Rex Ryan's 3-0 Jets are exciting, brash, and physical, and they're only getting started. However, since writing in my first column this season that expectations should be kept at a realistic level (if only to maintain your sanity as you think of playoff possibilities), I feel compelled to point out a few areas in which the Jets must improve.
For starters, the running game has been a big disappointment, especially considering the offensive line returned all five starters. Let's take a look at some stats from the Tennessee game.
On first down rush attempts the Jets gained 35 yards on 17 carries, a measly 2.1 average. Thomas Jones got 9 carries for 13 yards on first downs, Leon Washington 7 for 15 yards, and Tony Richardson got one hand off for seven yards.
Jets running backs rushed on consecutive plays only six times during the entire game. Thomas Jones got back-to-back hand offs twice. Brian Schottenheimer's offense picked up only three first downs on the ground, including Mark Sanchez' 14-yard touchdown run. For the game the Jets picked up 83 rushing yards on 31 attempts (2.7 average). Five runs were stuffed for losses.
This isn't going to cut it! We all got giddy when the Jets converted all those third-and-longs in the opener against the Texans, but no team in the NFL can survive on third-and- long. That is why those first down rushing stats cited from the Tennessee game are so important. The Jets are asking too much of Mark Sanchez to convert third-and-ten over and over again.
So what's the issue? It seems opposing defenses are stacking up against the run. Maybe the Jets are tipping plays with their formations. I'd like to know how often Jones takes a hand off when he lines up seven yards deep behind Mark Sanchez. You can bet defensive coordinators know the percentage. Or maybe it's an identity issue.
I've often stated my preference that the Jets establish a nasty, pound-the-football rushing attack. The elite running teams in the NFL can move the ball on the ground regardless of whether the defense knows it's coming. Would it kill Schottenheimer to call a running play on second-and-nine if Jones gains one on first down? Jones, a down hill runner, is the kind of back who feeds off repetitive carries. He wants to get into a rhythm.
Maybe the run blockers are just mediocre. Whatever the problem is, the Jets have to straighten it out. They cannot win a track meet game against the New Orleans Saints. Mark Sanchez won't sting defenses when the Jets are forced to be one-dimensional on offense.
Some more observations:
1) The Jets passing attack looks limited. WR Jerricho Cotchery has been superb through three games, but no one else at the position scares defenses. Moreover, because the Jets have no targets at receiver that are especially tall or fast (the benched David Clowney being the exception), Sanchez has to be precise with every pass. Cotchery is capable of catching the ball in traffic, but who else? It helps when a QB can make a bad throw and get a completion anyway because his receiver out leaps or out muscles the defender.
2) The above makes it all the more important for Dustin Keller to threaten the deep middle.
3) Wonder if the Jets will bring the blitz against Drew Brees? They held off for most of the game against the Titans, a team which saw Rex Ryan's blitz schemes twice in 2008 and held Ravens' pass rushers to one sack. If the Jets get burned on a 70-yard Drew Brees-to-Marques Colston TD pass on a blitz, I'm curious to see if Ryan will keep sending them. Calvin Pace will be missed this week. He's the team's best edge rusher.
4) What has impressed me most about Sanchez is his ability to bounce back after long droughts or mistakes. And make no mistake, the second quarter Sunday was as dry a drought as a team can have: no first downs.
5) Eric Mangini. Through three weeks, it looks like his former players were justified in their gripes. The 2009 Jets love their new climate; Rex treats them like men. But does winning make for a more pleasant climate or does the climate create the winning? That's open for debate. But for all that's been written about Mangini's paranoia, stubborn obsession with secrecy and sterilizing personality, his biggest mistake as Jets coach was not adjusting his system to fit his players' talents. For two years he played a 3-4 defense without 3-4 personnel, for example. If he were still coach today, do you think we'd know what a terrific blitzer David Harris is? Would Bart Scott be a Jet?
My prediction for Jets-Saints: I honestly don't know what to expect. That's what makes this Jets team so fun. Rex Ryan's bunch keeps surprising us!