Breaking Down the Jets vs the Cowboys
The NFL season has finally arrived as the Jets hope to take that next step in 2011 by winning the AFC East and getting home field advantage in the playoffs.
Jets Offense vs Cowboys Defense
Dallas is coming off a terrible defensive season where they ranked 31st in points allowed and 29th in my own efficiency ratings. They allowed 30 or more points in 8 games last season and 24 or more eleven times. The defense has two standout players. NT Jay Ratliff is one of the better tackles in the game. He is a high energy player that can be very disruptive and is versatile enough to line up anywhere on the line. OLB DeMarcus Ware is the best pure pass rusher in the NFL. He is a devastating rusher with 47 sacks in the last 3 seasons and is going to require a double team on almost every play. He is one of the few real difference making players in the NFL. Beyond those two there is little to work with. Former Jet Kenyon Coleman was brought in to help anchor the defensive line, which did not play well last season. ILB Keith Brooking is near the end of his career while OLB Anthony Spencer is on the verge of being replaced. DE Marcus Spears and ILB Bradie James are solid, but not standout, players. The Cowboys secondary was a mess in 2010 and essentially made no changes other than addition of former Jet and Brown Abram Elam to play strong safety. CB Terence Newman is more of a name at this point in his career and may lose his starting job sooner rather than later. Newman will get his share of interceptions but he gives up a lot of big plays. Both he and fellow starter Mike Jenkins nursed injuries during the preseason. The best corner may be nickel back Orlando Scandrick.
I think there are as many questions as there are answers about the Jets offense coming into the 2011 season. During the preseason there were times when young QB Mark Sanchez clearly looked like a stud and others where he looked just as inconsistent as he did over the last two years. He has officially taken over the leadership role on the team, which is always a big positive step for a QB, signaling that he has earned the respect of the players and coaches. The players are going to look to lean on him and he is going to have to keep his head up high when things are going poorly for him. WR Santonio Holmes received his big extension and should now be the focal point of the passing game. TE Dustin Keller is the other holdover from last season in the receiving game and should be used often in the middle of the field. This is Keller's year to earn big dollars by raising his game. The two new pieces will be WR Plaxico Burress and WR Derrick Mason. Burress looks to replace Braylon Edwards as the deep threat in the offense. It is a big layoff for Burress and what he showed in the preseason with one big game and one non-factor game could be what the team is in store for most of the season. The one benefit Plaxico gives the Jets that Braylon did not is the fact that he plays every bit of his height, essentially giving Sanchez a monster target to throw the ball to. We have not seen much of Mason to know where he fits in, but he has always been a steady pro everywhere he goes. Expect him to eventually be the primary third down target in the offense.
There are big questions in the running game. The running game tailed off as the season went on last year, much of which may have been tied to the injuries suffered by starting RT Damien Woody, who has since retired. He is replaced by Wayne Hunter, who was a valuable backup the last few seasons, but may not be the same run blocker that Woody was. LG Matt Slauson improved as the season went on but there are still questions about his ability to play consistently. Unlike last year Shonn Greene is the unquestioned starter and that bore itself out in the preseason. Greene will look for a faster start than last season, where he quickly played himself out of a starting role. He has looked mediocre this August, but has been better than anyone else lined up in the backfield. Veteran LaDainian Tomlinson took a large paycut to return to the team, but at his age it may be unfair to expect much and he had a poor preseason. Tomlinson will likely be a pass catcher more than a runner. RB Joe McKnight and rookie RB Bilal Powell look like longshots to contribute. The offense relies heavily on the run game and will need better play to take the pressure off the passing game.
Jets Defense vs Cowboys Offense
The Dallas offense was never the problem last year, even when QB Tony Romo went down for the season in week 6. Though they are not the same offensive machine they were when they last met the Jets in 2007, they still remain a big play offense with multiple weapons in the passing game. Romo's return should up the confidence level of the unit even further. Romo is one of those stat machine types that may not be able to bail his team out of a close game, but he can dominate a game early and put it out of reach. He likes to move around and roll outside his tackles, but gets flustered when he gets trapped in the pocket and is forced to make a decision. They have two potential big play guys in WR Miles Austin and WR Dez Bryant. Austin is one of those players that is just as likely to have a 140 yard game or a 30 yard game. When he goes off he is one of the best in the NFL. He may be limited by a hamstring injury. Bryant looked to be something special as a rookie when he got injured and could be a superstar. TE Jason Witten has more or less become one of the standard bearers for the position compiling over 1,000 yards in 3 of the last 4 seasons. He is Romo's favorite target. The oft-injured Felix Jones will be the primary ball carrier. Has the ability to make people miss in the open field, but it seems that he has lost some of that burst and elusiveness in order to get stronger and have his body hold up for an entire season. The Cowboys offensive line could be a weak point. LT Doug Free is a solid player, but they are starting two rookies and a second year player. The lack of offseason preparation time will make this a real work in progress.
