By Steve Lichtenstein
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The way this season has gone for the Jets, I would expect only one comment from fans if they didn’t know the outcome of Sunday’s game versus Indianapolis and I told ‘em that quarterback Mark Sanchez threw for a measly total of 82 yards.
Who am I kidding? I’m pretty sure the Jets’ 35-9 whipping of the Colts won’t do much to reverse the views of those calling for Sanchez’s demotion in favor of Tim Tebow. But coach Rex Ryan will gladly take this week’s offensive production to New England next week, where the 3-3 Jets need a victory to keep pace in the division title race.
You see, Ryan believes the Jets have been at their best when Sanchez is a supporting player, not the star. He’s needed for a few scenes each week, moving the chains with intermediate throws and making a couple of big plays. Most importantly, he’s expected to deliver every line without a gaffe—no game-changing turnovers.
Ryan wants the Jets to be an ensemble, with a run-pass balance weighted towards the ground game. The only way that can work in today’s NFL is with a dominant performance from the offensive line. Until yesterday, the Jets’ line play, except for two-plus quarters in their Opening Day win over Buffalo, was abominable, crying out for new cast members. The running game was averaging 3.2 yards per attempt and Sanchez was constantly throwing under duress.
Ground and Pound was on the path to cancellation.
But yesterday was not a rerun. The line manhandled the Colts’ 3-4 base, creating visible seams for running back Shonn Greene to scamper for a career-high 161 yards and three touchdowns. Joe McKnight added 71 yards, including a 61-yard burst in the third quarter, the Jets’ second-longest play from scrimmage this year.
And Sanchez was kept clean, save for a fourth-quarter sack on a botched protection scheme and a couple of hurries. The line gave Sanchez enough time to finish off the Jets’ first scoring drive with a 5-yard toss to Stephen Hill on an improv in the back of the end zone, which put the Jets up, 7-3, early in the second quarter.
Of course, most of the other routes were quick-hitters, with Sanchez taking short drops and releasing, like on his 5-yard slant to Jason Hill for a touchdown with 27 seconds left in the first half to give the Jets a 21-6 lead. Nine of Sanchez’ 11 completions were to wide receivers, with eight good for first downs.
The Jets do need to credit the Colts for their assistance. One week after an emotional comeback upset over visiting Green Bay in support of their ailing head coach, the Colts mailed in their performance yesterday. It didn’t help that they showed up with an understudy for three-time Pro Bowler Robert Mathis on one side and had a hobbled Dwight Freeney, whose speed has given Jets tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson (and others—he has accumulated over 100 sacks in his first 10 years) fits in the past, on the other.
There were scores of missed tackles. Safety Antoine Bethea was embarrassed on Greene’s spin move during his second touchdown run and McKnight, known for his speed rather than his power, shook off a hit from cornerback Darius Butler a yard behind the line of scrimmage before busting loose on his long gain.
The problem with the Jets is that their script is not easily upgraded for the better teams. Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Houston were not so accommodating in previous weeks. New England coach Bill Belichick might be having some difficulties with his defense again this year, but he has been known to find creative means to disrupt the Jets’ game plans. What’s going to happen when the Jets are unable to move Patriots defensive tackle Vince Wilfork the way they handled the Colts’ Antonio Johnson?
And it’s not like the Jets will be facing an offense led by a rookie quarterback like the Colts’ Andrew Luck, who might be great down the road but has much to learn about adapting to the speed of the NFL game. No, the Jets will be under more pressure to keep up with Tom Brady and New England’s diversified attack if they want to maintain their AFC East lead.
It’s in these games where we find out why the quarterback needs to be the marquee player on any team contending for a championship. Sometimes he has to be more than a game manager. The ball will be in his hands with games on the line. His decisions and executions can be the primary determiner of the outcome.
I saw that ability in Sanchez in his second season, but not much since. I can’t say I have much confidence in his ability to lead the Jets from behind late in a game against a quality opponent. He’s still considered a young quarterback and I do not think Tebow would be better, but I’m running out of patience hoping Sanchez can play up to the expanded role.
So this is purgatory for Jets fans like me. Look, I’m thrilled that the line was rejuvenated, if only for a week. Their work deserved the spotlight. The schedule shows a handful of opponents where the ensemble approach (combined with positive net takeaway numbers) can lead to some more wins. However, unless the AFC continues to underperform, I don’t see how it will be enough to get the Jets to the postseason tournament.
Ground and Pound might make for a catchy title, but it’s not effective as weekly programming in the modern NFL.
Think the O-line will keep it up? Let us know in the comments below…