By Ernie Palladino
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The road to ending the Jets’ three-year playoff drought begins Sunday. At least that’s what Rex Ryan and Geno Smith have to hope.
If this regular season opener against the Raiders proves simply the beginning of another early end, then both coach and quarterback will be in big trouble. Ryan, of course, is playing for his Jets coaching career. Smith may be playing for a continued roster spot, and by that we mean starting spot. Smith, after all, has now reached a point where if he’s not the starter, he’s not on the team. Contact Mark Sanchez for further details.
As for the kind of team Ryan and Smith take into this crossroads season, well, that’s a story in itself. The backfield was upgraded by acquiring the explosive Chris Johnson from the Titans to go along with the physical Chris Ivory and Bilal Powell, and now Ryan must wait and see whether the Titans knew something the Jets didn’t when they let him go into the open market.
The wide receiver corps, recipient of a subtractive boost last week with the dismissal of Stephen Hill, should expect good things out of Eric Decker and Jeremy Kerley, and hopefully a step up from David Nelson. And it would be super nice if second-round tight end Jace Amaro made an immediate impact after a solid training camp.
The defensive line is stacked with Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson on either side of nose tackle Damon Harrison, and the linebackers are solid with the pass-rushing Quinton Coples and Calvin Pace playing outside of Demario Davis and David Harris.
But the back line is where the Raiders will have much to say about the outcome of this game. The cornerback spot remains the wild card here, as last year’s first-rounder Dee Milliner remains out with a high ankle sprain. Absolutely nothing was done to upgrade the cornerback position in the offseason, so that is the decided weak point of the defense, and it could be the main thing that costs Ryan his job if things don’t work out.
And there is the distinct possibility that the plan will fall apart early for everyone involved. The Raiders might be considered the cupcakes of the first half — a nice way to start the season before the Jets hit a first-half meat grinder that includes in order the Packers, Bears, Lions, Chargers, Broncos and Patriots.
They’re starting a rookie quarterback in Derek Carr, which should come as somewhat of a relief to what could soon be a beleaguered secondary. What’s more, Oakland hasn’t won in the Eastern time zone since 2009, a string of 13 straight games. So concerned about the losing streak, they left on Thursday — a day earlier than usual — to get into the MetLife Stadium area.
Ryan is 5-2 against rookie quarterbacks, and will undoubtedly handle Carr as he did against Andrew Luck, Josh Freeman, and Ryan Tannehill — blitz the heck out of him.
Offensively, it could be another story. The Raiders sport a defense full of stars, from ex-Giants DE Justin Tuck to former Steelers linebacker Lamarr Woodley, to former Redskins and 49ers CB Carlos Rogers, to hard-charging DE Antonio Smith. Ryan’s own Smith will have to throw into the teeth of that defense, or at least use his legs to scamper away and gain ground.
“The thing that pops out is the names on the jerseys,” Ryan told the Bay Area media. “It’s ‘whoa.’ It’s a who’s who on that defense. (Oakland) probably has more veteran experience than any team in the league when you’re looking at the veterans they’ve added.”
Still, the Raiders should be a beatable team, and the Ryan and Smith both need to take advantage of that because the following games will certainly present their share of challenges. Letting this one get away — or worse, to be trounced — would bode awfully poorly for both men.
The road begins Sunday. Wherever it leads, whatever it holds in store for coach and quarterback, the Raiders game will give fans a good idea of it.
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