Breaking Down the Jets vs the Packers
Though the Jets did not play a game last week, the struggles of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens have more or less made the Jets the consensus number 1 team in the NFL. It is the first time they have been looked at this way since the 8-3 start in 2008 at which point they collapsed starting with an upset loss at home to the Denver Broncos. The Jets will look to avoid a similar fate when they welcome the 4-3 Green Bay Packers to the Meadowlands.
Jets Offense vs. Packers Defense
Defensively the Packers have been decimated by injuries. The team is already down 7 contributors on defense to season ending injuries, have 2 players on the PUP list, and their 2 starting Defensive Ends are badly hurting and will be questionable for this game. The team really has survived thus far on the strength of their pass rush and the play of their secondary. OLB Clay Matthews has been a nightmare for the opposition this year with a league leading 8.5 sacks to his name. Teams have taken more notice of Matthews since he amassed 6 of those sacks in the first two weeks and have begun game planning for him. His emergence as an elite rusher has made the jobs of DE Cullen Jenkins and NT BJ Raji much easier, with the players having combined for 7 sacks on the year. The secondary is led by CB Charles Woodson, who Jets fans are familiar with because of the battle between he and CB Darrelle Revis for the 2009 Defensive Player of the Year award. Woodson and Revis are much different players. Woodson is nowhere near the player in coverage that Revis is and at times is going to be called for holds on the receivers. He is an excellent tackler who is tremendous in run support and can also blitz off the edge. CB Tramon Williams is the unsung hero of the secondary. He has two interceptions on the year and has done a good job breaking up passes in coverage. S Nick Collins is a good all around player who often creeps up into the box for run support. The secondary could get better if the team decides to activate CB Al Harris and S Atari Bigby for the game. Up front the Packers are hurt by being somewhat undersized for the 34 defense and way undermanned due to injury. Teams are able to push the Packers around up front and wear them down. The leading tackler is ILB AJ Hawk, but Hawk is not very effective in the defense in a similar way to how Jonathan Vilma was not effective when the Jets switched to a 34. It has actually been the outstanding secondary contributions in run support that keep teams from gaining huge chunks of yardage on the ground. Green Bay's problems on 3rd down stem from the poor run defense. What has helped Green Bay out on defense this year and allowed them to survive is that they are opportunistic. While they may give up a big play or two in the air when the pass rush is stopped they will never let a mistake pass them by. If the ball is thrown to anyone on the team they will intercept it and gain big return yards. If the ball is put on the ground they will grab it. Despite all their flaws they are one of the best units in the NFL in this regard.
Despite the fact that the Jets offense is right near the top of the NFL in scoring they can not expect that to continue unless they begin to improve on some key areas. Right now the Jets are relying on a lot of big plays from either RB LaDainian Tomlinson in the running game or WR Braylon Edwards and TE Dustin Keller in the passing game and it is going to be a challenge to have that happen every week as the Jets exit the bye week. Tomlinson has been a great story for the Jets, but it has been years since he had this kind of production and the same goes for Edwards who is putting up the best big play numbers he has had since 2007. This is the first year Keller has ever produced at this level. Expecting all three players to continue at this clip is probably unrealistic. The offense is having a hard time sustaining drives as evidenced by their 38% conversion rate on third down, a number which must improve if the Jets want to continue their offensive output. Much of the responsibility falls on the shoulders of QB Mark Sanchez. Sanchez has had a strong start to his season but is very erratic with his passes and you have to wonder if the lack of interceptions will balance out after the two interception performance in Denver. Sanchez almost looks to have taken the first game criticism a bit too far as the last few weeks he seems to be almost entirely bypassing the safety and instead holding onto the football in the pocket and waiting for something to happen down the field. By doing that the completion percentage is falling way down and the team is finding itself punting the ball too often. Hopefully he will be helped by WR Santonio Holmes becoming more acquainted with the offense. Sanchez has tried to force the ball his way a little too much with limited results, but that is more a reflection on lack of time playing together than some other flaw. The one thing that should help the offense is the fact that the offensive line has slowly begun to mesh together and look closer to the 2009 version that what we saw early this season. LG Matt Slauson has steadily improved and now seems to be on the same page as LT D'Brickashaw Ferguson and C Nick Mangold. The group is back to opening interior holes in the running game and most importantly keeping the pressure off Sanchez, something that did not happen early this year.
