By Steve Lichtenstein
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Much to the delight of family members who couldn’t care less about football, this is the Jets’ bye week. At this point last season, fans were on the verge of throwing in the towel. Staying home to watch debacle after debacle was hard to justify.
But after this one-weekend hiatus, Jets games will once again be appointment viewing, at least for the foreseeable future.
The Jets are flying high at the quarter pole, with a 3-1 record and an upcoming schedule that includes maybe only one team (the Patriots, whom they’ll face twice) in which they would be significant underdogs if the game was being played today.
To be clear, I am not on the Super Bowl bandwagon. Just making the playoffs is still a far-fetched dream with so much season left to navigate. I’ve learned a long time ago that when it comes to this franchise, high expectations guarantees heartbreak.
Upon further analysis of the season to date, the Jets have been quite fortunate on several fronts. They’ve received a ton of breaks (such as fumble recoveries) and, with the exception of their one loss to the Eagles, have been able to mask their shortcomings.
But that won’t be enough to carry them through a full campaign. If they are to indeed gain entry into this postseason, the Jets will have to win the following matchups over the final 12 games:
1.) Ryan Fitzpatrick vs. the Wind
It’s hard to complain about the job this journeyman quarterback has done to date for Gang Green. After we’ve had to endure two years of watching Geno Smith, Fitzpatrick has been a godsend of a game manager by comparison. His six interceptions are too high, but he doesn’t hold onto the ball and take drive-killing sacks or lose fumbles.
Equally impressive is the terrific chemistry Fitzpatrick has developed with wide receivers Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker. Now that the Jets have some time off, maybe Fitzpatrick can get together with rookie burner Devin Smith and figure out why he is rarely where Fitzpatrick thinks he’ll be on pass routes. You can never have too many weapons.
The concern here is Fitzpatrick’s decision-making. Four of his six picks have been on forced throws downfield, often into double coverage. There have been a good number of other longer pass attempts that had the potential for disaster as well.
There is value to mixing in the deep ball to keep defenses honest, especially if you can complete some, like when Fitzpatrick connected with Marshall for a 58-yarder on the first snap of the Jets’ 27-14 victory over Miami last weekend.
But even that ball was fairly underthrown. Fitzpatrick has not been gifted an arm strong enough to bomb away as often as he’s been doing.
Now add in the winds that will very likely be a factor in the Northeast stadiums that will host eight of the Jets’ remaining 12 games.
If Fitzpatrick has it in his mind that he can sling the ball through every gust…
While acknowledging that Fitzpatrick hasn’t been on the most talented teams in his previous 10 years in the league, there are other reasons why he entered this season with a record of 33-55-1 as a starter.
You’d think a Harvard graduate would be more self-aware, but overconfidence in his own arm strength is one of them. In order for the Jets to knock off enough opponents down the stretch to make the playoffs, Fitzpatrick will have to play smarter to beat the wind.
2.) Jets Special Teams vs. Punt Returners
Even if Fitzpatrick sticks to a more efficient game plan, the Jets will have to punt on occasion. Based on this season’s first-quarter results, I wonder if the Jets would have been better off going for it on fourth downs.
Granted the statistics are skewed due to the smaller sample size, but it shouldn’t be shocking to hear that the Jets are second from the bottom in the NFL in average yards allowed on punt returns (23.7).
Darren Sproles’ 89-yard touchdown return for Philadelphia was the first hint that the Jets have issues here. Punter Ryan Quigley pinned Sproles against the left sideline, where Kellen Davis was the first of four Jets to whiff on tackles.
A week later Miami’s Jarvis Landry took back consecutive fourth-quarter punts 28 and 25 yards to put the Jets in some jeopardy before the defense saved the day.
It’s not like Quigley has been out-kicking the coverage — his long for the season is 54 yards — and of the three big returns only Landry’s first one could you blame Quigley for poor hang time.
The special teams players’ biggest problem is that they haven’t gotten down the field fast enough, giving returners way too much room to make moves before turning upfield.
The Jets have to get this fixed, whether it’s through changes in schemes, personnel, or both. The Jets aren’t a team that will routinely drive the length of the field, so not losing gobs of field position yardage on special teams has to become more of a priority.
3.) Jets Linebackers vs. Running Backs
Gang Green’s defense has lived up to its preseason billing so far. It is number one in the league in points allowed at 13.8 per game. Even if you take away Marshall’s “fumble recovery” following a Week 1 Fitzpatrick interception against Cleveland, the Jets still lead the NFL in turnovers forced.
