For a team in the biggest media market in the country, the New York Jets have found a way to fly under the national radar this season. Still in legitimate playoff contention at 7-6, the Jets have won five of their last eight games. But they remain a rather anonymous team to many casual football fans.
The biggest question coming into the season was whether quarterback Chad Pennington could stay healthy. After having a pair of surgeries on his throwing shoulder, he had more than his share of doubters. He has silenced some of his critics as far as fragility is concerned, but he hasn't stepped up and taken control of the Jets offense. He has averaged a little over 200 yards a game passing and has more interceptions (15) than touchdowns (14). His passer rating is 79.6 – right in the middle of the pack for starting quarterbacks. With the Vikings' run defense forcing many teams to abandon the rush, it will be up to Pennington to keep the Jets moving forward and keeping drives alive, because, if the Vikings can stop some of the league's top rushing attacks, the Jets aren't viewed as that big of a threat.
While the Jets have run the ball more than Vikings and have almost 400 carries as a team, there hasn't been a clear-cut starting running back. Without future Hall of Famer Curtis Martin, the Jets have gone with a committee approach. Rookie Leon Washington has been the primary rusher with 127 carries – an average of less than 10 carries a game. He has the speed to make people miss, but hasn't been given a chance to be a 20-carry-a-game workhorse. He has split time with Kevan Barlow and Cedric Houston. Barlow, who was brought in from San Francisco after it was learned Martin would be lost for the season, did his best to lose the starting job. He has averaged just three yards a carry and has a season long run of just 12 yards. Houston, a converted fullback, has been used primarily as a change-of-pace back. While none of them have stood out, they have combined to rush for almost 1,200 yards and score 13 touchdowns. They don't jump off the page at you, but they get the job done.
If the Jets are forced to pass, they have the kind of receivers needed to stretch the field and make plays. Laveranues Coles is Pennington's favorite target. He has 75 receptions and needs just 79 yards Sunday to go over 1,000 yards for the season. He lines up opposite Jerricho Cotchery, who moved into the starting lineup early in the season and never let it go. He has 65 catches for more than 800 yards and has the speed to get behind the secondary and make big plays. Former starter Justin McCareins also fits in the mix as another speed receiver who can take short passes and turn them into long gains. The tight end position has been under-utilized this year, with Chris Baker as the only viable receiving threat, and he has just 24 receptions.
If the Jets are to avoid being one-dimensional, it will depend on an offensive line that was a priority on draft day. Two rookies are starting for the Jets – left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson and center Nick Mangold. The left side is solid with veteran Pete Kendall in between the rookies at left guard, but the right side remains suspect. Guard Brandon Moore and tackle Anthony Clement are viewed as being capable, but not difference-makers. If the Vikings can control the line of scrimmage, which looks very possible, this group could find itself overwhelmed at times.
The Jets have struggled at times defensively. They ranked 27th in the league in overall defense and are 16th vs. the pass and 26th vs. the run. The 3-4 defense brought in by Eric Mangini hasn't worked the magic he had hoped, as the Jets are allowing almost 140 rushing yards per game. It's not due to a lack of talent up front. The Jets have three very good linemen in ends Shaun Ellis and Kimo von Oelhoffen and nose tackle Dewayne Robertson. All of them are technically sound, but haven't been as dominant as Mangini expected when he took over.
The linebackers are led by third-year pro Jonathan Vilma, who emerged as a star at linebacker last year but has been a bit more inconsistent this year. He's joined in the middle by eighth-year man Eric Barton. On the outside, the Jets have Victor Hobson, a solid run defender who can also take backs and tight ends in pass coverage, and Bryan Thomas, a former first-round draft pick who leads the team with 7.5 sacks. To be effective, this groups needs to be aggressive and make plays. While they have had their moments, consistency has been a big issue all season and continues to be a problem.
The weakness of the defense is clearly in the secondary. The starting corners are Andre Dyson, who was signed as a free agent in the off-season when his own team showed little to no interest in re-signing him, and Hank Poteat, who was signed off the street after injuries thinned an already-weak corner crop. At the safeties, Kerry Rhodes and Erik Coleman are serviceable, but often show up too late on deep pass routes. Last week Buffalo's Lee Evans beat them for a long touchdown and it has been a recurring problem. Depth is also thin, with rookies Eric Smith and Drew Coleman as the top reserves at cornerback and safety, respectively.
Although they have some talented players, the Jets have been something of an enigma this year. They don't seem to do anything dominantly well and look like a team that should be able to be manhandled. But, after beating the Patriots in New England and hammering the Packers 38-10 two weeks ago, it would advised for the Vikings not to take the Jets even slightly lightly. In their case, it would seem the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
MATCHUP TO WATCH
Nick Mangold vs. Pat Williams – Talking about the Vikings run defense is beginning to sound like a broken record. The Vikings are allowing just 54 rushing yards a game – 26 yards less per game than second-place Baltimore. Teams haven't been able to get a push up the middle and Pat Williams is one of the big reasons why. He has dominated some of the best centers in the game this season and his battle with rookie Nick Mangold is this week's Matchup to Watch.
Both Pat and Kevin Williams have been such a deterrent to running the ball that many teams have opted to simply abandon the run. The Vikings have set franchise records twice this season for least rushing yards allowed in a game and another record for least rushing attempts by an opponent. The dominance of the Williams Wall is one of the primary reasons for that. Pat Williams has been playing at a Pro Bowl level and has pushed around Pro Bowlers like Olin Kreutz, so getting Mangold could be a chance for the veteran to teach the rookie a few tricks.
Mangold was taken with the second of the Jets' two first-round picks this year and, along with left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson, are viewed as the cornerstones of the offensive line for the next decade. But Mangold is still a rookie and at times has struggled against big, physical D-tackles and nose tackles. At 6-4, 300, Mangold is an imposing physical specimen who comes with a good pedigree from Ohio State, but learning on the job is never easy, much less against a defense hell-bent on stopping the run. Mangold is in charge of not only trying to move Pat Williams, but keep Kevin Williams off quarterback Chad Pennington. Neither one of those looks like it will happen for an entire game.
While he has the strength of youth, the rigors of being a full-time starter in the NFL as a rookie have started to wear Mangold down somewhat as the season has wound down. He will need to be at his best on every snap. If he can contain Pat Williams and open up small creases for the running game, the Jets won't have to be one-dimensional. If he can't, the Vikings will have the chance to blitz Pennington and force him into mistakes. Mangold will have his hands full, which makes his contest with Pat Williams this week's Matchup to Watch.
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