How Tanny And Tony Tanked The New York Jets Running Game

Steve Bateman on how Tony Sparano tanked the New York Jets running game by employing a gap-blocking scheme

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All New York Jets fans know that 2012 wasn’t a vintage year for offensive production. And most are equally aware of the fact that the franchise can only solve that problem by blowing up the roster and getting shot of Mark Sanchez, Shonn Greene, Matt Slauson and so on. But wait. Maybe I use the word ‘fact’ when really I should say ‘media-driven hype’ because – as we’re about to see – sometimes common wisdom isn’t quite as wise as the newspaper men might like us to believe it is.

But before we start looking at the real reason why the Jets’ trademarked ground-and-pound (and the Sanchez-led passing game that depends on it) crashed-and-burned last year, let’s remind ourselves of the fact that much like chess, the outcome of a football game generally depends on the people who move the pieces as much as it does upon the pieces themselves. This truism is what first set me to thinking about how the Jets running game had suddenly degenerated from being adequate enough to secure back-to-back AFC Championship appearances to being the, if-you’ll-excuse-me, butt of cheap jokes throughout the league.

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Cast your mind back to the time when offensive coordinator Tony Sparano and his chief henchman, offensive line coach Dave DeGuglielmo (left), first arrived at the New Meadowlands amid fanfares and proclamations that their new ‘Power Running Game’ would revitalize the Jets’ flagging ground attack. Sounds impressive, doesn’t it – power running? In actual fact it’s no more or less powerful than any other kind of running scheme – it simply sounds as if it is. So let’s refer to it instead by it’s slightly less deceptive name and call it gap-blocking.

Now, throughout the years when the Jets’ rushing game was at its peak under former offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer and line coach Bill Callahan, zone-blocking schemes were the order of the day. This revelation in itself begs a couple of important questions, namely: In terms of execution, how similar is one scheme to another, and can somebody who’s effective as a zone-blocker be equally successful in a gap-blocking schematic? Let’s dig a little deeper…

The basic difference between the two is that in gap-blocking, linemen will be assigned to block a certain defender one-on-one and the running back will look to exploit a predetermined lane (or hole) through the defensive line. In zone-blocking schemes on the other hand, each player is told to move in the direction of the play and double-teams are formed against the opposing linemen. Then when a defender is taken out of the play or “washed down”, one of the double-teamers will come off him and look to make a second-level block on a linebacker or safety. Meanwhile, the ball-carrier is left to make a read on where the best running lane is.

In terms of the differing types of personnel that are required, because zone-blocking relies on linemen double-teaming defenders, strength and size are not terribly important. What’s far more useful is a combination of agility and speed so that the secondary blocks can be made against the smaller but more slippery linebackers and safeties.

Gap-blocking requires the exact opposite of these attributes – linemen in this kind of scheme benefit from having the size and strength that’s required to shunt defenders off the line of scrimmage in a man-to-man confrontation.

In summary, then, not only do zone-blocking (Schottenheimer/Callahan) and gap-blocking (Sparano/DeGuglielmo) differ massively in a schematic sense, they also demand entirely different types of personnel. Yet all of this seems to have been lost on the 2012 Jets, because for reasons best known to themselves, they opted to switch from zone to gap-blocking whilst maintaining almost exactly the same front-five lineup. This was hardly a recipe for success.

But the greatest madness of Sparano’s scheme centered on running back Shonn Greene (below, right). The man known to fans as ‘War Machine’ is a classic example of a runner who is suited to one kind of scheme and one only. Effectively Sparano could not have done more to mismanage his number one back.shonn-greene_mad_bro

Zone-blocking demands what’s generally referred to as a ‘one-cut runner’ – somebody who is powerful, disciplined and capable of running downhill (ie going to the ground while at the same time driving through tackles). It’s also essential that he has excellent vision as he’ll be required to flow in the direction of the play and then cut back to exploit any holes that open up. Agility and speed are not really factors because he’ll always find himself running through areas that are congested by defenders AND linemen who are making their downfield blocks. He cannot be an egotist who thrives on big plays – on the contrary he must be a team player who’s happy to collect 80+ yards per game in 4-5 yard chunks. Greene has all of these qualities in abundance.

But to succeed in a gap-blocking scheme such as the one that Sparano implemented, a back must have explosive speed out of the backfield so that he can quickly hit the pre-designated point of attack, and use his elusiveness to evade would-be tacklers at the line of scrimmage. Then, once he’s downfield, he can take advantage of his speed and agility to capitalize on the open space by spinning and juking past unblocked defenders. Anybody who has watched Greene play football for five minutes should know that he is probably the last running back in the NFL who could be said to fit that description.

So why did Sparano commit to a gap-blocking system, and where do the Jets go from here? Well, the simple answer to the first part of the question is that it’s what he’s always done; cats don’t bark, dogs don’t meow, and Tony Sparano doesn’t run zone-blocking offenses. So in many ways the responsibility for this mess lies with former General Manager Mike Tannenbaum – the man who hired him in the first place. But the issue runs much deeper than that, and it highlights a significant problem that the Jets must resolve going forward, namely that whoever replaces Tannenbaum must be able to compensate for coach Rex Ryan’s almost complete ignorance of offensive strategy. Essentially Sparano’s hiring was an institutional failure, and that must never be allowed to happen again.

greg-knapp_slick_dudeIn terms of how to resolve the situation, the Jets have to do one of two things – either a) they replace Sparano with an offensive coordinator who is familiar with the zone-blocking scheme (my personal prayer goes out to Norv Turner, although realistically I’d be happy with somebody like former Raiders man Greg Knapp, left), re-sign Greene, and return to the ground-and-pound of old, or b) they abandon Greene to free agency, hire somebody with an ideology that’s similar to Sparano’s (Mike Mularkey would fit the bill) and look to rebuild both their offensive line and running back corps.

