Breaking Down the Jets vs the Titans
The Jets talked the talk and then walked the walk last weekend as they defeated the New England Patriots, putting themselves into the spotlight as the unlikely favorite to win the AFC East. The team will have to avoid a letdown as they welcome the winless Tennessee Titans to the Meadowlands on Sunday. The Titans, one of the best teams in the AFC just a year ago, are on the border of seeing their season go up in smokes if they lose to the Jets this weekend.
Jets Offense vs. Titans Defense
Tennessee has built their team in the prior two seasons to thrive behind a physical defense that wears down the opponent by the end of the game. The run defense was among the leagues best in both years giving up less than 100 yards a game on the ground while the team produced a tremendous pass rush behind DT Albert Haynesworth and DE Kyle Vanden Bosch. The loss of Haynesworth, considered one of the elite players in the game, to free agency brought up questions about the teams ability to continue the defensive dominance. In two games this year the answer to that question looks to be that the team may be able to cope with the run defense, but is having a miserable time defending the pass. The Titans were lit up by Ben Roethlisberger and Matt Schaub in the first two games to the tune of 678 yards and over a 70% completion percentage. The team has not been able to get to the QB the way they did last season which seems to be exposing the secondary including Pro Bowl CB Cortland Finnegan. The Titan secondary is loaded with players who have proven to be ball hawks in the past, but right now look a step slow and are not making plays on the ball once it is in the air. The teams linebackers are solid in all aspects of the game. MLB Stephen Tulloch is having a great start to the season with 19 tackles in two games. Keith Bullock remains a steady presence on the outside while David Thornton, nursing a knee injury, is an excellent sideline to sideline player.
The Jets passing game is proving to be very efficient once rookie Mark Sanchez seems to settle into a groove. Sanchez has had an outstanding start to his young career and engineered two drives against the Patriots which turned the game. Sanchez looks to need the game to settle down before he is at his best, but he displays the physical tools necessary to be a real big time pro at some point. He is building a great relationship with WR Jerricho Cotchery who is becoming a deep threat in this passing game and is having his best season of his career. Cotchery is catching everything that hits him and Sanchez trusts him enough to try to zip the ball to him even if the coverage looks tight. TE Dustin Keller is also providing a down the field threat and is showing excellent recognition of the coverages finding the open spots to set up for his quarterback. Chansi Stuckey is a nice underneath option. Perhaps the least recognized part of the fast start is the outstanding pass protection the Jets line is affording Sanchez. Sanchez has more or less gone untouched in two games and has rarely been presented with the opportunity to make really bad decision while running for his life. This is a big improvement over 2008. The Jets are hoping to get a little more out of their runners sometime soon. The team has been unable to establish the run early in games and both Thomas Jones and Leon Washington have put the ball on the ground. The Jets seem to have settled into an even split of touches for the two players with Washington being the only player to be part of the passing game.
Last season the Jet offense embarrassed the Titan defense, running for 192 yards and dominating the line of scrimmage. The Jets lines ability to get to the next level helped spring Washington to a 60 yard run while Jones was able to help the team grind out yards and control the clock. The Jets tried to set up the run last week with very limited success, but will likely give Jones and Washington a chance to set the pace before letting Sanchez throw the football. This is a stout run defense so it wont be time to panic if the run game doesnít get going, but it will throw up a warning flag if the runners continue to look pedestrian. If Shonn Greene shows more in practice he may get a chance to steal some carries from both in the near future. The way the teams are currently playing the Jets passing attack matches up perfectly with the Titans pass defense. The current state of the Titan defensive line isnít going to overpower or overwhelm the Jets offensive line which should give Sanchez ample time to scan the field and allow his wideouts to get down the field. Sanchezí ability to move in the pocket and make some plays with his feet could force the linebackers to make a decision to come up to the line leaving sections of the middle uncovered. The Jets have favored a deeper passing game in 2009 than in the past under Brian Schottenheimer. The Jets rank 6th in the NFL in yards per completion and yards per attempt and in the top 5 in big pass plays. The Titans are right near the bottom of the NFL in all of those categories. Cotchery will have his chances to get open deep and expect the Jets to try to utilize the matchups where Dustin Keller ends up covered either by a linebacker or by safety Chris Hope. The Jets have not gotten anything out of the third or fiurth Wrs this year, but if there is an opportunity for speedster David Clowney to make a big play down the sideline it will come this week after the team establishes either Cotchery or Keller in the passing game.
