Not many people predicted these two teams would reach Week 4 with winning records. Now the New York Jets and the Tennessee Titans have the chance to improve to 3-1 and make some real noise in the AFC.
Last time they met, Week 15 in 2012, the Titans beat the Jets in a close game to eliminate New York from the playoff hunt — that sounds weird right now, doesn’t it? Chris Johnson broke the wall the Jets defensive line is for a 94-yard touchdown, while Mark Sanchez threw four interceptions in what would be one of his worst performances ever.
Many things have changed in New York since then, not so much in Tennessee, but both teams have shown signs of improvement in the beginning of the season and this a great opportunity to test them.
Battles in the Trenches
This is probably the most important matchup for both teams in offense and defense. Winning this battle means getting a lot closer to the win. Let’s start with the Jets’ offensive line vs. the Titans’ defensive line. Jurrell Casey is the player to follow in the inside after recording 11 total pressures in the first three games — good for sixth among defensive tackles in Pass Rushing Productivity. He’ll face Willie Colon most of the time who has a positive grade in pass blocking (+2.1) and, with six total pressures surrendered, he stands in the middle of the pack among offensive guards in Pass Blocking Efficiency. Casey hasn’t been as dominant in the run game but it’ll be interesting to see if the Titans try to take advantage of Nick Mangold in that area. given how inconsistent he has been in run blocking in these first games.
On the outside, Derrick Morgan is the Titans’ best pass rusher but he isn’t yet close to his 2012 form, when he finished third in PRP among 4-3 defensive ends. This season, Morgan has recorded two sacks, three hits and five hurries — all but two hurries came from the left side where he plays 86.7% in pass rushing snaps. That means Morgan vs. Austin Howard will be a matchup to keep an eye on. The second-year starter is the highest-graded offensive linemen of the Jets by a large margin. He ranks 9th in Pass Blocking Efficiency among offensive tackles, giving up only five pressures. In the other side, D’Brickashaw Ferguson will have to deal with his former teammate Ropati Pitoitua in base defense and with Kamerion Wimbley in nickel. Pitoitua has four defensive stops in 56 run snaps for 7.1 Run Stop Percentage. Wimbley played only 6 snaps vs. the Chargers but in the two previous games he recorded five pressures in 41 pass rushing snaps.
The other battle will be the Jets’ defensive line vs. the Titans’ offensive line. The Jets unit features a Top 5 defensive tackle in overall grade, Damon Harrison (+8.9), a Top 10 3-4 defensive end, Sheldon Richardson (+5.5), and Muhammad Wilkerson, who is coming from his best pass rushing performance ever having racked up eight total pressures against the Bills. In three games, this group — along the rest of the defense — proved they have to be taken very seriously. This Sunday they’ll the chance to do it again against an offensive line that has surrendered 26 of their 36 total pressures from the interior, center and guard positions. Andy Levitre and Chance Warmack have allowed 19 of those combined, but they have graded well in run blocking. You can’t say the same about Rob Turner, the former Jet, who has graded -1.8 in run blocking and given up one sack, one hit, and five sacks.
Titans Cornerbacks vs. Jets Wide Receivers
After the last game, when the Jets’ receivers abused the Bills’ cornerbacks, especially Justin Rogers, it’s going to be interesting to see if they can keep it up against a much better secondary this week. As Nathan Jahnke pointed out in his 32 observations, Geno Smith is being successful when throwing to the right — that’s the side defended by Jason McCourty who has 16 receptions in 22 targets for 148 yards and one touchdown. His Yards Per Coverage Snap number is 1.30, higher than any Titans cornerback, and slightly above league-average. Stephen Hill has run 54% of his routes from the right side so he will be in front of McCourty plenty of time. His Yards Per Route Run number has increased since Week 1, from 0.81 to 2.21, to 3.86 vs. Buffalo — 2.90 in the last two games that would put him in the Top 5 across the league. Winning one-on-one on the outside would be key for the Jets’ offense not only to take shots downfield but also to open up the middle of the field.
Alterraun Verner plays the right cornerback position, left side of the offense, and he has started the season on fire, leading all CBs in NFL Rating in throws in his direction with 23.5 — eight catches allowed, four passes defended and two interceptions in 19 targets. In the slot, Coty Sensabaugh is in the other end of NFL Rating with 130.8. He has allowed 1.12 Yards Per Cover Snaps and a completion percentage of 80%. That’s probably the most interesting matchup for the Jets to exploit with Santonio Holmes or Jeremy Kerley, considering how well Verner is playing in the outside although they aren’t throwing much to the slot. Both receivers have been targeted seven times — four catches for 44 yards for Kerley, 2 catches for 37 yards for Holmes. Will Marty Mornhinweg open his playbook a little bit more this Sunday and start using the quick, short passing game taking advantage of the slot mismatch?
Consistency at Quarterback
Jake Locker will face the Jets after getting the highest grade of his career (+4.6) against the Chargers in Week 2.He passed for over 300 yards, with no turnovers, and threw the game-winning touchdown. Now his challenge is to keep up this level of performance and not regress like he did at some points in 2012. Locker has improved playing under pressure, raising his Accuracy Percentage from 43.4% last season to 60% in 2013, and still has yet to throw an interception, while in three games in 2012 he had already thrown two of them when pressured.
It’s way too early to judge a rookie quarterback, only three games into the season, but just like his opponent this week, Geno Smith needs to improve his consistency. He has shown many positives these first weeks but also had mistakes very similar to the ones that ended up costing the now benched/injured Mark Sanchez the starting spot. The defense bailed him out last week a couple of times when his interceptions put them in a bad position but, as great as that defense is, the quarterback needs to take better care of the football to give his team more chances to win games.
Follow Gonzalo on Twitter: @PFF_Gonzalo