Breaking Down the Jets vs the Falcons
The Jets decision to put the games in the hands of the defense has brought the team new life as they find themselves in the middle of a three game winning streak and tied for the final spot in the playoffs. To keep the playoff dream a reality they will have to defeat the injured, but dangerous, Atlanta Falcons whose playoff life is hanging by a thread in the NFC.
Jets Defense vs. Falcons Offense
The Falcons were dealt a major blow when they lost RB Michael Turner to an ankle injury on November 15th in the middle of a game against the Carolina Panthers. Turner and the running game are integral parts of the Falcons offense which the team uses to take some of the pressure off of QB Matt Ryan. Turner is a dangerous runner who had looked to have turned the corner after a slow start as he rushed for over 400 yards in 2 1/2 games before the injury occurred. The dropoff to Jerious Norwood, a nice 3rd down back, and Jason Snelling, more of a short yardage player, has been huge. The two have averaged a meager 58 yards per game on 3.12 yards per carry compared to Turner's 86+ YPG on a 4.88 YPC. They have also been hurt by the loss of starting RG Harvey Dahl, who was credited with much of the success of the Falcons rushing attack in 2008 and 2009. Prior to the loss of Turner, the team was 5-3 and averaged over 25 points a game. Since losing him the Falcons are 1-4, with their lone win coming against the awful Buccaneers, and their scoring has fallen to 20 points per contest. The team also lost Ryan during that stretch of games, but the dropoff from Ryan to journeyman Chris Redman has not been nearly as meaningful. While Ryan handles pocket pressure better than Redman does, Ryan has not made that second season leap many projected and was on a terrible streak with 10 interceptions in 6 games. His numbers were down across the board in 2009. It is possible that Turner will return for the game against the Jets, but is unlikely that Ryan will suit up. Neither would be 100% for the game. The team has two excellent skill position players in the passing game. WR Roddy White has become one of the better receivers in the NFL and is on his way to his 3rd 1,000 yard season, but has had a relatively quiet season compared to his past successes. White is being used more in the possession game and that has only amounted to him having 4 big type games this year and only averaging about 43 YPG in the other games on the schedule. TE Tony Gonzalez continues to be a terrific pass catcher even as his career dwindles down. He catches everything that comes his way and, along with White, gets most of the looks from the QB. The Falcons have no other dangerous targets in the passing game. Michael Jenkins plays the role of the two, but he has been a disappointment since being drafted in 2004. Jenkins has good speed but suspect hands and rarely is used down the field.
Though the defense has not exactly matched up with a who's who of offenses these past three games, they have completely stifled those teams. The numbers have been ridiculous. Opposing QB ratings of 14.2. 12% conversion on 3rd downs. Less than 170 yards of offense per game. Just over 7 points allowed per game. This is the type of defensive play that wins Super Bowls. The defense has been sparked by the growth of CB Darrelle Revis who has gone from being simply great to playing at a level that few NFL players ever reach. Revis is being moved all over the field and he is able to bait QBs into throwing at him which is leading to all kinds of incompletions and turnovers. He is no longer just the best corner in the NFL, but arguably the best defender in the entire league. Overall the secondary play has been much better. Lito Sheppard is playing his best football since the 2007 season and Eric Smith has been a good role player at safety. Kerry Rhodes, who may be an offseason problem, has intercepted three passes since his benching and is no longer being singled out by announcers for poor play. All four of the Jets starting linebackers seem to finally be meshing together and playing complementary football. As a group they are coming off their most complete performance of the season. Finally the defensive line, behind Shaun Ellis, is completely controlling the line of scrimmage. It seems rare that there is ever a play where the Jets are not pushing the line into the backfield and initiating the action. The team has definitely responded to the coaches challenge and seems rejuvenated after a period where it looked as if they were ready to just play out the string.
The big question of the week will be who does and who does not play for the Falcons. The key would look to be Turner. If you want to nitpick one aspect of the defense that has not been great it has been the defenses occasional letdown to allow a few big runs. DeAngelo Williams broke off a big run on 3rd and long and Marshawn Lynch steamrolled the Jets on the lone TD drive given up during this stretch. Turner has the ability to do what Maurice Jones Drew did to the Jets a few weeks ago and put together a big quarter before the defense adjusts to him. If Turner can not play it is hard to picture players like Snelling and Norwood doing much damage to the Jets which will make the Falcons even more one dimensional than they currently are. Expect the Jets to roll alot of help towards the Gonzalez matchup. Though the Jets did do a good job against the TE position last week it has been a tougher spot for them to cover throughout the season. If Rhodes is out of the doghouse this could be his responsibility as this is the type of player he should have the ability to excel against. Revis will likely get White for a majority of the snaps, but the Jets will also try to get another player in his area. Those two players account for well over 50% of the pass attempts from the Falcons and are the only receivers who really ever get a look in the red zone. It is a major reason why the team has so many interceptions and having extra hands to grab a deflection should pay off in a game such as this one. If Redman plays QB, and it looks as if he will, the Jets players need to get their hands up on passing plays. Redman has a low release and has had the football batted back down at him on more than a few occasions this season.
