- Rich Cimini, ESPN Staff Writer
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Looking ahead to the season beyond the bye week, the ever-confident Rex Ryan predicted, "We'll make our run."
We all know Ryan issues almost as many forecasts as a newspaper horoscope column, but he happens to be right about this one.
Despite a three-game losing streak that nearly ruined their season, and despite locker-room turmoil and a change-on-the-fly shift in offensive philosophy, the New York Jets (4-3) are in good shape to push for their third consecutive playoff berth.
All things considered, they're lucky to still be in this position. Then again, Ryan's teams have nine lives.
The Jets return from the bye with critical division games against the Buffalo Bills and New England Patriots, which means we should know their AFC East fate by midnight on Nov. 13. A split might not be good enough to remain serious about the division but it would keep them in the wild-card conversation.
It may seem crazy to be positive about a team ranked 28th and 26th in rushing offense and defense, respectively -- especially a team built on those two tenets -- but this warrants a closer look.
The Jets have shown recent signs of improvement in those areas and their schedule isn't loaded with opponents that can exploit them. In fact, six of their remaining nine games are against teams with rushing defenses ranked in the bottom third of the league, meaning Ground & Pound should continue to get better.
Overall, the Jets have only four games against teams with winning records currently -- the Bills (twice), Patriots and New York Giants.
It's all there for the Jets, but they still have some issues to resolve as they move forward. So here are five keys to the remainder of the season:
1. ON THE LINE
You hate to put it all on one unit, but that's exactly what we're going to do. If the Jets want to make the playoffs, the offensive line has to go old-school. By that, we mean 2009 and 2010, grounding and pounding and protecting Mark Sanchez. And creating room for Shonn Greene, who isn't going to make a lot of yards on his own.
When the line is right, the Jets are right.
Everything the Jets do is based on the line's ability to control the point of attack, allowing the offense to play ball control. Last week was a big step in the right direction, as the Jets rushed for a season-high 162 yards. They were confident they'd be able to physically dominate the San Diego Chargers, and they accomplished that with an altered scheme.
Instead of their usual zone-blocking calls, the Jets switched to a man-to-man scheme, meaning more double-team and combination blocks. There's no reason why they shouldn't dominate the Bills, ranked 30th in run defense. In their past four meetings, the Jets have averaged 279 yards on the ground.
Center Nick Mangold, playing through a high-ankle sprain, should be close to 100 percent after the bye week.
2. CLUTCH QB
There are two things we know about the Jets: They're not going to jump on teams in the first quarter (let's face it, they're hopeless) and they're going to play a lot of close games. It's an ugly style, but that's what you get with a defensive-oriented team that plays to the clock.
And it means that Sanchez must be at his best in the fourth quarter.
He's already off to a good start, with two fourth-quarter comeback wins. In fact, Sanchez owns the seventh-best fourth-quarter passer rating in the league (100.7), with five touchdowns and no interceptions.
Sanchez needs to maintain that level of proficiency, because there will be a few games that will be decided by his ability to make a play or two in crunch time, shades of last season.
3. USING THEIR WEAPONS
Everyone got caught up in the Plaxico Burress story, his breakout game against the Chargers, but let's be honest: Burress isn't going to carry the offense every week, not at 34 years old. The Jets' top playmakers are Santonio Holmes and Dustin Keller, and they need to get both players more involved.
The Jets are paying Holmes $9 million a year, but he has only 22 receptions. At this rate, he'll be lucky if he tops 50. It's hard to imagine him being happy with his role and, with his loose-cannon personality, he could create static if he doesn't get his touches.
Keller won't make a stink, but that doesn't mean he should be ignored. Like Holmes, he has the ability to stretch the field and make yards after the catch. He leads the team with 25 catches, but there are too many long stretches where he's a non-factor. Some of that is on Keller, but a lot of it goes to Sanchez and offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, both of whom need to remember the real weapons.
4. NO PLACE LIKE HOME
The Jets used to be a very good road team under Ryan, but not anymore. They're 0-3, having been outscored, 98-62. In fact, they've allowed points in 11 of 12 quarters.
A good defense -- or an elite defense, as Ryan calls it -- should travel well. It should be like a pair of jeans; put it in the suitcase for a few hours and expect it to look the same when you get there.
The Jets need to rediscover their mojo on the road, and they should be able to get it done because they have only three top-10 offenses remaining on the schedule. Two of those -- the Bills and Philadelphia Eagles -- are on the road. Both teams have multiple receiving weapons, which makes it imperative that erratic cornerback Antonio Cromartie improves his week-to-week consistency.
5. ELIMINATE THE BIG CHUNKS
The Jets have been on the field for 446 defensive plays, and they've stunk on at least 23 of them. It doesn't seem like a lot, but stinking adds up quickly.
They've allowed 23 plays of 20-plus yards, totaling 817 yards -- 36 percent of their yards allowed. That ain't good, not for a team that prides itself on shut-down defense.
Chances are, those shut-down days are gone, but the Jets still can have a very good defense if they can eliminate one or two big plays per game. That means covering tight ends, reducing the number of blown coverages and playing consistent run defense.
The latter won't be easy because the Jets are vulnerable on one edge. The season-ending injury to outside linebacker Bryan Thomas is a killer because they don't have an adequate replacement, a poor job by the front office. The Jamaal Westerman-Josh Mauga-Aaron Maybin troika isn't going to get it done, not against the run. They should play more 4-3 fronts, giving run-stuffing rookie Kenrick Ellis a shot.
Ryan, of course, sees big things ahead.
"We're behind where I thought we'd be, but we still have a lot of football in front of us and we're playing teams we have to beat," he said. "They're still in front of us. So, I think that's a good combination."
The playoffs are within reach for Gang Green, but Rex's troops have work to do.