Breaking Down the Jets vs the Ravens
The regular season is finally here and the expectations for the Jets are higher than at any point in the last decade. Fresh off the unlikely trip to the AFC Championship game in 2009 the team has become the toast of New York. They brought in big stars such as RB LaDainian Tomlinson, DE/LB Jason Taylor, and WR Santonio Holmes to complete the team and perhaps grab some extra headlines along the way. They took center stage as the featured attraction on HBO's Hard Knocks. Now they will kick off the season in grand style with the featured Monday Night Football contest against the Baltimore Ravens.
Jets Offense vs. Ravens Defense
When its all said and done the Ravens of the prior decade will go down as one of the great defensive runs of all time. They have been well above average most seasons and did not really miss a beat last season after losing Rex Ryan as their defensive coordinator. The Ravens defense is built upon two things that they do about as well as any defense in the NFL- stop the run and pick off the quarterback. The Ravens have arguably the best run defense in the entire league. Their front is anchored by Haloti Ngata, a dominating figure that disrupts the offensive line, and the steady Kelly Gregg, who holds the point of attack as well as anyone at the position. Those two players make life very easy for LB Ray Lewis and company to make stops in the run game and force teams to pass the football. If there is a weakness this year it could be the addition of Cory Redding as the starting DE. Redding does not have the track record of the other Ravens, can often be a lazy player, and comes from a losing environment having played his career in Detroit and Seattle. The pass defense is bolstered by the presence of two natural pass rushers in Terrell Suggs and Trevor Pryce. While neither puts up huge sack totals they are able to attract double teams and force a runner to stay in and block. The linebackers and safeties on the club are all outstanding in the passing game as they often stop running backs and tight ends from getting involved in the game. The secondary could be an issue. The starters are both coming off major injury and they are not the type of players that can necessarily compete with physical players. The team also will be without star safety Ed Reed, which is a major loss. Reed is the best Safety of his generation and the type of player that is going to bring the ball back for a touchdown when he intercepts it. The loss of Reed and the general shaky nature of the secondary will force Dawan Landry, who can also makes plays in the passing game, to not be used as much in run support and instead aid the corners.
After a very inconsistent preseason there is a great deal of uncertainty surrounding the offense. They have talented players, but the offense is going to sink or swim based on the performance of QB Mark Sanchez. Sanchez had a rocky rookie season and is the one player who may not have benefited from the Hard Knocks exposure. During the entire offseason the fans were told how incredible Sanchez was in studying the offense and looking like a new player where the light bulb just went on, something that often seems to happen with young QB's. However, Sanchez came across as kind of aloof on the TV show and did not look like a player prepared to make that big second year leap that the team and fans are hoping for. That does not mean that there have not been noticeable improvements. Sanchez looked better in the pocket during the preseason contests and was doing a better job of scanning the field for his wideouts. The worry is that when he is off he is throwing the ball to the opposition and that is something you can not do against the Ravens.
The question is will the Jets trust him this early in the season against this team and have a balanced offensive attack? Even with the suspension to Holmes there are big weapons in the passing game for the team. WR Braylon Edwards had an extremely strong offseason and is playing for a lucrative contract next season. Edwards is extremely familiar with this Ravens team and historically has had his best games when he knows he is playing in front of a big audience. Edwards knows that these four weeks without Holmes are his chance to claim the number one receiver spot and he will be in line for a big game if Sanchez can get him the football. WR Jerricho Cotchery is extremely consistent, has great hands, and is going to be a go to target on third downs this year. TE Dustin Keller came alive in the playoffs after a very inconsistent 2009 season and has looked strong as a target in the preseason and the Jets also finally have a backfield receiver in RB LaDainian Tomlinson. The talent is there its just a question of whether they will trust the QB to try and use it in week one or not.
