Behind Enemy Lines: Chargers vs. Jets, p. I

Will Rex Ryan cave into public pressure and play Mike Vick? Will Eric Decker continue to torment his former AFC West foes? Can Philip Rivers carve up New York's depleted secondary? To answer these and other questions, we turn to Jeremy Epstein of JetsInsider.com.

Michael Lombardo: What are your thoughts on the Jets’ quarterback controversy? Has Geno Smith shown enough improvement to keep the job? Should Chargers fans expect to see some Mike Vick on Sunday?

Jeremy Epstein: My thoughts on the Jets’ quarterback controversy are that there is no quarterback controversy. At no point has Rex Ryan wavered on Smith being the starting quarterback. Ryan said Wednesday that Smith will start and barring an injury will finish the Sunday’s game.

In terms of Smith’s improvement, he has improved plenty. He looks more poised in the pocket than he did last year. He also has improved in terms of reading defenses, but at times still struggles with decision making, hence the seven total turnovers (five INTs and two fumbles) in only four games. Obviously, Smith’s decision making has to improve, but how many second-year QBs master reading defenses? The answer is very few.

I don’t think Smith should be benched this early. It isn’t like the Jets have been blown out, They have competed in every game. I don’t think Smith’s play has cost them games, although the pick-six against Chicago in the opening minute on Monday Night Football was rough. If the Jets’ offense continues to struggle and the Jets continue to lose games, then my answer may change, but they’re still only a game out of the division so I don’t think Smith will be benched.

So, short of something unforeseen, Chargers fans won’t see Vick receive any significant playing time.

ML: New York added WR Eric Decker and RB Chris Johnson to help ignite a stagnant offense. Currently, the offense ranks a respectable No. 11 in yards per game, but just No. 25 in points per game. What impact have those two had and what else needs to be done on that side of the ball?

JE: Decker so far, when healthy, has definitely improved the Jets’ offense. He has 14 catches and two touchdowns but injured his hamstring late in the Jets’ loss to the Packers. Since then, he has been limited in games. He reinjured his hamstring in Thursday’s practice, so nagging injuries are a concern. But even in a limited role and with Smith’s other favorite target (Jeremy Kerley) being primarily a slot receiver, a limited Decker is still a boost to the Jets’ offense.

Johnson has been inconsistent in a Jets uniform. At times he shows flashes of the CJ2K Jets fans want to see, like when he broke off a 35-yard touchdown run last Sunday. But he has been outplayed by fellow running back Chris Ivory, who started over Johnson last week.

In order to improve their offense, the Jets need to rely more on the running game. While that may sound strange, given that they are second in the NFL in yards per game, they seem to drift away from their strength during games. Take last week: Ivory ran the ball down the Detroit Lions’ throats on their first drive to the tune of 51 yards on only nine carries. Ivory received only eight more carries the rest of the game and Johnson had only six carries.

In the only victory the Jets had this season, Smith attempted 28 passes, completing 23 of them. In their three losses, he has attempted 32, 43 and 33 passes and has completed under 55 percent of them. To improve offensively, the Jets need unleash their running game, which will lead to some better positioning on third down and allow the offense to move the ball with more fluidity.

ML: The Jets lead the league in run defense. The Chargers rank No. 31 in rushing offense and dead-last in average yards per carry. So, it figures that the Chargers will live or die through the air. How do you expect the Jets to fare against the pass-heavy attack they are sure to face?

JE: The Jets have had their problems in pass defense. In the past three weeks, they have given up a 100-yard receiving game in each contest. First, they gave up a 209-yard game to Jordy Nelson, then 105 yards receiving to Alshon Jeffrey, and finally 116 yards to Golden Tate last Sunday.

The Jets aren’t the Jets of old, where they had shutdown corners like Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie. They have relied heavily on converted safety Antonio Allen and perennial backup Darrin Walls in coverage, and for the most part they have performed admirably due to Dee Milliner’s injury. Milliner hasn’t played since Week 2, where he looked good early on but was clearly hampered by injuries (and overextended by Ryan) and ended up giving up an 80-yard TD reception to Jordy Nelson late in that game.

The Jets have struggled with giving up big plays and blown coverages. Nelson beat Milliner on a double-move that he should have had safety help on and last week Allen showed at the cornerback position by biting on a Matthew Stafford pump fake and the Jets gave up a 59-yard touchdown pass to Jeremy Rooss while in quarters coverage.

Ryan’s defense relies heavily on man-to-man coverage because of all of his exotic blitzing schemes. That worked in years past due to the presence of shutdown corners and has worked at times this year, but with Philip Rivers being so good against blitzes, the Jets’ secondary may struggle on Sunday.

ML: It looks like rookie first-round pick Calvin Pryor will be back on the field this week? What are the early returns on him and how has he impacted New York’s secondary?

JE: Calvin Pryor has been decent so early on, but he has struggled with injuries. He suffered a concussion in training camp, which knocked him out for a few weeks. Also, he injured his thigh last week, but when on the field he has looked good.

As Ryan likes to say, you don’t see Pryor play, you hear him. And he has had a couple of big hits early on. He still has some work to do in regards to his coverage skills. While he does have a couple pass deflections, he has was the safety I mentioned earlier who was out of position on both the 80-yard Rodgers touchdown pass to Nelson and last week’s 59-yard touchdown from Stafford to Ross. But from what I gather, he is just adjusting to the NFL and should be able to improve his cover skills and be an impact player for the Jets for a long time.

ML: It seems like Rex Ryan is back squarely on the hot seat. Even though he signed a new two-year contract last offseason, do you think he will be let go if the Jets fail to make the playoffs?

JE: This is a tough call. The Jets’ players absolutely love playing for Ryan and when they were in the midst of losing four out of five games last year, they rallied behind him and saved his job. I think GM John Idzik deserves to take some of the blame for the Jets' slow start. The team is reportedly $20 million under the salary cap and he failed to address some of the team’s most glaring needs. Other than Decker, his offseason was a bust. Dimitri Patterson, the corner he signed as band-aid for the Jets’ secondary, went AWOL in the preseason and was cut. Out of the 12 draft choices Idzik had, only two are on the active roster (Dexter McDougle and Shaq Evans are on IR).

This year, Ryan has been left with a depleted secondary, a struggling offensive line and a lack of depth at the wide receiver position. Add that to the Jets’ incredibly tough schedule and what do you expect? With that said, football is a results and "what have for you done for me lately?" business and, right now, the Jets haven’t done much. The Jets as presently constituted are a young team, built to compete with the elite and playoff teams in the NFL, not to beat them.

Jets owner Woody Johnson is a huge Rex Ryan fan and seems pretty attached to him as coach. Johnson said Thursday that not making the playoffs wouldn’t cost Ryan his job. I would say that if the Jets don’t equal or at least finish close to their 8-8 mark of a season ago -- or if they show clear signs of regression -- then Ryan would be let go.



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