Jets Defense vs. Titans Offense
The Titans look to be continuing their approach from 2008 which was designed for a controlled passing game that focused on shorter throws and quicker drops to protect QB Kerry Collins. Collins still has a strong arm and the team will take a few chances here and there, but are more apt to see him throw 6 yards to a tight end than 30 yards to a wide receiver. The team has shifted their philosophy somewhat with their reliance on the run. Currently their run totals have dropped about 6 carries a game from 2008 while Collins numbers and attempts have all risen over last year. The most important player on offense is RB Chris Johnson. Johnson is a dynamic player that exploded against the Texans last week for an amazing 197 yards on the ground and another 87 in pass receptions. Johnson is tremendous in the open field and if he is able to turn the corner out of the backfield he is hard to contain. Johnson has become the primary option for the team supplanting the slower Lendale White who more or less split carries with Johnson last season. White will be lucky to see the ball 10 times a game this season. The team expected newly signed Nate Washington to be the number 1 receiving threat, but he has been nursing injuries and shown no ability to break coverage deep averaging less than 9 yards per catch thus far. Justin Gage is the top target for Collins while teams must always be aware of the tight end sets the Titans roll out. Bo Scaife is the best player at the position and the one guy to make yards after the catch, but he is nursing a knee injury that forced him to miss last weeks game against Houston. The biggest knock on the Titans offense is their inability to catch the football, which is always a problem with their receivers. The Titans line is a strong unit that plays very smart football. They have some troubles with physical players, but are almost always reliable and keep their QB untouched. You will rarely see any of their linemen take a play off.
It is only two weeks into the season, but there is no defense playing better football in the NFL than the Jets defense. The defense completely shut the Texans out and was only responsible for 6 points allowed against the Patriots. The defense is playing with a passion and energy that has not been seen from a Jets defense in years. There were some naysayers in the offseason saying that the Jets overpaid for LB Bart Scott and did not realize he was simply a by-product of Ray Lewis. While he may not be the most talented player on the field he may be the best free agent acquisition the team made since the signing of QB Vinny Testeverde in 1998. Scott is the quarterback of the defense and has brought a swagger to a Jets defense that just seemed devoid of personality. Scott is showing himself to be an excellent tackler and the Jets are using him in a pass rushing role, something teams seem unprepared for. David Harrisí game has excelled since the addition of Scott and change in defensive philosophy. Harris is a tremendous pass rusher and hitís the QB more than any other player on the team. Right now it seems as if Mike Tannenbaum and Rex Ryan made all the proper moves in the offseason. DE Marques Douglas has proven to be a big upgrade over Kenyon Coleman, while Jim Leonhard has been a much steadier player at safety than Abram Elam. Leonhardís ability to take over the starting role has allowed S Eric Smith to find a niche as an extra defensive back that can attack the line of scrimmage or quickly pick up a tight end on defense from time to time. He has played far better than he has in any of the previous three years. Donald Strickland has been good at cornerback and Lito Sheppard has been an improvement despite a shaky preseason. A major difference this year has been the flexibility of the defensive scheme. While we had seen Shaun Ellis occasionally stand up and Bryan Thomas put his hand down in the Mangini defense, you never have any idea who lines up where in Ryans defense. NT Kris Jenkins plays linebacker. Ellis may line up at the nose and then stand up. There is a nice rotation of talent playing defensive end. You may get an all out blitz from the secondary with half the line backpedaling into zone coverage. Maybe teams will adjust as more footage of the defense becomes available, but right now the Jets are playing Super Bowl caliber defense.
The key for the Jets this week is going to be to lock Chris Johnson down the way they did Steve Slaton in week one. Johnson is more talented than Slaton and more of an all game rather than a one play a game threat, but Johnson has been very streaky in his brief time in the NFL. Johnson has struggled at times against teams where dominant play from the interior of the line allows the linebackers to roam free and closes up any cutback lanes he might have. Teams like the Ravens, Steelers, and Vikings have given him fits and the Jets held him in check last season as well. If the Jets keep him from hitting the big play it will force Collins to carry the load for the Titans. Collins is a smart veteran that will get rid of the ball fast enough to avoid the pass rush, but is typically prone to mistakes when put under any kind of pressure. Collins may be the most immobile QB in the NFL and in games where he gets sacked he likely will put the football on the ground. Penetration from the middle is often effective since he has little ability to escape laterally. The Jets secondary needs to be aware of two things this week. One is to protect the left sideline where Collins likes to take a few chances to his speedier wideouts and secondly to make sure to keep everything in front of them in the middle of the field. The Titans are most effective throwing short and hoping their receivers turn it into something.
