Commentary

Jets may be better sans Santonio

Gang's offense has had to change its Tone -- but will it fly against Fish?

Updated: October 26, 2012, 2:33 PM ET
By Rich Cimini | ESPNNewYork.com

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Five weeks ago, the New York Jets beat the Miami Dolphins with a little bit of luck and a lot of Santonio Holmes, who delivered one of the team's best receiving performances in recent memory.

"Sanchez-Holmes football," Holmes crowed after the game.

[+] EnlargeMark Sanchez
Marc Serota/Getty ImagesMark Sanchez won't have Santonio Holmes to throw to against the Dolphins this time. That may not be so bad a thing.

Since then, the Jets have changed their Tone.

Holmes is gone, recovering from season-ending foot surgery. Without their most accomplished receiver, the Jets were supposed to be toast, but they actually could be … better?

Yes, better.

It sounds like a preposterous concept, but Mark Sanchez, no longer reliant on one receiver, is seeing the field better than before, according to teammates. He's finding the open receiver more often, they said, perhaps because he longer feels a sense of obligation to throw it to the resident diva, Holmes -- open or not. He's trusting others because … well, he has no choice.

It's no coincidence his completion percentage has improved from 49 percent to 53 percent over the last three games.

New England Patriots cornerback Devin McCourty told NFL.com last week that Sanchez is "a little tougher now that Holmes is gone." The Jets' passing attack is healthier and more balanced without Holmes, who, frankly, is overrated. Oh, they miss his ability in the clutch -- see the Miami win -- but you get the feeling that Sanchez isn't crying over the loss of Holmes.

"I wouldn't say one's easier or harder," said Sanchez, comparing a Holmes-led receiving corps to a Holmes-less corps. "I feel confident either way, it doesn't matter to me. I love having Tone in there. I love playing with these guys. That doesn't matter."

Sunday will be a good test for Sanchez & Co. The Dolphins will be in town for a huge game -- pass the hot sauce, please -- and now we'll see if the Jets can pull off the sweep without their $9 million-a-year receiver.

They lose nine catches for 147 yards, Holmes' production that day in Miami -- his first 100-yard game in nearly two years. But they gain diversity.

Jeremy Kerley, coming off a career game, is establishing himself as one of the rising talents in the league. Rookie Stephen Hill, his killer drop notwithstanding, is improving every week. Tight end Dustin Keller, finally healthy after a month-long hamstring battle, is back to being Sanchez's go-to guy over the middle.

"Guys don't respect them enough, to be honest," Sanchez said. "I think it's an explosive group. The reason the ball is going around is because all of them have the ability to get open. I love Tone … but when someone says, 'How do you feel playing without a No. 1?' -- that's not [fair] for the guys we have."

This no-name group is playing with a chip on its shoulder. It heard the criticism, starting in training camp, when one of their own teammates -- cornerback Antonio Cromartie -- tweaked the receiving corps. When Holmes went down, the noise intensified from the outside.

Let's be honest: It was kind of a suspect group until Hill and Keller returned.

"They thought we were the worst in the world," receiver Chaz Schilens said of the critics. "It's disrespectful. Whatever people say about us, I think we're proving people wrong, week in, week out."

The passing game has become less predictable. Before he lost his No. 1 receiver, Sanchez directed 33 percent of his pass attempts to Holmes. Since the injury, the pass distribution between the No. 1 and No. 2 receiver is almost even -- 22 percent to 24 percent. He's also checking down to his backs at a much higher rate than before.

Kerley has become a tough cover for opponents. Since the Holmes injury, he ranks fourth in the AFC in receiving yards (238). He and Sanchez have developed a rapport, especially on vertical routes.

Only 5-foot-9, Kerley isn't your protypical deep threat, but he and Sanchez have connected on 77 percent of the balls that traveled at least 15 yards in the air, according to ESPN Stats & Information -- second among quarterback-receiver tandems.

Keller said he always had a good feeling about Kerley. He recalled having conversations with Sanchez at the last two "Jets West" passing camps about Kerley's potential.

"Mark and I would sit there and we'd watch him run his routes and say, 'Kerley is really good,'" Keller said.

Kerley still is learning to play on the perimeter, dramatically different than the slot. Five of his seven receptions last week came out of the slot, his natural position. His two catches on the outside were against a Cover 2, which afforded him a free release and the chance to find soft spots in the zone.

"I want to prove to others I can be a total receiver," Kerley said.

The receiving corps still is far from polished. It has two middle-of-the-field threats in Keller and Kerley, but its lacks a consistent player on the perimeter. Maybe Hill can be that guy. Clyde Gates has impressed in practice and he could get a shot this week.

Chances are, Sanchez will need another 40-pass game to beat the Dolphins, whose stifling run defense will force the Jets to the air. Except for cornerback Sean Smith, Miami's secondary is nothing special. Their other starting corner, Richard Marshall, is expected to miss his third straight game. He's probably still experiencing whiplash, the result of trying to cover Holmes.

To his credit, Holmes was a franchise receiver that day, despite extra coverage.

"They tried to key everything on Santonio," Schilens said. "The way Dustin, Jeremy and Stephen are playing, they're going to have their hands full, even more so than before. It's good for us. It's good for our team to have as many weapons as we can."

Rich Cimini

ESPN New York Jets reporter

EDITORS' PICKS

ALSO SEE