Though the Jets were not as effective defensively in 2010 as they were in 2009, they still played extremely well for most of the season. They have a very strong commitment to stopping the run essentially taking that part of the game away from other teams. A big difference this year, though, will be the loss of veteran DE Shaun Ellis. Ellis was a capable 34 end who understood the way to help contain run plays and allow his linebackers to make the tackle. He is being replaced by first round draft pick Muhammad Wilkerson. Wilkerson has the prototypical size needed for the position and brings the team much needed youth and upside on the line, but he has a long way to go to help cut those lanes off for the runner the way Ellis did. Mike DeVito and Sione Pouha should continue to be unheralded but very valuable players on the line and the team will hope that DE Ropati Pitoitua and NT Kenrick Ellis are capable of rotating in and out of games. The Jets rely on multiple substitutions up front so there players are very important to the success of the defense. LB's Bart Scott and David Harris return to make up one of the better ILB duos in the NFL. They are very versatile and the Jets could rely on them more to rush the passer, especially this week against a young interior. For the first time in two years OLB Calvin Pace will be able to participate in the teams opening game. The Jets need one player to become that fallback pass rusher and hope Pace can finally be that guy. Pace can be devastating one week and invisible the next. Matching him up against a rookie RT could get him off to a good start.
CB's Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie will get put to the test right away in this game. Revis is the best corner to play the game in over a decade, but does a brilliant job of baiting the opposing QB to throw at him. His holdout cost him significant time last year, but once he got into shape he was basically perfect. If there is one thing he wants to improve on it is his interceptions. He had 0 last season and with his ability he should be around double digits. Cromartie was the Jets second choice to play opposite Revis in 2011, but looks to be using that as a motivating factor. He is a tremendous athlete with great physical tools. I would expect Revis to get the Bryant assignment for most of the game to try to fluster the young player while Cromartie is asked to play stride for stride with Austin. Romo will have games where he presses too much and throws multiple interceptions so both players could get chances if the Jets play well. Safety is a bit of a concern. Jim Leonhard is back from surgery while Eric Smith will look to build on a strong 2010 postseason and solidify his starting spot. Witten is Romo's prime target and will likely get an extra amount of looks since Romo has not played in so long, making Leonhard and Smith focal points in the pass attack. Leonhard is too small to cover most TE's and Smith has not been good enough in coverage to stop them. This could be the matchup Dallas looks to exploit. The Jets will also have to find a way to cover Jones out of the backfield. The Jets were up and down in their back coverage last season as they are often burned by speed out of the backfield.
Much has been made of the new kickoff rules, but at least for the immediate future I don't think it will have a huge impact. Teams still believe in returning the football and players with more straightline speed will likely be bigger return guys than shifty players who excelled in the past. Dallas has a decent special teams unit. Bryant can be an electric punt returner and P Mat McBriar is arguably the best punter in the NFL. The Cowboys kick return game and kick coverage both ranked towards the bottom of the league, but with so much turnover in special teams it is hard to say how good or bad they will be in 2011. The kicking was poor last year and Dallas will carry two kickers on the roster, one for field goals and one for kickoffs.
The Jets lost Brad Smith to free agency and will be trying to replace him. Their most dangerous kick returner is Cromartie, but there is always the question as to how often they want to use a starting corner in that role. His speed and open field ability makes him an ideal player under the new rules. K Nick Folk returns to handle field goals, but needs to be more consistent if he wants to hold onto his job for the season. TJ Conley takes over punting duties and will get his opportunity to prove he belongs in the NFL.
Jason Garrett was given the opportunity to be a head coach in the league and is looking to make the most of the chance. Garrett was once one of the hottest assistants in the NFL before cooling off as the Cowboys failed to take the next step, but will now get to prove his worth. Garrett was able to get his players to play hard for him down the stretch of the 2010 season after that completely quit on former coach Wade Phillips and they believe that Garrett gives them a chance to succeed. The team hired Rob Ryan to remold the defense while Garrett handles the offense. Ryan certainly has the pedigree but has been much less successful than his brother. Of the two teams he has coached neither has been a top defense and it usually takes at least a year before any improvement is seen. He did have a great scheme last year with the Browns to slow down the Jets offense.
