After the last 2 years, it’s safe to say at 2-3, the Jets are a team that could and should be playing much better. There were a few casualties from 2010 to 2011, but the overall impact of those losses shouldn’t have reduced the product on the field to an offense incapable of moving the ball, and a defense as good at stopping the run as the offense is at sustaining it. This isn't Kansas City where a team took advantage of an easy schedule, or Pittsburgh where the offensive line is a shell of what it used to be. I still firmly believe this is a playoff team that has trouble hearing the starting gun for the season, and for most games.
Realistically, the general anger towards this team is the result of one road loss. If the Jets had hit .333 on their road swing instead of coming back to New Jersey with a big fat goose egg, there would still be some worries, but losses in Baltimore and New England are certainly forgivable. But because of an upset loss in Oakland, and the subsequent offensive debacle in Baltimore (albeit without the services of by far their best offensive player) there has been a media backlash two years in the waiting.
There aren’t many teams capable of digging themselves out of a hole in the AFC East. The Jets are one of the teams with the talent and favorable schedule to do so. Combine that with the Bills being average the rest of the way (and a defense that is 30th in the NFL will tend to produce those results), and the season is far from over. If the Jets make these three changes, I don't see how they finish any worse than 10-6.
1) Make sure Collin Baxter and Vlad Ducasse never see the field again:
The offensive line looked night and day better with its most talented player back on the field Sunday, but Mangold’s return doesn’t address a huge depth issue. The first two blockers off the bench are more than likely Collin Baxter and Vlad Ducasse, who collectively will be paying of Sanchez’s chiropractic bills for the rest of the season.
There is no way that two players on the free agent market aren’t markedly better than those two human sandbags. Damien Woody said this morning that he would at least answer a call from the Jets, and that’s something definitely worth looking into. Woody’s pass blocking skills have diminished over the pass few years, but he’s still a strong run blocker that helped pave the way for the Jets dominating running game the last two years.
If Woody decides he’s done for good, there are still veterans out there right now (Shaun O’Hara, Nick Kaczur) who would not only come relatively cheap, but would be a huge upgrade at this point in the season. They were obviously cut for a reason, but I think the chief issue with them was and is durability. Neither of them is capable of lasting for an entire training camp and a 16 game season as a starter. However, if the Jets were to pick up one of those guys during the bye week, it would immediately provide much better offensive line depth and insurance against another injury to a starter.
2) Keep the laundry off the field
Although the Jets have played within the guidelines in the majority of their games, this weekend yellow flags rained from the skies. Were it not for the 89 penalty yards that the Jets racked up, there’s a decent chance that they could have pulled off the upset in Foxboro.
Anybody who’s watched this team play for the past two years will admit that it’s not the most dynamic. But while the Jets have been loud and aggressive off the field, they have usually been relatively disciplined on it. In 2010, the Jets averaged 5.9 penalties per game for 52 yards over 20 games. During this three game losing streak, they’re averaging 8 penalties per game for 73 yards. The Jets played three games total that met those criteria last year (atleast 8 penalties for atleast 73 yards).
The Jets don’t need to be choir boys; the new two-hand touch rules don’t jibe with how they play defense. But back breaking penalties like the one in the first quarter on 3rd and 26 when New England was on their own 12 last week are going to do two things. They're going to make it more difficult for an already average offense to score points, and they're going to put too much pressure on the defense to sustain a very high level of play.
3) Make LT the starter at running back
It’s crazy to look on the roster and see LaDainian Tomlinson, who might be the best running back of the past 15 years, listed at #2 on the depth chart. Now obviously, he’s not in the Hall of Fame form that he was as a Charger. But that shouldn’t make people blind to the idea that Shonn Greene is a better option as the starter
I really liked Shonn Greene when the Jets drafted him out of Iowa. He was and still is a powerful straight ahead runner with a gift for wearing down defenses. But for a number of reasons, I don’t think he’ll ever be able to sustain the success he had in the 2009 playoffs. The biggest issue being that he’s borderline useless as a receiver.
The Jets are trying to force feed him passes this year (he has 12 catches in 5 games when he only had 16 all of last year), but even that’s not working. Among the 29 running backs with at least 10 catches this year, Greene ranks 26th in yards per reception (5.9). LT on the other hand ranks 2nd behind Ray Rice, averaging slightly more than 14 yards every time he catches a pass.
Although LT’s speed and agility haven’t aged that well, hands have a longer shelf life. And Tomlinson has some of the best hands at running back in the whole league. So this is not an issue of trusting an average back to run crisp routes and catch tough passes, Tomlinson has proven his whole career that he’s capable of that. The ball needs to come his way more.
The idea that Greene is a non-threat in the passing game is what allows defenses to load up against the run, or blitz when they see him on the field. Because he’s not capable of breaking a short pass for a long gain, opposing teams can sell out against an up the middle run, and unsurprisingly Greene hasn’t averaged 4 yards per carry in any game this year. There is no element of surprise with someone with such a one-note skill set.
The other side of the issue comes with the offense. If Tomlinson is in, and Sanchez sees a jail break blitz coming, a viable option is to audible to an empty look, and get a favorable matchup with a linebacker or safety trying to cover LT on a passing route. I’d be willing to bet anything that any empty sets are quickly discarded when Greene gets on the field.
In the past two years, the Jets have lost eight total games. In six of those games, Tomlinson has caught two or fewer passes, including two total catches for six yards in the losses against Baltimore and New England. By contrast, they are 5-2 when he has 5 or more catches in a game. When Tomlinson has carried the ball 15 or more times in a game, the Jets are 7-2 since last year. Even just as a runner, he had a higher yards per carry than Greene last year (4.17 to 4.14).
The system that worked was to use LT until he tired out, and then have a fresh Greene at the end of the season. I have no idea why this team has deviated from that philosophy, when just about every metric says that when LT is at his best, he’s a much more effective option than Greene.