Breaking Down the Jets vs the Colts
While this was not how the Jets anticipated their path to the Super Bowl will begin, the Jets will face reality get their chance to avenge last seasons AFC Championship game loss with another journey to Indianapolis to meet Peyton Manning and the Colts.
Jets Offense vs. Colts Defense
The Colts are almost back to the pre-Dungy days of no defense. About the only leftover trait from that era is the cover two strategy of not allowing big plays through the air down the field. The defense has two players of note and they are the sack artists at Defensive End, Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis. At their best these two are unstoppable coming from the edges. Both have a great motor and incredible speed around the ends. They can attack the offense in a number of ways from pure speed rushes to using nifty moves to slip inside or spin around a blocker. The two players account for two thirds of the sacks generated by the Colts which has helped the deep pass defense tremendously. Neither player is great against the run, but they command so much attention at all times that they allow Linebackers to stay free on those plays while they force the runs further outside. Beyond those two players there is little to be excited about with this defense. The team is all undersized and relies on speed and quickness, but they are tremendously soft up the middle with their three man rotation of DT's Daniel Muir, Fili Moala and Antonio Johnson. LB Gary Brackett is the leader of the defense and the player who more or less asked for the coach to simply things to help the ailing run defense. Brackett is a solid all around player but he seems to be one of the players targeted by the enforcement of all the new rules about hitting players. The secondary is terrible. They get picked apart week after week in the short passing game. The players do not make plays on the football and rarely turn the ball over to the offense, something that is surprising when you consider the rush that often comes after the QB. S Antoine Bethea is the one player who can stand out in that he is a solid all around player that understands the scheme well. Nobody else in the secondary stands out. CB Kelvin Hayden is nursing an injury and could be limited at kickoff.
All eyes will be on QB Mark Sanchez this week and he looks to take the next step in his career by going on the road and pulling off another playoff victory. It has been an up and down season for Sanchez. He has led the team on some miraculous 4th quarter comebacks and also led the team to multiple no touchdown outputs. He remains the only rookie from the QB class of 2009 to lead his team to the playoffs and make no mistake about it he is the most important player on offense. As he goes so does the offense. The team stripped things down somewhat for Sanchez the last few weeks and it has paid big dividends with far more efficient play, though the Red Zone struggles still continue. The offense is loaded with potential playmakers. WR Braylon Edwards is one of the best big play threats in the NFL this year and in recent weeks the Jets have begun to expand his role in the offense making him a far tougher cover than he was early in the season. Edwards is playing for a new contract and it has shown on the field where he issues with drops look to be a thing of the past. Edwards, who opened last years playoff game with a huge 80 yard touchdown, is 6th in the NFL in big play receptions this year. WR Santonio Holmes gives the Jets a nice complement to Edwards which they were missing last year. Like Edwards, Holmes also has big play potential. He has the sideline streaking speed as well as the over the middle quickness that turns a 8 yard slant into a 30 yard gain. Holmes is postseason tested and had some big games in the playoffs, including winning the Super Bowl MVP for his touchdown reception that won the game against the Cardinals. In his last 4 playoff games he has produced a touchdown in 3 of them. TE Dustin Keller will be the offensive x-factor. Keller has that potential to be a real game changer when things are going his way. His problem is that he is terribly inconsistent. He has 4 75+ yard games, which tracks right up there with those considered at the top of the position, but has 8 below 30 yard games which track with the lower end of the spectrum. The Jets need a big game from him. The running game has seen a slight shift back to RB Shonn Greene over the older RB LaDainain Tomlinson. Greene runs harder than LT and may be more effective at setting a certain tone to a game. Greene made his name in the playoffs last year and an injury that forced him out of the Colts game last year is when the whole game turned. That is not to say Tomlinson will not have his role. He is an excellent receiver and the Jets know they can trust him in most situations. This is also likely Tomlinson's final opportunity to correct the one blemish on his resume. For as great as his career has been, he has not been a good postseason player and many have knocked his ability to get himself up for these games. If the offensive is ineffective look for RB Joe McKnight to get a look. The offensive line has finally begun to come together as the season has ended. The have pretty much kept the QB untouched for a few weeks now and are finally beginning to show that physical dominance in the running game that has been missing all season. For the Jets to be a success in the playoffs they need this group to physically dominate opponents to let the Jets playmakers be in the best position to make a difference in the fourth quarter.
