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Breaking Down the Jets vs the Saints

Call it whatever you will last week, but the Jets stand as one of the unlikeliest 3-0 teams in the NFL and if there was ever a game considered house money itís the game this week against the 3-0 New Orleans Saints. The Saints have been a popular Super Bowl pick for three seasons running and finally look to be placing themselves in a strong position to get there. They have the most explosive offense in the NFL and the Jets have their work cut out for them if they want to come away with a victory on Sunday.

Jets Defense vs. Saints Offense

New Orleans offense is loaded with weapons starting with QB Drew Brees. Brees has thrown for nearly 850 yards, completing over 69% of his passes and only being intercepted twice. Brees is tremendous at avoiding pressure and quickly delivering the ball to his receivers. Brees does an excellent job of spreading the ball around and utilizing every player in the passing game. Despite the gaudy statistics the Saints do not really have a WR that takes over games or falls into the elite category. Marques Colston is the teams top receiving threat and is a smart player that often finds ways to gain extra yards after he catches the football. Colston will put up stats similar to Jerricho Cotchery. Due to the injury to Lance Moore, Devery Henderson and Bobby Meachem will be the other two Wrs getting most of the looks. Henderson has blazing speed and is one of those deadly down the field threats. With added looks going his way Henderson is on his way to having the most productive year of his career. Henderson is more or less a one trick pony going down the field who is usually good for at least one major pass reception a game. He averages 20 YPC and has had a reception of at least 50 yards in 7 of the Saints previous 19 games and is much more effective on the fast Superdome track than he is away. Meachem has excellent size and speed, but is not very consistent nor a good enough route runner to consistently contribute. TE Jeremy Shockey is having a nice year as the safety valve for Brees. Shockey has been a disappointment since coming to New Orleans, but seems to have accepted the role as an underneath threat that occasionally can be used down the seam. The final cog in the passing attack is running back Reggie Bush. Bush is never going to live up to his draft status but is a very capable receiver out of the backfield. Lost in all the amazing stats that Breesí has put up is the fact that the Saints have also found a running game with Mike Bell, who may be out with a knee injury, and Pierre Thomas that ranks right at the top of the NFL. New Orleans has shown more of a commitment to the run, running 34 times a game, compared to just 25 times a game last year. The Saints have caught teams off guard with their run game and with the concern about the pass, they have gashed teams for about 5 yards per carry. New Orleans uses their running game very effectively to seal games in the second half. The Saints offensive line is a quality group that keeps Brees relatively untouched despite all the pass attempts he has made year after year.

This game will be a major test for the Jets defense, which has been lights out this season. The Saints are the most complete offense that the Jets have faced thus far, and will likely face all season. New Orleans is extremely tough at home, where they scored at least 24 points in every game last season and put up 30+ in six of eight home games. The teams that have had some success in the past against this offense have been physical and harassed Brees. Brees is too good for a team to drop everyone into coverage and hope to stop the passing attack. This is the type of strategy the Jets would have employed last season, which would allow the Saints to just pick their way down the field. If the Jets can harass Brees with their pass rush they have a chance to stop the Saints, especially if the Saints are on a long field. Giving up the long play is a chance the team will take as long as it does not lead to a one pass touchdown. One of the most important things for the Jets this week will be the need for one of their two injured cornerbacks to get healthy for this game. Unlike the Titans, who do not really have much of a presence at wideout or an approach that believes in downfield passing, the Saints have too much speed on the outside and smarts on the inside for Dwight Lowery or Drew Coleman to contain their matchup. If neither Lito Sheppard nor Donald Strickland can play this week the Jets will have to use much more help from Kerry Rhodes to cover Henderson over the top, which will take Rhodes out of the blitz packages. The team could also look to see if any free agents are available to help the team. Expect the Jets to mix up the coverages this week to keep the Saints off balance. That will include mixing up who Darrelle Revis matches up against and using the corners to come off the ends to blitz the QB.

I would expect the Jets to go into this game looking to give the Saints two different base looks on defense provided the game is close. Early on the Jets will most likely go on the attack, similar to what they did against the Texans, to try to set the tone early. Rex Ryanís Ravens had good success against this team back in 2006 and the Ravens goal in that game was to harass the Saints early to force turnovers and make New Orleans play from behind. If Brees goes sour early he has those games where he throws multiple interceptions and potentially puts the football on the ground trying to make a play happen. While the Saints offensive line is very good, they have not dealt with this type of pass rush and are currently on their third string left tackle. Starting LT Jamaal Brown has yet to play in 2009 following a hip injury and backup Jermon Bushrod rolled his ankle early in the Bills game. Expect the Jets to overload this side and try to force the issue with whomever suits up on Sunday. When the game hitís the second half and New Orleans tries to catch the Jets with their running game it will be imperative for the Jets to have Kris Jenkins fresh and clog the middle of the line, which is where the Saints have most of their rushing success. It would not be surprising to see Jenkins get more than his usual plays off in the first half to try to keep him at full strength in the second half. The Bills were hurt by not switching their defense from straight nickel coverage which allowed the Saints to run all over the team once they changed the offensive approach in the second half. The Jets may also utilize more 43 fronts with both Sione Pouha and Jenkins in the middle if it looks like New Orleans will be running the ball to preserve a lead.