With a full week to evaluate and scout their own offense the Jets may try some different things this week. Green Bay is not a team that usually allows you to sit in the pocket and take attempts down the field. They collapse the pocket and force the QB to quickly make a decision with the football. Their corners play aggressive with the receivers and hope to throw off their ability to get far off the line. The Jets really should be going back to last years playoff run and seeing the type of things that worked well for Sanchez in those games. Three step drops. Timed throws. Play action passes. The Jets have the receivers with the speed or size to get off the line and get inside the defensive backs for those plays to work to keep the chains moving and keep the Packers offense off the field. If the Jets decide to play the vertical passing attack game they are going to get picked off and see Sanchez get battered around. The key matchup in the passing game will likely come on the line with RT Damien Woody being forced to block Matthews. Matthews is the type of speed rusher that gives Woody fits in pass protection and could force the Jets to leave a back in to pick him up. The running game should play a more important role than it has in recent weeks. While Green Bay has players in the secondary that do a great job of keeping the big run from ever happening, the Jets should be able to grind down the front 7 in the run game. The Jets have to take advantage of the undersized defenders who are being forced to play almost all of the game due to lack of depth and wear them down with Tomlinson and Shonn Greene running behind Brandon Moore and Woody. Running the ball needs to be option 1 for the offense. If the Jets can use the running game to set up 2nd or 3rd and shorts the Jets can use that to create playaction passes to take their deep chances. The one thing that the Packers do, specifically the safeties, is sometimes get over aggressive in clear running downs, leaving no support deep for the corners. If Green Bay is very aggressive up front the Jets have to start to use their running backs as primary targets on designed screens, something the team has yet to do this season.
Jets Defense vs. Packers Offense
Green Bay came into this season with huge expectations for the offense. They were expected to be right at the top of the NFL in passing yards and points behind the strong arm of QB Aaron Rodgers, but things have not worked out as planned. Green Bay only ranks 13th in scoring and 8th in passing as they have not fired in part due to the loss of RB Ryan Grant to injury. Rodgers has not played up to the lofty standards as he has already thrown more interceptions in 7 games than he did all last season and only has one game where he has gone turnover free. Rodgers does like to throw the ball down the field and they usually have great success in that regard, especially with WR Greg Jennings coming alive in the offense. Jennings is a terrific player with good hands and deceptive ability to get open down the field who has emerged as one of the better players at the position over the last two seasons. He had been off to a very slow start, but has over 200 yards in the last two games. Veteran WR Donald Driver's numbers are way down on the year and it looks as if his career may have finally taken the plunge downward, especially as he deals with nagging injuries. He can be dangerous after the catch. WR James Jones is the speed player for the team who stretches the field while WR Jordy Nelson is seeing more time due to some injuries to the team. The run game has taken a nosedive with RB Brandon Jackson replacing Grant. Jackson has not been awful by any means, but he is also not a dangerous player. Grant brought a different dimension to the team with big play potential that kept the safety honest. Jackson does not have the same ability and the Packers rank right at the bottom of the NFL in big run plays. It has really had a big effect on the offense. The teams offensive line does nothing outstanding. They are weak at both tackle positions where LT Chad Clifton has slowed considerably and rookie RT Bryan Bulaga has been a disaster now that injury has forced him to start. Since Bulaga became a starter Rodgers has been sacked 9 times.
From a statistical standpoint the Jets defense does a lot of things well. They completely shut down teams running attacks. They are the best team in the NFL at confusing the opposing QB and causing a huge number of incompletions. But, like the offense, the Jets defense has a terrible time on third down and are giving up huge plays to set up scores. The Jets rank in the bottom 10 in 3rd down conversions allowed and 31st in the NFL on big pass plays per game, a terrible combination that the team must improve on. The problems began with the holdout of CB Darrelle Revis and became noticeable once Revis injured his hamstring and 1st round draft pick CB Kyle Wilson proved to be far away from contributing on defense. Though the play of CB Antonio Cromartie has been outstanding he can only do so much when the opposition has so many chances to run plays. The best way for the Jets to improve in this facet of the game is for Revis to finally get healthy and begin to resemble the great player that the team had in 2009. The Jets safeties are bad in coverage and offer almost no help to the corners. If Revis can not return to form the Jets will need to find a new way to pressure the QB. The return of LB Calvin Pace to full strength should be a big help to the defense, who does not have a natural pass rusher to cause constant havoc. While Pace is not an elite pass rusher, he is the best the team has and should help DE Shaun Ellis and LB Jason Taylor get cleaner looks. Thus far, those are the only problems with the defense this season. The overall play of the front 7 has been spectacular. DE Mike DeVito and NT Sione Pouha get no credit outside of NY, but are as good as any 34 linemen in the NFL. Both are stout at the point of attack and almost always win the battle in the trenches. LB's Bart Scott and David Harris are both having Pro Bowl quality seasons and are a major reason why the opposing runners are doing nothing in both the run game and passing game.
This will certainly be a big test for the Jets defense. Green Bay has a terrific pass attack with players who can stretch the field and get open deep. Their receivers are also great route runners who can play the inside of the field as well as anyone in the NFL. With the problems the Jets have had in the secondary it may not be realistic to assume they can bottle up a slew of good wide receivers. The Jets best bet to stopping the passing game is to go all out with their pass rush and take advantage of the Packers offensive line. If the Jets can get big games out of Pace, Taylor and Ellis, Rodgers is going to feel the pressure and start dumping the ball off rather than waiting for plays to develop down the field. The presnap movement that the Jets use is going to confuse the Packers and lead to a number of offsides calls and potential holding penalties. Getting into the backfield is probably going to hurt the Packers offense more than loading the field with defensive backs. The front 7 have to do a better job early in this game than they did in Denver in regards to the running game. Thought the Broncos did not put up huge numbers out of their running backs, they started the game off very strong and did put up huge numbers for their usual level of play. Green Bay has stated they want to try to establish the run more and if the Jets allow Jackson to knock off a few big runs early it allows the Packers to not fall into the one dimensional passing attack strategy. If they keep Jackson in check Green Bay is going to continue to rely on Rodgers to carry the offense and give the Jets a big advantage in their blitz schemes.