Fortunately it appears that the most sensible option is also the more likely one: Because of the current cap calamity in Florham Park it would be suicidal for the Jets front office to waste cap space and draft picks on rebuilding two areas of the team that were never really broken. And while Greene’s style of running will always make him unpopular with fans, the stark reality is that he is both perfectly serviceable and incredibly cheap (his average salary over the past 4 years has been just $663,750 per annum – by way of comparison, Reggie Bush’s earnings have averaged out at $4.9M per annum over the past 2 years).

Drawing to a conclusion, the Jets’ 2012 campaign was an almost unmitigated offensive disaster, but fortunately a quick off-season autopsy identifies the cause of death quite clearly. If the situation is to be remedied then it can only be realistically done so via a return to tried-and-trusted principles – any other kind of fix would just be inviting more disaster further down the road.

Over the next few weeks we will have some idea of where the franchise is heading when owner Woody Johnson announces who his offensive coordinator will be in 2013. Then, when the NFL carousel moves to Radio City in the spring, we’ll get an even better indication by looking at which areas the new General Manager chooses to rebuild.

The 2013 off-season is set to be a critical point in the development of the New York Jets franchise, and the two key decisions of who to hire as General Manager and offensive coordinator will almost certainly dictate whether the next 3-5 years see a recovery or an even deeper nosedive.

The past season, it seems, was nothing more than an appetizer for the real drama which is yet to come.

New York Jets Offense – A Failure From Top To Bottom

The New York Jets offense is abject failure from top to bottom

The New York Jets offense has sank to 30th in the NFL. We are now talking Blaine Gabbert bad. When you are this incompetent, it is a failure of their entire unit and really of the entire organization. Consider this reality: through nine games there is ONE player on the entire Jets offensive roster who has exceeded expectations this year – Jeremy Kerley. Everybody else has performed below any type of realistic expectations for them individually this season and that includes the coaching staff and front office.

As always let’s start at the top. Woody Johnson forced Tim Tebow on to this roster despite his coaching staff having no grasp on how to use him. The Jets wasted cap space on an unproductive (in their system) distraction. Mike Tannenbaum (culprit #1 for the Jets failures as an organization right now) didn’t improve the running back position despite lacking a lead back and depth. He also ignored the evident shortcomings at right tackle and guard. Finally, he failed add necessary veteran depth at both tight end and wide receiver. This team needed a capable veteran at both positions…not Jeff Cumberland and Chaz Schilens.

Next on the list is Mark Sanchez who is trending away from “maddeningly inconsistent” into “simply awful.” Sanchez has completed less than 50% of his passes in 5 of the Jets 9 games this year. He has thrown an interception in every single game except for two of them. His record as a starting quarterback in his previous 12 games is 3-9, with only 1 road victory. The Jets have failed to develop him properly by giving him a below average quarterback coach, switching his top three wide receivers ever year, letting the running back depth deplete, the offensive line talent decline and of course the Tebow circus but that doesn’t give him a pass for this level of play. There is excusably average because of a lack of talent around you and then there is the interception he threw in the red-zone yesterday (in case you forgot, he ignored Stephen Hill on the backline and threw it 3 seconds to late towards Dustin Keller).

The supporting cast around Sanchez is the worst in the NFL right now. Austin Howard is not a starting NFL right tackle. Matt Slauson is not a starting NFL guard. Brandon Moore is at the end of career and is a shell of the player he was in 2009 and 2010. Even Nick Mangold and D’Brickashaw Ferguson have been good but not at the level of play we’ve seen them reach before. Jason Smtih plays 15 reps per game on this team, at tight end! Think about that. Shonn Greene is a backup running back masquerading as a starter. Go take away the stat line from the Colts game and then look at his stat line this year (122 carries, 406 yards, 3.3 YPC and 2 TDs). Not good enough. Stephen Hill isn’t ready to be a starting NFL wide receiver yet but the Jets don’t have a capable veteran to split his reps. Dustin Keller is inconsistent at tight end. Did I miss anything?

This unit needs to be gutted. Tony Sparano gone. Matt Cavanaugh gone. Shonn Greene, Dustin Keller, Matt Slauson, Austin Howard…let them walk in free agency. Mark Sanchez is probably coming back because of his contract and because what is the other option? They aren’t taking a quarterback in the first round. You want to go sign Michael Vick? What are the other options? Take your free cap space, take your draft picks and find yourself a new starting running back, two new starting offensive lineman and a new tight end. If you can find a taker for Santonio Holmes contract (they won’t) then trade him. Start from scratch and hope Stephen Hill develops in year two the way Jeremy Kerley did.

The Jets have officially regressed to the end of the 2005 season when they were starting Brooks Bollinger, Cedric Houston, Justin McCariens and Doug Jolley. The good news? They made playoffs in 2006. We needed something optimistic in this article, right?

New York Jets Fact Or False: Week 4 Edition

As we enter the final week of the first quarter of the 2012 NFL season, we still aren’t necessarily sure who this New York Jets team is just yet. For a team striving to be built primarily through strong defense and a ground and pound offensive philosophy, the 2012 Jets have been anything but that. New York currently ranks 21st in overall defense this season, a ranking that could certainly grow worse with the loss of the team’s best overall player, CB Darrelle Revis. Offensively, the Jets rank 22nd overall, but are 29th in rushing yards per carry, with an abysmal average of 3.3. Shockingly, however, New York’s offense ranks just outside of the top ten in points scored, standing at 11th overall, only one spot behind Tom Brady and the New England Patriots, with 81 total points.

Translation? All is not lost for New York just yet, despite countless fans and media members declaring them dead without Revis lurking in the defensive secondary. For a team ranking in the bottom tier in defense and rushing offense, New York still stands at 2-1 and first in the AFC East. However, it is no secret that this team needs vast improvements in most aspects of the game, otherwise they will in fact suffer the complete landslide that everyone seems to be waiting for.

