It’s safe to say that 2011 didn’t quite work out as Rex Ryan had hoped. There was no Super Bowl. There wasn’t even a playoff appearance. In fact, there wasn’t much to be happy about at all as the big talkers of the AFC East were silenced.
Big name players came under scrutiny for poor performance, while some changes up front had bigger consequences than anyone could have imagined. Now the questions are: have the Jets learned from their 2011 experience? Can they be expected to compete with the New England Patriots, who look to have become stronger this year? And just what the heck is going on with their quarterback position?
Let’s break it down.
Five Reasons to be Confident
1) Revis Island Welcoming Visitors
Some think he’s overly physical, others that there are better cornerbacks out there, but one thing all can agree on is there aren’t many players like Darrelle Revis. That said, 2010 wasn’t the year we expected from Revis as he initially held out and then had to deal with an injury, but he was back to his best in 2011, topping our regular season cornerback rankings. It’s not just that Revis doesn’t give much up, but he does it while being able to track a team’s top receiver and effectively shut them down. Nobody, for my mind, does it better and it’s borne out in some of the stats that saw quarterbacks have a 45.6 rating while throwing into his coverage. With his first full offseason in the books since 2009, could he get even better? Is it possible?
2) Strength Up Front
They may not be the flashiest players in the league, but the Jets’ defensive line has excelled in shutting down the running games of the opposition. It’s got to a stage now where the smart teams (read New England) are doing everything they can to get them out of their base defensive package, because the combination of Mike Devito, Sione Pouha, and Muhammad Wilkerson are among the best when it comes to stopping offensive linemen in their tracks.
Take Pouha for example. The giant nose tackle has developed into the league’s best at what he does, being able to line up at various techniques and delivering defensive stops aplenty while maneuvering offensive players to where they don’t want to go. It won’t surprise anyone to know that in the past three years he’s finished second (2011), fourth (2010), and first (2009) in our run defense rankings for defensive tackles. When you sandwich him with Devito and Wilkerson (+19.2 combined run defense grade), and throw exciting new rookie Quinton Coples into the mix, you’ve got a defensive line that will make life hard for teams that want to run on them.
3) Talent on the Offensive Line
I understand where Jets fans are coming from when they say that their line was terrible in 2011. It’s wrong, but I understand. You see after years of having the best line in the league, Jets fans have been spoiled into expecting that level of dominance as if it’s a given right. So losing Damien Woody was always going to bring them closer to, and eventually into, the pack.
As is, they have a glaring weakness (I’ll get to that later) but plenty to be happy about. You have the best center in the game in Nick Mangold, one of the best left tackles in the league in D’Brickashaw Ferguson, and a decent enough pairing of guards. It combined to finish 12th in our 2011 offensive line rankings, meaning it’s plenty good enough to put the ‘skill players’ in position to make the plays they should be. It may no longer be the best, but plenty of teams would kill for a line that functioned as well as the Jets.
4) Seeing the Best Out of Aaron Maybin?
Things didn’t work out for Aaron Maybin in Buffalo, but with the Jets in desperate need of some situational pass rush, and Maybin in need of a job, something just clicked. He finished 2011 with 24 combined sacks, hits, and hurries on just 185 pass rushes, giving him the best Pass Rushing Productivity score (10.5) of all Jets defensive players. In short, while he wasn’t on the field that much, he generated a lot of pressure.
Now a more known commodity, the Jets will have had time to figure out how to make better use of the former first-round pick. That should mean more playing time and hopefully for both parties, more total pressure. If he can become the player he was drafted to be then maybe that big problem for New York of generating pressure without blitzing will be a thing of the past.
5) Bart Will Blow Things Up
He’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but there are things that Bart Scott does that are invaluable to a team like the New York Jets. Sure he’s not the best in coverage and may find his snaps take a hit in 2012, but in the Jets’ base package, the ability of Scott to meet blockers head-on and redirect them and running backs is as good as it gets. Sure, he’s likely going to end up with less tackles than others around him, but that’s what he does for the Jets’ defense; he gives himself up so others can make the highlight reel plays. As long as he’s in the lineup he makes those around him better.
