Game Matchups: Jets offense/49ers defense

NinersDigest's Craig Massei and Green and White Report's Rick Laughland break down the matchups in Sunday's pivotal contest between the San Francisco 49ers and the New York Jets. Here we take a look at what to watch when New York's offense is on the field.


Mark Sanchez has been wildly inconsistent, lighting up the scoreboard during New York's rousing opening day 48-28 victory over the Buffalo Bills followed by subpar outings in Pittsburgh and Miami respectively. Several Jets receiving targets were hampered by hamstring issues leading up to and during the regular season including: Dustin Keller, Stephen Hill, Chaz Schilens, Jeremy Kerley and Santonio Holmes. While New York's pass-catchers can't seem to stay healthy, the biggest setback for Sanchez has been the absence of his tight end security blanket in Keller. With Keller listed as questionable for Sunday's matchup with the 49ers, Sanchez will need to continue to develop chemistry with tight end Jeff Cumberland and keep his fingers and toes crossed that his No. 1 option can give it a go.

With all the talk of how poorly the Jets offensive line performed last season and during the preseason, Gang Green's offensive lineman have provided Sanchez ample time in the pocket, yet the former USC Trojan has still failed to deliver accurate passes and make the appropriate read. If Sanchez's lackluster play continues, he could be playing himself right out of the starting job and open the door for either Tim Tebow or third-stringer Greg McElroy to lead New York's offensive huddle. Tony Sparano has emphasized chunk plays in the passing game, but Sanchez has been king of the check-down, unwilling to test opposing defenses down the field. Rookie wideout Stephen Hill was nothing short of spectacular in his Jets' debut, hauling in two touchdown catches and bringing the Metlife Stadium crowd to its feet. Since opening day, Hill has not recorded a single reception and has not practice this week due to a hamstring issues with the rookie officially listed as doubtful for Sunday's game.

The Jets' offense is just not clicking with untimely dropped passes by receivers killing potential scoring drives and misfires from Sanchez leading to tipped passes or interceptions causing headaches for fans and the coaching staff. Sanchez will need to play one of his best games against a stacked San Francisco defense capable of shutting down the NFL's most prolific offenses. If Sanchez continues to struggle expect cants for ‘Te-bow' to rain down from the stands on Sunday.


Considered the weak link of the San Francisco defense last year – if there was one – the 49ers did a tremendous job of shutting down explosive passing games and elite quarterbacks during victories to open the season against Green Bay and reigning NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers and Detroit and Matthew Stafford. Unheralded Christian Ponder had some success last week with 198 yards and two touchdowns passing, but the secondary wasn't all responsible for that as Ponder was never sacked and had time to throw.

The 49ers usually are pretty good at pestering opposing QBs while rushing only four defenders, and both Brooks and Aldon Smith are consistent rushing threats from the edge. Smith set a franchise rookie record – and fell just short of the NFL rookie record – last year with 14 sacks, and Brooks had a career-high seven. Justin Smith (7.5 sacks last year) and McDonald (5.5 sacks) also can bring the heat up front, meaning the 49ers rarely need to blitz. When they do, Bowman and Willis, who each had two sacks last year, can surprise from the inside, and the Niners brought cornerback Carlos Rogers off the edge for his first career sack against the Packers.

If a four-man rush isn't getting there, expect the 49ers to blitz more often this week. Practically every defender in San Francisco's secondary is coming off a career year, particularly Rogers and free safety Dashon Goldson, who each made the Pro Bowl last season after tying for the team lead with six interceptions. Rogers was a NFC starter last season, and he and Tarell Brown give the Niners a set of tough coverage corners. Hard-hitting Donte Whitner, who likes to play close to the line, rounds out a good secondary and elite defense at strong safety. Despite the strong passing games the Niners have faced to open the season, San Francisco ranks 13th in the NFL in passing defense, and the Niners will be looking to prove they're even better this week against the Jets after some mistakes and breakdowns in the secondary contributed to last week's loss.


To say the Jets Wildcat offense has been a disappointment would be a colossal understatement. Sparano and the offensive coaching staff appear gun-shy to utilize one of their most dynamic players in Tebow particularly in short-yardage situations and inside the red zone. Shonn Greene Is averaging just 2.7 yards per carry and is slowly taking a backseat to second-year tailback Bilal Powell. Greene is most effective as a change-of-pace back capable of wearing out defenses and chewing up game clock in the second half. Sparano refuses to take the training wheels off the offense and let Tebow run wild, instead he's opted to use him as a decoy in the backfield and as a wide receiver.

If New York hopes to take their ground-and-pound to the next level, Tebow will have to be the focal point of Gang Green's rushing offense, even if that means Sanchez is forced to the sidelines for consecutive plays or even complete offensive drives. Sparano still seems to be experimenting with ways to make Tebow most effective, but he's been using the former Heisman Trophy winner sparingly often as a bystander on running plays.

Pitted against the NFL's premier rush defense, Sparano will have the challenge of a lifetime to create some running lanes for his ballcarriers. While the Jets have looked like a below average running team at best this season, don't expect their fortunes to suddenly change against a ferocious 49ers defensive front. Tebow will have his hands full trying to create any explosive plays on the ground, so it will be a tall order for New York's rushing attack to get off the snide in Week 4.


The 49ers had the best run defense in the NFL last year, and it was off to another dominating start this season before experiencing a hiccup last week in Minnesota, where the Vikings rushed for 146 yards – more yards than the 49ers allowed in any game last season. The Vikings needed 41 attempts and some open-field scrambles by quarterback Christian Ponder to reach that total, however, and the Niners actually did a good job stuffing star tailback Adrian Peterson, who was averaging barely two yards a carry until breaking some runs late in the game to finish with 86 yards on 25 carries. Most backs, however, don't come out of games against San Francisco with that good of numbers – in part because many teams abandon the run against the 49ers if they fail on the ground early or fall behind.

San Francisco's front seven returns intact from last season, and that includes three first-team All-Pros in Justin Smith and middle linebackers NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis, who both are rangy, active tackle machines. Bowman, after his career-high 18-tackle performance against the Vikings, leads the NFL with 37 tackles through three games and Willis has racked up 25 so far. The Niners funnel backs to those star linebackers in their 3-4 defensive system, which is anchored up front by Smith and tackle Ray McDonald, who has been an unheralded force in San Francisco's defensive surge.

The Niners also have capable outside backers in starters Ahmad Brooks and Aldon Smith, who both can hold their own against the run – Brooks is particularly formidable – giving San Francisco a truly dominant front wall. The 49ers, however, likely will be without starting nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga, who suffered a leg injury against Minnesota. At a strong 330 pounds, Sopoaga is a load to move off the football. Ricky Jean Francois, his replacement, is capable but not nearly as big or strong as Sopoaga at 295 pounds. The Jets will need to get something going against this unit, as the Vikings did, because when teams can't run against the 49ers, that usually means games fall into a pattern that gives the advantage to San Francisco's defense.

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