How can the Jets get back into that upper tier of teams without Revis? It begins with a few things. First, the Jets need to begin to limit Shonn Greene’s touches. By now, it is no secret that Greene is not the feature back New York thought he was going to turn into. Averaging an extremely disappointing 3.1 YPC this season, Greene has been arguably the most boring running back in the NFL this year. His lack of ability to make defenders miss and break tackles is noticeable to even the most fair weather fans. It is time Tony Sparano begins to divide his workload amongst the other backs on the Jets roster, namely Bilal Powell, who averaged 4.5 YPC last week in Miami, and (you guess it) Tim Tebow. Rex Ryan will also need to prove how great of a defensive mind he really is. Without Revis eliminating a player from opposing offenses, Ryan is going to need to show what made him such a successful defensive coordinator during his days in Baltimore. He will need to be very creative both schematically and personnel wise in order for this defense to assert itself as one of the league’s best again.

This week is sure to be a daunting test for each area of improvement for the Jets. Will New York be able to make the necessary adjustments in all phases of the game to overcome the powerhouse that is the San Francisco 49ers? Find out how it all will shake out in this week’s New York Jets Fact Or False.

Quinton Coples will register his 1st NFL sack. Fact. As good as San Francisco’s offensive line is in the running game, they have struggled so far in protecting quarterback Alex Smith this season. Smith has been sacked 10 times through the first three games this year. While Green Bay, Detroit, and Minnesota certainly have better pass rushes than the Jets, don’t be surprised to see New York’s first round selection get himself his first career sack this Sunday.

Although he has seen limited reps in his first few games, Rex Ryan proclaimed today that he expects the rookie out of North Carolina to take on a heavier workload this week. Coples has been an absolute mismatch when he’s been lined up on the inside on passing downs due to his superior athleticism against interior lineman. He has also been tremendous on the few stunts that he has run, often playing with excellent agility and leverage. Expect Ryan and Defensive Coordinator Mike Pettine to get creative with their blitzes and stunts this week to confuse an offensive line that has struggled in pass protection this season. That could very well leave the door open for Coples to get to Smith for his first, of what could be many, NFL sacks.

Mark Sanchez will finish with a higher passer rating than Alex Smith. False. This is not to say that Sanchez will not play good. However in terms of passing efficiency, there have been very few who have done it better than Smith over the past year. This season alone, Smith ranks 7th in passer rating among all starting quarterbacks in the NFL with a rating of 102.7, that includes 5 touchdowns to just 1 interceptions and a completion percentage of 69.6.

Sanchez on the other hand ranks last in the league in terms of completion percentage, having completed just 50.5% of his passes with passer rating of 78.3. Of course, Sanchez has been hindered by the Jets’ lack of running ability as well as a very inexperienced group of receivers.

This is not to say that this unit will not get it together and outperform Smith and the 49ers’ passing attack this Sunday, however, the primary X-Factor in this is the absence of Darrelle Revis. Without Revis in the secondary, opposing teams are completing over 70% of their passes against New York. When facing a team like San Francisco, whose entire passing game is built on efficiency and a lack of mistakes, it will be very difficult for Sanchez to outperform his counterpart.

Frank Gore will rush for 100+ yards. Fact. Over the course of his first three games, Gore has run for 264 yards on just 45 carries, for an excellent average of 5.9 YPC. Although he has surpassed the century mark just once this season, he has yet to be given a heavy workload, with a season high of 17 carries in week 2 against Detroit.

This week, however, expect San Francisco to put the Jets 22nd ranked defense to the test. Based on the success that CJ Spiller and Reggie Bush experienced against this defense, the 49ers would be wise to give Gore the ball early and often. While New York is much better suited to defend backs like Gore, rather than Spiller or Bush, do not be surprised to see the former Miami Hurricane get anywhere from 20-25 carries, taking him over the 100 yard mark for the second time this season.

The Jets will not surpass 100 yards rushing as a team. False. Yes, the Jets have struggled to run the ball this season, but as addressed above, that is a heavy result of the inabilities of Shonn Greene. To think that New York is going to abandon its ground and pound philosophy after just three games under Sparano is utter blasphemy. New York’s inability to run the ball is undoubtedly keeping Sparano up at night, surely enough to devise a very clever game plan against one of the league’s top defenses.

Sparano and co. are likely wise enough to realize that they will struggle to pound the ball against this defense in jumbo packages. Expect New York to come out in various spread formations, and actually look to pass early to open up the running game. If Sanchez can be efficient and prove to be able to stretch the field in the first few offensive drives, San Francisco will have no choice but to unload the box, giving New York ample space to run the ball. The Jets should divide the workload amongst an abundance of ball carriers who will all collectively gain over 100 yards.

At least 4 different players will carry the ball for the Jets. Fact. As touched on above, Shonn Greene’s days as a 20-25 carry back are seemingly over. It is time for the Jets to divide his carries amongst Powell, Tebow, and possibly the newly acquired Jonathan Grimes. While Greene will likely still get around 10-12 carries this Sunday, look for Powell to cut into that load the most with about 15-17 carries. Tebow will likely chip in out of the Wildcat with somewhere around 5-7 carries, and New York would be foolish not to give the ball to the speedy Grimes, or the recently “traded” Joe McKnight a few times to attempt a home run play.

While the Shanahan approach of playing an abundance of Running Backs is not necessarily a popular one in this league, Greene has left the Jets with no choice. In order for this offense to get on track, they need to be able to run the ball, and in order to be able to run the ball, the Jets need to divide the workload, plain and simple.

