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Camp Confidential: New York Jets

8/20/2011

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Rex Ryan said it his first day on the job, and he’ll keep saying it until it actually happens -- the New York Jets are going to the Super Bowl.

Early on, Ryan’s bravado was a breath of fresh air. Now, after two consecutive losses in the AFC Championship Game, the brash coach will be perceived as a windbag if the Jets don’t get it done in 2011.

One more miss and the honeymoon is over.

“This is the best roster we’ve had since we’ve been here,” Ryan said.

That’s debatable. The Jets are older and slower at wide receiver, depth is a concern at some key spots, and they have middle-of-the-field issues in pass coverage. That said, they have a young quarterback on the ascent -- Mark Sanchez -- and improvement in his play could compensate for other deficiencies.

Win or lose, the Jets are a marquee team. HBO’s “Hard Knocks” show isn’t around this summer to record every word and action, but the team still is generating national news -- Sanchez’s GQ cover, Plaxico Burress' return to football, Ryan’s bold quotes, etc.

You’re just not hearing the R-rated language.

THREE HOT ISSUES

1. Can Mark Sanchez become a four-quarter quarterback? He already has won four playoff games in two seasons -- impressive stuff -- so you know he can win big games. His problem is consistency, playing well from week-to-week and quarter-to-quarter in the regular season.

Yes, quarter-to-quarter. The Jets didn’t score an offensive touchdown in the first quarter over their final 15 games (counting playoffs), and a lot of that falls on Sanchez. Part of it could be attributed to inexperience, needing time to adjust to defensive wrinkles, but a lot of it stemmed from his inaccuracy. He completed only 55 percent of his pass attempts, about six or seven points below where the Jets want him to be.

If Sanchez can eliminate the inconsistencies and settle down -- he led the league in dropped interceptions -- the Jets will have a real chance to do something special. We already know he can make plays in the fourth quarter, but now he has to play the first like the fourth. Problem is, he lost 75 percent of his receiving corps before camp opened, putting the onus on him to familiarize himself with a new group. That takes time.

2. Can the Three Amigos (Egos?) co-exist? On paper, the Jets have one of the best receiving corps in the league: Santonio Holmes, Plaxico Burress and Derrick Mason. They’ve combined for more than 1,700 receptions and 24,000 yards, not to mention two Super Bowl-winning catches (Holmes and Burress). But now there will be a transition period, especially for Burress and Mason.

Not only are they learning a new system, they’re adjusting to life as secondary options. That’s not always easy for a receiver accustomed to being No. 1. Naturally, they’re all saying the right things, insisting they’re in it for the team, not themselves. We’ll see. Holmes is the No. 1 guy in these parts, and his new teammates will have to deal with that. If not, it will put a lot of pressure on Sanchez, who realizes he has a lot of mouths to feed.

The fact that Burress missed two weeks with a sprained ankle really slowed the process.

3. Do the Jets have a pass rush? This question really bugs Ryan because, as he likes to point out, the Jets finished eighth in sacks (40). Not bad, right? But sacks don’t mean everything, as coaches like to point out when it benefits their agenda. For instance: The Jets led the league in most big plays allowed on third down, and the primary reason was the lack of a consistent pass rush.

The Jets didn’t acquire anyone to help the pass rush, unless you count first-round defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson, but he’s really not an edge rusher. He’ll be more of a first- and second-down run defender than a pass-rusher in the sub packages. If anything, the Jets lost some pass rush because they released Jason Taylor and didn’t replace his five sacks.

What to do? Ryan and defensive coordinator Mike Pettine are masters of the blitz, designing clever pressure packages that confuse quarterbacks. They manufacture pressure, and sometimes simulate pressure, to rattle quarterbacks. For the most part, it works, but it’s a dangerous way to live, as the Jets discovered last season. They have fantastic cover corners in Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie, which makes it possible to employ that kind of scheme, but sooner or later the lack of a big-time rusher will catch up to them.

The Jets took a flyer on former Bills No. 1 pick Aaron Maybin, signing him to a minimum contract, but let’s be honest: He’s not the answer. It’ll be an upset if he makes the team.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

The Jets parted ways with two of their longest-tenured players, defensive end Shaun Ellis (Patriots) and wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery (Steelers). They were two of the most respected players in the locker room, players you always figured would retire as Jets.

Cotchery, unhappy in his role as the No. 3 receiver, requested his release. The Jets didn’t handle it well, cutting Cotchery before securing Mason, but it worked out in the end. They offered Ellis a one-year deal for the minimum salary, which he found insulting. He wound up signing with the rival Patriots, a PR hit for the Jets.

It makes them look cold, but the Jets evidently felt it was time to move on. The Cotchery decision could come back to bite them because he’s 29 and still can be an effective player.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

After a 20-month prison sentence that cost him two seasons, Burress needs practice more than anyone. But he missed the first two weeks of camp and the first preseason game with a sprained ankle, a significant setback as he attempts to regain his form and learn the Jets’ offense.

The Jets hope that the 6-foot-5 Burress can cure their red zone issues, but he and Sanchez are having trouble connecting in practice. This is going to take time. Don’t be surprised if Burress is a part-time player in the first month of the season.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • Revis is having the best camp of his career. Yes, it’s true: This is only his third holdout-free training camp. But know this: He’s locking down receivers with the same determination he did in 2009, when he shut down No. 1 receivers on a weekly basis. This bodes well for the 10 players around him.

  • Burress is making most of the headlines -- Plax this, Plax that -- but the real prize of the offseason shopping spree is Mason. Ryan gets excited about reclamation projects, but let’s be honest: Burress hasn’t played in two seasons because he was in prison, and now he expects to come back to the pre-prison Plaxico. Whoa, let’s hold everything. Burress might turn out to be a good pickup, but it’s going to take time. Give him a few games into the season. In the meantime, they’ll ride Holmes and Mason.

  • You may not know this name -- Rob Turner -- but the Jets will miss him. He backs up at center and guard, plays tight end in the “jumbo” package, lines up on defense in goal line and blocks from the wedge on kickoff returns. In short, he does everything but mop the floors. Unfortunately for the Jets, Turner broke his leg in the preseason opener and will be lost for at least two months. It’s a big loss, even though the average fan might not think so.

  • The Jets are going to be vulnerable in the middle of the field in pass coverage. The safeties have suspect speed and the front seven also is short on the quicks. Opponents with athletic tight ends and crafty slot receivers are going to cause major issues for the Jets.

  • The run defense could be vulnerable up the middle. Dependable nose tackle Sione Pouha is hobbled by a sprained knee (not serious, but a nuisance), and inside linebacker Bart Scott is taking some time off with what’s believed to be a high-ankle sprain. Again, it’s not serious, but when two of your inside guys are hurting, it’s never a good thing.

  • Aside from Sanchez, the key player is running back Shonn Greene, the new feature back. No doubt, Greene has the talent to be the No. 1 tailback -- and he is -- but what about his durability? That always has been a question that dogs Greene. He’ll have to bring his A-game every week -- assuming he recovers soon from a skin infection on his right foot. When you’re a ground-and-pound team, you need a workhorse -- and LaDainian Tomlinson, 32, probably is too old to be that guy.

  • Remember this name: Jeremy Kerley. He’s a diminutive receiver/kick returner from TCU, and he will bring a lot of electricity. He’s only 5-9, if that, but he has tremendous acceleration and change of direction. He’ll be an immediate factor on punt returns and, if needed at receiver, he has the ability to make plays from the slot.