The Jets can not play this game conservatively and expect to win 21-19. The offense has to take it upon itself to score points and outscore the Colts offense as if the game is going to be a shootout. The Colts are one of the worst pass defenses in the NFL. They do not defend the short field at all and are forced to play deep help to avoid the big plays. They don't turn the ball over in the secondary and mainly rely on offensive mistakes to stall a drive. The Jets have to attack this. They can not play the game the way they did early in the season relying on deep drops and deep passes to win the game. The Jets have to do what they have done the last few weeks and take short drops and make short strikes to the receivers. Edwards, Holmes, and Keller all have the ability to run after the catch. You have to get the ball in their hands and trust them to do something with it when they have it. Holmes should especially be quick on this type of field. The Jets also have exceptional blockers at receiver. Edwards is excellent and Jerricho Cotchery is also good. Get Holmes the ball short and these two players will take care of lessening the hands in the secondary that can get to him. The one weapon the defense has is their pass rushing Defensive Ends who play so well on this surface and you neutralize them with quick passes and dump offs to the backs right over their heads. While LT D'Brickashaw Ferguson has played very well of late you cant expect him to keep Freeney at bay all game long. 70% of Freeney's sacks have come at home this year and he is the difference maker on the team. Pass rushers are often players that if you keep that at bay early they get discouraged and often do not have those impact games. The approach offensively can do that and make the job of Fergsuon and RT Wayne Hunter much easier. The Colts also play limited run defense, but they have improved in that area the last 3 or 4 weeks. The key is just blow them off the line at the point of attack and get the runners to the second level, where the Colts are not good. Once you have the Colt defenders backpedaling they do not have the size to take on a lot of the runners. Once you establish the run and start creating the question mark as to run or pass the Jets will be in good shape. The Colts will rotate their ends out of the game in what looks like run downs and that can give the Jets a great opportunity to pass the ball. If the Jets are going to run early in the game they need big runs. You don't want to be second and 7 all the time. The Jets need to be 2nd and 3 or 4. You have to make the linebackers and safetys make those plays early to establish that you are more physical than the Colts.
Some people have wondered what role the “Tigercat” will play this week. The Jets showed a lot of Brad Smith at QB in the season finale, but more likely than not that was simply a rouse for the wildcard opponent to give them more to plan for during the week. The Colts defense is fast and that is not the type of team that Smith is going to excel against. Running backs get a head of steam when they get the ball in their hands. Greene can run over Colts with his body type. Tomlinson can get low and shoot through a big hole. Smith is going to be more of a standup runner that does not get the head of steam to bang with the smaller Colts. It would probably be surprising to see it used a lot. The other area of concern for the offense has to be in the area of mistakes. The one thing the Jets can not do is give the Colts extra possessions or extra yardage. You want the wideouts to take a very active role this week, but you do have to question their hands from time to time, in particular Holmes who has two bad fumbles on the year. That can not be tolerated this week. Penalties are also a worry. There are certain players who grab holds on offense, both on the line and outside the line. Edwards, G Matt Slauson, and TE Ben Hartsock seem to be the most egregious offenders. You can not do that in a game like this one. To give up 10 yards and put the team in a 1st and 20 hole is going to kill the team. It will almost completely eliminate the run possibility and is going to let Freeney and Mathis tee off on Sanchez. The Jets have been their own worst enemy in a number of games and while you can get by against teams like the Browns and Lions doing that, you can not win in the playoffs playing that type of football.
