Thursday, July 23, 2009

Offensively Challenged: Jets Roster Weaknesses

July 24, 2009

By Anthony Tripicchio

Despite the Jets high-profile off-season acquisitions, the roster is still far from perfect.

The most glaring weaknesses exist on the offense. With the much-ballyhooed arrival of rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez, some obvious deficiencies have escaped the scrutiny of the public eye.

First, the quarterback position is riddled with inexperience. Regardless of whether you anticipate Sanchez being a franchise player, he is an unproven commodity at the NFL level.
Even though he is lauded for his leadership ability, Sanchez has questionable arm strength. He has a stronger arm than Chad Pennington, but will not be confused with Jay Cutler anytime soon.

Growing pains are a package deal with the position, and the Jets will need to endure struggles from their quarterback, whether it is Sanchez or Kellen Clemens.

Clemens at least has had a sampling of starts in the league, though his performance was uneven. Granted, the offensive line was a shambles when he started eight games in 2007. It is exceedingly difficult to evaluate a quarterback when he is running for his life after every snap.

This year, if he gets an opportunity, Clemens will have adequate protection with D'Brickashaw Ferguson and Damien Woody at the tackles, and Alan Faneca, Nick Mangold, and Brandon Moore on the interior line.

An uninspiring receiving corps will not provide any government-size bailouts for the neophyte quarterbacks. Jerricho Cotchery is the only established pass catcher of the bunch.

While Cotchery is certainly serviceable, he is ideally a No. 2 receiver. On this roster, he is clearly the top option and that is cause for concern.

The supporting cast is not much better. David Clowney, Brad Smith, and Chansi Stuckey have fewer combined career receiving yards than Cotchery's 858 last year alone.

Prior to the blockbuster Sanchez trade, wide receiver was a position the Jets had targeted in the draft. Now, aside from flirting with the beleaguered Plaxico Burress, there are no immediate plans to ink a game-breaker.

Burress still faces possible jail time for the shooting incident in a Manhattan club that ended his tenure with the other New York football team. If he does end up in the big house, any fantasies of a quick fix are unrealistic.

Brett Favre's departure predictably fascinated the media, however, the loss of tight end Chris Baker garnered meager attention.

Baker, the most complete tight end on the roster, signed with New England as a free agent and joins Bill Belichick's perpetual stable of effective tight ends. Baker is being portrayed as a blocking tight end, but he is an underrated pass catcher as well.

Considering the lack of weapons in the Jets receiving corps, Baker's soft hands could have been a tremendous asset for Sanchez and Clemens. Without him, they will need a more consistent season from the highly touted Dustin Keller.

General Manager Mike Tannenbaum has failed to install a true blocking tight end behind Keller. Bubba Franks was resigned and subsequently released and a cast of unknowns will vie for the vacated spot.

The Jets anticipate that the ferocious defense they have assembled can aid in overshadowing some of the offensive deficiencies and, in order to do so, NT Kris Jenkins must sustain an All-Pro level of play all season long.

Jenkins was a monster who seemingly single-handedly shut down the run for the first half of the season. Considering the sieve the Jets defense had been against the run for years prior to last season, and the gargantuan disappointment Dewayne Robertson was, Jenkins was the most vital cog in the defense and arguably the team overall.

Nothing documents his value more than the Jets dramatic rise from 29th in rushing yards allowed per game in 2007 to 7th in 2008. As the season wore on, it was clear the rigors and demands of the 3-4 were getting to Jenkins. Keeping him fresh for the late season push will be tantamount to the Jets being a dominant defensive force throughout the year. If not for the Sanchez trade, this situation may have been addressed in the draft. Sione Pouha has yet to establish himself as the guy to do it.

They did sign former Seahawk Howard Green in mid March, who is listed at 320 pounds, but you have to be skeptical of the journeyman's impact.

Ryan will lean heavily on his three-headed running game as well with Thomas Jones, Leon Washington and Shonn Greene.

If the ground game is ineffective, it will be a long year for the Jets offense.

With the Jets Offense Grounded, Defense Must Dominate

July 24, 2009
By Anthony Tripicchio

Brett Favre failed to deliver a playoff appearance, much less a Lombardi Trophy, to New York. His cataclysmic late-season fall led to his own departure and the ouster of coach Eric Mangini.
After the crippling conclusion to a once-promising 2008 campaign, the New York Jets aim for the playoffs with a veritable host of fresh faces and, most notably, a new quarterback/coach duo.

First-year head coach Rex Ryan will need the Jets' revamped defense to live up to its lofty expectations and carry the team. The offense will undoubtedly be anemic at times due to its lack of sufficient playmakers and inexperience at the quarterback position. As a result, ball control and defense is central to the Jets 2009 philosophy.