Both Leon Washington and Jim Leonhard gave the team some spark with their kick and punt returns last weekend, an area where the Titans could have some trouble. The Titans will be playing the game without Punter Craig Hentrich who is suffering from calf strain. They will likely bring in one of the players who spent a few days with the Jets in camp. Jets fans know how bad of an effect the musical punter game can have. The Titans return game has been terrible thus far and likely will play no factor in the game. With Jay Feely kicking the ball so well for New York it would not be surprising if the Jets again defer the opening kickoff looking for a big hit to try to spark the crowd early.
Rex Ryan outcoached Bill Belichick last week and is off to a brilliant start. Ryanís halftime adjustments should not be overlooked as the Jets have played better in the 2nd half in their two games this season than they did in the first. Ryan should also be credited with having his team playing football with the intensity usually seen in week 8 of the season rather than what is normally seen in week 2. He said he wanted the team firing on all cylinders coming out of camp and they have done just that. His primary tasks this week are to get his team to cut down on penalties, where the Jets are right near the top of the league on both sides of the ball, and to get his players to avoid the letdown after beating the Patriots.
Jeff Fisher is one of the steadiest presences in the NFL. He has proven himself able to coach all types of talent and build, dismantle, and re-build a football team. With an 0-2 start he has to make certain to not lose his team. For the first time perhaps ever there are grumblings coming from the locker room about the coaching., in particular the defensive scheme being run by their new coordinator. Fisher has already deflected the blame onto poor player performance and execution, but a bad start against a rookie QB could see the Titan defenders potentially pack it in.
Even without the 0-2 start one has to believe this is a game the Titans circled going into the season as a must win. The Jets derailed Tennessee on their home turf last year and the Titans would love to get some share of revenge in front of a Jets home crowd that is flying high. The fact that the Titans are 0-2 just adds to the desire to win this game. 1-2 in the NFL is reasonable, but 0-3 is a tough mark to come back from.
Avoiding the letdown will be huge for the Jets this week. It will be hard to get the players and the home crowd as amped up for this game as they were for the New England game last week. That was years of emotion built up all coming out in one football game. You can not re-create that, but you can go about your business and put the hammer down on an AFC opponent. The Jets look at themselves as a great football team and great football teams rarely have letdowns. You donít see the Patriots beat the Colts and then lay an egg against the Bills the following week. You will never see the Steelers beat the Ravens and then lose to the Browns a week later. They have a big win and they follow it up with another win. The last time the Jets were in this position last year they pulled a complete no show against the Denver Broncos.
Seeing how the Jets deal with being the favorites to win the AFC East will be another interesting dynamic. Certain teams donít handle being the favorite very well. The Jets have had a tendency to play down to their competition under the previous regime. They have around a 0.500 record as a favorite these last two years and have failed to cover the spread in 11 of 15 games where they were a favorite, an indication of really dumbing it down as a favorite. With an early eye on the playoffs the Jets can make a big statement by going 3-0 in the AFC and just about eliminating the Titans from the playoff hunt.
Tennessee really has not been the same team since that game against New York last season. After a 10-0 start the Titans have been a very mediocre 3-6 including the playoffs, with only one of those three wins against a quality opponent. Despite that record the Titans are a good football team, but last year the team won a number of close football games and sometimes that trend reverses itself, which looks to be the case with four of the last five Titans losses having a margin of less than 3 points per game. For the Titans to win this game they will have to buck the trend and find a way to win a close game.
They match up very well with the Titans and are the better football team right now. It is important for the Jets to play crisp football, especially on offense, early in this game to ignite the home crowd. There is no way the crowd is going to have the same intensity as they did last week and this might be a poorly played game if the energy just is not there. If the Jets set the tone early they should win in a walk. If not this has all the makings of that Broncos game last season, a game which had no atmosphere due to bad weather and a team that simply went through the motions on the field. Tennessee has more to play for this week and might come away with a victory in a slugfest where it takes the Jets too long to get on track after last weeks game.
Jets 10 Titans 13