Jets Offense vs. Saints Defense

I doubt anyone knows what to make of the Saints defense just yet. They have played two terrible offensive teams in the Lions and Bills and played the Eagles who were without Donovan McNabb. In 12 of their last 16 games teams have gone for at least 23 points and 7 went for over 30, but this season they have surrendered very little when the games were still being contested. The defense was overhauled by new defensive coordinator Gregg Williams who plays a very aggressive style that attacks the opposition trying to force teams into 3rd and long situations. There have been three key areas where the Saints look to have improved from last season. The first is in the teams run defense which has gone from near the bottom of the league towards the top of the league. The play has been sparked by the improved play of the defensive line including a much more consistent effort from DT Sedrick Ellis who is proving to be a very solid NFL pro in just his second season in the NFL. The linebackers are excellent in run support and are led by former Jet Jonathan Vilma who will likely be anxious to show up his former team. Vilma is an excellent tackler and does a tremendous job of cutting plays off. Vilma is a prime reason why teams are unable to really attack outside the tackles. The second big improvement comes in the form of picking off the football. The Saints pass defense in 2009 leads the NFL in interceptions a year after being a low turnover team in 2008. They secondary is mainly a crafty veteran group with a few youngsters thrown in and are led by S Darren Sharper who already has 3 INTs on the year. The linebackers are all solid in coverage as well and the whole team is doing an exceptional job breaking up pass plays. Perhaps the most important area of improvement comes in the 3rd down conversion department where teams are converting just 27% of their 3rd downs, which allows the teams high powered offense to quickly get back onto the field. If this Saints defense proves to be for real the overall team is as good as or better than the 2007 New England Patriots.

The Jets offense has done enough to win these last two weeks but will likely need to do more than they have these last three games if they want to compete with the Saints offense. The Jets would like to see more production out of their running game which has been anemic in the first three weeks of the year. One would almost have to believe that Thomas Jones is playing for his job, but the coach seems content to see Jones try to run through his problems. Jones is being bottled up almost as soon as he gets the football and does not seem to be running with the same burst he ran with in 2008. Leon Washington has not had the same type of impact he had last season despite the Jets making much more of an effort to get him involved with the offense. While he has been more productive than Jones, his longest play from scrimmage is 19 yards and his numbers are way down from last season. There were whispers that last season the Jets rushing attack was productive because they were a heavy pass offense and the run simply caught defenses looking for the pass. With the Jets looking more balanced this year there may be some credibility to that thought. If they cant get the run going it will put tremendous pressure on their young QB to carry the team. Right now the offensive MVP of the team is WR Jerricho Cotchery who is on pace to reach 1,000 receiving yards again. Cotchery and Mark Sanchez look to have built a great deal of trust with Sanchez fitting the ball in some tight windows assuming his receiver is going to make plays. This week the Jets will need a little bit more out of TE Dustin Keller, who had his first game of the season where he was held in check, and Chansi Stuckey who had a terrible game. The team is likely trying to work on ways to get more consistent play out of the whole offense. Sanchez runs very hot and very cold, which is to be expected for a rookie, but the Jets cant constantly be a feast or famine team and continue to win. The Jets have run 35 drives in 2009 not counting the kneel down drives. Of those 35 drives the Jets have filed to pick up first down on 15 of those drives and 21 times have seen the drives end in less than four plays. By comparison the Saints have only had 9 of 35 drives end in less than four plays. It will help the defenses energy level and the battle of field position if the Jets can at least go 5 or 6 plays before punt.

Sanchez is going to face a real big test this week against the Saints secondary. Sanchez has had a number of passes dropped by the opposition which is something that will likely not be the case with this Saints team. Sharper is also the smartest and best secondary player Sanchez has yet to play and is going to try to bait the rookie into making mistakes. Sanchez likely will not feel much pressure from the Saints, who do not generate much of a pass rush from their line, and must take his time in the pocket and not force the issue. The Jets really could use another WR to step up this week so the Saints canít simply key on Cotchery. Maybe Brad Smith can contribute a bit more as he had his first receptions of the year last week and has clearly outpaced himself from David Clowney on the depth chart. If Sanchez must rely on just Cotchery and Keller it could lead to some turnovers. If the Jets can not run this week there will be significant questions about what the problem is. The Jets are almost exclusively running draws straight into the line and that is the weakest part of the Saints run defense. Opponents have been able to push the tackles and their linebackers are somewhat undersized if they get smashed by a fulback or guard. Fans familiar with Vilma remember the problems he had, even in the 43 defense, when his tackles did not keep bodies off him. This would seem to be the perfect opportunity for Shonn Greene, but when listening to the coaches comments it does not seem as if he is ready and that the team is prepared to even consider using him. We saw one draw from FB Tony Richardson last week and maybe the Jets try him out in a few plays just to get a big body going through the line. This will likely be a long game if the Jets run game can not get anything going.