New York Jets Fact Or False: Week 3 Edition

Chris Gross weekly Fact or False previews the Jets/Dolphins week 3 match-up

The New York Jets head into their third regular season game, a road trip to Miami, standing at 1-1, coming off of a very abysmal performance in Pittsburgh. As the Jets gear up to face the Dolphins, a seemingly must win game with San Francisco and Houston lurking afterwards, there are numerous issues to be addressed with this team. Which New York Jets will show up in Miami and in the coming weeks? Will it be the team that crushed Buffalo in the season opener led by an offensive explosion? Or will it be the team that faced the same troubles that haunted it last season – offensive woes and an inability to get the defense off the field on third down?

The Jets have come under heavy scrutiny following the loss to Pittsburgh. Mark Sanchez went from the league’s most improved Quarterback in week 1, to the scapegoat of the New York media that infatuates the Daily News more than Justin Bieber does to a teenaged girl. The mainstream media in this city has the most extreme love/hate relationship with the Jets’ fourth year quarterback. Simply put, they love to hate him.

What about the running game? What happened to that vaunted ground and pound that was preached all offseason? Tim Tebow was supposed to be a key part of Shonn Greene’s supporting cast, but so far, he has been completely irrelevant to this offense. Speaking of Greene, will he ever reveal himself to be the bell cow the Jets think he can be, or is it time to start spreading his carries out amongst New York’s stable of less than average running backs?

In terms of the defense, can the Jets prove that they can stop an elusive running back? While the run defense was fantastic last week in Pittsburgh, the Steelers’ didn’t exactly put Barry Sanders on the field. The Jets were gashed by CJ Spiller for 169 yards on opening day, continuing the trend that began last season of not being able to match up with speedy backs. Can they stop Reggie Bush, coming off of a career performance, the shifty Lamar Miller, and the rest of the Dolphins’ rushing attack this week?

Find out all of this, and much more, in this week’s New York Jets Fact Or False.

1.) Shonn Greene will average at least 4.0 YPC. False. Greene’s career high, in terms of yards per carry, against Miami came last year in the forgettable season finale, when he accumulated 55 yards on 14 carries, for a 3.9 YPC average. Now, Greene is coming off of two very sub par performances against Buffalo and Pittsburgh where he averaged 3.5 and 2.1 YPC, respectively.

Miami, on the other hand, has allowed just 3.0 YPC to Arian Foster in week 1, along with a ridiculous 2.0 YPC to Darren McFadden at home last week. To put it nicely, Miami has shut down two backs that are quite a bit more accomplished than Greene. Expect the Jets to rely on Greene for about 12-15 carries, while finally spreading the carries out amongst their other three runners in Bilal Powell, Joe McKnight, and Tim Tebow. With how Greene has played, combined with how excellent Miami’s run defense has been, there should be no reason for the Jets to believe that Greene can carry the entire rushing load on Sunday. Powell, McKnight, and Tebow have all been fair in the select time they’ve been given, so it is time to see what they can do with an expanded workload. Tony Sparano needs to get the ball to Powell and McKnight in space, via screens, sweeps, or misdirections. He should not be afraid to swing for the fences with these two on Sunday.

As for Tebow, it is time New York stop being so careful with their prolific backup quarterback. It seems as though the fear amongst the coaching staff is that if Tebow plays well in expanded minutes, they will face public pressure to insert him as the starter over Mark Sanchez, in the event that number 6 begins to truly struggle. However, if they use Tebow primarily as a runner, which they absolutely should be doing, he can be just another tool to assist the run game and take some pressure off of Greene.

However the game plan unfolds, do not expect Greene to surpass the 4.0 YPC mark. It simply is not going to happen.

Mark Sanchez will throw for 225+ yards and 2 TDs. Fact. Defensively, the Dolphins are built very much like the Buffalo Bills. They have a very above average front seven, with an extremely suspect secondary, even more so due to the recent departure of CB Vontae Davis. While the Jets running game may struggle to get going early, expect Sparano to allow Sanchez to sling the ball deep. Santonio Holmes, Stephen Hill, and Jeremy Kerley all have the ability to stretch the field, and when facing a secondary like Miami’s, there should certainly be free reign to do so.

The key will be for Holmes and Hill to prove they can respond to press coverage. Dolphins CB Sean Smith is a very physical player, and you can rest assured he took note of how Holmes and Hill struggled with the physicality of the Pittsburgh secondary last week. If Sparano can dial up some creative routes, and the Jets can prove to play well against this type of coverage, expect Sanchez to have a field day against this secondary.

3.) Reggie Bush will run for 100+ yards. False. While the Jets certainly have had their struggles with speed backs over the past season and two games (as previously noted), Bush will likely be their primary focus this week. In his sole contest against New York last year, the former Heisman Trophy winner picked up 71 yards on just 10 carries, for an eye-popping 7.1 YPC average. However, that was a Miami team that had a pro bowl receiver in Brandon Marshall, and a veteran quarterback in Matt Moore.

This time around, Miami brings out an offense led by a rookie at quarterback whose primary receiving option is Brian Hartline. Expect New York to key Bush early and often, and do everything they can to prevent him from getting the ball in space. Bart Scott looked quicker than he has in years last week in Pittsburgh, and although the Steelers’ backs certainly do not posses the speed of Bush, it is undoubtedly a sign of encouragement. Do not be surprised to see Rex Ryan send LaRon Landry on some Safety blitzes early in the game to introduce Bush to his hard hitting style, with the hope of rattling the 7th year pro and setting the tone from the beginning.

4.) Cameron Wake will have at least one sack. False. While Wake has established himself as one of the most ferocious pass rushers in the NFL over the past three years, he has registered just 2 sacks against the Jets in 6 contests. What’s even more surprising is the fact that he did not get to Sanchez at all over two games last year. This is likely a result of the Jets giving the recently (and thankfully) departed Wayne Hunter an abundance of help on Wake last year, something they will likely do again with Austin Howard this Sunday. While Howard is certainly an improvement over Hunter, Wake is Miami’s best defensive player and will be accounted for at all times. Sacks could still come from Miami, but Wake will likely be neutralized due to the high amount of attention the Jets will give him.

