NEW YORK (WFAN/AP) — Rex Ryan put the ball in his offense’s hands to start the game, and challenged his players to prove their detractors wrong.
Those critics included the Jets’ coach, who got on his guys at the team hotel Saturday night. They need to start faster, he told them, return to their “Ground-and-Pound” approach and protect quarterback Mark Sanchez better.
Check. Check. And, check.
Sanchez and the Jets broke a 16-game skid in which they failed to score an offensive touchdown in the first quarter, and Antonio Cromartie had two of the Jets’ four interceptions of Luke McCown to cruise past the Jacksonville Jaguars 32-3 on Sunday.
“He was fired up,” fullback John Conner said of his coach. “I took it as a personal challenge, just like the rest of the guys.”
The Jets (2-0) won the coin toss and, just as Ryan directed them, elected to receive — a rarity for the defensive-minded coach, who usually defers. Sanchez efficiently moved the ball down the field, and Santonio Holmes completed the drive by reaching up in the end zone for a terrific 17-yard catch.
“That was huge,” Sanchez said of the quick start. “We answered the call and now we just need to stay consistent in the first half, and that’s on me.”
A week after getting pounded by Dallas and taking precautionary tests for a concussion, Sanchez stayed mostly upright in this one as he was sacked just once. New York also ran for 101 yards on 32 carries — twice as many as it had in the opener.
First-round pick Muhammad Wilkerson had his first NFL sack for a safety early in the game, helping set the tone for a long day for McCown and the Jaguars (1-1). The Jets’ defense also felt challenged after Ryan opted to not give anyone on the unit a game ball following the season-opening victory over Dallas.
“As a defense, as a whole, we want to cause havoc on our opponent as much as possible,” Cromartie said. “That’s what our defense is built on.”
McCown found that out firsthand. Eric Smith and Josh Mauga also intercepted McCown, who was replaced by rookie Blaine Gabbert early in the fourth quarter after posting a dismal 1.8 quarterback rating while playing without injured tight end Marcedes Lewis. McCown was 6 for 19 for 59 yards, while Gabbert, the team’s first-round pick, was 5 of 6 for 52 yards.
“It was a tough one,” said McCown, who made his second start since replacing David Garrard. “The good thing is that it only counts for one game. We’re 1-1 and we have to go back to work to get better.”
The Jets improved to 5-1 while wearing their navy New York Titans throwback jerseys, and are 2-0 for the second time in three years under Ryan.
That’s even with Plaxico Burress, in his second regular-season game with the Jets after serving 20 months in prison on a gun charge, getting no catches in this one and seeing just two balls come his way.
“Four months ago, I was still hoping to play football again,” Burress said. “I have nothing to complain about.”
It was a crucial win for the Jets since they face three straight road games. But it’s uncertain if they will head to Oakland next weekend without All-Pro center Nick Mangold, who left with a sprained right ankle late in the first quarter and didn’t return. Ryan said X-rays were negative, but Mangold was scheduled to undergo an MRI exam Monday.
“I don’t expect it to be anything too crazy,” said Mangold, who was on crutches and his foot in a boot after the game.
Sanchez, who was rested for much of the fourth quarter, finished 17 of 24 for 182 yards with touchdowns to Holmes and Dustin Keller, and two interceptions. Keller had six catches for 101 yards, and Shonn Greene ran for 49 yards and a score.
“For us to not score an offensive touchdown in the first quarter in 16 games before today, that’s just crazy,” Keller said. “Especially with all the weapons we have.”
New York was up 9-0 less than 5 minutes in, helped by its impressive opening drive.
LaDainian Tomlinson had a 7-yard catch on third-and-4, and after a 2-yard run by Greene, Sanchez got plenty of time from his offensive line and connected with Keller for 33 yards. On the next play, Sanchez found Holmes for a touchdown.
“There was one streak we wanted to break and that’s it, the first-quarter struggling offensively,” Ryan said. “That’s really a team deal and a team start. It was great to see them respond.”
The Jaguars’ first possession was an ominous sign of things to come for them as Sione Pouha deflected McCown’s first pass, and on third down, Wilkerson flung McCown to the turf for a safety. The play was upheld after a review by officials.
“They got off to a fast start,” Jacksonville coach Jack Del Rio said. “It was not an ideal way to start the ballgame, to take a safety and go down 9-0.”
Josh Scobee made it 9-3 with 3:02 left in the first quarter with a 55-yard field goal that was helped by Marquice Cole’s interference penalty that set the Jaguars with great field position. But that was all the scoring for Jacksonville.
“It was a day the Jets had their way, forced us to turn the ball over,” Del Rio said. “They deserved to win today and they won handily.”
New York put the game away late in the third quarter on Keller’s 11-yard touchdown catch, a drive helped by a questionable unnecessary roughness penalty, and Greene’s 1-yard run that was set up by Cromartie’s second interception.
“It was an excellent game,” Ryan said. “A great team effort.”
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