The option will always be to fall back on the running game which looks like it will be a split of carries between RB Shonn Greene and Tomlinson. Greene is a powerful runner that does not shy away from contact and will match the physical Ravens defense blow for blow. The Jets will hope that he can soften the Ravens up for a big run for himself as well as Tomlinson. While it was only preseason Tomlinson looked far faster and more shifty than he has in over two seasons. He had big plays for first downs and looks rejuvenated. This is not the type of team he ever played well against, but he will get his opportunities to make everyone forget the name Thomas Jones. If these two players average over 4 yards per carry it will be a great sign for the Jets.
The offensive line may be the key to this game. Neither of the tackles has looked good in the preseason and there is still a big question mark at the left guard position. The Ravens, who attack in the same manner the Jets defense does, will try to exploit those weaknesses and it only takes a few bad plays by the offensive line to ruin a game. The Jets have to win the battle in the trenches if they want to win the game. If they cant run and the young QB is flushed out of the pocket the Jets can't win. The key to beating the Ravens in the past has always been to out-physical their defense and force them to press, something that has been a problem for them on the road.
The absence of Reed should help the Jets tremendously. Even with Sanchez' potential improvements, Reed was going to snag a pass and possibly go for 6 when he did. This gives the Jets a bit more of a safety net in the passing game. Expect the Jets gameplan to resemble something similar to what was seen in last years playoff run. The Jets will look to establish their two runners early and use a number of short timing patterns with the wideouts to allow Sanchez to get into a rhythm rather than let doubt creep into his mind. With Reed out expect a few deep sideline pass attempts to Edwards, who should physically be able to manhandle the Ravens corners at the line, and maybe they will use the LT option pass play that is from Tomlinson's old Chargers playbook from the Marty Schottenheimer days to try to catch the Ravens defense off guard.
Jets Defense vs. Ravens Offense
After years of searching the Ravens finally feel as if they have the ability to become a top offensive team. They have their QB in place in Joe Flacco and finally got themselves a number 1 wide receiver in Anquan Boldin. Flacco is proving to be a good QB that has to learn to be able to lead his team to wins in crunch time. Flacco is an accurate passer that does a good job protecting the football. He has a strong arm and is willing to stand in the face of pressure to try to deliver the football. He will now have that special target in Boldin. Boldin is an outstanding player that felt somewhat underappreciated in Arizona due to the presence of Larry Fitzgerald. Boldin is a lot like Jerricho Cotchery in that he runs precise routes, has great hands, and does a lot with the ball after he catches it. Boldin is coming off his worst season as a pro and there are some feel that he is trending down after a stellar start to his career. He is going to be the centerpiece of the passing attack in Baltimore and they expect him to put up 90 yards a game. Boldin's presence should aid veteran Derrick Mason who could no longer be considered a game changer on offense at the age of 36. Mason is as steady as they come and understands the position as well as anyone in the NFL. They also just signed WR TJ Houshmandzadeh, but it's unclear what role if any he would play in week 1. He is a similar player to Mason and its doubtful they will complement one another if he does play. TE Todd Heap will be the third receiving target in the offense. At one time Heap was considered an elite receiver before injuries derailed his career. He was healthy last season and began to show some signs of being that type of player again and reports are that he is looking as good as he did five years ago. RB Ray Rice carried the Ravens into the playoffs and through the first round last year. The former Rutgers product is deceptively strong and displays great speed and agility on the outside. Rice does a tremendous job of making players miss and is always a threat for a 20 yard gain. He is also a tremendous receiver that led the team in receptions last year. RB Willis McGahee is the teams primary goalline player and FB Le'Ron McClain, a great blocker, is sometimes used on second downs to give Rice a rest. If there is a weakness in the team its their offensive line. They are a good enough run blocking unit, but have allowed Flacco to come under a great deal of pressure. They need to do a better job of keeping Flacco protected.
Clearly the big story is going to be the return of superstar CB Darrelle Revis and what kind of shape he is in for this game. He admitted that he has to get in football shape and it is unclear if he is going to be able to play the whole game on Boldin. CB Antonio Cromartie went from likely having a very busy day against Boldin to getting a busy day against Mason. One can not dispute Cromaties physical talent. He has tremendous size, strength, and speed and has made some spectacular interceptions throughout the years, but there are times when the effort does not match the ability. Rookie CB Kyle Wilson will make his debut and could see significant time depending on how much either Revis plays or the Ravens try to utilize Houshmandzadeh. The secondary will also feature the debut of Brodney Pool as the replacement for Kerry Rhodes. Pool is a bigger hitter than Rhodes, but teams are going to test out just how much safety help he and Jim Leonhard can give in the revamped secondary.