Jets Defense vs. Colts Offense
The Colt offense is basically a one man show. QB Peyton Manning may go down as the greatest statistical QB to ever play the game and one of the best of all time. He is a tremendous player that seems to do everything perfectly. When he gets “in the zone”, as he did in last years AFC Title game, he is unstoppable. He uses the field as well as any QB in the NFL and there is almost no weakness to his game. About the only negative on Manning is that he has not been an excellent playoff QB. His team has bowed out often in the first round of the playoffs and his struggles to win titles are well documented. The offense is all about the pass. They throw more than any team in the NFL and rarely run the football. This side of the ball has been decimated by injury and it changes the way they play the game. This is a completely different type of team than the one the Jets played last season. Last year the Colts were all about throwing the ball down the field. The only piece that remains the same is WR Reggie Wayne, one of the most consistent at the position in the NFL. They had a TE with exceptional hands that exploited the seam as well as anyone in the NFL. They had a young WR that got separation across the middle seemingly whenever they needed a big catch. They had another young WR that could stretch the field with all the attention being paid to those other three players. Now its all different. TE Jacob Tamme is more of a traditional safety valve target that doesn't always come up with the big catch the way Dallas Clark did. WR Austin Collie, who was deadly with the ball after the catch is now replaced by WR Blair White who does not have the same ability to catch and run with the ball. WR Pierre Garcon no longer plays deep down the field and is basically a possession receiver with questionable hands. Manning and the Colts now live off of third down conversions and putting together long drives down the field. They cant just score at will by going throwing 30 and 40 yards down the field. Their big play passing numbers are actually lower than the Jets big play numbers this season. And the team is down over 30% from last years 20 plus yard pass play numbers on the season and that factors in the games that Clark and Collie played this season. The Colts could get a boost in their running game with the return of RB Joseph Addai, but its doubtful they will start running the ball much more. Even with him last season they did not run often. He does, however, give them a competent back in short yardage and goalline situations, which RB Donald Brown was unable to do. He is also a good receiver out of the backfield. Addai did have a huge game against the Jets in the championship last season.
It has been a very disappointing year for the Jets defense. They were dominant last season and far from it this season. Almost every personnel move was a failure with the exception of the trade for CB Antonio Cromartie. The drafting of CB Kyle Wilson was a short term failure. The signing of S Brodney Pool was a failure. The signing of LB Jason Taylor to be a pass rushing specialist was a failure. Moving LB Vernon Gholston back to DE in the hopes of finding something in him was a failure. The Jets needed at least one of those moves to pay off and none of them did. The result is a defense that can not rush the passer or defend the third option on a pass play. That being said there are still many positives to the defense and they have been capable of playing at a high level from time to time. The CB tandem of Cromartie and Darrelle Revis has been among the best in the NFL. Revis is still the best cover corner in the league while Cromartie's size makes him a tough matchup for anyone. They are the primary reason why most opposing QB's have a rough day most of the time. Finding that third corner is still a chore. CB Drew Coleman gets most of the reps, but as each week goes by he becomes less and less effective. Wilson and CB Marquice Cole could both get snaps as well. The best asset this group has is that they are able to blitz off the edges and get to the QB. The Safety rotation should be interesting. S Eric Smith should return from his concussion and will likely regain his starter role. The staff seems to like Smith who is probably a better athlete than the other candidates. The problem is he is terrible when isolated in coverage and never seems to come up with a big play. S Dwight Lowery has filled in nicely for Smith the past few weeks but has limited range and is also a problem in one on one coverage against anyone with speed. He does, however, make plays. Pool has had a hard time picking up the defense while S James Ihedigbo is more of a LB than coverage guy. The run defense on the year was solid until the final two meaningful games of the year. LB's David Harris and Bart Scott are among the best run defenders in the NFL. The Jets will need more out of disappointing OLB Calvin Pace to advance. Pace flashes from time to time, as he did in the Bills game, and there are few better when he plays that way, but it seems rare to see him play that way. Taylor and LB Bryan Thomas will rotate at the other spot and the Jets will hope to get a boost on the line from the return of DE Trevor Pryce. Pryce has been a solid midseason acquisition who has flourished in the defense and is a very versatile player. Hopefully Taylor can turn it up in the playoffs since he has been waiting so long to get back. This will be his first playoff game since the 2001 season.
