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Breaking Down the Jets vs the Jaguars

The bye week probably could not have come at a better time for Rex Ryan and his New York Jets. After a brilliant start to the season, the Jets have played inconsistent football that has the team searching for answers. In two of their last three losses the Jets have statistically dominated their opponents but have found ways to lose games due to sloppy ball handling and awful special teams play. The Jets will hopefully have used this time to collect their heads and work out the kinks as they prepare to make their push to the playoffs in a crowded AFC field where 10 teams have 4 losses or less at the midway point. They will welcome one of those 4 loss teams, the Jacksonville Jaguars, this week to the Meadowlands in what looks to be an early playoff elimination game.

Jets Defense vs. Jaguars Offense

It was just two seasons ago when Jacksonville made a controversial decision to hand the offense over to QB David Garrard and it looked to be a stroke of genius as the Jaguars finished with a 11-5 record and pushed the 16-0 New England Patriots right to the brink before bowing out of the playoffs. Garrard was rewarded with a huge new contract and he was to lead the Jaguars to a great period of football. It hasn’t worked for Garrard, who has gotten to the point where he is openly feuding with his coach at times, or the Jaguars who never lived up to the hype. Garrard is not terrible, but similar to other late bloomer QB’s like Chad Pennington and Marc Bulger, he never reproduced the great start and will never live up to the contract numbers. Garrard is a mobile QB that is a threat when he is able to evade the initial pass rush. He has a strong enough arm but has proven to be a poor decision maker and gets lost in the pocket which has helped lead to a high number of sacks and fumbles. The team’s best player is RB Maurice Jones-Drew, who is a real game changer and one of the few players remaining in the league who excels in what is primarily a one back system. Jones-Drew carries a 5.5 YPC average into the game and is slowly being relied on to carry the load for a team that has a suspect passing attack. Jones-Drew is maybe the best back in the NFL at gaining big yards after initial contact and is tough to take down if you go at him head on since he has a strong base. The teams other main skill position player should remind the Jets and their fans of their own pass targets from 2007 and 2008 that featured an aging Laveranues Coles, a promising Jericho Cotchery, and a mediocre TE in Chris Baker. Torry Holt, a first ballot Hall of Famer, is far removed from his HOF days. Holt can still get down the field and make yards after the catch, but he has no touchdowns on the season and only one game this year, against the hapless Rams, where he put up Holt-like numbers. Mike Sims-Walker, in his third NFL season, is developing into a nice option in the passing game. He is a big target with good speed that can go up and get an errant pass. Sims-Walker is showing the potential to be a game breaking player, but right now is too inconsistent. TE Mercedes Lewis is the other “name” passing option. Lewis is a big body with the ability to exploit the seam if you allow him off the line without contact. Rookie Mike Thomas has 18 receptions on the season and is often the safe short option on many passing plays. The teams offensive line has not done very well this season, particularly at the tackle position where they are trying to find the right blend and rotation of players. They have tried starting two highly drafted rookies at tackle which has led to 7 sacks allowed and constant collapsing of the pocket. They have tried inserting veteran Tra Thomas in to stabilize the position, but he has also been ineffective. The interior of the line, led by C Brad Meester is the strength of the team.

