- Rich Cimini, ESPN Staff Writer
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FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Offensive linemen are supposed to be the quiet guys, the anonymous, blue-collar workers. It's no different on the New York Jets. Their linemen prefer smashmouth over big mouth, but they have a lot of pride and will speak out if called out.
It happened three weeks ago, when understated guard Brandon Moore ripped teammate Santonio Holmes for criticizing the O-line. On Monday, guard Matt Slauson took an unsolicited shot at a former member of the fraternity, retired tackle Damien Woody, an ESPN studio analyst who recently questioned the line and its ability to execute a Ground-and-Pound attack.
Slauson, the closest thing they have to a loose cannon among the offensive linemen, scoffed at the negative comments and claimed Woody's replacement, Wayne Hunter, is an "upgrade" at right tackle. Now that's a twist. Now they're attacking their own kind.
"I watch a lot of things on the NFL Network and ESPN, and they're all saying, 'Well, the Jets can't run the ball because they're not the same team. They don't have the guys that can grind on you, play after play,'" said Slauson, a not-so-veiled reference to Woody's criticism. "But that just isn't true. We have the guys.
"Our offensive line is the same, except we have Wayne. And, in our opinion, that's an upgrade."
We'll address the validity of Slauson's comments a bit later, with a response from Woody. For now, let's focus on what this intra-fraternity trash-talk really means.
It means the Jets' once-vaunted line, which appeared to be crumbling a month ago, is starting to regain its swagger. That's a good thing for the Jets, because if this team is going to make a serious playoff run, it will need a vintage performance from the men up front.
For better or worse, they've returned to their run-first roots and they're 2-1 since realizing that Mark Sanchez isn't ready to be Eli Manning. The weather is getting colder (heck, it already looks like winter in northern New Jersey), and the Jets will need their all-weather offense for the stretch run.
Note the location of their next eight games: They're all potential cold-weather contests, with seven games in the Northeast and one in Denver. There are no days in a dome and they don't head south until the season finale in Miami.
The Jets absolutely need their running game. If they can't maintain what they started in their win over the San Diego Chargers -- a season-high 162 yards on the ground -- the Jets will be an also-ran. They should be able to keep it going against the Buffalo Bills (5-2), who, despite their surprising success, still struggle on defense and have a history of being dominated by the Jets' rushing attack.
"I feel really good about where we're at," Rex Ryan said as he welcomed his players back from a six-day vacation during the bye. "As an offense, I feel we're at our best right now."
The line was positively dreadful over the first four games, but part of that could be attributed to Nick Mangold's two-game absence due to a high-ankle sprain. But let's be honest: Hunter, handed the right-tackle job when Woody was released, was a human E-Z Pass lane.
It created an unusual dynamic. For years, the line was one of the strengths of the team. Suddenly, it was besieged with criticism. Evidently it touched a nerve, evidenced by Slauson's zinger. Woody, reached by phone, took the high road.
"Everybody is entitled to their opinion and, clearly, that's what Matt thinks," Woody told ESPNNewYork.com. "I'm not going to argue. That's his teammate, and he's supporting his teammate. My body of work speaks for itself. I'm proud of what we accomplished when I was there. I'm retired, I've moved on."
Before injuries caught up to him late last season, Woody was a road grader, a starter on one of the best run-blocking lines in recent memory. The 2009 Jets averaged 172 yards per game, nearly twice the current mark.
Hunter is no Woody, not yet, but he has improved in recent weeks. Woody acknowledged as much, adding that he's rooting for his replacement to succeed. He also said the last game was a positive step for the entire line, which exhibited that old Ground-and-Pound mentality.
"Looking at that San Diego game, that was the first time they were getting after people and knocking people off the ball," Woody said. "I think a big part of it was scheme. They changed up schematically. Instead of running horizontally, they got back to north-south running. If they stay with that, they definitely have a chance."
But there was a disclaimer.
"This book is incomplete right now," Woody added. "There's a lot of football to be played. Let's write the book at the end of the season."
Slauson sounded convinced that better days are ahead for the running game, claiming, "One of these games, we're just going to pop." He said he admired Woody as a player, but added, "Wayne is an incredible athlete. As long as we can work and learn and execute, our line is going to be better in the coming games and in the coming years."
Told his comments might result in him being removed from Woody's Christmas-card list, Slauson smiled and said he never received cards from Woody. To which Woody replied, not in a ha-ha kind of way: "If he's looking for Christmas cards, he should send me his address."
The Jets' offensive line is coming alive, and just in the nick of time.