The Jets spent much of the offseason tinkering with their defense with this exact matchup in mind. Last year the Jets could not get to Manning and he ripped them to shreds by picking on CB Lito Sheppard and Coleman. So now the Jets will get to see just how their offseason paid off. Really the most important thing for the Jets to do on defense this week is tighten up the rotation and have the players prepared to play in more situations than they are normally used to. One of the main issues with the defense is getting personnel on and off the field and against the Colts that is a recipe for disaster. You can not get caught with 10 guys on the field or a situation where the ball is snapped and 4 guys are running into position. That is the chess game that Manning orchestrates and usually wins. He is well aware of the way the Jets use various packages of players and will run up to the line and quickly get a play off when he realizes the subs are not ready to come in for the Jets. Manning is the best at that and he hurt the Jets with that last season as well. That is one of the advantages the Colts have. The Colts do not have the weapons they had last season to spread the Jets defense thin. With Revis glued firmly to Wayne it should give the secondary a far better chance this time around. The one thing to watch early is who they attack in the passing game. Normally it will be Coleman, but occasionally teams target Cromartie to see if his head is into the game. Once the Colts tip their hand as to the early strategy the Jets will have to adjust and switch things up. That could be a time to quickly change the coverage and support. If Coleman falters early they have to make the switch to Wilson and Cole. The secondary has to be prepared to jump certain routes from behind and make the hit on the receiver as he receives the ball. This group is not as sure handed as teams in years past and the big hit can jar the ball loose and possibly lead to an interception. They also need to tackle better than they have all season. The big Achilles heel of the team has been the awful 3rd and long defense. A number of those plays that they have given up have been due to the inability of the players in the secondary to tackle once a reception has been made.
Unless the return of Addai sees the Colts utilize the run more often the Jets are going to be in a position where they can play pass defense most of the game. You have to make life uncomfortable for Manning early if you expect to beat him, which means frustrating him with coverage or putting him on the ground. Manning does still get flustered when things do not go his way and he sees a game getting away from him. He is certainly a leader on the field but he can be very demonstrative towards his teammates when they make a mistake. This is a group of players that sometimes don't pick up the hot route or run a route to a marker the way the Colts teams of the past did and that drives Manning insane if he feels it is costing him the game. The Jets can hopefully aid that by disguising certain coverages, such as pulling a safety off a blitz into the short zone, and blitz packages. With Addai seeming to be a minimal threat the Jets may be able to start to use Harris and Scott in different roles both in terms of rushing the passer and playing short zone coverages. The Jets were hurt last year when Scott was well below 100% for this game with an ankle injury and it ruined the teams rotations and is one of the reasons why Addai had such a strong game. When the Lbs are in coverage the one thing to be aware of are the various pick patterns that the Colts may run. The Colts are one of the few teams in the NFL that will use certain players to clear out, especially if the Corners play tight. It will be up to the linebackers to see it and make sure the coverage continues. The guys up front are going to have to find a way to pressure the football and also be aware of the run. They will likely not get much run support so when Manning audibles to the run at the line its going to be up to them to make the stop. Indianapolis is one of the worst short yardage running teams in the NFL, so the linemen should be able to stuff most of it with little help. If they can not do their job it will change the way the Jets are forced to defend the pass. The Jets need a big game from Taylor and DE Shaun Ellis, who could be playing his last game as a Jet. He was slowed down with a broken hand in last seasons loss. The Jets may also consider using LB Jamaal Westerman in a limited role if they need aid getting into the backfield. He does not play often, but is probably better suited to have active this week than LB Vernon Gholston, who serves minimal purpose in passing situations.