With two trips in two years to the AFC Championship game Rex Ryan has firmly entrenched himself as one of the top 5 coaches in the NFL. Though he has been very vocal about his expectations for the team and how much better they are than everyone else, he seems to have dialed it down a bit this offseason, perhaps due to the shortened offseason or perhaps due to more of a pointed focus on winning the division. Either way the Jets seem to be taking a very workmanlike and mature attitude into the season. Last year the Jets put way too much emphasis on that first game of the year and came out tight and looked unprepared. One of Rex's main jobs this week will be to keep the team loose and let the game flow freely for them. With so many new faces on defense he will have to make sure there are no problems with the defensive substitutions, something that has been a problem for the team in the past.
Last year the season opener turned out to be a tremendous disappointment for the Jets. The team looked terrible and unprepared for the season. There are many similarities between the two openers. Both games were before the Jets home crowd in front of a national TV audience. Both games will see the Jets looked at as one of the preseason Super Bowl favorites. Both games are against teams that Rex Ryan has a connection to. Last year it was his former Ravens defense and this year it is his twin brothers defense. His respect for the Ravens played into the gameplan which was ultra conservative, fearing that his former defense would turn the game off a turnover. If the Jets do the same this year, the result will likely be the same, especially since the Cowboys are so much more explosive on offense than the Ravens.
The Jets should try to exploit the weakness of the Cowboys secondary using a controlled passing attack to help Sanchez find his rhythm and neutralize the pass rush. Ware will line up all over the field and exploit every possible shortcoming on the Jets offensive line, whether it be Hunter or someone else. They have to communicate to Sanchez to not force the ball to Burress to make him feel involved early. Plaxico is going to get his opportunities against Dallas, but they have to come naturally and ideally will be in the red zone. The Jets have to score touchdowns to beat a potent offensive team rather than settling for field goals. Moving the ball inside the 20 four times and coming away with only 13 or 16 points isn't going to ensure a win against Dallas and its going to take the crowd right out of the game. Coming away with 24 points is a totally different outcome. Had the Jets been more efficient around the goal last year they would not have had so many nail biters.
Defensively the goal has to be to harass Romo early and not allow him to get comfortable. If you can disrupt a player coming off injury early in a game you have a great chance of keeping him down the entire game. If Romo cant pass the ball the Cowboys are sunk. They can not rely on a running game the way the Jets have been able to the past two years. Dallas is not well balanced in that regard. They need the passing game to set their run game up and give Jones those lanes to the edge of the field to attack and turn upfield for a big gain. Sending Jones into the middle of the line to open up things for Romo will likely not work for Dallas.
On paper the Jets are a better team than the Cowboys, but you can never take a team with so much talent as Dallas lightly. Other than Revis and maybe Holmes, Dallas' best 5 players are better than the Jets best. They have big play offensive weapons that can erase a 14 point deficit in the blink of an eye. They have a devastating pass rusher that can cause a turnover to quickly turn into 7 points for the Cowboys and completely change the complexion of the game. It's similar to playing a team like San Diego that just has pieces that tremendous, but sometimes just can not put the total package together for a full 16 games. When you go 6 thru 20 the Jets are clearly the better team and in the past they have matched up pretty well with these explosive teams such as the Chargers, Colts, and Patriots, primarily because of the defensive scheme and excellent play of Revis and Cromartie.
This is a big game for the Jets, not just because it is the season opener, but because the Jets want to get fat on the early part of the schedule. The first three games of the year come against the Cowboys, Jaguars, and Raiders before they match up with the Ravens, Patriots, Dolphins, and Chargers, a very difficult stretch of games regardless of how good the Jets actually are. The Jets also need to establish a real homefield advantage this year which is only going to happen if they can finish 6-2 or better at home. That begins by beating Dallas.
We will know very early in the game if the Jets have learned anything from last years opener or if they fall into the same trap. That does not mean that the game will be perfect. The lack of practice time is probably going to lead to some sloppier than expected play for the first 2 or 3 weeks for all teams in the league. The teams with good QB play, superior coaching, and highly focused players will be the teams that look least affected by the lockout. The Jets should have at least two of those three traits which will help them early in the year. It should help make the difference in this game.
Jets 24 Cowboys 16