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Thursday, October 6, 2011
Updated: October 8, 12:21 PM ET
Jets look to avert crisis in New England

By Rich Cimini
ESPNNewYork.com

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- When Rex Ryan's loud and cutting words stopped reverberating Monday afternoon in the meeting room, the New York Jets rebooted and started to focus on the New England Patriots.

They've done it with big words, small deeds and a little creativity.

The Jets, their season teetering on the brink of crisis after two ugly losses in a row, have emphasized mental preparation. They see the Patriots as the smartest team they face, the one that makes the best in-game adjustments, so the Jets hit their playbooks for extra studying and the film room for longer looks at the Patriots.

And the buzzer for ... well, more on that in a bit.

"We're playing the No. 1 team in the division," Ryan said, "so we have to get everything fixed -- now."

On Monday, Mark Sanchez called the offense together on the practice field and delivered a stick-together speech. He wanted to squash possible dissension (see Santonio Holmes' pointed postgame comments) and set a positive tone for what would be a trying week.

Offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, after reviewing the Baltimore debacle, decided to scale back this week's game plan, hoping to eliminate mental mistakes. There was a back-to-basics approach in practice, right down to extra work on the center-quarterback exchange.

Line coach Bill Callahan tweaked a couple of run-scheme techniques. His embattled linemen decided to stay late each day, watching extra tape as a group. They asked the scout-team defensive linemen to mimic specific pass-rushing moves used by the Patriots.

Wide receiver Derrick Mason volunteered for double duty, running with the scout team just to give the starting defense a better look.

On Thursday, the coaches went outside the box to help Sanchez. They timed pass plays and used a buzzer to force him into a quicker delivery to avoid unnecessary hits. Hold it too long and ... buzzzzzz! If the Patriots' pass rush gets to him, he won't be hearing footsteps, he might be hearing buzzers. But Thursday it resulted in the sharpest practice of the season, according to Ryan.

Yes, the Jets have taken a let's-get-serious approach, but as Bill Parcells used to say, they don't give medals for trying. The only thing that matters is what happens Sunday in Foxborough, where they return to the scene of their greatest triumph since Super Bowl III -- the stunning upset in last season's AFC divisional playoffs.

Right now, there's no resemblance to the team that made magic last Jan. 16. They're lacking cohesion, purpose and energy, not performing close to their talent level. Ryan admitted as much, saying, "I'm bothered by the fact that we're a better football team than how we're playing right now" -- a brutally honest self-indictment.

This isn't Ryan's first rough patch as a head coach, but it's the most difficult set of circumstances he has faced in two-plus seasons. Unlike the two three-game losing streaks in 2009 and the near collapse last December, this can't be blamed on the growing pains of a young quarterback.

No, Sanchez isn't playing well, but he's not the only leak. Fissures have formed all around him -- poor pass protection, no running game and inconsistent defense. Lately, the Jets can't win a quarter, let alone a game. It's shocking because they've always been a tough, smart and resilient team under Ryan.

They realize there's a nation of Jets bashers reveling in their misery, and they hope to feed off that.

"Since Rex got here, we're the outlaws of the NFL," guard Matt Slauson said. "Everybody wants to beat the Jets, everybody wants to shut up the Jets. I think we kind of like that. We embrace that role. That's OK, because they aren't going to be happy come December and January and the first week of February. They're going to be sad."

For now, the goal is to duplicate Jan. 16, but it won't be easy. You can fool Bill Belichick once, but twice in a row? That day, the Jets got into Tom Brady's head and gave it a spin, making him so disoriented that he couldn't have read an eye chart from five paces. This time, the Patriots will have answers.

It's certainly not the biggest regular-season game of the Ryan era, but it could turn out to be the most telling. We'll learn a lot Sunday evening, a lot about Ryan and his ability to navigate a potential crisis. It's going to take more than a faux Hall of Fame blazer, and some funny lines, to fix his team.

"If we're not at our best, we won't win this game," Ryan said. "We have to be at our best and we'll see. I feel confidence we can win."

But some of the bedrocks of the Ryan foundation are cracking.

The Jets have always been a very good road team, but they've dropped two straight for the first time since early 2009. A loss to the Patriots would be their first three-game skid under Ryan. They've always punished opponents with their ground game, but now a 4-yard run is a victory.

They've allowed 34 points in back-to-back weeks, something that didn't happen at all in the first 27 games under Ryan. In case you're counting, it's happened four times in the last nine games.

They've been outscored in the first and third quarters, 55-40, an indication they're not as prepared and not adjusting at halftime as well as they have in the past.

Sanchez said there was "tough coaching" during the week, starting with Ryan's high-decibel rant in Monday's team meeting. Ryan vowed a return to Ground and Pound, a tacit admission the Jets have lost their offensive identity.

This team has issues, but nothing can cure a malady like a win over a hated rival.

Let's face it, Ryan has the blueprint on how to beat the Patriots; he's 3-2 versus Belichick. In the playoff game, he and defensive coordinator Mike Pettine cooked up a coverage-based game plan that absolutely befuddled Brady, who was sacked five times.

"If you just play a standard coverage against him, you've got no chance -- zero," Ryan said. "You better hope for hurricane or something."

The Jets flooded the field with defensive backs, using at least five on 37 of Brady's 45 pass attempts, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Their defensive ends lined up wider than usual, baiting him into throwing to the middle of the field -- and the Jets choked the middle with cornerbacks and safeties.

"The easy thing to say is, it worked the last time ... just blow the dust off that [game plan] and use it," Pettine said.

Ah, but that probably wouldn't work, and Pettine knows it, so they have to add wrinkles. The Patriots are difficult because they use a "flavor-of-the-week" offense, as Pettine called it, unveiling new formations and personnel groupings each week. You prepare for stuff you may never see in a game.

"It's chasing ghosts," Pettine said.

The Jets made Brady see ghosts last January, a day when the imperfect team played a near perfect game. It seems so long ago.