- Rich Cimini, ESPN Staff Writer
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CORTLAND, N.Y. -- How can something that weighs 1,555 pounds get crushed? Meet the New York Jets' offensive line.
Once regarded as one of the NFL's premier units, the Jets' line absorbed a heavy dose of criticism last season after an uncharacteristic performance. It hardly quieted the noise with a spotty showing in Friday night's preseason opener, but this is a proud, seasoned group that won't let a hiccup ruin the goal.
And the goal is to get back to the top.
"We know who we are," left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson said last week with a hint of defiance in his voice.
Ferguson is the last guy on the line you'd expect to engage in tough talk, but it's clear he doesn't appreciate the dark chatter about the prospects for 2012-13. He said he believes last year's slippage will only make the unit stronger.
"Can you take a punch? That's the key," he said. "If you're a boxer, and all you can do is throw and never take a punch, they're never going to consider you a great boxer. Everybody would be like, 'Oh, he has a glass jaw. But you eat a couple of punches and give it back ... well, all right."
Ferguson sounded like he was getting worked up.
"I always think of boxing," he said, riding the analogy. "If a guy is a four-time champion, that means he must have lost a few times because he had to regain the title. You still look at him as an accomplished guy. We want to be that guy."
With three returning Pro Bowl players -- Ferguson, center Nick Mangold and right guard Brandon Moore -- the Jets have enough plaques on the wall to think that way. But their first game left folks thinking back to last season, wondering if it will get worse before it gets better.
The backups didn't fare any better. By the end of the night, the Jets had surrendered five sacks in 29 drop-backs, the kind of ratio that will land your quarterback in the hospital.
"We've got some things to clean up, protection-wise," quarterback Mark Sanchez said after the game, adding that the running game was "a little sluggish."
It's simple: The Jets can't win if they can't run the ball. They're not built to be a passing team, and that's not who they want to be under new coordinator Tony Sparano. They want to turn back the playbook to 2009, when they grounded and pounded opponents into submission.
Don't put too much weight on Friday night. There was a neophyte at right tackle, Austin Howard, and they didn't have wide receiver Santonio Holmes (ribs) to keep the Bengals from overplaying the run. The result was ... blech. The Sanchez-led offense generated two first downs in two possessions.
Considering the circumstances, give them a mulligan. But let's not ignore the potential issues.
Instead of upgrading at right tackle, the Jets decided to give the beleaguered Hunter another shot -- which is risky. They tried to replace him (see Jeff Otah), and they might not be done looking, but it'll probably end up being Hunter's job.
They evidently don't have total confidence in left guard Matt Slauson, either, because last week they made him swallow a $250,000 pay cut. The Jets say the much-maligned Vladimir Ducasse will see some action in Slauson's spot, another way of saying they're not happy with the status quo.
Their hope is that Sparano, an old line coach by trade, will be able to work some X's and O's magic. His offensive philosophy centers on two core beliefs -- protect the quarterback and run the ball. He's not a strong proponent of maximum-protection schemes, but he's also not going to put one of his players in a bad situation.
Does Hunter trying to block DeMarcus Ware bring back any memories?
"If they can wreck the game, you have to be able to come up with an answer," said Sparano, alluding to elite pass-rushers. "Our guys know we'll give them protection help. I think that's important."
Sparano has been around this group for only a few months, but he already senses a determination.
"I do sense that mindset," he said. "Look, it's no secret that in our business, when it doesn't go well, everybody gets beat up a little bit. In that group, it's happened. Whether it's fair or not, it's not my place to say. All I know is, they want to be good."
It's time to punch back.
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