The Colts have the most clutch field goal kicker in playoff history in Adam Vinatieri. He made his name all those years ago with the Patriots and has continued his quest with the Colts. He does not have the leg he once had and he has never been one of the most accurate regular season guys, but you can always trust him in the playoffs. P Pat McAfee handles both the punting and kickoff duties. He does not have a big leg for punts, but in the dome can get touchbacks to render the return game of the opposition useless. When he does not get the touchback or a fair catch off a punt the coverage teams are one of the worst in the NFL. The Colts have never been about special teams play and it shows in their play. The return game is also right at the bottom of the NFL. When the Jets kickoff there should be minimal threat of the 30 yard return to set up Manning with great field position.
You really have to rely on your special teams in a game like this to perhaps tilt the odds in your favor. Good kicking and punting will force Manning to work on a longer field while a solid return game gives Sanchez the short field to work with. This should be a big advantage for the Jets this week, though there have been games in the past where that has been the case and the special teams have not stood out. For Brad Smith this is a moneymaking game. He is set to be a free agent and if he can have one of those games where he constantly takes the ball out to the 40 and maybe breaks one for a touchdown it ups his value tremendously. On punt returns expect the Jets to stick with Jerricho Cotchery who does not put the ball down on the turf. K Nick Folk may get more opportunities than he has in the past. You can not leave points on the field and because it is a dome, the coach may decide to try him from 45+ yards, something he has been reluctant to do because of Folk's problems. Folk has to get more leg on his kickoffs this week. His kicks are terribly short and this is a team with no return threat. You don't want them to start with the ball at the 30 because he is only reaching the 10 yard line. P Steve Weatherford has been solid all season and only has to avoid the wildly bad shank punt. He has only had one or two of them on the year so he should be the least of their concerns. It is possible that the Jets could try a fake this week against this unit.
Jim Caldwell is like the polar opposite of Rex Ryan. If it wasn't that people knew his name for the decision in last years Jets/Colts regular season game nobody outside of Indianapolis would even know his name. He may be the most unassuming and quiet coach in the NFL. Granted most people believe that the QB runs this team and clearly the success of the team hinges on the play of Manning, but Caldwell probably gets less credit than any coach in the NFL who has been a moderate success since the days of Barry Switzer in Dallas. Caldwell did have to deal with some adversity this year including losing streaks, injuries, and having to fight just to make the playoffs. He has made some questionable decisions but he has also been credited with turning around the play of the offensive and defensive lines late in the season. Most people seem to hope games do not come down to his decision making, but more often than not they are winning games.
Rex Ryan made the predictions and proclamations in the offseason and will get his first chance at redemption by eliminating Manning, who has been a thorn in his side for years. There are two things Rex has to do this week. The first concerns his own job on the sidelines. He needs to be more aware of situations and tighten up on everything he does on the sidelines. If he has to make one of his inactive guys or backup QB's stand there and count players every play he has to make sure the team always has 11 guys on the field. He has to have things mapped out for when to use time outs and challenges and not be in a situation like he was in New England. He has to make sure he leaves the least amount of time on the clock for Manning by calling the proper plays and making sure his QB snaps the ball at the proper time when the clock is running out.
The second one is to walk the fine line of getting his team emotionally psyched up for the game, but at the same time not having it overwhelm them and make them tight. When Rex puts excess emphasis in certain situations the team seems to play tight. It happened in the opener and it happened against New England. To some extent it even happened against the Dolphins. It happened last year as well. They certainly were not tight when they opened in Cincinnati in the 2009 playoffs, but this is different. The Colts carry a certain elite element to themselves even in a down season. You look across the field at Carson Palmer and can shrug your shoulders, but when you look at Manning you see a legend and legends make teams worry. The Jets know that the expectation level for the team was so high that this is a must win and sometimes the pressure of that against a player of Mannings stature can be too much if the coach does not play the cards right.