Ryan could easily have rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez under center for the regular season opener in Houston. Inspired by Joe Flacco's 2008 success, Ryan will not be reluctant to immediately throw the former USC star into the fire.

Sanchez, assuming he wins the job, has his work cut out for him. The reliable, though declining Laveranues Coles defected to Cincinnati, leaving Jerricho Cotchery surrounded by a slew of question marks within the wide receiving corps. David Clowney, Brad Smith, and Chansi Stuckey are among the candidates to start opposite Cotchery.

If the defense is not an impenetrable force as advertised, that vast collection of unknowns at receiver could be the Jets' downfall. Clowney has game-breaking speed, but has yet to display it on the regular season stage. Smith has been used as a gadget player to this point in his career, and Stuckey is best served in the slot.

Tight end Dustin Keller will have an expanded role in his second year and is critical to the growth of the offense.

The running game, anchored by a solid offensive line, should be the offense's bread and butter. Disgruntled backs Thomas Jones and Leon Washington return amid contract disputes, while rookie Shonn Greene was added to the mix in a draft day trade.

Greene's bruising style is a perfect complement to the speedy and illusive Washington. Jones has no leverage in contract talks despite being the AFC's leading rusher last season and is expected to be in camp.

Offensively, the major concern is that opposing defenses will put eight men in the box, negating the run. The onus then would shift to Sanchez or Clemens to make plays, almost certainly leading to failure. Simply devoid of plentiful receiving weapons, the Jets are not constructed to enable the quarterback to succeed in that scenario.

Defensively, the acquisitions of Bart Scott, Lito Sheppard, Jim Leonhard, and Marques Douglas have many believing the Jets can be an elite-level defense. Though the secondary figures to be much improved, the pass rush is still somewhat of an uncertainty.

Calvin Pace was excellent in his first year, but has left the team a gaping hole at OLB in the aftermath of his four game suspension for testing positive for performance enhancing drugs. Veteran defensive end Shaun Ellis is aging and had offseason legal issues. Bryan Thomas still does too many disappearing acts and has yet to put back to back good years together. Vernon Gholston, last season's first round pick, was a complete disaster recording zero sacks.

The impending return of Tom Brady elevates New England to the class of the division, yet again. Although Miami won the AFC East last year, the Dolphins should come back to earth after overachieving beyond their wildest dreams in 2008. Buffalo, riding the coattails of the hype surrounding Terrell Owens' arrival, should be around a .500 club.

If the defense is as good as advertised, and the offense doesn't bury the team in turnovers, the Jets can be the second best team in the AFC East. Securing a wild card spot should be the goal with playoff wins contingent upon the development of the quarterback position and the emergence of a second receiver behind Cotchery.

Schott Down: Jets Assistant Passed Over for Head Coaching Job

July 24, 2009
By Anthony Tripicchio

Remember that big job interview you had? You were confident and qualified; a virtual shoo-in for the position. After your meeting with the powers that be, you figured your hiring was a formality and all that what was left was the paperwork.

Then the unthinkable happened. That anticipated phone call to announce your hiring never came.

Welcome to Brian Schottenheimer's world.

Mike Tannenbaum's exhaustive search determined that Schottenheimer was not the right man for the Jets' head coaching position.

Worse yet, Schottenheimer now had to endure calls from the man who beat him for the spot, Rex Ryan. Ryan was lobbying the Jets offensive coordinator to stay in New York and come to work for him.

Though Schottenheimer and anyone else may have perceived it as a slap in the face, this situation was different. The reason being that Ryan experienced the same misfortune just one year earlier in Baltimore with John Harbaugh.

Taking the high road, Ryan put his disappointment aside and went back to work as the Ravens' defensive coordinator. One year later, he is a head coach.

Ryan and Schottenheimer's unique connection may have convinced Schottenheimer to move forward with the Jets, knowing that a head coaching opportunity is in his future.

Whatever the case may be, Schottenheimer is back on the Jets coaching staff and he is not the only key coach who was retained.

Let's take a closer at a larger list of Jets significant coaches and coordinators.

Rex Ryan-Head Coach
Ryan won the closely contested battle for the Jets head coaching job and will attempt to turn New York into Baltimore North. His 3-4 defense even acquired some notable Raven contributors in the offseason with inside linebacker Bart Scott being the grand prize.
Groomed to coach his entire life, Rex Ryan is the son of Buddy Ryan, who is renowned as one of the greatest defensive coaches in the history of the NFL. Rex Ryan spent the last 10 years in Baltimore as he helped construct a defensive juggernaut.
Jet fans are anxious to see if the unit he assembles is as impenetrable minus Ray Lewis.