The pass rush was dealt a blow when OLB Calvin Pace suffered a broken foot in the third preseason game. Pace is the teams best pass rusher and the only guy who does not have to rely on blitz schemes to get to the QB. He should be replaced by former Dolphin Jason Taylor who has to prove he has something left in the tank. No other team was interested in Taylor and he was invisible in the preseason. LB's David Harris and Bart Scott will both have important jobs this week in helping contain Rice in the running and passing game. Scott, a former Raven, will likely be playing with an even bigger chip on his shoulder than usual which can be both a good and bad thing with him. If Scott's emotions get the best of him he will pick up needless penalties that put the team in a bad position. The game will also feature the return of NT Kris Jenkins who will be looking to return to dominance in the middle of the line. He will be responsible for blowing up the center of the field to force Rice to change directions early on in a run, in theory making the jobs of the ends and linebackers much easier to contain him.
The defense will be under a great deal of scrutiny this week. While there are many who take the defense as a given, there are also many who feel the Jets got by last season on smoke and mirrors and will not have the same success with the sell out blitzes this year. New England more or less came up with a blueprint last season on beating the defense and Indianapolis perfected it in the second half of the AFC Championship game. The Jets opponents have likely gone to school on those games and will be installing offenses designed to get the ball out over the blitz and into a thin secondary. Baltimore sees themselves as a passing team and the acquisition of Boldin, Houshmandzadeh, and the supposed reemergence of Heap is just going to bolster their belief. Expect them to try to get Boldin involved very early on as they test Revis while also picking on Cromartie's assignments. The hope for the Ravens will be that Revis will require safety help either leaving Cromarties assignment with more open field or catching Revis in a one on one he is not ready for.. A player like Boldin is explosive when he catches the football and if they catch the Jets in an unfavorable position he can turn a 10 yard pass into a 40 yard gain.
From the Jets perspective they have to win the battle on first down. The Ravens typically use the run on that down to soften up the defense and make the game more manageable. If they are able to establish Rice early it will make it much harder on the pass defense. The Jets LB's have to contain the outsides which is where Rice does most of his damage. The Jets have to make Flacco play from behind and convert on 3rd and long. Flacco has yet to prove he has that kind of ability to sustain comebacks and battle through adversity. When playing in front and managing a game Flacco put up numbers as good as anyone else in the NFL. When trying to play catch up and win a game he was average at best. The Jets can capitalize on Flacco's mistakes if they force this situation on the Ravens.
This should be a match between two of the better special teams in the league. The Ravens head coach comes from a special teams background and they have focused on that aspect of the game under him. They have one of the better coverage units in the NFL and upgraded their return game with the trade for CB Josh Wilson who was an excellent kick returner in Seattle. K Billy Cundiff is unspectacular but relatively accurate from inside 45. P Sam Koch gets a good deal of air under his punts making it hard to return. The Jets specials are something they have put a lot of work into during the offseason and it looks like it paid dividends in the preseason. A year after looking so poor in coverage, the preseason specials resembled the coverage teams of old with huge hits that created turnovers and did not allow teams to get big runbacks. The emphasis all off-season was that special teams would get a player on the roster and certainly they seemed to have listened. Brad Smith should handle kick returns and he is very good in that role. Smith may not be the most explosive guy, but he can be elusive and reads the blocking very well. With Revis back in the fold it could be possible that Wilson will see time as a punt returner. He has the potential to be explosive in that role, but with the expectation that he was going to be the starting corner he has not really worked out returning the ball. This is something to look for more in week 2. K Nick Folk gives off the feeling that he will be an adventure every week with some weeks of perfection and some weeks of just awful kicks. This is the kind of game where they need a good one.