5.) The Jets will register multiple sacks. Fact. Dolphins Quarterback Ryan Tannehill has been sacked 4 times over the course of his first two NFL games, including three in the opener in Houston. While the Jets’ pass rush isn’t nearly as good as the Texans’, Rex Ryan and Mike Pettine will be sure to draw up some exotic blitzes to get in position to bring the rookie to the ground. New York sacked Ben Roethlisberger 3 times last week in Pittsburgh, but realistically had opportunities to bring him down at least thrice more. Tannehill is not nearly as difficult to bring down as Big Ben, so expect the Jets to finish this week. Tannehill should have some serious grass stains on his back come Sunday afternoon.

6.) Ryan Tannehill will throw 2 interceptions. Fact. Tannehill looked promising in last week’s win against Oakland, however in his opening day start against Houston, the Texas A&M product struggled mightily, throwing 3 interceptions to start his NFL career. This was largely due to Houston Defensive Coordinator Wade Phillips getting extremely creative in his coverages and blitz packages, making Tannehill extremely uncomfortable and forcing him into making bad decisions. Like Phillips, Ryan and Pettine will look to confuse the rookie from the start. Expect the Jets to do a good job of disguising coverages and sending pressure at Tannehill. If they can rattle his cage early, it would not come as a surprise to see the young QB become overwhelmed, and turn the ball over more than once.

Oh, and if that wasn’t enough, this guy makes his return this week.

Sanchez Breakdown: Jets Offense Grounded in Pittsburgh

Rob Celletti breaks down Mark Sanchez’s performance against the Pittsburgh Steelers in week 2

Stat Line: – 10/27, 138 Yards, 1 touchdown, 0 interceptions – 66.6 QB rating, 37.0 completion percentage (yikes)

Season Stat Line – 29/54, 404 yards, 4 touchdowns, 1 interception – 95 QB Rating, 53.7 completion percentage

To put it as simply as possible, two good drives are never going to be enough to win an NFL game. Ditto, just two trips to the red zone, as illustrated in this fancy graphic that all the stat-heads out there will surely enjoy. The Jets had issues in all three phases of the game, and the issues on offense weren’t only a function of poor quarterback play, but this is the place we discuss Mark Sanchez, so discuss him we will.

The Best: The first drive seemed to be a continuation of the week 1 success against the Buffalo Bills. This is what I expected the Jets to do most of the game to a Pittsburgh defense that was missing two of its impact players.  Sanchez and company responded to Pittsburgh’s opening drive field goal by marching right down the field, keyed by a big 45 yard hook-up with Jeremy Kerley where Sanchez again utilized a pump-fake to send Ryan Clark the wrong way before dropping a perfect, in-stride ball over three Steelers defenders for the big gain. Three plays later, a deft play-action fake and easy pickings on a quick slant to Santonio Holmes had the Jets up 7-3.

The Worst: Pretty much everything after the first drive was troublesome.  All of a sudden, Sanchez was out of synch with his receiving corps. Notable miscues happened with Jeff Cumberland and Jeremy Kerley, and after a solid opening drive, Santonio Holmes dropped a slew of catchable passes and in the end caught just three of the 11 balls thrown his way. The chemistry issues between Holmes and Sanchez have been discussed at length, but they’re worth noting again here. This is simply something that must be solved in order for the Jets to have a successful 2012 season. For better or worse, Holmes is the most experienced playmaker the Jets have, and if he and Sanchez aren’t on the same page, the offense will continue to sputter.

After the first drive, Sanchez completed just 6 of his next 22 passes (that’s 27.2%, for those of you scoring at home). The Jets did not enter the red zone after their second drive (they got to the 19 yard line), coming closest on their final, garbage time drive which ended at Pittsburgh’s 30 yard line. Sanchez also took some legitimate hits (including a rightly-penalized blow to the head), which was to be expected against Dick LeBeau’s defense. While I don’t think he was ever downright skittish, it’s clear that Sanchez was less decisive with the ball as the game wore on and Pittsburgh’s defense asserted itself.

The Key Moment: While I would love to harp on the Jets’ lack of aggressiveness at the end of the first half, I’ll keep the discussion to Sanchez, who said after the game that running the clock out was ultimately Tony Sparano’s decision.  A colleague of mine pointed out that after Sanchez missed Holmes for a would-be touchdown on the Jets second drive, everything seemed to stall out thereafter. It’s a good point. Watching the play again, it’s a terrific play-call on 1st and 10 from the 24, and the execution is there until the throw.  Sanchez playfakes, then bootlegs to the outside, which pulls Ryan Clark up the field. Santonio Holmes gets separation from Ike Taylor and runs into a fully vacated Pittsburgh endzone.  If Sanchez lays the ball out in front of Holmes, it’s an easy touchdown the Jets grab a 14-6 lead. Instead, the throw is high and a little behind #10, and the Jets settle for the three points that would be their last of the game. Sanchez has always been praised for his ability to throw on the run, and this play put him in his sweet spot, but the quarterback simply didn’t make the throw.

So now the question is, how will Mark Sanchez respond?  The Jets return to the place where their 2011 season officially and mercilessly went up in flames. Sanchez has a spotty history and just a 2-4 career record vs. Miami. Intriguing times ahead for the Jets’ quarterback.

Tony Sparano Puts Together Masterful Game Plan

TJ Rosenthal on the masterful game plan put together by Tony Sparano in his debut as offensive coordinator for the New York Jets

Twelve Jets touched the ball on Sunday against the Bills. Twelve. Seven of them in the first quarter. What a sight for sore eyes for Jet fans who have more often than not, felt as though they were able call the “check down for pedestrian yardage” plays that would happen frequently over the past few seasons.