Brian Schottenheimer-Offensive Coordinator
It was a disappointing offseason for Schottenheimer as we documented earlier. His regular season could be much worse. With an inexperienced quarterback and minimal weapons to utilize, points will be at a premium for the green and white in 2009.
Not to be outdone by Ryan's lineage, Schottenheimer is the son of former NFL head coach Marty Schottenheimer. He was vital to Drew Brees' development as a quarterbacks coach in San Diego and the Jets can only dream he has the same affect on Mark Sanchez.
Schottenheimer, hired as Jets offensive coordinator in 2006, enters his fourth year on the job. The Jets' ball control offense and defense could limit the attention he receives for head coaching consideration after the season.

Mike Pettine-Defensive Coordinator
Ryan dubbed his defensive coordinator selection, Mike Pettine, as his right hand man. Pettine was an outside linebackers coach for four years prior to this, his first opportunity as a coordinator in the league.
Pettine has all the tools to build a machine on the defensive end. The expectations for the defense will be high, and he could be the immediate scapegoat if the Jets hit adversity.

Mike Westhoff-Special Teams Coach
There is not much better in the business of special teams than Mike Westhoff. His accomplished reputation made him an obvious choice to remain in charge of special teams. Westhoff, like most special teams coaches, is challenged to remain productive in the return game without the aid of the recently outlawed wedge.
If anyone is creative enough to get it done, the smart money is on Westhoff to do it. Amidst his nine-year tenure with the Jets, five different return men have returned at least one kick for a touchdown.

Different Faces, Same Philosophy

July 24, 2009
By Anthony Tripicchio

For the Jets, change means more of the same.

Rex Ryan is the new head coach, making his much awaited debut as top gun on the sidelines. If you see similarities in tactical defense to his predecessor, Eric Mangini, it is because Ryan will also utilize the 3-4 scheme.

Granted, the two coaches have their differences.

Ryan has a reputation as an aggressive coach who will blitz as often as he breathes and will certainly abandon Mangini's cryptic way with the media. Beat reporters, at times, were tempted to resort to waterboarding in order to pry information from Mangenius.

Despite their contrasting personalities, each of their defensive ideologies were inspired by masterminds who came before them. Ryan had his father, Buddy Ryan, who was the first to employ the vaunted 46 defense. Mangini gleaned from Bill Belichick the intricacies of a base 3-4 alignment.

Both men understand the value of a chameleon like defensive attack. Confuse the opposing offense with varying looks.

While Mangini believes in deception up until the snap, Ryan will throw his front on the field and challenge the offense to beat it. If you have the personnel, Ryan's method can be effective as he proved in Baltimore.

General Manager Mike Tannenbaum and the Jets, armed with the rewards of a defensive spending spree, anticipate that Ryan will have all the tools necessary for his 3-4 to dominate.

Former Ravens Bart Scott, Jim Leonhard, and Marques Douglas are asked to infuse the vicious nature of their old defense to their new digs at the Meadowlands.

Head coaching changes are often accompanied by subordinate staff overhauls. Although Ryan takes the helm, the Jets retained offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer and special teams' coach Mike Westhoff. The only major change is the hiring of Mike Pettine as defensive coordinator and demotion of Bob Sutton to linebackers coach.

Ryan has heaped high praise on Pettine and one would expect nothing less as the former Baltimore outside linebackers coach was his choice.

"Mike is a rising star in this league," Ryan said. "We're fortunate that we were able to get him on our staff and he's my right hand man."

Just as Tannenbaum wanted a head coach to fit the Jets' 3-4 personnel, Ryan searched for a defensive coordinator who mirrored his own approach. He did not have to look far for Pettine who spent seven years in Baltimore assisting the defense.

Brian Schottenheimer returns with a somewhat unenviable group on the offensive end. Schottenheimer, who fell short in his own candidacy for the head coaching job, lost notables Brett Favre, Laveranues Coles, and Chris Baker.

Much of Schottenheimer's time will be attributed to acclimating rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez to the system. Accustomed to turnover at the position, 2009 will mark the third consecutive year the Jets will open the season with a different starting quarterback.

Without the necessary playmakers in the passing game as Schottenheimer attempts to develop Sanchez and Kellen Clemens, the Jets are expected to restrict their offense from some of the gunslinging that Brett Favre is revered for.

Many would argue, however, that the playbook was never opened up for much of a downfield passing game last year anyway and, therefore, the offense will not be so dramatically limited in comparison.

Schottenheimer's offense is dependent upon its rushing with the AFC's leading rusher Thomas Jones, the explosive Leon Washington, and powerful rookie Shonn Greene.

Running behind a steady offensive line and aiming to keep turnovers to a minimum, Schottenheimer would love to get 35-40 carries combined in each game out of his three horses in the backfield.