3TFO: Jets @ Panthers, Week 15
The 2013 NFL season has seen its share of twists and turns. That the New York Jets are still in the playoff race has to be up there as one of the bigger oddities of the year. Although slim, with three games left, that’s about all you can ask for, especially when the Jets were picked by many to finish at the bottom of the league. Credit to Rex Ryan, a defensive mastermind, who’s been hamstrung with limited offensive talent ever since arriving in Gotham.
The Jets’ up and down season is likely to continue again Sunday as they have to go into Charlotte and face an angry Panthers team that was embarrassed in the Superdome on Sunday night. While Coach Ryan didn’t face any starting quarterback questions this week, he might after this week. Despite giving up 31 points to the Saints, Carolina still boasts a league-leading scoring defense — a feisty front seven and an opportunistic secondary will test Geno Smith.
For the Panthers, there’s still plenty to play for. The Panthers need to beat the Saints and have New Orleans lose one of their other two remaining games to overtake them in the NFC, but the jostling for the NFC Wild Card spots is also up in the air as well. The Cardinals are hanging in the Wild Card race, so Carolina cannot have a letdown at home against an inferior team. Looking at some of the matchups, the Jets will certainly have their hands full with a sour Panthers team.
The “Genocoaster” Rolls On
Geno Smith had his best performance in some two plus months on Sunday against a hapless Raiders defense, welcoming back his favorite target Jeremy Kerley, in addition to showing off some running chops that he wasn’t known for at West Virginia. His 16 completions were the most he’s had in a game since Week 8, and he completed over 50% of his passes for the first time since that game against the Bengals. However, whatever momentum he did build against the Raiders will likely hit a wall against the Panthers. The Jets rely on Chris Ivory and Bilal Powell to control games, but the Panthers’ front should shut that down. Led by rookie mauler Star Lotulelei, who leads the league with an impressive 13.7% Run Stop Percentage, the Panthers lead the league in rushing yards allowed, edging out the Jets by about 3 yards pergame. With Lotulelei and Greg Hardy setting the table for Luke Kuechly and company, Ivory and Powell are unlikely to find an abundance of running lanes.
That means the onus will be on Smith to move the ball, which is something he has struggled with all season. He is dead last among the 30 qualifying quarterbacks in Accuracy Percentage, which is what his completion percentage would look like if you factored in dropped passes and take away spikes and throw aways. Even with Geno second in the league in throw aways, he still comes in behind other struggling QBs such as E.J. Manuel and Brandon Weeden. Carolina’s “Legion of Whom?” secondary have been playing well on the backend, well enough to take advantage of Smith’s errant throws. However, if the Jets have any chance to move the ball, it has to be through the air. Specifically, Geno has to hit on a few deep balls, which is actually what he’s been best at this season.
Despite lacking overall accuracy, Smith has been a proficient deep passer in 2013, going 22-for-52 on attempts 20 yard or more downfield. That’s good for the sixth-highest Accuracy Percentage among the 23 qualifying quarterbacks. Sure, his seven interceptions in those situations is tied with Carson Palmer for the most in the league, but that’s the risk that comes with taking those deep shots. There may be a few more interceptions to add to that number come Sunday evening.
The Superman Show
There is likely to be very little progress with traditional running of the ball for both teams, as both defensive fronts are too strong. So, as Geno will be depended upon to move the ball for the Jets, Cam Newton faces a similar task, which should be considerably easier for him. Of course, the Panthers’ running back rotation of DeAngelo Williams and Mike Tolbert will get work, but after Jonathan Stewart had been looking good since returning, he went down with a torn MCL, so it’s not likely to be too successful. Just like Lotulelei anchors the Panthers on run defense, the Jets have Damon Harrison clogging up the middle. Additionally, DEs Sheldon Richardson is PFF’s leading Rookie of the Year candidate, and Muhammad Wilkerson is taking the title of best 3-4 DE not named J.J. Watt. Cam’s arm and legs will, as usual, be leaned on.
However, Cam’s arm hasn’t been on display as much as it was during 2011-12, due mostly to the suffocating Carolina defense. Newton has improved as a passer in that he’s taking what a defense is giving to him, and not forcing the ball downfield. Under pressure, Cam is one of the better passers in the league. Mobile and next to impossible to bring down, Newton seemingly gets better when he’s put under pressure. His accuracy has, on the whole, gone up this season, but he still sits 19th in PFF’s Accuracy Percentage. However, he jumps to sixth in that stat when he’s under pressure. Moreover, anyone who’s watched the Panthers knows how devastating he can be when he escapes the pocket.
Making matters worse for the defense, he’s looking to throw first when he’s on the move. That leaves an issue for the linebackers and secondary; close down the impending Newton rush, or hold tight on their assignment. Newton has 116 passing attempts when under pressure this season, as opposed to just 28 scrambles. His pass first nature has yielded very positive results when scrambling. His 28 rushes have produced 304 yards, or nearly 11 yards per rush. Stopping Newton will be the first, second, and third priority for the Jets.
X-Factor: Greg Olsen?
With productive run games seem unlikely in this one, the team that can utilize their receiving weapons the best has a clear upperhand. The Jets’ lack of offensive talent in general is stifling, as evidenced by starting the likes of undrafted free agents David Nelson and Jeff Cumberland. Additionally, with Carolina’s more conservative offensive approach, Steve Smith is looking his age at 34. Guys like Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn have been very good role players in 2013, but neither will be mistaken for a consistently impactful player. Enter Greg Olsen, who has probably been Newton’s most important target this season.
He’s seen 15 fewer targets than Smith in 2013, but has very comparable numbers. Additionally, Olsen bests Smith in touchdowns (5 to 4) and in 20+ yard plays (10 to 3), which seems unthinkable, as that’s been Smith’s M.O. since entering the league. Olsen is somehow the safety valve, and the biggest downfield threat for Carolina — he edges out Ted Ginn for most 20+ yard catches on the team. With Olsen running just over half of his pass routes out of the slot, it will be interesting to see how the Jets matchup with Carolina’s tight end.
With the Jets in their base defense, and Olsen more likely to lineup in-line, the Jets would likely stick a linebacker on him. Both ILBs David Harris and Demario Davis have struggled in pass coverage, with Harris giving up a 107-passer rating when in coverage and Davis yielding a 97 rating. Their best linebacker in coverage is OLB Calvin Pace, who is grading out at +3.5 for the season. More athletically gifted, Pace could do a decent job on Olsen in the short and intermediate, before handing him over to a safety.
If there’s any safety on the Jets that would be tasked in handling Olsen, it’s likely to be Antonio Allen. Allen’s snaps have fluctuated since Ed Reed came to town, but at the very least, Allen should see snaps in the dime package. Already this season, Allen has matched up with Rob Gronkowski and was successful. And when he was in coverage on Jimmy Graham he held his own as well, so he has a track record of going up against some of the game’s best. Additionally, Allen started snagging some snaps away from Reed against the Raiders. That was partially due to the Jets being up by multiple scores, but at this point, Allen is better in coverage than Reed. Cam will spread the love around to his receivers against the Jets’ vulnerable secondary, but look for him to attack with his big target.