Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Jets-Ravens Postgame Thoughts

Hi Folks. Unfortunately, my hard drive crashed, so while I wait for a new one, you will be forced to read my thoughts without any pictures to accompany them for this week. Don't worry though, I should be up and running by next week.

After two days, I’m still bitter over the embarrassing loss to the Ravens. There are a lot of mistakes that I can overlook when I evaluate a team’s performance. Sometimes players will have bad games. I get that. What I can’t understand, however, is how a team’s offense can come out and look so completely unprepared for the onslaught they had to know what was coming. And for the record, I’m not exempting anyone on the offense from last night’s performance. Brian Schottenheimer, Mark Sanchez, Bill Callahan, the entire offensive line: everyone needs to take some blame for the awful performance. Before I get in to more gruesome details about the offense’s complete breakdown, let’s look at some positives.

Calvin Pace continues to impress: I noted this after week 2, but Calvin Pace looks like a completely new player this season. Whether it’s because Calvin is finally healthy, he finally learned some pass rushing moves, or a combination of the two, Calvin has finally started to look like the player the Jets hoped they were getting when they signed him to a huge contract. It’s about time as well: he has been paid handsomely to be a mediocre player in the past, and now it’s time for him to step up. He was very active against both the run and the pass this past weekend, and he had several great combinations of pass-rushing moves that allowed him to get pressure on Joe Flacco. Although many Jet fans still aren’t fond of Calvin Pace because of his past struggles, he deserves nothing but praise for his work this season.

Aaron Maybin is already better than Vernon Gholston: Sadly, that headline is not sarcastic in any way. Simply by virtue of getting one career sack, Maybin has already passed Gholston’s career productivity. While it was great to see an OLB flash any type of pass-rushing ability, I think we need to dampen our expectations of Maybin. From what I saw, Maybin only has the ability to do one thing: put his head down and try to speed rush outside of the offensive tackle. Don’t get me wrong: the speed rush can be a very effective move, but it’s far more effective when the rusher has other countermoves to accompany it, and that’s clearly not the case with Maybin. Maybin doesn’t seem to have the ability to spin back to the inside on the offensive tackle, and his sack was a product of relentless hustle instead of actually “beating” Bryant McKinnie. Having said all of that, he did create a sack and a pressure, which puts him ahead of every other pass rusher on the roster except for Calvin Pace. If we’re lucky, maybe he’ll develop some other pass rush move and turn into a real force.

Wilkerson keeps improving: In the preseason, I thought that Ropati Pitoitua was a superior option for Muhammad Wilkerson. As I said then, I didn’t think that Wilkerson lacked any talent; his measurables were obvious to everyone. I just thought that he was too raw to play the DE position in a 3-4 defense right away. In some ways, I might have been right. But, it’s equally clear that Wilkerson has been improving much faster than I expected, and he is quickly becoming a force to be reckoned with. His long arms make him difficult for blockers to lock on to, and his positional understanding is increasing every week. I would love to see him turn into a great pass rusher as well, but for now, if he can continue to be effective against the run, I’ll be thrilled. He’s going to need to be stout against the run, because the Jets are going to struggle without Bryan Thomas.

Coping without Bryan Thomas: Because Bryan Thomas was a first round draft pick, a lot of Jets fans viewed him as something of a bust; he was drafted to be an elite pass-rusher, and he never came close to reaching that level. Despite that fact, however, he turned into an excellent run-stuffing outside linebacker, and the Jets were a much better team when he was on the field. I hope that Bryan has a speedy recovery, and if he’s healthy, I’d love to see him in the green and white next season. As soon as BT left the field, I thought the Jets were in major trouble, as Jamaal Westerman’s performance on Ray Rice’s touchdown run was pathetic; he shied away from contact and seemed content to give himself up. As the game wore on, however, Westerman looked a lot better. This came as a big surprise to me, because I had always viewed Westerman as something of a finesse player. Now, without Thomas, Westerman will have to fill Thomas’s role of taking on blocks and filling holes. I have no idea if Westerman will be able to handle that role, but he’s going to need to.

The secondary: Although it’s almost redundant at this point, the Jets secondary is awesome. Revis continues to occupy his own galaxy among NFL superstars, and the Jets did a great job of containing Ravens receivers. There were a couple long passes to Ray Rice and the Ravens’ tight ends, but that was to be expected. All in all, the defense was excellent. It only gave up ten points and it can hold its collective head high.

The offense, on the other hand, had one of the worst displays that I’ve ever seen on a football field. After the game, a lot of blame was heaped on Mark Sanchez, but I didn’t see him as the primary role. As weird as it sounds, I thought Sanchez played okay. Granted, he missed a few throws as the game wore on, and he threw an inexcusable pick six, but I also thought that he made a few good throws when he had time to throw. Therein lies the rub. The Jets offensive line was the worst that I have ever seen it, and I remember the days of Adrien Clarke as a starting lineman. What makes the line’s awful performance this season so confusing is that it’s totally unclear what the problem is. I’ve spent the past few days trying to figure out what the problem is, so here are a few of my thoughts.

