By Steve Lichtenstein
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Conservatism doesn’t play well in the Northeast. And I’m not talking about political campaigns.
Apparently it’s not OK even if you’re Bill Belichick, the Patriots’ head coach who has only won three Super Bowl rings and was minutes away from two others in his baker’s dozen seasons for those spoiled New England fans. The boos in the crowd were quite audible yesterday for those times when Belichick ignored their blood lust and punted away on fourth-and-short or was too safe in his play-calling.
So I was very disturbed to watch Jets coach Rex Ryan outflank Belichick to the right in the end-game of the Jets’ heartbreaking 29-26 overtime loss in New England. The division defeat not only knocked the Jets down from their perilous perch atop the AFC East, but, more importantly, was a missed opportunity for this team to make a statement to their fans about their identity, when many wrote them off after a pair of devastating injuries to key players.
The Jets certainly played their hearts out for Ryan. Running back Shonn Greene got his bell rung by Patriots linebacker Brandon Spikes with about 10 minutes left in the game on a hit that would have sent most men into la-la land. After the mandatory medical review, he made an attempt to get back in the game to assist his teammates before he was shut down following a 3-yard reception in the overtime.
With backup Bilal Powell inactive due to a shoulder injury, the Jets turned to Joe McKnight, who gutted through a sprained ankle to pick up some tough yards in the late fourth-quarter drive that tied the game at 23-23.
On the defensive side, linebacker DeMario Davis and defensive back Isaiah Trufant were similarly forced into action as replacements and acquitted themselves well, for the most part.
But I blame Ryan for many of the hiccups, for he put them in untenable situations.
The Jets had been given a gift when New England kick returner Devin McCourty fumbled with just 2:01 remaining in the fourth quarter. With the ball on the New England 18, the Jets were well inside kicker Nick Folk’s field goal range. Quarterback Mark Sanchez was already over the 300-yard passing mark throwing against coverages worse than the anything I’ve seen from the Jets without their injured Pro Bowler Darrelle Revis.
I understand that the ideal goal was not only to score to take the lead, but to also leave the Patriots with as little time and timeouts as possible. However, the first play was a freebie, as the clock would stop for the two-minute warning no matter where it ended.
Of course, offensive coordinator Tony Sparano played it safe. He inserted Tim Tebow to run a Wildcat draw for a couple of yards and then ran McKnight into the middle of the line for one more.
At third-and-7, all I wanted was for the Jets avoid any negative plays. If I knew that the Patriots would be coming after the ball, how did the Jets not know? So Sanchez rolled right and took a 10-yard sack. At least he didn’t turn it over.
Fortunately, Folk made the ensuing kick, but what did all the previous conservatism accomplish? The Jets used exactly 19 seconds and New England still had one timeout for the remaining 1:42, an eternity for Tom Brady and the Patriots’ high-tempo offense to drive for a field goal instead of a touchdown to tie.
Now, volumes have been written about the prevent defense, with the worn joke being that all it does is prevent a team from winning. When facing Brady, it’s a method for suicide.
It’s also been documented that the only way teams have hung with Brady recently was to generate a pass rush and play tight coverage on the short routes. If you’re lucky, you’ll get the ball at the end and hope you are within one score to take advantage of the Patriots’ awful pass defense. Arizona, Baltimore and Seattle (not to mention those New York Giants in Super Bowl XLVI) all worked that formula to pull out close games in 2012.
For three quarters and 13 minutes, the Jets defense played well over their heads, holding Brady to 155 yards passing and just two scoring drives. They seemed to have adjusted to figure out how to clamp down on the side screens and put a little more heat on Brady, despite only getting him down once all game.
Yet what did I see from that point? A three-man rush. Soft spots in the intermediate zone for monster tight end Rob Gronkowski to settle into to make a perfect target for Brady. Linebackers in a futile attempt chasing running back Danny Woodhead across the field. They couldn’t have made it easier for Brady to get the tie.
The conservatism continued into the overtime. Whose idea was it to give the rookie Davis the assignment to cover Wes Welker, the Patriots’ slot receiver notorious for his ability to read more accomplished defenders to get open? They never sent more than four rushers at Brady, who racked up nearly 100 yards passing on his final two drives.
The Jets were lucky to hold the Patriots to a field goal, as I was sure that the refs would bail out tight end Aaron Hernandez for a second time on third down with a pass interference penalty on cornerback Kyle Wilson (As the CBS commentators noted, it was absurd that the official 25 yards away overruled the one right on top of the play on the first one, throwing the flag a good three seconds after the play ended, but that’s life for NFL road teams. It would have been nice to have seen a closer replay, considering the importance of the call, as it would have forced New England to punt.).
Belichick was not going to blow it from here. Facing a one-dimensional attack without Greene and with a limping McKnight, Belichick had his defense play more aggressively. The Patriots gave up first downs on a defensive holding penalty and on a nice 17-yard Sanchez-to-Jeremy Kerley hookup, but they forced the game-ending mistake on a Rob Ninkovich strip-sack off a blitz.
It’s not fair that all the highlights will focus on Brady and his late-game “heroics.” Though I felt coming into the game that the 10-and-a-half point spread was about two touchdowns too low, I am still bitter, believing the Jets and Sanchez deserved a better fate for their efforts over the favored Patriots.
They hung in despite an ugly first half that included a 104-yard McCourty kickoff return touchdown, a muffed handoff to Greene that Sanchez booted out of the end zone straight out of Football Follies for a safety, and then blew a glorious chance to score when Sanchez underthrew an open Stephen Hill in the end zone, resulting in an Alfonzo Dennard interception. The comeback doesn’t make me feel any better.
It’s even more depressing because I realize that, unlike with taxes, there are no carryovers of losses in the NFL. This isn’t hockey where you can get a loser’s point for “almost winning” by forcing overtime. The Jets could easily play a stinker and blow next week’s winnable game at home to Miami, which is coming off its bye week with a two-game winning streak. The positives from this game would be long forgotten.
That’s why this one hurts so much. It brought back all the pains from the Joe Walton and Herm Edwards years, when the Jets often did not “Play to win the game!”
I expected more from Ryan. He is widely credited for designing and disguising defenses to pull out these games. Unfortunately, Ryan flip-flopped from his progressive side in favor of conservatism at the wrong time to knock off the Patriots.
Was Rex’s approach all wrong? Sound off in the comments below!