With D'Brickashaw Ferguson being added as an injury replacement, the Jets have three Pro Bowlers on their offensive line. Interior linemen Alan Faneca and Nick Mangold will also be starting for the AFC in the NFL all-star game — unless New York wins on Sunday — and Mangold was named to the All-Pro team as the best player at the center position in the league.
Their accolades are well deserved as this is one of the most tenacious, athletic groups in the NFL. Generally speaking, they run block better than they pass block, though, so it will be up to Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis to make the most of their limited opportunities to pressure the quarterback.
The Jets led the league in rushing during the regular season with 172.2 yards per game and they have not let up in the postseason, averaging 170 yards per game in their two playoff games thus far. Not surprisingly, they have run the ball behind their All-Pro center and their Pro Bowl left guard Faneca, averaging 8.36 yards per carry up the middle and 5.75 yards per carry off left guard.
Antonio Johnson and Daniel Muir were the biggest chink in the armor against the Ravens, allowing an average of 5.4 yards per carry up the middle, though they allowed only 3.91 yards per carry in that area during the season. They will need to step up in this game, clogging rush lanes and allowing Gary Brackett to fill the hole hard and attack the ball carrier. Brackett enjoyed a tremendous season and picked up right where he left off in the Divisional round against Baltimore with four tackles and a sack.
New York may try to attack the edges as well, since they have averaged 7.2 yards per carry around left end and 5.86 yards per carry around left tackle. Freeney needs to play run first, pass second — which will be a challenge for him — as he allowed an average of 4.54 yards per carry around left end and 5.13 yards per carry around left tackle during the season. He was able to contain Ray Rice last week, though, allowing only 4 yards and 3 yards per attempt to those areas on his side of the field, respectively.
Mathis allowed 6.22 yards per attempt around right end in 2009, but the strong side of the formation has been the lone weakness for the Jets in the 2009 playoffs, as they have averaged only 3.15 yards per carry around right end. Look for them to attack more favorable matchups when they run the ball and only run around right tackle or right end when they need to cross a team up, as they did on the critical final play against the Chargers last week.
In an attempt to keep opponents from pressuring rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez up the middle, the Jets tend to roll the pocket to the strong side, which also limits the reads that he needs to make, since rolling to one side effectively eliminates the other side of the field.
Even though this is a known tendency for New York, a number of teams have gotten sucked in on playaction and ignored Sanchez as he rolled right. Mathis needs to ardently pursue Sanchez, forcing him to make a decision before he is comfortable, or pressing him into throwing the ball away.
The most critical matchup, though, is this exceptionally talented front five against the front seven of Indianapolis. If the Colts defenders can stay aggressive and stay vigilant, they will stay the course. If they cannot, they will get plowed into the turf like every other defense that has attempted to stand up to this potent New York ground game.
Braylon Edwards was acquired by New York through a trade with the Browns and appeared to assimilate the offense quickly, leaving his focus and pass dropping issues behind him in Cleveland. However, those issues quickly returned and Edwards has returned to being his old, inconsistent self.
Edwards dropped a long touchdown pass against the Bengals in the Wild Card round and was largely absent from the game plan against the Chargers in the Divisional round with only two catches for 41 yards, but he cannot be ignored. He is a strong, fast, athletic player with a tremendous frame and is built to play the position.
If he had Reggie Wayne's work ethic, he would be in Wayne's league. He certainly has the potential to make some big plays and dominate games, but he also has the potential to get frustrated early and suffer from lapses in concentration. Kelvin Hayden held Edwards to one reception for 11 yards in the first half of the regular season meeting, so should be able to jam Edwards at the line, frustrate him early, and count on deep help from Antoine Bethea just in case.
On the other side of the formation, Jerricho Cotchery is a wily veteran that knows how to find the soft spot in the zone, runs crisp routes, and is still fairly dangerous in the open field with the ball in his hands. To neutralize him, you can't give him any holes in the zone to settle into. That is why Jerraud Powers would be ideal to cover him, as he knows his assignments and is an excellent zone defender.
Tight end Dustin Keller has emerged as a real threat for the Jets, especially in the red zone. Any time Sanchez rolls to the right, Colts defenders need to be cognizant of where Keller is. He made two key plays off the bootleg against Cincinnati in the Wild Card round and caught Sanchez's only touchdown pass against San Diego. He is a smart, sure handed, athletic player and will do as much damage as Indianapolis allows him to do on Sunday.
Thomas Jones had 105 rushing yards in Week 16, but was held in check in the first half, with ten rushes for only 34 yards. It wasn't until the starters were pulled that he truly emerged and gained the lion's share of his yards.
He's still a very effective and efficient runner, though, that has the patience to allow the play to develop, the vision to find the hole, the explosiveness to hit the hole, the power to hit it with authority, and the long speed to make a big play if he is allowed to get to the second level.
Rookie Shonn Greene is equally efficient and effective, but with more power and speed and less patience and vision. He, likewise, was held to 34 yards in the first half of the last game, though he only had five carries. He finished the game with 95 yards and, like Jones, appears to get stronger as the game wears on.
In order to combat these talented tailbacks, the front seven needs to take the fight to them, attacking the line of scrimmage with Clint Session, Brackett, and Philip Wheeler acting as enforcers. Jones and Greene will stretch the play out, waiting for the right opportunity, then cut, explode, and do what they do best.
The Indianapolis front seven needs to force them to make a decision before they are ready. They are both north-to-south runners that do not do well making moves in the hole, creating on their own, and neither has the speed to cut the play all the way back. The Colts defenders need to stay after Jones and Greene and stay after it.
The key here is that they must, as mentioned previously, remain vigilant. This is a confident, powerful New York run game that will keep coming and coming until it breaks you. The big plays in the running game so far in the postseason for the Jets have come in the second half when the opposing defense is physically and mentally exhausted.
Their long runs have been well executed, but have all come as a result of a blown assignment, a missed tackle, or a blown tackle by a defender that has given up the fight. The Colts cannot yield, cannot give up the fight, or they will find themselves in the same position as the other two playoff opponents the Jets have faced this January.
Most rookie quarterbacks — especially ones that make it to this point in the postseason — are insulated by their coaches and taught to win the game by not losing it. Sanchez is a notable exception in that he has been entrusted to succeed and fail with the responsibilities of his position.
Facing a third-and-goal against a gassed Chargers defense, the Jets could have run the ball up the gut and either scored or made a decision on fourth and goal. They chose to put the ball in Sanchez's hands on a bootleg and he delivered with a touchdown pass to Keller. This is a team that runs first, runs second, and passes only when they need to, but they are also a team that puts a great deal of trust in their rookie quarterback.
Having said that, this is a team that finished 31st in the league in passing offense. Sanchez is no Peyton Manning. This is a team that has won two playoff games on the road with their quarterback attempting a total of 38 passes. This is not Sanchez's game to win, this is his game not to lose.
If he is placed in a position where he needs to go out and win the game, chances are good that he will crumble under the pressure of the moment. It is no secret that the Colts want to put the game in his hands and force him to beat them. If they can do that, odds favor an Indianapolis victory. If they can't, Sanchez does have a higher quarterback rating for the postseason than Manning and will be able to get the job done when put in a position to succeed.
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