New Offensive Coordiantor Tony Sparano must have kept cotton in his ears all summer as he drew up plans for an offense that not only spread the field, but avoided predictability.

Right tackle Austin Howard’s ability to shore up the pass protection was a major factor in Mark Sanchez’s ability to stay firmly planted in the pocket in the opener. The quarterbacks accuracy and decisiveness were his contributions though, Both of which make one wonder if the game has finally slowed down a bit for the fourth year starter.

Sparano showed alot of confidence in rookie Stephen Hill, who was called out for the dropsies against Carolina. Was unafraid to draw up plays for Jeremy Kerley, a player that Rex Ryan challenged to “step up” in training camp.

Remember Jeff Cumberland? We do. He was our hope last year for a second tight end in the passing game before his season ending injury early on. Wish granted, thanks to Sparano.

Santonio Holmes is a weapon. That’s why it was imperative to get him the ball and other chances downfield. To put pressure on the Bills.

Most importantly, Sparano showed the utmost most confidence in Sanchez. A player who has had handcuffs on him for almost his entire tenure as a Jet. In using 6 wisely, within a balanced system, it was easy to notice how his own confidence and leadership grew as the game developed.

So many were ready to see the Jets as a modern day Ground and Pound failure, with the nuisance of Tebow mixed in. Not so fast.

There will be those who will remind Gang Green that Buffalo is not Pittsburgh, the Jets next opponent. Those glass half empty folks might want to be honest however, regarding how they saw the Bills prior to kickoff. Chan Gailey’s crew has been painted as a team on the rise. Many publications predicted them to finish second in the AFC East. The addiition of Mario Williams, and the growth of second year lineman Marcell Dareus being two of the main reasons why. Sparano kept those two off balance and out of the equation all day, while remaining bold in allowing Sanchez to throw downfield.

The Wildcat yielded just 20 yards, but the insertion of Tim Tebow was done without a hiccup. The yardage was never negative, kept the offense on time, and the clock moving. The formation also gave four different players carries, keeping it hard to predict as well. Without one ball thrown out of it. Yet.

Sanchez was right after the game when he noted that the win was something to be excited over but nothing to gloat about. True, there was a ton of negative press regarding the “Circus” act Jets heading into week one, but the Jets were wise in using the doubt many had about them as motivation. Even wiser in keeping their mouths shut as much as these Jets could, afterwards.

The most exciting to take out of the 48-28 win was Sparano and the offense. If they can remain a bunch that keeps the opponent’s defense guessing, while their own talented defense continues to cement it’s own schemes, then maybe the Jets can truly write their own story about 2012. Avoiding the one that had been written for them by too many experts, ready to give up on a team that hadn’t played a real game yet, until the one in Met Life on Sunday.

Well done Mr. OC.

New York Jets: Make or Break Year For Dustin Keller

This is a make or break year for New York Jets tight end Dustin Keller

New York Jets tight end Dustin Keller is entering the most crucial season of his NFL career. The team has understandably held off on giving him a large contract extension, instead choosing to wait and see how he produces in Tony Sparano’s offense. Through four years, Keller has been good but has never truly broke out in the way many around the team expect him to. This season, more than ever the Jets need the Pro-Bowl season that he has personally declared is on the way.

It doesn’t take an expert to see that the Jets are lacking proven offensive playmakers heading into this season, particularly in the passing game. Beyond that, Mark Sanchez is yet to have an opportunity to work with two of his top three receivers, Santonio Holmes and Jeremy Kerley, this pre-season because of his injuries. Without question, Keller is the receiver he is most comfortable with and should see a ton of passes coming his way all season.

Keller has never been able to sustain productivity throughout his career. The four seasons are marked by stretches of All-Pro caliber play followed by weeks of inactivity. The productivity tends to occur early in the season and then tail off throughout the year.

Last season, Keller caught 16 passes for 249 yards 2 touchdowns in the Jets first three games. Over the next six games, he only collected 15 receptions for 224 yards and o touchdowns. He improved slightly down the stretch but not much, finishing the season with only 5 touchdowns and 12.5 yards per reception. In 2010, it was the same story. He caught 5 touchdowns in the Jets first 4 games and then didn’t catch one the rest of the season. He also saw a gaudy early season yards per catch average drop off to 12.5 by the end of the year.

Keller needs to improve his consistency, his red-zone production and downfield playmaking ability. All of these issues don’t fall solely on him. It is fair to place blame on Brian Schottenheimer’s horizontal passing attack and perplexing game plans. It is also fair to blame Mark Sanchez for his occasional struggles.

Regardless, the top priority of the Jets passing game this year should be keeping Keller involved on a weekly basis and getting him the ball inside the 20 yard line. His yards per catch should improve thanks to Tony Sparano’s scheme. Anthony Fasano averaged 13.5 yards per catch and 14.1 yards per catch the past two years respectively and he is substantially less athletic and versatile than Keller.

It can’t be used as an excuse that defenses are keying on Keller. Santonio Holmes is enough of a threat on the outside to keep double teams away from Keller in most situations, nevermind if Stephen Hill develops into a viable deep threat. Keller needs to be moved around the formation to get matched up on defensive backs who he can take advantage of with his size, particularly in the red-zone. If he is seeing coverage from linebackers, the Jets have to get him down the seam where Mark Sanchez throws the ball particularly well.

The Jets can’t afford to have Keller go 5 straight weeks with less than 3 receptions. The Jets can’t afford Keller to have another 5 touchdown season. It is time to expand his route tree beyond bootlegs. Creativity will be needed because he is without question the team’s second best all around receiver and their most versatile weapon in the passing game.

