- James Walker, ESPN Staff Writer
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CORTLAND, N.Y. -- Bart Scott just wouldn't stop talking.
The charismatic linebacker's mouth was running 100 miles per hour during New York Jets practice this past weekend. Scott got on the Jets' quarterbacks, Tim Tebow and Mark Sanchez. Scott got on Jets offensive coordinator Tony Sparano. Scott got under the skin of the offensive linemen.
No one was immune in training camp -- and Jets coach Rex Ryan likes it that way.
"The funny thing is when you talk like that, it puts pressure on you to play well," Ryan said. "You can tell that Bart feels great about himself, and he feels great about this team. That is why he is the way he is right now. He is all over everybody -- offense, defense, especially offense."
The Jets were humbled by last season's 8-8 record and late-season implosion. But if Scott's mouth is any indication, it appears this team is getting its swagger back.
There have been no Super Bowl predictions and no preseason talk of supplanting the New England Patriots in the AFC East this season. But watching the Jets practice, you sense this team has an edge to it. Sometimes that edginess goes overboard and leads to fighting among the players, which explains the 20-player scuffle the Jets had Monday and a second fight Tuesday.
The Jets undoubtedly will do damage this year. The question is, will they do more damage to themselves or their opponents? They first must prove that this group is bonding and will no longer be "team turmoil" in 2012.
THREE HOT ISSUES
1. Can the Jets handle the Sanchez-Tebow dynamic? Even U.S. President Barack Obama has his concerns about the Jets’ two-headed monster at quarterback. Obama said he doesn’t think Tebow’s immense presence will be good for Sanchez. The Jets, however, say they're unfazed by Obama’s comments.
“He doesn’t play football for the Jets,” guard Matt Slauson said.
But it is clear the Jets have to keep an eye on the Tebow effect all season. At the teamwide scrimmage this past weekend, 9,200 fans packed in to watch, and Tebow received by far the loudest ovation. The cheers heard when Tebow entered the huddle for the first time had to bother Sanchez to some degree.
It appears Sanchez and Tebow get along fairly well. But things could become tense if Sanchez struggles early in the regular season.
2. Is chemistry still an issue? The Jets didn’t miss the playoffs last year because they lacked talent. They missed the postseason for the first time under Ryan because they lacked togetherness and chemistry.
Things fell apart for the Jets in the locker room, and it showed on the field. Too often players weren’t on the same page, and Ryan admittedly dropped the ball in fixing those issues. It’s Ryan’s job to make sure those things no longer happen. But there already are ominous signs that the locker room could be combustible again in 2012. In addition to the reported scuffles, cornerback Antonio Cromartie created tension by claiming to be the second-best receiver on the team. These things add up. The Jets need to end the in-house silliness now before it shows up in the regular season.
Sanchez, a team leader, wasn’t particularly happy about the brawl that went down.
“At this point in camp, especially after the scrimmage, tempers flare,” Sanchez said. “That stuff happens; there’s no excuse for it. There’s no throwing the ball at a teammate. There’s no shoving the guy out of bounds into the signs. One, it doesn’t look good, and two, it sends the wrong message to our team. We want to take care of our guys.”
3. Who is the No. 2 receiver? Cromartie apparently thinks he's it. But despite his controversial comments, the Jets have to find other players to step into that role full time. Players such as Patrick Turner, Chaz Schilens, Jeremy Kerley and rookie Stephen Hill are all competing for the role to start opposite Santonio Holmes.
The Jets will rely more on the run than the passing game, but they must make the most of passing opportunities. Holmes' rib injury will allow other receivers to get more reps. This is a golden opportunity for someone to emerge and provide another target for Sanchez.
Hill appears to have the best chance to fill this role long term. But it may take an experienced player such as Turner or Schilens to step up until Hill acclimates to the NFL.