The Jets defense, despite losing NT Kris Jenkins for the season, has come off two fantastic performances as they completely shut down the Oakland Raiders and Miami Dolphins offenses these last two weeks. The run defense has shown great strides after being beat up early in the season and the pass defense remains excellent. With the Jets offense in the hands of a rookie QB the Jets defenders need to take it upon themselves to win games for the team. For that to happen the one area where the Jets must improve is in making impact plays. It is the impact plays that really have kept the Jets from being 6-2 right now and the reason why they are not looked at in the same light as Ryan’s old Ravens teams. What made the Ravens teams special is that they were able to create a huge number of turnovers and score or set up scores very often. In many ways they became the Ravens offense. The Jets have yet to score a defensive touchdown and are below average at creating turnovers despite having one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL playing in the secondary. The Ravens have only had one season in the last six years with less than 3 touchdowns and routinely were near the top of the NFL in the turnovers category. There has been some improvement in this respect due to the recent play of LB Calvin Pace who single-handedly caused turnovers in the Oakland game and has opened up areas for other players to attack the QB against Miami. If Pace can keep up that level of play the turnovers and scores should come. Pace, who has battled inconsistency in the past, has to play at a high level in almost all of these final 8 games if the Jets are to make the playoffs. The team does not have any players on the defensive line who can be counted on to make an impact each week and need the help of a player like Pace to get behind the line of scrimmage. David Harris, who may be able to earn a Pro Bowl invite, is the only other impact player in the front 7, but its harder from the inside to have the same impact on a game that a player like Pace can have. Bart Scott and Bryan Thomas are both steady players, but neither is spectacular and odds are will not make a big difference in the game. The Jets may try to see if Jamaal Westerman can find a way to make things happen in the second half of the year as the Vernon Gholston experience never amounted to any results. Those two players will likely split very limited snaps the remainder of the year. The one player the Jets really need to step up his game is S Kerry Rhodes. Rhodes talks a big game having compared himself to Ed Reed and having called out the opposition, but Rhodes has yet to make one big play all season. He has shown in the past the ability to play far better in the second half of the year and he will have to do that again this season.

This is a game where the Jets primary obligation on defense is to contain Garrard and make certain to capitalize on his mistakes. The Jets have to make him uncomfortable right at the start of the game and not let him settle into any type of comfort zone as he will be playing in front of family and friends in NJ. Garrard has been a terrible road QB these past two seasons. In 2009 he is completing 55% of his passes with no passing touchdowns and four turnovers and the road turnovers are something that plagued him in 2008 as well with 11 turnovers and only seven scores. The Jets OLBs and DE’s have to pressure Garrard and always be looking for a strip when they get to him. Garrard’s road record in games with two or fewer sacks is 5-2 over the last three seasons. His record in the rest of his road starts is 2-7, with the two wins coming in the first two games of 2007, and he has 8 interceptions in the big sack games compared to just 4 when he is not feeling that kind of pressure. The team has to limit Jones-Drew to short gains on 1st and 2nd downs and do their best to make an early statement that they will not let him bounce off them and gain big yards after the initial contact. The Jets quickly let the Dolphins know that they were not going to be able to run like they did in their first meeting and it changed Miami’s offensive approach in the second game. The Jaguars staff does seem to have a tendency to focus on the pass if you take Jones-Drew away early and force the Jaguars to play from behind. In half his games this year he has less than 15 carries which neutralizes their only real offensive weapon. If the Jets keep Jones-Drew in check and get the pressure on Garrard to set up 3rd and long, the defensive battle is more or less won. Garrard is a game manager that has no ability to play in obvious 3rd down pass situations where he carries only a 50% completion percentage in the last two years. The secondary has to make plays when hey simply throw the ball up for grabs. Darrelle Revis would be better suited to playing Sims-Walker than putting him on Holt due to name recognition. Holt may get some receptions against the likes of Lito Sheppard or Donald Strickland, but he is not going to break a game open. Sims-Walker might.

Jets Offense vs. Jaguars Defense

Jacksonville is in somewhat of a transition defensively as they have seemingly abandoned their attempt to learn a 34 defense and instead switching back to the 43 defense that they have used in the past. The 34 defense was somewhat forced on the team due to injuries, but the results were so bad Jacksonville scrapped it in an attempt to save the season. It should not be much of a learning curve as almost all of these players were in this system last year, but they had major problems last year on defense in particular their pass defense. Jacksonville hopes that the switch allows them to have a better chance stopping the run and to generate a pass rush. The move allows DE Derrick Harvey, a disappointment since being drafted in the top 10, to play his natural position and pair up with DE Quentin Groves, who has also not lived up to the expectations. If these two players can figure things out it would have a major impact on the pass defense. Big John Henderson is the teams best player on the line and he now returns to his natural DT position. Henderson is a disruptor in the middle that forces runs to the outside and can pressure the QB. His size always creates a problem for the QB to see and throw over. The Linebackers are the strongest unit on the defense. Daryl Smith is the leader of the defense and will line up at different spots on the field. He is a good all around player who is effective in tracking down runners, pass coverage and in the different blitz packages the team uses. Justin Durant has good speed and is a good tackler while Clint Ingram is a good player in run support, though he has been suspect in passing situations. Their pass defense problems are not all that different than the 2008 Jets problems. The problems start with no pass rush and they do not have the skill players to cover for long amounts of time. CB Rashean Mathis still can make the occasional play, but is not the elite level player he used to be and is often nursing injuries. Reggie Nelson, who has shuffled back and forth between corner and safety, never lived up to the promise of his rookie season. Rookie Derek Cox has had major problems covering the teams secondary targets. They do a good job of eliminating the downfield passing game but are hurt underneath and are giving up close to 70% pass completions which is a major reason why the team’s 3rd down defense is one of the worst in the NFL.