When the Ravens hired John Harbaugh many around the league scratched their head at the choice. He had no experience running a defense or an offense and was going to be brought into a situation with a lot of veteran players who were already aligned with other coaches. Since then all he has done is win and made the Ravens into the odds on favorite to win the AFC North. Harbaugh did an excellent job last season when he realized his young QB hit a wall and he changed the offensive philosophy of the team to rely on Rice rather than a passing attack. His team dominated the Patriots in Foxboro so badly in the playoffs that the Patriots have been written off as a major contender by most major news outlets. If Harbaugh is able to get this team to a Super Bowl his stock will go through the roof around the league.
This is a huge game for Rex Ryan on many levels. The Ravens are Ryan's old team and they bypassed him to name Harbaugh the head coach. I think Ryan also believes that he and his defense were really responsible for the Ravens run to the conference championship game in 2008 and now this is his chance to prove it to the Ravens that they made a mistake when they did not believe he was a viable candidate for head coach. Last year when the Jets annihilated the Texans in week 1 the players all said that Ryan gave them such an emotional speech prior to game that they were ready to run through a wall for him. Expect them to be willing to take a bullet for him in this game. While that type of fiery approach can not work for 16 weeks, in week 1 it should bring that added motivation and effort right from the start.
Ryan knows the Ravens inside and out. He knows their tendencies, strengths, and weaknesses, especially on defense. It should be a major advantage. While Harbaugh will have a strong understanding of what he Jets do on defense he doesn't have the same knowledge of the personnel that Ryan does. That should be a strong point that works in favor of New York this week.
Somewhere lost in all the excitement of a new stadium and a season filled with promise is the fact that this is a huge football game. The Ravens have established themselves as one of the elite football franchises in the NFL and many have picked them as the favorite to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl this season. In many ways they are the mirror image of the Jets- a team with high expectations on offense behind a young QB and a team with what is expected to be a dominating defense. If the Jets are for real there is an excellent chance that this is a team they could meet in the playoffs. You make a statement by winning a game like this.
It is going to be important for the Jets to establish their offense and utilize the home field advantage. Baltimore is not the same team when they take to the road as they are at home. Last season at home the Ravens scored an extra 5 points per game over their opponents averages and held those same teams to a touchdown below their averages. On the road those numbers fell to plus 2 and minus 3. While those are still very good numbers its basically a touchdown swing, a huge difference against a good opponent. This is not a one year trend either, it is something that has historically plagued the Ravens and why they never get home field throughout the playoffs.
From the Jets perspective they were not a great home team last year, especially offensively, and they need to immediately change that in 2010. The Jets on offense last year were over a field goal under their opponents average at home while being a positive 2 on the road. The offense just never clicked before the home crowd, especially at the quarterback position. The Jets goal is to win the most games in the NFL this year and they have to change the way they play at home if they want to do that. It is an area that they must improve on. If the offense can begin scoring points in their new home it will be the start of something big.
It is important for the Jets to take an early lead this week. Baltimore is always a team that you want to play in front of rather trying to come from behind against, so the Jets have to come out fast, take advantage of the crowd, and put points up early. Defensively the Jets must stop Ray Rice and turn the Ravens into a pass only team, forcing Joe Flacco to prove he can win a close game on the road. Flacco did not have great luck in those type of situations in 2009, posting a 2-5 record in games decided by less than 6 points.
Week 1 is often a somewhat sloppy week of football and the team that has the intensity level up is the one that wins the game. This is why the Jets defeated the Texans last year so badly in the season opener. The Jets were at an intensity level that you see in week 5 and Houston was still in preseason mode. By the time they knew what hit them the game was over. The Jets have to remember that lesson and make sure they do not do what the Texans did last season and just expect to win. The Ravens are far too good a team to overlook for any reason. With the home field advantage and the added motivation the coach will bring, the Jets should have that intensity level they need to jump out quickly and win a close game in front of the national audience.
Jets 20 Ravens 16 that benefits all parties. The Jets get their man under contract for the foreseeable future, Mangold gets the financial security he deserves, and the fans of the team are happy to see a contract dispute end before it gets ugly on all sides.