By Steve Lichtenstein
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I guess we should now start calling it August Fools’ Month.
While everyone knows that the preseason is immaterial, the Jets certainly did a number on those fans and media members, including me, who fretted over their offensive ineptitude during their 0-4, one-touchdown train wreck of an exhibition tour.
My concerns centered on the perceived time warp that Rex Ryan thought he could send his club through toward the ultimate destination. You know, the “Ground and Pound,” 1970s Ohio State offense, supported by a defense that he erroneously believed was as stout as his Ravens of the last decade.
That parlor trick is what made Sunday’s 48-28 pummeling of Buffalo on opening day in New Jersey so enjoyable to watch. I had to go back to the opener in 1997 to remember a similar feeling. Then it was Bill Parcells, in his Jets coaching debut following the immortal Rich Kotite’s hideous 1-15 campaign, who took his Jets into Seattle and shocked the hosts, 41-3. Like those Seahawks, the Bills had no idea what hit them.
For it wasn’t Ground and Pound, but modern NFL football, with an attacking passing game and tight defensive coverage (at least early), which won yesterday’s game.
It certainly had very little to do with Tim Tebow and the Wildcat, though I’m sure there will be large swaths of analysis on that. It can be debated whether Tebow’s cameos either wrecked the rhythm of starting quarterback Mark Sanchez or simply brought out early the competitive juices that Sanchez sometimes saves for the fourth quarter. Certainly the Jets need to work on those mid-drive substitutions so they don’t waste timeouts or take delay-of-game penalties. Changing quarterbacks is not the same as, say, substituting split ends.
But Tebow’s Wildcat plays were not very wild at all. For all the discussion about how teams would have to “prepare for the Tebow package,” Tebow seemed to be the only thing the Bills were ready for. When he was in the game, there was an excellent chance it was going to be some sort of running play. And not by someone with game-breaking speed, like when the Jets had current but banged-up Bill Brad Smith.
Instead Tebow is more like a highly-paid Ray Lucas, the do-it-all passer/runner/special teams ace who backed up Parcells’ quarterbacks. Ryan probably lined up Tebow at tight end on the first play as a gag, then going further with the bit by sending him out on a pass pattern.
Only those close to Sanchez will know how Tebow’s presence really affected him. What matters is that Sanchez for once did not play as if he was just introduced to his wide receivers at the pre-game meal. He was in synch with them all day. Though notorious for the dump-off, 14 of Sanchez’ 19 completions were snatched by four of his wide receivers. He excelled at the intermediate routes that were needed to move the chains on third downs. That’s how you win NFL games in the 21st century.
Second-round receiver Stephen Hill’s preseason Lam Jones impression was also part of the ruse. It turns out he may be closer to Braylon Edwards, which is not such a bad thing if you only count on-field characteristics. Jets scouts were enamored by Hill’s size and speed, but Jet fans were wary of his lackluster college production and reputation for butter-finger hands. Last year, Sanchez was missing that type of threat on that side—someone who can separate from defensive backs. Hill’s double move in the second quarter got him open down the left sideline for his first touchdown and then his burst down the right sideline after taking a third quarter underneath route put the Jets up, 41-7. He even made a smart play by breaking his route and coming back to catch a long gain off a flea flicker. It was also nice to see slot man Jeremy Kerley also score twice, including once on a punt return.
The biggest beneficiary of the new look just might be Santonio Holmes. Holmes has definitely earned his reputation as a clutch receiver, but I don’t believe he is up to the role if he wants to be the diva. His performance has always been better when he is not the sole focal point of the passing attack—he’s more of a 1A type of player.
Once Hill and Kerley get opponent’s attention, Holmes’ value will increase exponentially. His late second quarter grab that was just out of bounds in the end zone was ridiculous and, when the Bills threatened to make a historical fourth-quarter comeback, Sanchez turned to ‘Tone for the 25-yard completion that set up the Jets final touchdown.
And I know I wasn’t the only fan more than a little concerned during the end game. The Bills cut the lead to within two scores with just under six minutes to go and Darrelle Revis was sitting in the locker room after taking teammate Bart Scott’s leg in the head while trying to tackle Bills pest CJ Spiller (Fortunately, I was able to exhale when I read that the “c” word was not the diagnosis after the game).
But these are not Jim Kelly’s (or Frank Reich’s) Bills. Despite the Bills spending a gazillion dollars on their defensive line, I couldn’t believe how little pressure they put on Sanchez. New right tackle Austin Howard almost pitched a shut out to $50-$100 million man Mario Williams, holding the star defensive end to one tackle. Don’t they watch film? Didn’t they notice the game of hot potato Sanchez played with tight end Jeff Cumberland that turned into an interception to end the Jets first drive when they forced Sanchez to make a hasty decision?
Sanchez has ball-control issues, but he’s no Ryan Fitzpatrick. The Bills quarterback also tried to get his receivers some action, but they were blanketed for nearly three quarters through outstanding cornerback play from Revis and Antonio Cromartie on the outside and Kyle Wilson in the slot. All three corners had a pick, with Cromartie losing out on a second when Fitzpatrick’s second-quarter bomb down the right side swished through the hoop created by Cromartie’s extended hands while shielding Bills receiver Donald Jones. (Wonder how many Jets receivers will be giggling when they see the tape of that one?) Fitzpatrick must have felt bad about it because he laid one easily in Cro’s nest on the opening drive of the second half that Cromartie took back for six more points.
Fitzpatrick boosted his stats after that when the Jets went into a defensive snooze. But the damage he caused was irreversible. So much for those who predicted better days in Buffalo this year (that means you, Sports Illustrated).
So this one only means that the Jets won’t go winless in 2012 (and because of the Kotite Error, it’s the first thing I worry about entering every season). Just the first hurdle of a multi-month race.
Next week will be a better test. On the road. In Pittsburgh, a city of horrors for the Jets, with only one win in their history. Facing the Dick LeBeau-designed zone blitz, which will not let Sanchez have such an easy day. Versus accomplished quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who can move out of the pocket and make plays down the field.
Still, now that the Jets have shown their new identity on tape, the Steelers better be familiar with the cliché regarding those who fool.
Will Sanchez & Co. repeat the effort in Pittsburgh? Sound off in the comments below!