The Jets offense looks to have turned a corner over these past four weeks, particularly in the running game. Whether it has been sparked by RB Thomas Jones simply making more of an effort or because RT Damien Woody is finally healthy, the run results have been nothing short of fantastic. Jones has run for over 430 yards in the last three games and has helped pick up the offense for QB Mark Sanchez. Sanchez nearly drove the Jets down the field for a game winning TD in the Miami game, but fell short. He was crushed after losing the game and the bye week probably came at a good time for him and hopefully a trip back to USC cleared his head of the game. The Jets have given him a lot of responsibility and he seems to put a lot of the blame on himself. He should get a fully healthy group of wideouts to work with for the first time this season. Jerricho Cotchery should now be 100% and the tandem of he and Braylon Edwards could be something special. Edwards draws a ton of attention away from everyone else on the field and Cotchery is one of those players that can take a seemingly dead play into a huge gain when he is left in single coverage. TE Dustin Keller broke out of a big slump against Miami and the Jets have to hope he turned a corner. If he turns into the player they project him to be the Jets have the foundation of an excellent passing offense. The Jets offensive line still needs to find better ways to protect their QB. LG Alan Faneca is deteriorating rapidly in pass protection right before our eyes. Faneca gave up a game killing sack at the end of the last game. They also are not doing a great job when the backups are brought into the game on passing plays. TE Ben Hartsock has to cut down on his penalties when he is in the game.

The most important thing for the Jets this week is to show that they have learned from the Buffalo game and tailor their gameplan against the Jacksonville weaknesses. The one thing that Sanchez does very poorly right now is check down to his safety routes when the plays are often designed to go deeper down the field. Jacksonville is a lot like Buffalo in that they take the deep game away and force you to go underneath with the pass. Against the Bills the Jets refused to go underneath and tried to force the ball down the field all game. While the weather may have led to some of Sanchez’ bad throws the offensive gameplan was going to lead to a good deal of turnovers anyway. The Jets have to use Jones and Shonn Greene in the passing game this week. When they use their receivers they must let them catch the ball short and turn it into a big gain rather than trying to throw into the coverage which has a better chance to lead to a turnover. This is a game where you have to pick out the proper guy before the snap and trust that he can make a play. The pass protection has to react to the different blitzes that the team may bring with its linebackers. Other than Henderson the Jaguars do not have anyone on the line that should be able to pressure Mark Sanchez. The Jets tackles are far superior to the Jaguars ends. The only concern is if the linebackers can spot a weakness and attack it to quickly pressure Sanchez. With a full week to review the season expect a few more wrinkles into the rushing game. The Jets have primarily run draw type plays to the right but may consider trying a few more outside runs to keep the defenses a bit more honest. If C Nick Mangold completely neutralizes Henderson in the run game the Jets should have a big day on the ground.

Special Teams

The special teams completely fell apart for the Jets and is the primary reason why the team stands here at 4-4 rather than 5-3. Outside of Jay Feely’s field goals this has been the worst season in recent memory for this unit. The return game has been ineffective. Coverage has been poor. Punting is mediocre. The Jets have to find answers to keep teams on a longer field. After the last game it will be a surprise if the Jets staff negates special teams by suiting up players like Danny Woodhead rather than Marquice Cole and Ahmad Carroll.