New York Jets – Breaking Down Sanchez’s 9 Dropbacks Friday Night

Breaking down Mark Sanchez’s 9 dropbacks in the New York Jets pre-season opener

New York Jets starting quarterback Mark Sanchez was asked to drop back for nine pass attempts in the team’s pre-season opener. Here is a breakdown of what occurred on each play and an overall analysis of his and the first unit’s performance in the passing game –

1) – 1st and 10 on NYJ 20 yard line – Completion for 0 yards to John Conner

The Jets opened the game in a double tight formation (Dustin Keller and Jeff Cumberland) with Stephen Hill split out wide and two backs. They ran a basic play action bootleg out to the right (a play Jets fans are familiar with from Brian Schottenheimer). Hill cleared out leaving Keller as the first read but he was covered, the only other viable option on the play was Conner in the flat who Sanchez threw the ball to. Conner made the reception but was immediately tackled by Manny Lawson. A simple, safe play that was defended and tackled well.

2) – 3rd and 8 on NYJ 22 yard line – Sacked for 9 yard loss

The Jets came out in shotgun on 3rd long with a bunch formation to the right. Sanchez never had a chance on this play as the Bengals sent a blitz to the right side. Austin Howard picked up the proper man but running back Bilal Powell missed Rey Maualuga who brought Sanchez down before the play had a chance to develop.

3) 3rd and 2 on NYJ 28 yard line – Incompletion to Jordan White

Again the New York Jets ran a play that was popular during the Brian Schottenheimer years. The short yardage, speed out to the slot receiver was a bread butter play for the Jets in both 2009 and 2010, with Jerricho Cotchery frequently running it, although Braylon Edwards ripped off a big gain on it in 2009 against the Jacksonville Jaguars. This play was designed for Jordan White and it is basically going to him no matter what, as from the slot he is supposed to run an immediate speed out a 1/2 yard to a yard past the first down marker on the short side of the field. The ball gets thrown to the low and outside where only the receiver can get it.

White cut his route a little short (a frequent mistake for young receivers), throwing off the timing. Sanchez threw the ball where it was supposed to be but White failed to pull in the tough catch (Terrence Newman had nice coverage as well).

4) 1st and 10 on NYJ 33 yard line – 6 yard completion to Patrick Turner

Turner ran an angle route over the middle from the slot position. He quickly beat his man to the inside (Leon Hall) and as the primary target Sanchez got the ball to him quickly. Hall recovered to make a nice tackle. Overall, a successfully executed first down play that is probably better suited to a quicker player like Jeremy Kerley.

5) 2nd and 4 on NYJ 39 yard line – 6 yard completion to Patrick Turner

The Jets ran double speed outs with their outside receivers (Turner and Stephen Hill). Turner was on the short side of the field and was receiving a substantial cushion. Sanchez made the right read and a good throw to convert the first down. Again a simple, safe call to convert on 2nd and short.

6) 2nd and 11 on NYJ 44 yard line – 9 yard completion to Patrick Turner

As you can tell, Sanchez was easily the most comfortable with Turner out of any of his wide receivers. On this play, Turner ran a comeback route and was the primary option. Sanchez delivered a well timed throw. Leon Hall provided fairly good coverage and wrapped Turner up immediately. Either way, a successful play on a 2nd and long.

7) 3rd and 2 on CIN 47 yard line – Sanchez scrambles for 4 yards

It is hard to tell whether Sanchez taking off up the middle was the primary option on this play. The Jets sent their outside receivers on deep post corner routes (both of whom were blanketed) and the middle of the field was cleared out as well by vertical routes. Sanchez stepped up in the pocket and had nothing but green in front of him. He got enough for the first down and got down.

8) 2nd and 8 on CIN 41 yard line – Sanchez sacked 7 yard loss

Simply put, backup tight end Jeff Cumberland was smoked off the line by Manny Lawson, barely getting a hand on him. Sanchez hadn’t even set his feet and Lawson was on him. Can we sign a blocking tight end?

9) 3rd and 15 on CIN 48 yard line – Incompletion to Jordan White

The Jets didn’t run an aggressive play here to attempt to get a first down. It looked more like the intent was to get half the yardage to either go for it on 4th down or kick a long field goal. Jordan White ran an option route in the slot but never really came open. Sanchez waited and bought himself a little time by scrambling out to his left but basically threw it away because of how covered White was.

Analysis – Tony Sparano didn’t give Sanchez much of a chance to push the ball vertically and that might have been wise considering some of the protection issues. Neither of the sacks or incompletions were on Sanchez. Rookie Jordan White was the target of both incompletions and failed to run a good route both times or catch the ball in the one case. Sanchez was given no time on either sacks. On his completions (outside of the dump off to Conner), Patrick Turner was the primary target and he got him the ball every time. Two 6 yard and a 9 yard completion may not seem impressive but considering the context (6 yards on first down, converting a first down on 2nd and short and picking up 9 yards on 2nd and 11, respectively) they were good throws.

Keep in mind, Santonio Holmes will be in Turner’s spot on those type of plays and has the ability to get more separation and create more after the catch.

A Word On Tebow 

The Good – His slant route to Stephen Hill for 12 yards was a very impressive thrown. Cover 2 is the last type of coverage you want to see on a slant route and Tebow fit it into a tight window. The scrambles were all very athletic plays, even if he might have pulled the ball down a little early on a few. Regardless, you don’t complain when you are picking up chunks of yardage like that. He also had a nice throw to Stephen Hill on a 3rd and 7 that Hill blatantly dropped.

The Bad – The interception was awful, by both him and Jeff Cumberland. Cumberland had an option route and should have hitched back to the quarterback instead of breaking out. Regardless Tebow locked into him and threw it regardless even though the linebacker had cut underneath. He had a poor read and throw to Chaz Schilens on a slant and go. Tebow again locked in even though Schilens was blanketed by two guys and floated a poorly thrown ball. He should have checked down in that situation.

