Monday, November 8, 2010

Jets Midseason Report Card

You would think a team tied for the NFL's best record and leading their division, albeit via tiebreaker, would get top-notch grades across the board. You would be wrong.

The Jets could easily be 4-4 riding a three-game losing streak right now, but things went their way in the fourth quarter of games against Denver and Detroit. I know good teams find a way to win even when they play terrible football, but it doesn't exactly inspire hope for the season's second half. Regardless, here goes:

Quarterback - C

Some people may disagree with giving second-year pro Mark Sanchez what is considered an "average" rating, but I think it's just about right. After throwing 12 touchdowns and 20 interceptions as a rookie, not to mention losing 8 fumbles, the Jets asked two things of Sanchez coming into the season: Take a step forward from last year and protect the football.

Through eight games, Sanchez has thrown 10 touchdowns and just 5 interceptions. All of those interceptions have come in the past three weeks, but it's hard to blame them all on the quarterback.

Both interceptions against Green Bay came when Packers defenders outmuscled the Jets receivers and stole possession. You can say that Sanchez threw the ball into tight coverage and set his receivers up for failure, but this is the NFL and professional receivers should be able to hang onto the football when it's in their hands.

Sanchez's completion percentage and yards-per-attempt are virtually identical to last year, but his growth has come in the ability to hit big plays down the field and limit turnovers (6 through 8 games, compared to 28 in 16 games last year). That completion percentage, lowest of all NFL starting quarterbacks (53.5%), hasn't been helped by his mediocre receivers dropping passes every week, notably the once sure-handed Jerricho Cotchery.

When the Jets have tried to play dink-and-dunk football, Sanchez has struggled. But when Brian Schottenheimer has given his quarterback the opportunity to throw passes in the 15-25 yard range or deeper, Sanchez has looked good. The Jets need to continue to allow Sanchez to throw down the field more if they want their offense to actually move the football; turnovers will inevitably come, but Schottenheimer needs to play to the strengths of his quarterback and Sanchez needs to show the ability to shake off any interceptions he throws.

Running Back - A-

This rating would be an A if it weren't for the Jets struggles on the ground in the past three weeks. LaDainian Tomlinson looks rejuvenated and both he and Shonn Greene are averaging over 4.5 yards per carry. Three straight games under 60 yards for Tomlinson might lead the team to increase Greene's workload, especially considering Tomlinson's advanced age.

Tomlinson should remain the starter; after all he's a better pass blocker and receiver out of the backfield. But look for the Jets to keep LT fresh for the playoffs by giving Greene more work down the stretch. Greene looked better than Tomlinson against the Lions, which means maybe that increased workload is coming sooner than most think.

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends - C+

The Jets passing offense as a whole has been decidedly average. Jerricho Cotchery is having arguably his worst season as a pro and the only thing consistent about Braylon Edwards is his inconsistency. Santonio Holmes hadn't done much since returning until his long catch in overtime on Sunday that set up the game-winning field goal.

Dustin Keller has been the lone bright spot so far for the Jets, matching his career touchdown total (5) and only 88 yards behind his career high in receiving. If Holmes can continue to acclimate himself to Sanchez and the Jets offense, the combination of him on the outside and Keller on the inside has lethal potential. That would sure help the offense as a whole and would probably bump this grade into the B-range by season's end.

Offensive Line - B+

The line has been stout this season, even after losing Pro Bowl guard Alan Faneca in a move I still don't understand. The rest of the line has remained intact and has done a good job in both pass protection (just 12 sacks allowed) and in the run game, opening holes that Tomlinson hasn't seen in years.

Matt Slauson was a target of serious ire in the early season, as he was constantly getting beat off the snap and allowing pressure on Sanchez up the middle. Slauson has improved as the season has gone along; you don't hear his name quite as often on TV broadcasts and as a lineman, anonymity is always a good thing.

Defensive Line - B+

After losing Kris Jenkins to a second consecutive season-ending knee injury, Sione Pouha has filled in very nicely and the Jets are a top five run defense. They still lack a top-notch pass rusher (12.5 of their 17 sacks have come from linebackers and safeties) but in a Rex Ryan defense, pressure is generally applied through the blitz.