Jets Offense vs. Falcons Defense
Though the Atlanta offensive injuries are going to get the main share of the blame if the team misses the playoffs, the biggest disappointment has been the Falcons defense which has been nothing short of a disaster. The pass defense has been abysmal. Much of the blame goes on former Jets DE John Abraham who has followed up his 16.5 sack season with only 3.5 sacks, and he has been held sackless since week 9. Abraham may put forth a better effort as he takes on his former team, but right now he is a non-factor. DE Jamaal Anderson is officially an NFL bust, with only 2.5 sacks in three years of play, and is often replaced on passing downs. DT Justin Babineaux was recently arrested and may not play in the game. He has been the most consistent player on a bad line. The secondary has just been picked on by almost every team they have faced. They give up all kinds of plays down the field and are arguably the worst pass defense in the NFL. Their best corner, Chris Houston, may miss the game with a hamstring injury leaving Chris Owens and Brent Grimes as the primary cover corners. Former Jet Erik Coleman lines up at safety, but has not done a very good job this season. In general the safeties on the team bite too often on fakes and find themselves having to catchup to a receiver who sneaks behind them. The Falcons run defense has been far better than the pass defense. Atlanta does a good job keeping the plays in front of them, which is primarily the result of signing Mike Peterson and watching have his best year since 2005. Williams is a strong tackler who quickly fills the gaps to stop the runner at the line. MLB Curtis Lofton is second in the NFL in tackles and does a good job covering sideline to sideline. Still the play of the line is so bad that the LB's and safeties are often making plays after 3 and 4 yards rather than at the line.
The Jets have their own questions this week as to whether or not Mark Sanchez will get the nod to start again this week. Sanchez is nursing a knee injury and seems to have fallen somewhat out of favor with the head coach over his sometimes carefree play which led to the injury. If Sanchez does not play the job will fall back to Kellen Clemens who was less than impressive in last weeks game against the Bucs. Regardless of who plays the primary job of the QB is simply to be a caretaker of the offense and hand the ball off to Thomas Jones. Jones and the offensive line have become the focal point of the offense after the teams offensive meltdown in New England. While this has Jones facing 9 and 10 men fronts he has worked very hard to gain the necessary yardage and is able to make the big play when it presents itself. Shonn Greene, whose fumbling has become a problem, should see some carries as well. Greene is more explosive than Jones, but his ball security right now is terrible. Danny Woodhead has surprisingly become the teams third down back and has found himself open out of the backfield often. Woodhead is showing good hands and has become a far bigger part of the offense than anyone anticipated. All three of the Jets primary receivers, Braylon Edwards, Jerricho Cotchery, and David Clowney, seem to have accepted where the offense is going and are all doing a good job blocking down the field for Jones and company. The Jets will still take a few chances in the passing game, especially if Sanchez plays, with both Edwards and Cotchery.
The matchup is a bit tricky because this will be one of the first times where the Jets really face a pass defense that can be attacked deep with little threat of being picked off. If Sanchez plays the game it could mean that the Jets will take their chances and let him air the ball out a bit more than we have seen the past few weeks. Every WR should have the edge against their Falcons counterparts and Atlanta is going to overplay the run early. Sanchez loves to use the pump fake and that will draw the Falcons safeties right out of coverage almost every time. The one thing about Sanchez is that he is very streaky. If he completes two passes in a row he will probably rattle off a long drive or two for scores before he cools off. That is something that could work to the teams advantage against the Falcons. Of course you also run the risk of the Sanchez implosion that starts the game off on the wrong foot which will be hard to recover from. If Clemens starts it is doubtful the Jets will allow him to pass the ball very deep and it will likely open up more packages featuring Brad Smith running the option style offense from under center. The Jets will have to score points in this game and improve their red zone numbers and take advantage of field position, something they have rarely done this year. Even with backups in the game the Falcons can put points on the board and you can not count on 17 points being enough to win a game even though the Jets defense has been so strong in recent weeks. A key matchup this week will be LT D'Brickashaw Ferguson against Abraham. While Abraham has been a dog this season he will most likely be pumped for this game since he feels the Jets did not really do right by him at the end of his Jets career. The one worry, and this is more on Clemens than Sanchez, is that the pocket presence of the QB's is so bad that they can run into sacks if Ferguson does not manhandle Abraham at the line. The last thing you want to do is awaken a top notch pass rusher who looks like he has quit on the season. If the Jets had their choice this week they may opt to pass early to catch the Falcons off guard and then use Jones to close the game out after building a lead and softening up the defense.