Five Reasons to be Concerned
1) The Hunter is the Hunted
I mentioned earlier that the offensive line for Gang Green had a glaring weakness and it doesn’t take a brain surgeon to figure out what that is. After having one of the best right tackles in the league (if not the best) in Damien Woody, the Jets replaced him with Wayne Hunter. Naturally, there was always going to be some drop off, but the situation that developed couldn’t have been much worse, with Hunter picking up the fifth-lowest grade (-31.1) of all offensive tackles.
When you have a quarterback who struggles when pressured you’re not going to get very far when your right tackle is giving up 54 combined sacks, hits, and hurries. With the Jets making failed moves in the offseason to upgrade at the spot, it’s pretty clear they know what’s going to happen with Hunter starting, but there’s little they can do about it with the Jeff Otah trade nixed and Vladimir Ducasse not stepping up. It looks like a season of pressure in the face of their quarterback.
2) Depth at Wide Receiver
It surpised me when the Jets allowed Jerricho Cotchery to leave. Here was a reliable receiver (admittedly, coming off a down year as he battled a hip injury) who could line up all over the place and be extremely productive. It left them with a group of receivers who didn’t inspire much trust from their quarterback, and wasn’t helped by the sub standard performance of Santonio Holmes after he got his big deal. Well, it doesn’t seem like the Jets have really learned their lesson because the roster is filled with guys who could produce, but who have just as much chance of falling flat on their face. I mean, do you think Holmes can get his act together given what’s happened in the past? That Stephen Hill is ready to dominate from Day 1? That Jeremy Kerley can be a go to guy? There’s a reason why Antonio Cromartie thinks he’d be the second-best receiver on the team.
3) Time for Sanchez to Step Up, but Can He?
You can’t examine the problems of the New York Jets without examining the problems of their franchise quarterback, Mark Sanchez. The playoff wins have masked the fact that after three years in the league he’s still an erratic and unreliable quarterback who doesn’t handle pressure very well. Last year he earned a -27.9 grade, the second-lowest of all quarterbacks as the usual array of bad decisions, bad throws, and all-around bad play couldn’t be hidden with his offensive line failing to dominate the opposition.
Fundamentally, it’s on Sanchez to take his game to another level, and he’s going to have to really step up when facing pressure. Only two starting quarterbacks had a lower completion percentage under pressure than the 36.4% Sanchez managed, with one of those being his backup Tim Tebow. If this area of his game doesn’t improve, then neither will this Jets team.
4) Where’s the Pass Rush Coming From?
I’ve thrown some praise at the defensive line for their work in the run game, and what Aaron Maybin can do as a situational pass rusher, but a big question remains: in their base defense who is getting to the quarterback?
You wouldn’t expect any of the defensive line to do it on a regular basis (assuming the starters are Devito, Pouha, and Wilkerson), and while Calvin Pace is a solid and reliable hand, he’s not got the kind of explosiveness to generate consistent pressure. The big hope for the Jets is Quinton Coples becomes something of a wrecking ball who makes it impossible to keep him off the field, but asking so much of an unproven rookie (who hardly lit things up in his final year in college) doesn’t always reap instantaneous rewards.
It looks like the Jets will continue to live and die by the blitz, and that kind of risk could come back to haunt them.
5) The AFC East Has Got Better, Have the Jets?
New England’s defense lacked playmakers and their offense didn’t have anyone who could stretch the field. In comes Chandler Jones, Dont’a Hightower and Brandon Lloyd among others. Buffalo went out and snapped up Mario Williams and Mark Anderson to turn an impotent pass rush into something to be feared. Miami may have undertaken a more long-term rebuilding plan, but even so the fact remains the AFC East got better this offseason.
The Jets may argue that they have, but with the same old problems in passing, pass rushing and pass protecting do they have what it takes to top an ultra competitive AFC East? Maybe in another division their weaknesses wouldn’t be so evident, but they’re not in another division.
What to Expect?
You can look at 2011 a number of ways for the Jets. Their style of play and lack of talent at key positions caught up with them. Or they got a much needed jolt to the system, helping them to get on the right track. As it is there’s a problem in New York that needs to be fixed for this team to live up to their own chatter; quarterback. You only need to see how Eli Manning developed to know it’s possible, but there’s been little consistency in the career of Mark Sanchez to suggest he can be that guy. In a 16-game season consistency is essential, and because he’ll once again fail to find it, the Jets best-case scenario may be scrapping their way into the playoffs on the back of a defense that keeps games close.