A pair of teams that have outdone preseason notions, the 5-7 New York Jets and 4-8 Oakland Raiders are pushing up the underside of the wild card race rather than leading the line to the podium as most expected they would be.
Still not legit contenders at this stage, both have made strides and, if nothing else, have given a much more entertaining season than what could have been given the state of their rosters. With young quarterbacks finding their way, there’ve certainly been bumps, but with four games to go, neither has been eliminated and on some level, that’s a victory.
Not often responding well to East Coast trips, the Raiders head to MetLife Stadium looking to stop a two-game slide while the Jets are hoping to end a three-game losing streak of their own. Here are a small handful of points to keep in mind for this Week 14 contest:
Destruction Up Front
Easily the highlight position group on display in this game is the Jets’ young wrecking crew of a D-line. All three of Muhammad Wilkerson, Damon Harrison, and Sheldon Richardson carry season grades of over +21.0, each among the leaders at their positions. Third-year man Wilkerson tops them with 40 total pressures rushing the quarterback, but where they do their real damage is against the run.
Harrison, in his second season, is far and away the top NT/DT by run defense grades (+31.8) and is second at the position with a Run Stop Percentage of 12.8. The rookie, Richardson, is outpacing all 3-4 DEs (outside of J.J. Watt) with a +27.5 grade in run D and his 12.4 Run Stop Percentage is fourth. The three together have produced 78 run stops – more than any other D-line trio in the league – and lead a rushing defense that gives up just 77 yards per game and 2.9 yards per carry (both NFL bests).
Another Baby Step
We’ve seen it a few times from the Raiders already this season: a problem area improved by a timely addition or a key return. Early on it was the free-agent add of right tackle Tony Pashos whose strong preseason (PFF’s top preseason grade at tackle) made him a safer bet than forcing a faded Alex Barron (PFF’s lowest preseason grade at tackle) into the lineup. Rashad Jennings took over for perpetually-injured starter, Darren McFadden, and has offered a Yards After Contact average among the league’s best to replace McFadden’s lacking 37th-ranked figure. More recently, the return of Jared Veldheer freed up Khalif Barnes for a move inside that relieved Lucas Nix (PFF’s lowest regular season grade at guard) of his duties.
This week, there might be another as Tyvon Branch is primed to see the field for the first time since breaking his leg in Week 2. The top safety in run defense in 2011, Branch fell off a bit in 2012 but still represents a bump over the man who has held his spot, Brandian Ross, and his -21.8 grade on the year (83rd of 84 qualifying safeties). Plugging Branch back in this week would raise the hurdle that much more for troubled rookie QB, Geno Smith, and the Jets’ passing game.
Facing a D-line that boasts the trio of the NFL’s best run-stoppers, it’s not ideal to enter the game with your top three options at running back on the shelf. That may be the case for Oakland this week as Jennings awaits a green light from his concussion tests, McFadden sits with another ailment, and Jeremy Stewart is also unavailable due to injury. Marcel Reece found success in a brief stint as a starter in 2012, but thus far into 2013 has just 77 yards on 22 carries. The other option? Running back-turned-cornerback/special teamer Taiwan Jones has been taking reps in the backfield (per practice reports for the Oakland beat guys). Jones has 22 carries for 94 yards in his three-year career.
The other-other option? Perhaps Terrelle Pryor gets worked back in a bit this week. Oakland has shown a wildcat look on 16 plays this year with McFadden, Jennings or Reece running it – certainly something Pryor would be suited to do – and the option comes back into play with him on the field. Can he and McGloin share a backfield? With not much to lose, maybe the time for even more creativity has come.
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