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New York Jets: Offense Remains Work In Progress

The New York Jets still have a long way to go on the offensive side of the football

There is no need for overreactions to week 1 of the NFL pre-season. There is no also no need to stick your head in the sand and act like the New York Jets offense doesn’t have a hell of a long way to go. When you review the depth chart, when you see them consistently handled in practice by the defense (yes, a very good defense) and then look completely listless in their pre-season opener, it is a valid cause for concern.

There is talent on the offensive side of the football for the Jets. There is hope in a new offensive coordinator whose vision is better aligned with the team’s talent and Rex Ryan’s philosophy but we need to start seeing some kind of production.

Tony Sparano’s comment about the Jets “pushing around” the Bengals was glorified coach-speak. The Jets didn’t push anybody around Friday night. Shonn “the bell-cow” Greene had 11 yards on 5 carries. Mark Sanchez was sacked twice in eight dropbacks and the longest plays of the nights came from a checkdown to Joe McKnight and a scramble by Tim Tebow. It was ugly, little league caliber football.

Yes, the game plan was vanilla but so is everybody’s in the pre-season so let’s stop with the excuses. This unit just isn’t very good right now and has a little less than a month to get their act together.

Where will it come from? The hopes for help at the wide receiver or running back position from outside the team are lowering with each passing day. Improvement will have to come from within.

When it comes to the passing game, the receiver situation is only going to get better. Stephen Hill will improve with the monster share of reps he is receiving in practice and throughout pre-season. He did have a drop on Friday but also pulled in two other nice catches in traffic. In the next couple of weeks Santonio Holmes and Jeremy Kerley will return to the line-up. Holmes is the team’s top playmaker and somebody who can take a 5 yard slant route 50 yards for a touchdown. Kerley, despite a disappointing off-season showed immense potential in the slot last season and will be a third down weapon.

Improved play at wide receiver will help Mark Sanchez get rid of the ball quicker because his receivers will actually be able to get separation. The Jets protection remains shaky at best. They seriously need to consider adding a true blocking tight end because Jeff Cumberland looked comically bad trying to block on Friday. You can’t support inconsistent play at right tackle if you don’t have a blocking tight end to help out.

Tony Sparano will have to get creative to buy Sanchez time in many situations, whether that is rolling him out, increasing his number of 3-step drops and bringing in an extra tackle to play blocking tight end.

In the running game, Tim Tebow is a unique and dynamic weapon to have at their disposal. The “Wildcat” or whatever you want to call it will hopefully provide a needed X-Factor to an offense lacking overall proven big play capability. If Tebow can give the Jets 35-50 yards rushing on a weekly basis it will be a needed supplement to Shonn Greene.

Joe McKnight had an impressive showing Friday night but neither him or Bilal Powell are anywhere near proven. Hopefully one of them can become a factor on outside runs and as a receiver out of the backfield. The Jets desperately need a back who can break a big run because for Greene a big run is 7 yards.

If you are anticipating a high amount games in the 20s and 30s this year you will be sorely disappointed. This Jets offense is not going to light up the scoreboard. With their defense, they may not need to on many weeks but they still need to find ways to produce big plays and touchdowns. Will it be Tebow and McKnight rejuvenating the running game? Will it be Hill and a healthy Santonio Holmes producing more than it expected? Hopefully, it will be some combination of both.

New York Jets: What Does Mark Sanchez Need To Do In Pre-Season?

What constitues a productive pre-season for New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez?

Let me preface this article by saying there is no quarterback controversy for the New York Jets. This isn’t an article meant to argue what Mark Sanchez needs to do to hold off Tim Tebow from being the starting quarterback because barring injury, Sanchez will be under center week 1 versus Buffalo. This is an article looking at what constitues a productive pre-season for Sanchez as the Jets starting quarterback working in a non-Brian Schottenheimer NFL offense for the first time in his career.

Sanchez is in the difficult situation of working with a makeshift group of receivers while he tries to master this new offense. One of the many mistakes the Jets have made while attempting to develop their young quarterback has been constantly changing his top three wide receivers. Here is who he had the past three years prior to week 1 –

2009 – Jerricho Cotchery, Chansi Stuckey, Brad Smith

2010 – Braylon Edwards, Jerricho Cotchery, Brad Smith (Santonio Holmes was suspended until week 4)

2011 – Santonio Holmes, Plaxico Burress, Derrick Mason (aka grumpy old men)

This year the presumed top three receivers are Santonio Holmes, Stephen Hill and Jeremy Kerley. Unfortunately, Holmes and Kerley are hurt and out for tomorrow night. Kerley also no longer has a stranglehold on the number three position because of a poor off-season. Sanchez will be playing his first pre-season game with a top three of Hill (a rookie), Patrick Turner (8 career receptions), and Chaz Schilens (72 receptions through 4 years).

Look for Sanchez to frequently target tight end Dustin Keller, the pass catcher he has the best chemistry with. Backup tight end/H-Back Josh Baker should also be a big part of the offense while the receivers get their legs under them.

The most important thing always for Sanchez is protecting the football. With the type of style the Jets are playing this year, he must cut down on interceptions and fumbles. If he can get through this pre-season with no turnovers or maybe only one, it would be a success.

However, Sanchez also must press down the field. Tony Sparano will give him his opportunities. Sanchez needs to develop a fast chemistry with Hill and Schilens, both of whom are vertical threats. Despite frequently being criticized for his arm strength, Sanchez has shown good deep ball accuracy throughout his career. It would be nice to see him convert on a few 20+ yard passing plays, which the Jets barely had any of last season.

Finally, the Jets right tackle situation remains a question mark. Austin Howard will start for Wayne Hunter tomorrow night. Whether it is Hunter or Howard, Sanchez is going to see pressure at times and needs to demonstrate pocket awareness. No more keeping the ball at his waist and having it stripped away, no more panicked checkdowns thrown high to his running back that are intercepted.

The Jets won’t be airing it out in any of their pre-season games but that doesn’t mean Sanchez can’t make a strong impression about his improvement this off-season.