Special Teams

The coverage and return teams continued their strong play recovering fumbles and giving the team decent field position. Jay Feely, despite a penalty for kicking the ball out of bounds, continues to show a strong leg on kickoffs and good accuracy on his field goals. The Jets are near the top of the NFL in both kickoff distance and fewest return yards allowed, two statistics that do not often go hand in hand unless your kicker is getting great hang time as well as distance. The punting game continues to be near the bottom of the NFL and Steve Weatherford had a key punt that barely went anywhere, something that can not happen again. If he flubs a few more the Jets may go back to looking at free agents.

The Saints kickoff team has had problems this year and already allowed a few big returns. Their problem is veteran kicker John Carney just has no leg, but is going to have a job because he is extremely accurate kicking inside the 40. The team has already given up returns of 87 and 63 yards and the Jets will be told to run everything out of the end zone. They will also give up some punt return yardage and donít get the hang time to see many fair catches. The Saints return teams have been miserable this season, though Reggie Bush was one of the more dangerous punt returners in 2008. The special teams also gave up a TD on a fake FG last week and is clearly the weakest part of the team.

Coaching

Rex Ryan and his staff did a great job preparing the Jets for the start of the game and avoiding the letdown off the Patriots game. He did a great job of being able to dial it up for the end of the football game when his team completely stuffed the Titans passing attack. He also specifically worked on specials last week in preparation for the problems the Titans have had on returns. We will have to see what he devises for this week. While some may feel he will run a similar defense to the one he ran against New England, he knows the Saints will run the ball if the front allows, something New England refuses to do.

Sean Payton has had an up and down career. The teams offense always puts up gaudy numbers, but since taking everyone by surprise in 2006 the Saints have not really improved one bit, especially defensively. He has been accused of being impatient on offense in the past, but seems to be willing to run a more balanced attack this season. The team is not the most disciplined team and commits far too many penalties, but those penalties are often hidden by the offenses great job of picking up yardage.

Overall

The last time the Jets went on the road and matched up with a team like this, New York got their doors blown off them against the San Diego Chargers. While that Chargers team was desperate for a win, the teams themselves are similar. Both have explosive offenses that show significantly more ability at home than on the road and are more than happy to try to win 40-35 shootout. The Jets lack of a running game and costly turnovers killed the team, especially after a strange onside kickoff attempt failed. If the Jets play the same way this week they will lose the game in a similar manner. For the Jets to win they have to play this game from ahead early on and force the Saints into mistakes. In the past the Saints will force the issue when they feel they are behind and they will make enough mistakes to negate all the yards they gain.

There should be no doubt that the defense will be up for this game. They took great pride in shutting down the Texans and Patriots and doing the same to the Saints would put them into a real elite class that few teams have been in. The Jets defense has a swagger about it and teams with swagger live for these games. Ryan is likely going to challenge his defense to win them this game. Shutting this team down would make the Jets the most feared defense in the NFL.

Special teams will play an important role again this week. The Jets hold a clear advantage on returns and are going to need both Washington and Jim Leonhard to give the offense a smaller field to work with. Big special teams plays can be momentum changers and bringing one for a score is not out of the realm of possibilities.

The big question is can the Jets offense do enough to outscore the Saints. You have to go all the way back to the 2007 season to find a Saints team that did not score more than 23 points in a home game. That is the number that both the Jets defense and offense have to keep as the goal for the week. If anything the offense has been inconsistent this season and is trending very similar to the 2006 offense that did just enough to not lose, which may not be enough against a team like the Saints. The Jets need Sanchez to play his best game yet and they have to find a way to run the ball to take some time off the clock. If the Jets can not protect the football the game is essentially over.

I think the Jets will actually look at this as more of a statement game and treat it much more like the Patriots game than the way they treated the Titans. Even though that Titans game was more important for the playoff race, this is the kind of game that the Jets players could have been caught looking ahead at. A win here makes a big statement to the entire NFL and AFC and puts the Jets in an amazing position so early in the season. A 4-0 start would cap off perhaps the greatest start in franchise history and completely erase the taste left in everyoneís mouth from last season. With Calvin Pace set to return off suspension and the schedule set to become significantly easier on paper the future looks very bright for the remainder of the season. Win or lose against the Saints this team really looks to have the makings of something special this season.

Jets 20 Saints 29