The Jaguars do not pose much of a threat in specials but also will not give up much in the way of return yards. They have been one of the better coverage units this season. Mike Thomas had a big punt return last week and is a good kick returner, but it would be hard to imagine the Jets giving up a huge return to him this week. He is not a game changer, though neither was Ted Ginn. K Josh Scobee has a strong leg but does battle inconsistency in his long field goal attempts.

Coaching

Jack Del Rio is one of those coaches that has only held onto his job because of economic considerations rather than merit. While Del Rio has had two good years with the team, they have never gotten over the hump with him and they consistently seem to hover around the 0.500 mark. His offenses have never really done well and the defense has gone downhill since the trade of Marcus Stroud. His teams have a tendency to give up when they start out badly with 5 of their last 6 road losses being blowouts of 13 points or more.

Rex Ryan took some time off to clear his head in Florida and hopefully found some answers for what has gone wrong these last few weeks. Ryan said they spent some time going over their game film and scouting themselves and found some things to correct which will help create turnovers and bog play opportunities. He did openly admit in an interview that he is learning the job and has made mistakes with time outs and some game management situations. He needs to improve in those areas if he wants to make the playoffs. He is preaching the philosophy of taking it just one game at a time, but he himself seems stuck on the Miami loss which really hurt his pride. If that attitude rubs off on the team it could lead to a tough contest this week.

Overall

While there is a saying in the NFL that “you are what your record says you are” the Jets have played better than a 4-4 record would indicate. There are mistakes that you expect from rookie QB’s and coaches, but the mistakes just seem to happen in almost every game now and have been the difference between 6-2 and the team‘s current record. The Jets have 8 games to prove that they are that 6-2 team that they feel they are. If they finish the year 8-8 it will be very hard to make the kind of excuses that the team can be heard making about their current record.

The Jets have to treat this as a playoff game and realize that this would likely end the season if they lost. Jacksonville is one of those teams who has been unable to get over the 0.500 hump for two years running and are not a strong team away from home. If the Jets really are still a contender this is the kind of game they should easily win. Falling to 4-5 would be a disaster. It would end the dream of catching New England for a division title and put the Jets in a major wildcard hole. In all likelihood the Jets will be playing in front of an empty stadium the remainder of the year if they happen to stub their toe yet again.

Since the win against the Titans the Jets have had a hard time getting all three phases of the game in the same game. That is something the Jets staff needs to figure out for this game and decide if there is a lack of attention being paid to all three units when it comes to dressing players and game strategy. It is very hard in the NFL to win with just defense or just offense. You need some type of balance and the Jets have to find that balance the rest of the way out. If they end up only playing strongly in one phase of the game this week and allow the Jaguars to remain in striking distance they might lose the game just like how they gave the Bills and Dolphins that small amount of necessary breathing room to come back and win games they had no business winning.

On paper the Jets are a much better team than Jacksonville. The Jets are one of the best defensive teams in the NFL and do not give up many points to the opposition. The offense is adequate with potential to be something much more than that with the wide receivers all healthy and on the same page. Jacksonville is a bad defensive team and less offensive firepower than the Jets. You can argue that the Jets should be better than 4-4, but you can not make that same argument about the Jaguars, who have just gotten beaten up on 3 different occasions this year.

The Jets have to come out and look to take the momentum of the game early and take Jacksonville’s heart away. Jacksonville does not play well from behind and loses confidence easily. If you force the Jaguars to play catchup you eliminate Jones-Drew from the equation and force them to rely on Garrard to carry the team which he can not do. What the Jets can not do is what they did against Miami and squander great field position early and settle for a defensive struggle where the first team to 13 points wins the game. That is not the kind of game to play against this team. Jones-Drew is too big of a weapon for that type of game. The last thing you want is a 3 point game late in the 4th quarter where Jones-Drew can rattle off an 80 yard run for a score to take the lead and leave the Jets having to rely on an offense that has been asked to do little all game. The Jets need a comfortable margin from start to finish. Coming off a bye week, which has benefited the Jets these last few seasons, should allow them to do that.

Jets 27 Jaguars 10