Eric Weems has had an excellent season returning both kicks and punts where he ranks in the top 5 in both categories, including 2 touchdowns. He is facing a DUI charge but should play in this game, which is going to be a major challenge for the Jets whose coverage has been subpar this season. Atlanta has turned the kicking duties over to Matt Bryant, who does not have much of a leg but is very accurate inside the 40. Thus far they have not been burned on kick returns, but he does not have the same type of leg Jason Elam has to keep the Falcons coverage unit as one of the tops in the NFL. P Michael Koenen is one of the worst in the NFL and leaves the opposition with plenty of room to set up a return.
K Jay Feely deserves Pro Bowl consideration based on the year he is having. It is a tremendous turnaround for a player who was out of the NFL at the beginning of 2008. He will have to do a good job of directionally kicking the ball off to eliminate Weems from the return game. Cotchery has been a decent addition on punts and will have a chance to be a factor this week. The Falcons will likely be looking out for the Jets fake punts, which seem to always work for the special teams.
Mike Smith has had his ups and downs this season as coach of the Falcons. Right now he has to do his best to keep his teams spirits high following the loss of players and the rather bleak playoff outlook for the club. Smith is familiar with Rex Ryan having coached in the same conference as Ryan did in college as well as alongside him in Baltimore when Ryan was breaking into the NFL. Smith has a fiery personality on the sidelines and coming from a defensive background has been accused of his fair share of gameplanning and situational blunders similar to the Jets head coach.
Ryan looks to have taken total control of the team in these last three weeks and has them finding that defensive swagger that was somewhat lost after the second Dolphins game. Ryan has been very careful not to overdo it with the predictions for these final three games and is going about it much more low key than in the past. That also looks to have helped the team. Ryan will have the tough decision this week as to whether or not he trusts Sanchez to play safe football. Ryan knows his future is hinged to Sanchez' arm and he can not afford to see Sanchez injure himself as a rookie.
At this stage every week is a must win game and this is a game the team must win. The Jets have to utilize a homefield advantage that has seemingly escaped them since the opener. The Falcons have been a terrible team away from home this year compiling a 1-5 record and allowing an average of 32 points in their losses. The story runs the same in almost every game. They play somewhat tight early and then give up a ton of points in the second quarter. They pull off a comeback on offense and then the defense allows the opponent to pull away late. The Jets have yet to show that real ability to put a team away for good but will have to show it this week if they want to make a strong case for the playoffs. This is a game where the home crowd has to come out and try to drive the team especially on defense. This may be the last meaningful game that the fans get to see this season and hopefully they will all be ready to go and give it their all as if it is the last game they will see until 2010.
There will be alot of focus on Sanchez if he plays due to the weather expected at the stadium. It is going to be cold and the wind has been awful recently which could make it very tough conditions to play in. Sanchez' last experience in this type of weather was the first time this year that he did not look like he even belonged in the NFL. It is only natural that he will want to prove the critics wrong about his ability to play in the cold, but that could lead to a very bad day for him if he forces the football. It is possible that this will also weigh on Ryan's decision.
The Jets are the better team this week and should be able to do more than enough to win the game as long as they keep their hands on the ball and do not lose a turnover battle. With all the injuries and legal issues the Falcons are facing that this is the type of team where if you jump on them early they could cave in. The two most important factors this week will be to get on the board early and on defense make the Falcons think they have walked into a buzzsaw. If the Jets out-physical the team at the start it should be a party in the Meadowlands. The Jets rarely make things easy on themselves but hopefully can find a way to not stub themselves in the toe this week.
It's possible the Jets could find themselves in control of their own destiny by the end of the day Sunday if a bunch of things broke right for them. The two primary ones the Jets need this week are the Dolphins to lose to the Titans and the Jaguars to lose Thursday to the Colts. Other important ones are Chicago over Baltimore, Buffalo over the Pats, San Diego over Cincinnati, and Oakland over Denver. If the Jets get half of those results to go their way they will be in decent shape provided they win this week.
Jets 29 Falcons 14