2010 NFL Preview, New York Jets: Mark Sanchez Bears The Burden Of Expectation

By John Butchko, Gang Green Nation

The 2009 Jets were a case study in just how many twists and turns an NFL season can have. At the start of the the year, they were a team with a rookie coach and a rookie quarterback in a tough division. A 3-0 start with a win over the Patriots had people talking about a special season. the 1-6 stretch that followed made people call themselves foolish for thinking that team could go far with said rookie head coach and quarterback.

Even a 5-1 finish to the regular season didn't silence doubters. There were a lot of wins over doormats. The Jets allegedly only beat the Colts and the Bengals because those teams decided to lay down. Then the Jets pulled off a pair of road Playoff upsets over division winners. One was against the allegedly superior Cincinnati team they only beat in the regular season because the Bengals rested their starters. The second came as the Jets' defense stifled San Diego's vaunted passing attack. A respectable showing in an AFC Championship Game loss to the Colts made many doubters into believers.

The team with the rookie coach and rookie quarterback fell just short of the Super Bowl. After several big ticket additions, plenty of outside hype, a team full of guys unafraid to tell the outside world how good they are, and even a television series on HBO, expectations are through the roof.
Significant Offseason Additions/Subtractions
One big change was replacing Alan Faneca at left guard with second year pro Matt Slauson. Faneca was still very productive as a run blocker, but his reputation was a bit oversized compared to his production. He slipped mightily as a pass blocker. Slauson played in college under offensive line coach Bill Callahan and appears to be a good fit in the zone scheme the Jets run. He has the potential to be much better as a pass blocker. The question is whether he can replace Faneca in the run game, particularly replicating the work Faneca did consistently pulling when the Jets run right.
Shonn Greene takes over from Thomas Jones as the starter at running back after a coming out party in the postseason. The Jets added LaDainian Tomlinson to spell him. Gang Green hopes its terrific offensive line and a reduced role help Tomlinson regain something resembling his old form after an extremely unproductive last two years in San Diego. He'll be counted on to fill the void in the passing game out of the backfield left by the Leon Washington trade. Washington was a dynamic playmaker coming off a devastating injury. The Jets couldn't agree to a long term deal with him and his agent, Alvin Keels, even before the injury left questions about his future performance.
Santonio Holmes fell into the Jets' laps. The former Super Bowl MVP was acquired for a fifth round pick after the Steelers had a bit too much bad PR in the offseason. He will sit out the first four games of this year with a suspension and has a history of off field problems. Still, a fifth round pick isn't a bad bet on a legitimate number one target playing in a contract year.
Speaking of guys making news off the field, the Jets added Antonio Cromartie from San Diego. Cromartie has made more news about having child after child since his breakout season of 2007 than anything he did on the field. The Jets are counting on him to play better in their man to man scheme more suited to his talents than the zone based defense the Chargers ran during his past two inconsistent seasons. Kyle Wilson also joins the mix at corner, where the Jets were shredded in the AFC Championship Game. The Boise State product was considered by some as the best man to man prospect at his position in the Draft.
Former Jets antagonist Jason Taylor has come aboard to try and beef up a pass rush that struggled to get to the passer without blitzing. Taylor will see a part time role. The Jets hope he can play as well as he did during a productive 2009 in Miami.
Last but not least, the Jets traded Kerry Rhodes to Arizona. The safety had been an underachiever since signing a contract extension before the 2008 season and fell out of favor with the coaching staff due to his attitude. He came on strong at the end of 2009 but not strong enough to save his career in New York. He will be replaced by Brodney Pool, a guy who hits much harder than Rhodes. Rhodes avoided contact like the plague. Pool does come with a history of head injuries due to his physical nature, though, something to be concerned with considering the league's focus on the topic.
The Jets had the most productive rushing attack in the league a year ago. Only the Browns produced less with the passing game, though. Mark Sanchez had a very up and down rookie year. His 20 interceptions indicate a problem with the turnover bug. At least he threw less picks than Brett Favre did in 2008. He got better when the stakes got higher with 4 touchdowns and 2 interceptions in the Playoffs. The Jets are going to expect a big leap from him this year. They need him to go through his progressions, stop locking onto receivers, and stop throwing it into coverage. He has an incredibly array of weapons at his disposal. Holmes, Jerricho Cotchery, and Braylon Edwards might be the most talented trio of wide receivers in the league. Dustin Keller's athleticism makes him a difficult matchup for a lot of teams at tight end, and Tomlinson's pass catching skills should give Sanchez the receiving threat he lost when Washington got hurt.
He will have an excellent offensive line with a pair of Pro Bowlers in D'Brickashaw Ferguson and Nick Mangold, both of whom got big extensions recently. They will join Slauson and proven stalwarts Brandon Moore and Damien Woody in what should be a terrific blocking unit. The Jets also have an elite lead blocker, Tony Richardson, and added the best fullback prospect in the Draft, John Conner, a training camp star.
