- Rich Cimini, ESPN Staff Writer
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FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Rex Ryan all but guaranteed his sputtering offense will get straightened out by the season opener, but the ever-confident New York Jets coach stopped short of saying struggling right tackle Wayne Hunter is part of the solution.
Ryan refused Monday to commit to Hunter as the opening-day starter, leaving open the possibility that Hunter's backup -- Austin Howard -- could see time with the starters Sunday when the Jets face the Carolina Panthers.
"But is it a slam dunk, 100 percent (with Hunter)? I like to see guys compete and earn a job."
The beleaguered Hunter is on notice.
After allowing 2½ sacks in Saturday night's 26-3 loss to the New York Giants, a continuation of his 2011 struggles, Hunter has received unprecedented criticism for an offensive lineman. He's getting bashed on radio call-in shows, the kind of vitriol usually reserved for head coaches and quarterbacks.
"I'm the starting right tackle until they say otherwise," a terse Hunter said after practice.
Teammates rallied to Hunter's defense, professing their faith in the veteran tackle. Quarterback Mark Sanchez described it as a pay-it-forward situation, promising to support Hunter the way some veterans helped him through his rookie year, 2009.
"There had to be times when guys on the team were just like, 'What are we doing with this guy? There is no way,' " Sanchez said. "That stuff happens to everybody, I don't care who you are. All I can remember is the guys around me building me up, staying positive, having faith in me and being encouraging. That's exactly what I'm going to do to Wayne. That's what everybody's doing to Wayne, because we know he can do it."
Hunter, who missed the first game because of a stiff back, was rusty against the Giants -- and they made him pay. On his first sack, by Jason Pierre-Paul, he got caught putting too much weight on his outside foot, resulting in a loss of balance. Actually, it should've been 3½ sacks allowed, but one was nullified because of a phantom offsides penalty on the Giants.
Ryan wasn't overly critical of Hunter, saying that plenty of right tackles struggle against the Giants' pass rush. But, obviously, Ryan is concerned. The Jets traded for former Carolina Panther Jeff Otah on the eve of training camp, thinking he could replace Hunter, but Otah flunked his physical.
Ryan said "we'll see how it goes this week" when asked if he'd give Howard some first-team reps against the Panthers. The Jets also are exploring the possibility of acquiring another veteran, which is why Ryan stopped short of proclaiming Hunter as his Week 1 starter.
"I'm not going to paint myself into a corner because things happen," Ryan said.
In practice, Hunter received the majority of the first-team reps, with Howard replacing him for a handful of plays. New offensive coordinator Tony Sparano said it's too soon to say how the playing time will be divided in the upcoming game, but he acknowledged "it's possible" that Howard gets a look with the starters.
Sparano, too, expressed support of Hunter, who has admitted he was the weak link in last year's line.
"He had a couple of plays that were under the lights, so to speak, but those are fundamental things more than anything else," Sparano said.
The preseason is only two games old, and already the fan base is restless. The Jets are the only team that hasn't scored a touchdown. In eight possessions, the Sanchez-led starting unit has yet to score a point. They've allowed a total of 12 sacks in two games.
"We're called an offense; we have to be on the offensive," Sanchez said. "We have to score points. That's the bottom line."
Sparano insisted there were more "efficient plays" against the Giants than in the first game. He seemed almost bemused by the outcry from critics.
"Last time I checked, I don't think anybody wins anything coming out of the preseason," he said.
Help could be on the way.
Wide receivers Santonio Holmes (ribs) and Jeremy Kerley (hamstring), both of whom missed the first game, participated Monday in positional drills. Ryan hasn't ruled out either player for the Panthers, although it appears unlikely that Holmes will play. Wide receiver Chaz Schilens (ankle) is expected to miss his second straight game.
Even though Sparano, Hunter and the offense are getting hammered by fans and media, Ryan insisted the early funk isn't a harbinger for 2012.
"Yes, it bothers me (that we haven't scored a touchdown), but we don't need to be at our best right now," he said. "We need to be at our best opening day and I am confident that when we get going, we will be.
"I believe wholeheartedly that our offense will be very productive. This is a work in progress. When it's said and done, we are going to be productive on offense. It's as simple as that."
13hEric D. Williams