There are certainly plenty of fans who are upset that the Jets drew the Colts in the first round this year, but if you want to be the best what better way to do it than to beat the best. Nobody said the road to the Super Bowl would be easy and at the start of the year, even when expectations were through the roof, people would have given it a 50/50 shot that the Jets would travel to Indianapolis again in the AFC Championship game. If they were confident about the teams chances then they should still be confident now, especially with all the injuries to the Colts.
The Jets are a better team than the Colts provided they can contain Manning. They were not so much worse last season either, but Manning got hot and there was no way to cool him off. Though the Jets are better equipped to stop him now, especially with his current group of skill players, if he gets hot he is unstoppable. If that happens the team is going to have to either slow the game down to a crawl and make sure to score or go for broke and try to throw the ball all over the football field. The Jets cant go halfway at that point and whatever tact they take must work if they want to win.
For all of the negativity the team received for beating nobody until they upset Pittsburgh who exactly have the Colts beaten this year? Everyone gets so wrapped up in the history of the Manning era and confuses those teams with this one. They have only beaten one playoff team on the year, which was the Chiefs early in the season. They also beat a 10 win Giants team in week 2. Beyond that they have not beaten a team with a winning record this year. They struggled to beat teams like the Titans and Jaguars on the run to the division title. This is not a world beater by any means.
The Jets also have to play the game within the game by dividing the contest up into two halves rather than one 60 minute game. With Manning those first 30 minutes are key and you can not allow him to have that last minute drive to take the momentum of the game. That is the role in which Manning thrives. Manning comes up short in the games where he scores less than 10 first half points and the lesser the better. He presses in the playoffs when things do not go his way early and that is what leads to wins for the opponent. The Jets almost accomplished that last year and then they let him off the hook on that drive to end the half. It turned the entire game and kept the Jets out of the Super Bowl. Manning adjusts better than any QB in the game and if the Jets come out in the second 30 minutes with the exact same gameplan he will likely tear it up and the Jets will find themselves going home.
The Jets absolutely can not fall behind early. They can play tied if they must, but the Jets best chance is to play from ahead. This is exactly how they beat the Chargers last year. When you are up late you put yourself in a position to where one last big play breaks the game for good. You are up by enough points to weather the late flurry by the star QB at the end of the game and still come out with a win. They just could not pad that lead enough in the Championship game the following week. The Jets at no point can ever just be content with where they are on the scoreboard. Every point counts against a team like this. If the pass is working they cant take their foot off the pedal and decide to run the clock out and play not to lose.
Hopefully the Jets players have watched that game against Chicago to see both the good and bad that they can be. Defensively the Bears present the same exact defense and Sanchez picked it apart for most of the game. That is what the players need to watch. Offensively the Bears showed what happens when you take certain players too lightly and allow a team to go bombs away while being caught with your hands on your hips wondering what is going on. The Jets took 15 minutes to settle down in that game and it was too late by then. They can watch that to get it to sink into their heads how to cut off such a rally, the exact type of rally the Colts can bring.
Deep down I think the players are so focused on getting a rematch with New England that the players will put forth their best effort of the season this week. This is just a step to get where they want to be. There are players who may not be here next year if they lose this game, some of whom were brought in specifically for this game, and most of them probably would love to remain in Jet green. They know this is a failure of a season if they lose this game and nobody wants that. One thing that should have rubbed off on the young guys from the collection of veterans like Taylor, Ellis, and Tomlinson who have always fallen short is how you cant take these playoff trips for granted and you never know if you will get back again. Sometimes younger players will think that this is the norm every year but as the veterans will tell you there is often no tomorrow. Eventually the window closes and you scramble to find that way to get the window to open just one last time. This is a tight knit group and everyone on the team understands what this means which is going to hopefully lead to a win.
Jets 27 Colts 14