REASON FOR OPTIMISM
As noted earlier, New York’s defense looks tremendous. The Jets were the most impressive defense of all the AFC East training camps we’ve visited in the past two weeks. The front seven is allowing few rushing lanes, and the cornerbacks are covering well, as expected.
“I feel great about the defense,” Ryan said.
It’s easy to forget that New York had a top-five NFL defense last year because the Jets didn’t play that way at times. But this defense thinks it can rank No. 1 in 2012. Based on what we’ve seen, that goal is not out of reach. New York’s defense doesn’t have many holes.
REASON FOR PESSIMISM
The Jets' passing game appears shaky, which could be a major issue for the team this season.
New York wants to ground-and-pound its way to victories. But the NFL is a passing league, and winning by running the ball 40 times is becoming increasingly more difficult. The Jets at some point will have to air it out if they want to score enough to win consistently. The defense is great. But New York can’t win every game 13-10 or 17-14. That puts too much pressure on one side of the ball, and the offense not holding up its end of the bargain is one issue that caused chemistry issues last year.
What if teams stack the box against tailback Shonn Greene and Tebow and the Wildcat? Can Sanchez make enough big throws to keep defenses honest? The Jets were 2-5 last year when Sanchez threw the football 35 or more times. Expect opposing defensive coordinators to keep that stat in mind when preparing for the Jets this year.
Sparano wants to play conservatively and win on the ground first. But defenses won’t make it easy. At some point this year, Sanchez and his receivers will be forced to win games, and this team might not have enough quality personnel to pass the football consistently.
Tebow admittedly never played special teams. But the backup quarterback and former Heisman Trophy winner looks like a natural in the third phase of the game. Tebow will serve as the punt protector, which gives the Jets options on fakes, as Tebow could run or pass on fourth down. Tebow also has been getting work on the kickoff team, and he looks good moving downfield and tracking the ball carrier.
New York’s starting offensive line and backups appeared to have been pushed around too often during our camp visit. That should be a concern for Jets fans. New York wants to establish a physical identity on offense, but the line has been unable to establish many running lanes against its defense. Granted, most defenses aren’t as good as New York’s. Preseason games will provide a better indication of where the offensive line stands.
Hill needs to work on his consistency. There are days in practice when he is a nonfactor and others when he shows why he's a highly touted second-round pick. Hill beat Cromartie and Darrelle Revis on a pair of deep balls in practice in recent days. Yet Hill disappeared in Saturday's teamwide scrimmage. Hill has the physical tools; he just needs to sharpen his routes and bring strong effort consistently. “The route running is still coming. I’m not even going to say I’m perfect on it,” Hill said. “I’m still working and still learning on it. Revis and Cromartie are actually helping me on it, because they’re noticing I do certain things [to tip them off].”
One of the most impressive players during our visit to training camp was defensive end Aaron Maybin. The former first-round pick of the Buffalo Bills has really come into his own with the Jets. Last year, he recorded a career-high six sacks, and he looks even better in his second year in the system. Maybin says the “mayhem” is back, and it has looked that way in training camp. He had a sack and quarterback pressure in Saturday’s scrimmage.
It's difficult to get a feel for new Jets safety LaRon Landry. His action in camp remains limited because of last year’s Achilles injury that was never surgically repaired. Landry practices with the team about once every three days to stay fresh. He played in Saturday’s scrimmage but wasn’t tested much. The Jets have high expectations for Landry, so we're curious to see how well he moves in exhibition games.
Free-agent signing Yeremiah Bell is bringing exactly what the Jets expected at safety. He’s made some big hits and solid plays against the run, but he hasn’t been great in coverage. The combination of Bell and Landry on the back end means the Jets must do a lot of scheming to protect their safeties. That involves a lot of blitzing to get to the quarterback and playing Bell or Landry in the box.
The backup running back situation is interesting. Joe McKnight entered camp as the favorite because of his athleticism and experience. But relative unknown Bilal Powell has been outperforming McKnight. Powell has been more consistent, and McKnight still has a penchant for fumbling.