The combination of Shaun Ellis, Pouha and Mike Devito has been extremely stout against the run and has made the loss of Jenkins go almost unnoticed. If they can continue to play at a high level, which I think they can, teams that rely on the running game will have trouble against the Jets.

Linebackers - A

Another reason the Jets are a top-five defense against the run: their linebackers are awesome. Bart Scott and David Harris may be the best inside linebacker combination of any team that runs a 3-4 and Calvin Pace, Bryan Thomas and Jason Taylor give the Jets lots of options on the outside on running downs and in pass-rush situations.

Pace's return in Week 5 sent Taylor to the bench, which says a lot of the Jets depth at the linebacker position. Thomas may never live up to his first-round draft slot but he has been especially solid against the run and he and Taylor are a perfect complement to each other.

Secondary - B-

After their secondary was exposed in the AFC Championship Game in Indianapolis, the Jets spent their first-round pick on Boise State's Kyle Wilson. Wilson was seen returning punts on Sunday against Detroit while Drew Coleman handled nickel duties. If anybody has seen Drew Coleman play, they know he's not very good, which says a lot about Wilson at this stage of his career.

Darrelle Revis is finally back to full health; anybody who wants to question that should just check out Calvin Johnson's stats from Sunday. Antonio Cromartie struggled a bit early but has since shown that he was well worth the third-round pick it took to get him from San Diego.

The Jets safeties leave a lot to be desired in pass coverage at times, but the way Ryan likes to blitz they aren't always playing the pass anyway. Jim Leonhard can stick but he was victimized by Brandon Pettigrew on Sunday for one touchdown (almost two) and his height (5-8) will always limit him in coverage.

Eric Smith and Brodney Pool have played well in Kerry Rhodes' stead at free safety but with Rhodes back to being a playmaker in Arizona, the Jets do miss him as they rank in the middle of the pack in takeaways. They also rank 20th in yardage defense, as teams have chosen to pass against the Jets rather than running nowhere.

The major issue I've seen so far with the secondary is penalties. When you blitz as often as the Jets do, you leave your defensive backs on an island and when you don't get to the quarterback, it's hard to cover NFL receivers man-to-man for more than 4-5 seconds.

This had led to many illegal contact, holding and pass interference calls against New York. For this secondary to play up to its potential, they need to scale back the penalties and play disciplined football. If they can avoid giving opponents free yards, this defense will be even better.

Special Teams - B

What the Jets lack in special teams flair and big plays they make up for with consistency. Brad Smith (over 30 yards per kick return) and Jim Leonhard (over 10 yards per punt return) may not be home-run threats, but they give the Jets good field position and take care of the football, something a team with a great defense looks for in their special teams unit.

Nick Folk has been reliable in the kicking game making 16-of-18 field goal attempts while Steve Weatherford is just outside the top five with 17 punts inside the opponents' 20-yard-line, another boon to the field position game New York likes to play.

The coverage teams have done a good job like always under special teams coach Mike Westhoff, who doesn't get the credit he deserves for how disciplined his special teams units have been over the years. The Jets may not be flashy on special teams but that doesn't mean they don't deserve a solid grade.

Overall Grades:
Offense - C+
Defense - B+

The Jets have some work to do on the offensive side of the football. They need to re-establish a running game that is stuck in neutral and jumpstart the passing game. Fixing one aspect will also help the other thrive and if the Jets can get back to their ground-and-pound mantra while mixing in enough passes and playing to the strength of Sanchez (play-action rollouts, throwing beyond 10 yards, pretty much anything besides dink-and-dunk football) they should be able to move the football and put up enough points to win every week.

Defensively, a healthy Revis changes everything. The Jets are already great against the run and Revis' ability to shut down the opponents' top target in the passing game will allow Ryan to dial up even more blitzes, which in turn should lead to more turnovers and big plays. I expect a big second half from the Jets defense and if the offense can follow their lead, as average as they've looked of late, this team could make good on their Super Bowl promise if things fall into place.

Considering there are no great teams in the NFL this season, just a bunch of really good ones, anything is possible. Even the Jets winning a Super Bowl. Don't count on it, but don't discount it either.

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