If one had looked at the NFL schedule back in early August, the Vikings-Jets game Sunday may have been viewed as one of the big games to watch. With the Vikings looking to rebound from an injury-filled year and the Jets coming off a playoff berth, both teams looked like solid bets to be in the playoff hunt.
How quickly momentum can swing. When the Vikings face the Jets at the Meadowlands, New York will be coming off a bye week that has followed a four-game losing streak and several personnel changes.
The most significant change is at quarterback, where veteran Vinny Testaverde has struggled and been replaced by youngster Chad Pennington. Testaverde, who had thrown for just 485 yards, was blamed for the Jets scoring just 13 points combined in three straight losses. Pennington, while younger and more mobile, is also more prone to mistakes, so expect to see the Vikings come after him with blitzes and disguised coverages in hopes of getting a big turnover on a mental mistake.
Another concern has been star running back Curtis Martin. After being invisible for the first three games of the season while playing through an ankle injury, Martin blew up for 110 yards against the Chiefs in his last game. That gives the Jets promise that the running game can again cure the deficiencies of the offense. Martin is joined by fullback Richie Anderson, a pass receiving specialist and back LaMont Jordan, who many think should get more opportunities with younger, fresher legs. However, if Martin is healthy, he'll likely touch the ball 25 times or more.
The receivers are a different lot, a combination of young speedsters and veterans. Laveranues Coles has developed into the team's go-to receiver — a third-year man with blazing speed. He may be outdone by second-year man Santana Moss. Taken in the first round for his incredible speed and playmaking ability, Moss missed most of last year with injury and is still trying to crack the starting lineup. His ability to score from anywhere on the field has to be a concern to the Vikings. Joining the youngsters is veteran Wayne Chrebet. He has been the primary receiver since Keyshawn Johnson was traded, and Chrebet brings a lot of skill and fearlessness on slant routes that will likely mean he'll see plenty of passes vs. the Vikings.
The wild card has been tight end Anthony Becht. For a team that has thrown just five touchdowns, three of them have gone to Becht, who is a killer in the red zone.
Up front, the Jets have flopped their offensive tackles, moving Jason Fabini to left tackle and second-year man Kareem McKenzie to the right side after McKenzie was overwhelmed on the left side. Anchoring the line in the middle is center Kevin Mawae, a Pro Bowler who will draw Chris Hovan Sunday. He is flanked by Randy Thomas and J.P. Machado, both in their fourth year and in only their second years as starting guards. The turnover on the line has led to continuity lapses, but the Jets feel they now have the bugs worked out.
As if the offense hasn't had enough question marks, the defense has been awful. Heading into their bye week, in five games the Jets had allowed 954 yards rushing — 200 yards more than any other team in the NFL and double more than half of them.
The problems begin up front, where the left side of the defensive line has been overhauled. On the right side, end John Abraham and tackle Jason Ferguson have been solid but unspectacular. On the left side, however, rookie end Bryan Thomas has been hurt, opening the door for former starter Shaun Ellis to reclaim his job. At tackle, veteran Larry Webster has been hobbled and allowed late signee Josh Evans to move into a starting job. If working together, this unit can be solid, but until they work as a group teams will continue to run over and around them.
The linebackers should be the strength of this defense, but teams have been moving the ball effectively through holes they are supposed to shut down. In the middle is 10-year vet Marvin Jones, an impressive run stuffer. He is flanked by Sam Cowart, signed away from Buffalo, and Mo Lewis, a 12-year veteran. Some think that the linebacker corps is showing its age and wearing down, but their big-play ability makes them dangerous.
With teams running so freely on the Jets, the passing game has taken a back seat for a reworked secondary that was hit hard in the expansion draft. Gone are former starting corners Aaron Glenn and Marcus Coleman. They have been replaced by former Buccaneer Donnie Abraham and former Jaguar Aaron Beasley. Both bring experience, but the step down from Glenn and Coleman is substantial. Sam Garnes and Damien Robinsom are the safeties. Each is in his sixth year and has the combination of veteran savvy and speed. In clear passing situations, the Jets have depth, bringing in veteran and former starter Ray Mickens and second-year man Jamie Henderson in the nickel and dime packages.
The Jets are a team like the Vikings. They went into their bye week with four straight losses looking for answers. If they have found them, the Vikings will be fighting uphill all day. If they haven't, the Vikings should be able to take advantage of weaknesses on both sides of the ball and leave the Jets laying like Jimmy Hoffa in the corner of the end zone.
Greg Biekert vs. Curtis Martin — The Jets have made no bones about their offense. It is centered around Curtis Martin. As Martin struggled early in the year, so did the Jets — scoring just 13 points in three games and leaving Martin with just 100 yards after four weeks. But in the Jets' last game, Martin exploded and the Jets posted 25 points. It is this potential for explosion that makes Martin and Vikings LB Greg Biekert the matchup to watch.
In a league turning more to constant passing, the Jets are a throwback. Martin was and is the centerpiece of the offense and he is consistently expected to touch the ball 25-30 times a game as a rusher and receiver. If he hasn't been productive in his first 10 carries, that rarely matters. Martin will get the ball and get it often, especially with unproven Chad Pennington making just his second NFL start.
This is where Biekert will be the key to the Vikings defense. With Pennington still learning how to read NFL defenses from the pocket instead of the sideline, the Vikings need to make him as uncomfortable as possible. If Martin can loosen up the defense by keeping the threat of the run present at all times, Pennington will have time to pass and could pick apart the Vikings secondary. If Biekert can shut Martin down, the Jets would become one-dimensional and the Vikings could throw multiple blitzes at Pennington to get him confused.
There is a lot of pressure on Pennington, since the Jets waited longer than most teams to let their "QB of the future" become the QB of the present. He is being seen as the potential savior of the season and, if given time, his confidence will grow as the game goes on. The extent to which Biekert can keep Martin in check will go a long way to determining if Pennington looks like an unproven rookie or builds up confidence as the game progresses.
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