By Steve Lichtenstein
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After watching the Jets bumble their way to a 38-13 loss in Tennessee on Sunday, I thought there’s no way things could get any worse.
Then I took a look at the Jets’ schedule for the next five weeks, all against teams featuring Pro Bowl quarterbacks, and had to talk myself down from the ledge.
I just needed a refresher of what I wrote in the preseason—that this Jets season shouldn’t be judged solely by record, but instead in terms of how many and how well the young players were being developed by the coaching staff.
Except that this season is already at the quarter pole and all I can take away is that the Jets are still making the same mistakes. Turnovers, penalties, poor defensive backfield coverage—all the things that get teams beat every week. That is, unless they’re playing a Dead Team Walking at home like Tampa Bay or Buffalo.
Before Sunday, we shrugged off the miscues because the Jets took two of their first three games. They had become a tough team to play under coach Rex Ryan and deserved to win those games. Even the three-point loss in New England was somewhat of a moral victory, considering the expectations generated by the mismatch of Jets rookie quarterback Geno Smith versus future Hall of Famer Tom Brady.
However, now that the competition is being amplified, the Jets (coaches included) had better get their act together or we’re in for more blowouts.
We can start with Smith, who has not rectified the ball security issues that have been evident since the preseason. It’s simply no longer acceptable that he can think he can get away with holding the ball with one hand, whether it’s on a scramble or trying to avoid a sack. That behind-the-back move that resulted in a Titans fourth quarter defensive touchdown? That’s for the NBA, not the NFL.
And maybe Smith will one day get a handle on receiver Stephen Hill’s speed—other than the nicely thrown 51-yard touchdown against the woeful Bills, I have yet to see Smith lead Hill correctly. Of course, the duo might have to wait a bit as Smith’s pass behind Hill on the game’s second play yesterday was not only intercepted, but got Hill blown up by Titans safety Michael Griffin (where was the defenseless receiver flag on that one?). Considering their lack of depth at receiver, the Jets can ill afford to lose Hill, their best deep threat, for a significant period.
Until yesterday, the Jets defense was able to combat all the short fields they inherited from Smith’s League-leading 11 turnovers because they were in the hands of the far less-accurate pair of quarterbacks Josh Freeman and E.J. Manuel, or because Brady was throwing to a new group of receivers plagued by a severe case of stone hands.
Titans quarterback Jake Locker, on the other hand, became the first quarterback this season to complete over 50 percent of his attempts against the Jets, hitting on 18-of-24 for 149 yards and three touchdowns (before being carted off the field in the third quarter with a hip injury), turning Smith’s four turnovers into 28 points.
Next up, the Jets face a quarterback gauntlet of Matt Ryan, Ben Roethlisberger, Brady, Andy Dalton, and Drew Brees. These games will also be over by halftime if Smith doesn’t learn how to better protect the ball.
To be clear, Smith is—and deserves to be—the starter. For this season.
That last phrase needs to be made clear to Smith, by both Ryan and especially offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg, who has given Smith a long leash in the hopes that it will increase his learning curve.
It has resulted in some wonderful big plays, the type that was rare in the days when Mark Sanchez was under center. It’s nice to know that the Jets can convert a third-and-15 every so often, thanks to Smith’s big arm.
But, like with Sanchez, we have also seen too many negative plays from Smith that have stymied the Jets’ offensive output. In addition to the 11 turnovers, he has been sacked 14 times in four games. Both figures are not sustainable for any team with a notion of playing competitively over the course of an NFL season.
An inability to learn from those miscues led to Sanchez’ growing unpopularity among the Jets faithful and the decision by Jets general manager John Idzik to draft Smith in the second round. Smith will surely have more games like this one as he learns his way around the League, but he also has to show signs of growth or the search for the next quarterback of the future will be here by New Year’s Day.
I do agree with Ryan, though, that Smith has not been the sole culprit. Trashing the quarterback—that’s life in the NFL. But it often obscures other problems.
Like the penalties.
After the 20-penalty debacle last week, Ryan promised it would be a priority going forward. Well, they did cut it in half yesterday.
But of those 10 the Jets did commit (all in the first three quarters), five occurred prior to an offensive snap while two were egregious special teams brain cramps (running out of bounds to cover a punt and a hit well after the Jets kneeled to take a touchback on a kickoff). The Jets are not good enough to overcome all these setbacks. There needs to be some accountability here.
Much-maligned guard Vladimir Ducasse, who entered the game tied (with many others) for most penalties at his position, added to his total with a false start from a twitch while in his stance and was spared from being ticketed for a holding penalty when the Titans recovered the first of Smith’s two fumbles on that play early in the second quarter.
Like Smith, Ducasse has been maddening this season. The 2010 second-rounder has been showing signs that he is finally getting the hang of the trench warfare with punishing blocks to open holes in the running game. Yet he is too often the root cause of pocket protection failures with his whiffs on his opponent’s rush.
On the defensive side, we can be thankful that cornerback Kyle Wilson had a quiet afternoon after his lapse into temporary insanity against the Bills last week.
This time, though, it was third-year cornerback Darrin Walls who was abused unmercifully in the first half. Walls, who was on the field due to the ineffectiveness and injury to first-round pick Dee Milliner, was beaten badly on a jump ball caught by Justin Hunter in the end zone with two seconds remaining in the first half that gave Tennessee a commanding 24-6 lead.
Ryan must have also been ticked that his veteran leader in the defensive backfield, Antonio Cromartie, was also burned for two touchdowns, the latter on an embarrassing 77-yard bomb from backup quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick to Nate Washington.
Ryan, who took over defensive play-calling this season, has to do a better job of coaching up his defensive backs if he wants to stay with his program of exotic blitzes.
Look, the Titans are a decent team, a playoff contender at 3-1 despite a lack of star power (unless you count overrated running back Chris Johnson, who had a miserable game yesterday). They’re a team the Jets should look to mirror. They are being rewarded for their patience with Locker, who (as well as all of his teammates) has yet to turn the ball over this season.
The Titans understand that many games in the NFL are lost, not won. Last season, the team that won the turnover battle emerged victorious in 79 percent of the games. If you coughed up the ball three or more times than your opponent, which the Jets have done twice already this season, then your chances of winning plummeted to 5 percent.
The Jets also started 2-1 last season. That was followed by a six-game span that included five playoff teams plus up-and-coming Miami. The Jets went 1-5 in those games, relegating them to also-ran status for a second consecutive season. In those five losses, the Jets committed 12 turnovers while generating only four takeaways while being outscored by a cumulative 144-59.
The Jets just might be at the start of a similar five-losses-in-six games swoon now, considering the daunting upcoming slate. But the defeats would be easier to accept if the Jets showed improvement in limiting mistakes over the course of this stretch.
It would be a sign that the Jets are indeed on the rise.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.
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