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Friday, August 24, 2012
W2W4: Jets vs. Panthers

By Rich Cimini

The Jets (0-2) face the Panthers (1-1) Sunday night at MetLife Stadium, a national game on NBC. America gets to see if the Jets, who have turned the end zone into a no-fly zone, can actually score a touchdown in the preseason. Oh, the drama.

Five things to watch:

1. Oh-for-the-preseason? The Jets figured to experience growing pains in Tony Sparano's system, but they didn't think they'd still be looking for their first touchdown in the third game. The ugly numbers: no TDs in 24 possessions, 0-for-2 in the red zone, 5-for-26 on third down and 12 sacks.

The Mark Sanchez-led starting group absolutely needs to generate something -- anything -- or else doubts will start to creep into the locker room, if they haven't already. The starters won't play in the preseason finale, so this is the final chance to build confidence in Sparano, in his system and each other. Sanchez & Co. will play into the third quarter. The Panthers should be an easy mark; they finished 28th in total defense last season.

2. The power of Austin. Austin Howard might be the most scrutinized right tackle in recent preseason history. He starts for the benched Wayne Hunter, a move that has Jets fans rejoicing. Now the question is, can the dude actually play? It's Howard's job to lose. If he bombs, the front office will be wiping egg off its face. Howard has the potential to be a mauling run blocker, a good fit in Sparano's gap scheme, but his lateral quickness is suspect -- and that could show up in pass protection. He won't face any pass rushers the caliber of Justin Tuck or Jason Pierre-Paul, but Panthers LDE Greg Hardy (four sacks last season) is a young, ascending player with a burst. Sparano did game plan for the Panthers, so you can bet Howard will get plenty of tight-end help.

3. Tone time. After missing the first two games with a rib-cartilage injury, WR Santonio Holmes will make his preseason debut. The last time we saw him in a game was New Year's Day in Miami, where he was chased from the huddle by Hunter and benched by Brian Schottenheimer. Now Holmes will be welcomed back with open arms by a desperate offense. The Jets want to get him a few reps with Sanchez, with the hope of adding balance to their one-dimensional offense. (You could argue that it's no-dimensional, but we're being kind.) Slot WR Jeremy Kerley (hamstring) will also make his debut, which would give Sanchez his full complement of receivers for the first time.

4. Tebow yes, Wildcat no. The world will have to wait until Week 1 to see Tim Tebow and the read-option/Wildcat offense. Tebow will play the final quarter or so at quarterback, but we won't see him with the starters in the Wildcat, according to Rex Ryan. The Jets face the Bills in the opener, and the Bills' new QBs coach is David Lee, a former Sparano assistant who hatched the Wildcat in 2008. The Jets have some wrinkles up their sleeve and they don't want to reveal any clues to Lee -- classic NFL paranoia. One hidden aspect of the Sparano offense that could be dusted off is the vertical passing game. Sanchez has yet to attempt a pass longer than 12 yards; look for that to change on Sunday.

5. Where's the pressure? For the most part, the Jets' starting defense has played well, but they've yet to sack a starting quarterback -- a combined total of 23 drop-backs by Eli Manning and Andy Dalton. It's hardly cause for panic -- they haven't used their usual assortment of exotic blitzes -- but they'd like to see more production out of their four-man rush. Pass-rushing specialist Aaron Maybin has been quiet, especially against the first team. Rookie DE Quinton Coples is off to a nice start, but he has produced mostly against second- and third-teamers. Panthers QB Cam Newton is tough to chase down, but he'll provide a good challenge for the Jets' edge players.