The Jets are especially stout against the run, holding teams to a seventh-best 3.8 yards per carry. When those running backs take off on pass routes, however, it’s a different story.
The slower Jets linebackers were exposed by the Eagles two weeks ago. Ryan Matthews beat Demario Davis on a wheel route out of the backfield for a 23-yard touchdown and the Eagles missed out on opportunities for other potential big plays when Sproles dropped a pass on a similar pattern and quarterback Sam Bradford misfired on a couple of throws.
While Miami’s Joe Philbin refused to follow in Philadelphia’s footsteps (or maybe it was just that despite what everyone’s read is the Dolphins’ offensive skill position guys stink), you better believe that those remaining employed coaches took better notes.
Redskins running backs Alfred Morris and Matt Jones haven’t been targeted a ton to date, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see them more involved in the Kirk Cousins passing game when they travel to MetLife Stadium a week from Sunday. I can already see the Dr. Evil grin on Patriots quarterback Tom Brady’s face when in two weeks he reads at the line of scrimmage that a Jets linebacker will be isolated in man coverage against scatback Dion Lewis.
Jets coach Todd Bowles has had Davis and middle linebacker David Harris on the field for just about every snap. They’re both valuable players, especially against the run. Harris is a sneaky blitzer, with two sacks in four games after a career-high six in 2014.
Having them — or soon-to-be 35-year-old linebacker Calvin Pace — cover anyone downfield without help is not a good plan.
The Jets have vastly improved their defense against tight ends — opposing tight ends have a total of 12 catches for 130 yards through four weeks and Jake Stoneburner’s short grab last week was the first touchdown by an opposing tight end this season. They surrendered 14 touchdowns to tight ends in 2014. (Note: Though the Jets might get a break if Washington’s Jordan Reed is not back from his concussion, I do expect those numbers to change significantly after the two games against New England’s Rob Gronkowski.)
Hopefully, Jets coach Todd Bowles will use the bye week to make adjustments to clean up the pass defense against running backs.
4.) Jets Depth vs. The Final 12 Games
Unless your team is on an absolute roll, the bye week is always welcomed. The time off allows for injured players to heal. The Jets, like almost every other NFL team, are pretty banged up.
It’s just that this bye week is REALLY early, the earliest the Jets have had since 2008.
You might remember that one as the Brett Favre Experience. The Jets roared out of the bye week with six wins in their next seven games only to drop four of their last five games to miss the playoffs. By the finale against Miami, Favre’s 39-year old body was a mess.
The current iteration is chock full of characters who have been through many wars. Ten opening day starters have breached their 30th birthday.
Starting with the Washington game, the Jets will have no more breaks this season. And it’s not like they’ll have a Cupcake U. on the schedule where the bench can be emptied to play most of the second half — a letdown against any NFL team will yield crushing results.
How the Jets manage the longer-term picture, especially during the two short weeks before key games against Buffalo and Dallas, will be crucial.
Early indications — the Eagles game — were not hopeful. There seemed to be too much of a ready-made excuse when Decker and running back Chris Ivory were sidelined, as if the Jets were forced to play offense 9-on-11.
On the other hand, Brian Winters did an acceptable job replacing injured guard Willie Colon on Sunday. And I know more than a few Jets fans who wouldn’t mind seeing visibly-hobbled cornerback Antonio Cromartie take some time off in favor of Marcus Williams.
The Jets can’t crash just because one or more starters get hurt, no matter the position. Injuries are going to happen.
Ivory in particular is at grave risk simply due to his rushing style. His specialty is yards after contact, which by definition means he is taking extra hits.
The question becomes: Is it better to limit Ivory’s carries within games and hope that giving more reps to guys like Zac Stacy and Bilal Powell (or possibly Steve Ridley if he comes off the PUP list in a few weeks) extends Ivory’s lifeline? Or should Bowles stick with the game plan from Miami, where he rode Ivory to the tune of 29 carries for 166 punishing yards in order to win the game at present?
Powell has been in and out of the lineup all season and exited Sunday’s game with a groin injury, while Stacy looks to be a destitute-man’s version of Ivory — a hard runner with little burst through holes.
The bottom line is that every teams’ depth is tested over the course of a 16-game schedule. With the Jets playing 12 weeks in a row, expect that players beyond the top 22 will hold the key to success or failure.
So enjoy the bye week while you can, fellow Jets fans. Get outdoors before the weather turns ugly. And then report back to work a week from Sunday ready to ride out the last three months. How Gang Green fares in the above matchups will determine whether or not this season has a happy ending.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1