One thing about the OL struggles that is so confusing is the fact that the Jets have a highly regarded offensive line coach in Bill Callahan. Many Jet fans see Callahan as the heir apparent to Brian Schottenheimer as offensive coordinator, and they credit Callahan with the offensive line’s success of the past few years. Heading into training camps this season, popular wisdom seemed to dictate that teams with continuity would fare the best, especially early in the season. That was perfect for Jets fans! Seven offensive linemen would be returnees, familiar with Callahan’s scheme (Brick, Slauson, Mangold, Moore, Hunter, Vlad and Turner). It’s been acknowledged that Callahan’s scheme is tough to master, but it’s also difficult to stop. With everyone knowing their roles, there was no reason to think that the Jets offensive line would be anything except a well-oiled machine.

Fast-forward to this season, and the Jets offensive line looks like it has never heard of zone blocking before. Two plays in particular stood out to me this past weekend. The first was when Haloti Ngata strip-sacked Mark Sanchez. Ngata had been double-teamed by Slauson and Brick, and Slauson moved to block another rusher. Brick, for some reason,  just let Ngata go and take a free shot on Sanchez. If Brick had simply gotten beat by Ngata, I would have understood that; it was Brick’s seeming confusion, however, that I found disconcerting. One other play that really bothered me was a run play to LaDainian Tomlinson when he was stopped for a three yard loss by Cory Redding. Again, bad plays can happen sometimes. What bothered me was the fact that Wayne Hunter seemingly ran out of Redding’s path to block someone on the second level and allowed Redding to nearly decapitate LT. On that play, it looked like Hunter had never heard of the zone blocking concept, and he’s been on the Jets for three years.

Anyone who watched the Texans Steelers game on Sunday afternoon was treated to an incredible display of offensive line play. The Texans also run a zone-blocking scheme, and they were a force to be reckoned with, as they opened huge holes against the usually stout Steelers run defense. This game made it abundantly clear, at least to me, how important cohesion along the offensive line is. The Texans have a dominant line, but they don’t have any superstars. None of their linemen are on the level of Mangold or Brick, but they were eerily reminiscent of the Jets 2009 offensive line, which functioned like a well-oiled machine. Now, the Jets offensive line appears totally out of sync. Although losing Nick Mangold has certainly not helped the line over the past two weeks, the line looked terrible in the first two weeks as well, and this has many Jet fans looking for reasons why: I have a couple thoughts, but no answers.

It seems like the Jets were fooled into thinking that Wayne Hunter was a starting caliber right tackle. Damien Woody was an awesome, awesome player, but Jet fans took him for granted because he didn’t play a glamour position, and because he went about his business so quietly. When Woody tore his Achilles in the playoffs last season, Wayne Hunter stepped in and he did a very creditable job. Because of that performance, the Jets front office felt that Hunter would be able to replace Woody. In the front office’s defense, most Jet fans felt the same way. There was never any reason to think that Hunter would look like he has thus far: like a player who has no idea what he’s doing on the field and who looks physically incapable of dealing with good offensive linemen.

Is there a new scheme being implemented? For all of the credit that Bill Callahan receives, he probably deserves some scrutiny as well. While I wouldn’t blame him for the line’s struggles, I do wonder: is he trying to do something new with the line this year? If he’s not, then I don’t understand how the line could have gotten so much worse in such a short time. I like to think that the re-insertion of Mangold will solve all of the line’s problems, but I can’t honestly convince myself that that is the case.

I know a lot of people are blaming Brian Schottenheimer for the offense’s struggles, but such a view seems shortsighted to me. In the Baltimore game, there was no play that he could have called that had any chance of succeeding.  Sanchez legitimately did not have time to complete five step drops, as he was forced to run as soon as he took the snap. Now, word has come out that the Jets have decided that they are going to return to their offensive philosophy of 2009, when they attempted to bludgeon teams by running the ball and then using play-action. At this point, I’m willing to try anything as a Jets fan, and maybe making a commitment to running the ball is the best alternative. It might simplify the game plan for the offensive line, and it might allow for Sanchez to throw the ball a lot less, and possibly cut back on his turnovers. If we do see a true commitment to the run game, then expect so see a lot of John Conner as well. Although I have my doubts about the effectiveness of the Jets running game, I need to follow the advice of Red from The Shawshank Redemption and hold on to my hope: in this case, it’s the hope that the nucleus of a very successful line can re-discover its cohesiveness and attitude that made it a dominant unit.

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