By Jeff Capellini
Call it the lifelong wounded and skeptical observer in me, but I’m concerned about the Jets’ game this weekend up in Buffalo.
It would have been hard to imagine coming into this season these Jets being in anything resembling a trap game, but on Sunday up in Western New York they’ll be facing an opponent they should beat, a team in the Bills they had better beat if they are truly serious about being better than seven- or eight-win team this season.
The Jets (5-4) have alternated wins and losses since Week 1 and, despite not losing during their bye as the joke went last week, are on schedule for a crappy effort at absolutely the worst possible time. A road game inside a raucous building against a team that is not their equal in any way. If that sounds familiar and you’re fearful, join the club.
My concerns rest with this new-found belief that Geno Smith is now a game manager. My hope is what we saw 10 days ago against New Orleans was done out of necessity due to injury and not due to a newfound change in organizational thinking based on Smith’s issues with turnovers.
The facts are Smith attempted 19 passes in the 26-20 win over the Saints, completing just eight, and really didn’t look down the field. Part of the reason for that is the faces that went along with the names of the receivers that made those catches were not going to conjure memories of the “Air Coryell” Chargers from the 1980s.
But that leads us to the other part, one that is fueling my thought process. Did the Jets go super conservative in the passing game because they were without Santonio Holmes, Jeremy Kerley, Jeff Cumberland and Kellen Winslow Jr., or because they are ready to fall in love with Chris Ivory, who I like a lot, but don’t think can carry this team alone offensively?
How about we meet in the middle and achieve the one thing that will make the Jets a very difficult team to handle on offense when coupled with their defense — balance.
It’s no secret that offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg has never heard of a forward pass he wouldn’t try, so I find it hard to believe the Jets are now going to treat Smith like Mark Sanchez circa 2009-10, but it does make me wonder how much confidence the veteran assistant has in Smith.
All indications seem to be that Holmes, Cumberland and Winslow will be back Sunday. Kerley is likely out at least two games. David Nelson has done a wonderful job finding seams and making plays. Stephen Hill is still running fly patterns, even if the ball is thrown nowhere near his area code. Still, he remains an option that could shock the world if successful or, better yet, attempted.
But knowing all that, are the Jets ready to ground Geno for the sake of smashmouth football? God, I hope not.
I hope not because the Jets’ defense, as stout as it can be at times, still allows points. The unit is currently 21st in the NFL in points allowed, giving up 25.7 per game. Of course, some of that is due to Smith’s propensity for throwing the pick-6 or ill-timed interception, but not nearly enough to say it skews the true measure of what the Jets’ defense is.
We know the Jets will stop the run. They’ve done it all season, allowing just 73.8 yards per game, by far the best in the NFL. But we also know that this secondary can be torched when the Jets do not get pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
And since there’s no guarantees that Antonio Cromartie will get his act in gear and Dee Milliner will make a quantum leap in man-to-man coverage, I think it best for the Jets to still remember that offense consists of two parts from scrimmage — the run and the pass.
I’d expect Mornhinweg to unleash a healthy dose of both Ivory and Bilal Powell, and to use Josh Cribbs liberally as part of the wildcat package, but the Jets cannot abandon the vertical game under any circumstances.
Fans fell in love with the run-first Jets of a few years ago because that defense had Darrelle Revis, who rendered half the field useless to opposing quarterbacks. And while Rex Ryan remains one of the premier defensive game-planners in the league, it would help the Jets immeasurably if they actually worked with more leads — and not just leads created by time-consuming drives that have gotten into the end zone, but more often than not have ended with Nick Folk perfection.
Smith remains a viable option and up-and-coming quarterback in this league. He still has a major league arm and the requisite brain to go along with it, regardless of the number of turnovers he commits. The ball in his hands is still a very logical and effective way of getting from Point A to Point B down the field. He can make the big play just as easily as the Jets can work the clock. The difference is the former gives the Jets more margin for error.
If the Jets lose sight of those facts they’ll put undue pressure on their defense, a unit that is deep up front and playing with tons of heart but is still asked to do a lot more than what’s fair in order for this team to have a chance to win games.
The schedule on paper the rest of the way is favorable. What was once thought of as a few opportunities for the Jets to salvage respectability in a season thought of as doomed from the start must now be looked at as chances to secure a second season, the chance to play meaningful football in January. Buffalo, Baltimore, Oakland, Carolina, Cleveland and Miami twice. Those foes have a combined record of 28-34, and while they do sport names like Joe Flacco and Cam Newton at the quarterback position, they don’t come close to the combination of Tom Brady twice, Matt Ryan, Ben Roethlisberger, Andy Dalton and Drew Brees, whom the Jets split six games against.
The Jets are in the driver’s seat and control their own destiny for a wild card berth. They entered this week as one of just six teams in the AFC with a winning record. The schedule the rest of the way, combined with what the Jets do well, suggests they can be more.
Smith and the passing game need to remain a focal point, not just be along for the ride.
Because to think the Jets won’t face deficits or be in need of an early knockout punch is putting entirely too much faith in Ivory and a solid-but-still-flawed defense. The Jets must remain an all-hands-on-deck operation.
And Smith is not Sanchez from three and four years ago. He’s a lot better.
Read more columns by Jeff Capellini and follow him on Twitter at @GreenLanternJet
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