steve Weatherford, who missed last weeks game with an irregular heartbeat, is on track to play. He does not kick the ball far, but gets good hang time on his punts and leads the NFL in fair catches which should help the coverage this week. Cotchery should get an opportunity or two for a big return. With everything on the line this week the Jets may bring back their fake punt as well.

Coaching

There is an enormous amount of pressure on Norv Turner this postseason. Turner was brought in simply because Marty Schottenheimer failed to advance to the Super Bowl and Turner has yet to get there despite being the offseason favorite most seasons. This has been the first season that Turner got his team to play a solid 16 game schedule allowing them to receive a bye, though the turnaround came after another slow start where the GM basically called the team a bunch of quitters. Turner is a great offensive mind, but not very well respected as a head coach , and is coaching for his career.

Rex Ryan has found a way to completely turn a season around that just a few weeks ago was on the brink of disaster. Ryan took a more active role in the entire operation of the team and since then everything has improved. Ryan did an excellent job of turning his team into believers after a disappointing loss to Atlanta seemed to knock them out of the playoffs. They have played inspired football and looked as good as any team in the NFL last week. His team came out and showed no signs of being overwhelmed by the fact that this was the playoffs, a major accomplishment considering the QB of the team is so young. If he can do the same this week his team will have a chance.

Overall

The one good thing going into this game is that the Jets truly seemed focused on the mission of winning the Super Bowl and not buying into the notion that this is “one to grow on” for next year. The Jets have enough veterans on the team to understand that success in 2009 does not mean anything in 2010. Ryan has been around long enough to know you can never take anything in the NFL for granted. Just a few years ago the media had anointed the Jacksonville Jaguars the new powerhouse in the AFC South because they had a young QB and played a tough game as an underdog against the undefeated New England Patriots. That was supposed to be the learning experience that propelled them into the upper echelon of the NFL. Then reality set in and they won five and seven games in the two seasons after that and never come close to the playoffs, let alone the Super Bowl, again. The Jets don’t want to fall into the same trap and let this opportunity ;ass them by because there looks to be a silver lining even in a loss.

There is a definite buzz surrounding the Jets right now. It only grew more when the Baltimore Ravens advanced over the New England Patriots making the dream of a home conference championship game seem like a real possibility. If the Ravens beat the Colts on Saturday the hype in New York is only going to grow because it will seem like so much more on the line. The Jets have never hosted a title game and its been a long time since the Giants even had a game of such magnitude. The Jets would capture the town in a way they never have before.

The Jets will probably gain some type of advantage in the fact that they played here last season in a primetime game which the Chargers treated like a playoff game due to an 0-2 record. Though Sanchez was not here for that game almost everyone else was. They saw how the early turnovers and bad coaching decisions quickly turned the game into a rout allowing 31 points to be scored in the first half. If the Jets play like they did that day they have no chance to win. The Chargers have not changed much since then and the Jets will mainly be facing the same type of team. The Jets are entirely different than the team San Diego faced that day, especially defensively. On paper the Jets match up well with San Diego provided they can remain close to the Chargers. The way the Chargers move the football on offense teams are forced to abandon the running game and rarely can use it in the 4th quarter. The Jets wear teams out with their running attack and do significant damage as the games go on. They need to have the chance to run late to win the game. In the one game where the Chargers trailed, the Steelers ran the Chargers into the ground. That is the kind of attack the Jets are hoping to follow. The Jets can not win if they let the Chargers pull ahead by more than a TD at any point in the game and will likely need to be down no more than a field goal in the 4th quarter if they are to pull the game out.

Unless Sanchez loses his cool there is no reason for the Jets to not be competitive against this team. San Diego rarely blows the doors off good football teams and the Jets are a good team. If the Jets can find a way to use River’s cockiness against him and bait him into an early interception to Revis early they might be able to seize the momentum of the game. You can bet Ryan has shown the Jets the way the Ravens took the heart of the Patriots away in the first 5 minutes of the game last week and that is how you beat these types of teams on the road. The Jets have to hit Rivers very early on and make him know the kind of day he is in for. If ever there was a game for the Jets to live up to the defensive swagger and attitude they often show it is this one. If the defense can find a way to do something similar to what they did to open the season against the Houston Texans they can shut down another high powered offense. The defense also has to close the game out, something they have failed to do all season long. If the Chargers can be held under 10 points at the half the Jets will be in good position to pull off the upset. Anything more than 13 is probably a bad omen. Hopefully the Jets are up for the challenge this week and let the fans experience a scenario they have not experienced in over a decade as they advance to the championship round for the first time since the 1998 season.

Jets 23 Chargers 20