They will pave the way for Greene and Tomlinson. Greene has a rare combination of size, power, and speed. He posted a pair of 120 yard Playoff games. Tomlinson has looked assertive in preseason and made guys miss. It's only preseason, but those things did not happen much if at all during the end of his career with the Chargers. Rookie Joe McKnight will be the third back. He has struggled to identify running lanes early in his career and had conditioning issues. He has elite agility, though, and has the potential to be dangerous if the Jets can figure out ways to get it to him in space.
The Jets will also use Brad Smith at a variety of spots. Smith is dangerous is space and was a college quarterback, giving him value in gadget plays.
The Jets had the best defense in the league a year ago. The question is whether their best player will be on the field when the season opens. Darrelle Revis had a great case to be Defensive Player of the Year over Charles Woodson in 2009. He wants a new contract to match his performance. The scheme the Jets ran was built around Revis. He matched up against the other team's best receiver on over two-thirds of plays. He shut down some of the best receivers in the game without doubling. He allowed the Jets to roll coverage to the other side of the field to shut down secondary targets. He allowed the coaches to get aggressive with the blitz, knowing coverage would hold if the opponent picked it up. Revis has aggressive agents and is being advised by his uncle, Sean Gilbert, who once sat a year out over a contract dispute. Antonio Cromartie and Kyle Wilson are talented, but they will not be able to do what Revis did. It's a scary situation for Jets fans.
Kris Jenkins returns to the lineup after tearing his ACL last October. Sione Pouha was excellent in his place at nose tackle so Jenkins will move to end in the base 3-4. Opponents will have to deal with a pair of terrific nose tackles on the line. Pouha is a traditional hold the point of attack guy. Jenkins is a rare player with the size of a nose tackle but the athleticism to penetrate. It will be tough to run it on these guys combining with David Harris and Bart Scott, an elite inside linebacker duo.
Jason Taylor will attempt to improve the pass rush splitting time with Bryan Thomas across from the best pass rusher on the roster, Calvin Pace. Pace will miss the first few weeks with a foot injury. While the Jets hope Pace and Thomas will allow them to get to the passer without blitzing, the system calls for a lot of attacking.
Jim Leonhard flies all over the field and is constantly in the middle of big plays. Brodney Pool has a track record of being solid in coverage and is a big hitter.
The biggest question mark is Revis. An attacking defense with great coverage is tough to move the ball against. So is a front with two excellent nose tackles. The Jets have a chance to be special with Darrelle in the lineup. Without him, there is still enough talent for the unit to be very good, but it would be a big loss.
Special Teams
Steve Weatherford was unspectacular in 2009 as a punter but is back.
Nick Folk replaces Jay Feely as kicker. Feely had good numbers, but the kicks he missed tended to be costly. Folk had an awful 2009 for Dallas, recovering from a hip injury. The Jets hope it really was the hip and that a healthy Folk returns to his former Pro Bowl form.
Brad Smith will be the kickoff return man. He is elusive when he has room. The punt returner situation is less clear. Kyle Wilson, an excellent returner at Boise State, figured to have the job, but the Jets might take the responsibility away if he has to start in Revis' absense. Joe McKnight, who has looked good in preseason, might have the inside track for the job in such an event.
The coverage units were best known in 2009 for allowing a pair of touchdown returns to Ted Ginn in the same game, but Mike Westhoff is the best special teams coach in the business. His units are usually near the top of the league.
Very few coaches make a real difference in the NFL. If one looks past his bold predictions, calling out his opponents, and attempts to draw attention to himself and his team, Rex Ryan looks like one of those guys. He turned a middling defense into the best in the league. His players would run through a wall for him. The Jets attracted all of those star free agents at least in part because they wanted to play for Rex.
Ryan runs the defense. That gives Brian Schottenheimer a lot of leeway. Schottenheimer has received mixed reviews. He was instrumental in an undermanned team's 2006 Playoff run. His unwillingness to focus more on the run in light on an unproductive passing game in 2007 and 2008 led to frustration. 2009 was a mixed bag. There were some good things and some bad things. Schottenheimer know his X's and O's as well as anybody in the game. His pedigree as a famous coach's son is responsible for that. It is the way he applies them that is the issue.

There is a fine line between effective gadget plays and too many gimmicks. Schottenheimer straddles that line too frequently. He leaned on the run game out of necessity in 2009 with a struggling rookie quarterback. It took him a while to get to that point, though, with some prodding from the head coach. Even when the Jets were focused on the run, he was still asking Sanchez to make some very difficult reads and throws. With new weapons and a more seasoned quarterback, the passing game will be a much bigger focus this year. Jets fans can only hope it is not too much like in 2008 when Schottenheimer spread the field and threw it far too often even on third and short with the conference's leading rusher. The offensive coordinator is a real wild card.

Conclusion/Prediction for 2010

Seasoned Jets fans know to have their guard up when expectations are high. Something always seems to go wrong. With that said, this is the most talented roster we have seen in a while. The front office has great faith in its head coach to bring together a locker room full of personalilities with good reason. If Sanchez matures to the point where the Jets have even a middle of the road passing game, the Revis situation ends in contract peace, and the team avoids the injury bug, they might just make good on those big expectations.

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