The Packers draft for depth and one would expect their special teams to be good because of it, but that has not been the case in 2010. Other than K Mason Crosby, who has one of the better legs in the league, this is one of the worst units in the NFL. The coverage teams, specifically the punt coverage, is terrible. Their kick return and punt return games are both below average and they do not have a threat to break a long run. Green Bay likely will not get any contribution out of special teams.
P Steve Weatherford has really been the unsung hero on the team this season. He was not great last season by any means, but the team did not need him to be. This year with the defensive problems his booming punts that are rarely returnable are aiding the defense greatly by forcing teams to have a much longer field to travel. K Nick Folk is also showing a leg on field goals that the Jets have not seen since the days of John Hall. He has also been a big upgrade this season. The Jets have to be careful with their coverage units. When Weatherford's punts are getting returned there is often big breakdowns in the coverage and they are giving up some big returns. The Jets were totally fooled by an onside kick attempt and it likely cost LB Kenwin Cummings his job. Expect more roster moves until these issues start to show steady improvement.
Mike McCarthy finally got the monkey off his back in regards to beating Brett Favre last week, but has to deal with a ton of injuries and the fact that the healthy players are not exactly playing to their expected level. McCarthy is playing the underdog card this week with his team, playing into the fact that the Jets are regarded as the best team in the NFL and that nobody is giving Green Bay a chance to win the game. Whether it works or not remains to be seen, but McCarthy's post-Favre teams have a reputation of beating up on inferior teams and not being able to win against quality opponents. Last year the Packers were 2-4 in meaningful games against playoff opponents. The combined record of their opponents who they have beaten this year is 7-18.
Rex Ryan has had a week to stew over a game where he came away with a win but was out coached by a guy who just lost at home to the Raiders by over 40 points. Ryan has set the goals for the team and he knows he has a good team, but the team is still struggling with an identity. Are they a defensive team? Are they a running team? Are they a big play team? The Jets are playing inconsistent football in part because they don't have something to lean on when the game gets tougher. Last year they knew they could rely on the run game and an awesome pass defense to win games. This year they are still finding their way. It has not hurt the team yet but Ryan understands it is better to fix the problem before it actually hurts you than to wait until you lose two or three games in a row like what happened last season. Giving the team its identity is his big job these next few weeks.
The first thing the Jets have to realize is that you do not want to set the pace of the game to be a shootout with the Packers. Part of the Packers problems this year is that they have a tendency to allow the opposition to set the tone of the game. If the opponents decide they want to try to win 30-26, Green Bay is going to play fast and treat the game as a track meet, just like how they did against Minnesota last week. When teams slow down the game to a crawl, as the Redskins and Dolphins did, the Packers play slow and lose games they have business of losing.
The Jets need a slow game if they want to win. They can not allow Rodgers to get into a groove on the field where he is just picking the defense apart and running up and down the field putting points up on the board. Despite the Jets offensive success this year they don't have the weapons to match up in that kind of game with the Packers. Rodgers is far superior to Sanchez in that style of game at this stage of his career. If you put Sanchez in that game he is going to make mistakes and the Packers defense is opportunistic and turns turnovers into points.
This is the game where the Jets staff has to look backwards if they want to move the season forward. Ryan has to challenge his defense to become what they were last season. They have to become the defense that went into New Orleans last year and completely shut down what was a high powered Saints team that eventually won the Super Bowl. The team has not played defense like that this season. Not even close to it. But they have to do it this week. If they play like they did against what are turning out to be some mediocre offensive teams like the Dolphins and Ravens in this game the Packers are going to hang 27 points on the team and the Jets will be 5-2 and likely looking up at the New England Patriots.
The Jets need to play well right from the start of the game. They should have learned a lesson last year about how to treat the bye week. They came out in that game, looked a step slow, and got upset by a bad football team at home. If they come out early and look out of sync and are tackling poorly then expect a long afternoon once again. They have to use that early explosion to take advantage of whatever high the Packers might be on after beating the Vikings. Green Bay has not yet been proven to have the maturity level to avoid the big hangover after a huge regular season win, and make no mistake about it that win against the Vikings was like winning a Super Bowl. Jump out to a early lead and maybe they mentally check out of the game.
At this point it is clear that the AFC East is going to be a two team race and ideally the Jets want to go into that late season game in New England no worse than tied with the Patriots. Based on how New England is currently playing it leaves the Jets with little margin for error and makes winning these common opponent games very important. The last thing you want to do is lose to Green Bay at home with back to back road games staring you in the face. The Jets have hopefully learned from last season and come out focused and determined this week to leave the Meadowlands 6-1.
Jets 23 Packers 17