BGA: Bills at Jets – Part One

Bent , TheJetsBlog.com

This analysis is based on watching and re-watching TV footage. As such, it is not always possible to accurately determine everything that was going on. However, every effort has been made to ensure that the information below is as complete and correct as possible.

Note: Your feedback suggested you guys preferred BGA to be split into two parts, so we’ll deal with the offense first. Defense and special teams will be covered in part two to follow later today…

Coming up, your breakdown of yesterday’s 48-28 win over Tyler Thigpen and the Bills, together with detailed analysis of personnel groupings and individual performance.

Join me after the jump as I attempt to cover every angle.

So…that just happened.

Should we be surprised? Perhaps not. It’s been forced down our throats all offseason how the Jets are one of the least talented teams in the league and how they’d failed to address any of their issues. The media has been fixated on the circus surrounding Tim Tebow and the locker room disarray instead of addressing the team’s obvious strengths and their willingness to create a gameplan that maximized them. However, if you hear something enough times, it’s difficult not to start to buy into it.

This team could have believed its own “non-hype” and allowed themselves to be crushed under the weight of low expectations, much like a certain right tackle who was recently shown the door. Instead, they had the strength of character to believe in themselves – and with good reason.

The team really isn’t that far removed from the one that contended for a title a couple of years ago. Even last year, they were 8-5 and should have made the playoffs easily. I can understand people thinking they may have taken a step back (and we can’t say for sure after one game that they haven’t), but it was always ludicrous to suggest they would have fallen off far enough to be one of the league’s worst teams. Clearly that isn’t going to happen unless they get a series of key injuries or something.

Fact is, the Tebow story was never that big of a deal. He’ll make bigger contributions in some other games later this year, but he isn’t the Jets and to make him the centerpiece of every story when there’s a good chance his contribution in a lot of games will be negligible was just preposterous. The Jets seem to have played this to their advantage – using Tebow as a lightning rod of sorts, enabling them to focus on their preparation and maybe even gain motivation from the fact the rest of the team is being disrespected by the lack of coverage.

If you promised to take your kid to a circus, but when you got there it just consisted of a bunch of guys writing stuff down that doesn’t matter, I doubt your kid would have the time of his life, but that’s all this circus amounted to. Clearly, the Jets didn’t let it affect them and it hasn’t become the self-fulfilling prophecy some media members were obviously anticipating.

This team will lose games – probably sooner rather than later with a really tough stretch ahead – and when they do, it will be interesting to see how they cope with that and respond. Let’s not look past the talent this team has, though. Nor should we underestimate the ability of this coaching staff to put that talent to good use.

Okay, rant over (for now). Let’s pick apart the Jets offensive performance with as much clinical precision as the Jets picked apart the Buffalo secondary…

Quarterbacks

Thanks to those of you that said you were looking forward to reading this week’s BGA. However, while it always seems like it will be more fun to read about a big win, you’re perhaps forgetting one of the mantras BGA lives by. Things are never as bad or as good as they seem. In any NFL game, a player will have some good plays and some bad plays. In a way, it’s like any other sport. NBA players don’t shoot 100% and Major League Baseball players don’t hit 1.000. The elite are separated from the pack by virtue of how many more good plays they make than bad plays.

This leads to a situation where the Jets will lose and I’ll highlight some of the good things that may have been overlooked within that performance. Naturally, this makes me a “homer” or an “apologist”. I know it’s been a while, but when the Jets win, I’m often left to pour cold water on the performance in an effort to temper expectations going forward.

Obviously once we get to the defensive section of this week’s BGA, that’s going to happen, but for the most part, on the offensive side of the ball, there are reasons to be optimistic.

Let’s not get too carried away with the offensive performance. Yes, 48 points jumps out at you, but the defense and special teams each contributed to that, by scoring a touchdown each and setting up some good field position. You can’t be too disappointed with 384 yards, though – especially when the Jets played much of the game with a big lead where the temptation to play extra-conservatively could have slowed things to a crawl.

The key to all of this was Mark Sanchez. Another of BGA’s main mantras is that when Sanchez is decisive the Jets offense executes better. That was the case here.

While the offensive line will deservedly get plenty of credit (starting in a few paragraph’s time), it was Sanchez’s decisiveness that was the main reason he wasn’t under a lot of pressure. Maybe he’s more comfortable with the system. Maybe he has more confidence in his protection and/or his receivers. Maybe he just sometimes plays like this. Whatever the reason, he needs to keep doing it, because that’s when he’s at his best.

His numbers were great – the sixth best passer rating in the NFL this week – and yet he could have done a lot better. In particular, he missed a wide open Santonio Holmes down the sideline for a would-be touchdown, then later threw beyond his reach on a post pattern. He also threw slightly too high and outside on a 3rd down pass to an open Jeremy Kerley, forcing the Jets to settle for a field goal in the red zone. While it seems nitpicky to highlight these three poor throws, they were easy, makeable throws. I think that’s a good thing. Even though he misfired on these plays, he still had a hugely productive performance. Those are throws he will be able to make more often than not – especially if his confidence grows, which after a performance like this, it should.

The interception he threw was avoidable too, but it was kind of a freak play and not exactly indicative of how well he threw the ball, because it wasn’t a conventional set-your-feet kind of throw. That was probably the only time all day that he made a really poor decision, although he did also fumble once on a scramble, so he still needs to ensure protecting the ball is a primary focus.

On the whole, though, even focusing on the things he did poorly is encouraging because it showed that the Jets were creating plenty opportunities to move the ball. The chunk plays philosophy was also in full effect as the Jets had 138 yards and 21 points in the second half, but actually didn’t put together many positive offensive plays. 96 of those yards came on five plays.

Let’s not jump the gun on Sanchez because we’ve seen him put together performances like this before in September. However, it’s certainly a case of so far, so good.

I thought about putting the Tim Tebow discussion in the tight end section, because that’s actually where he started the game. I thought that was almost a rib on the part of Rex Ryan. As expected, the Jets used him primarily as a “special package” quarterback. It would be inaccurate to say they just used him in the wildcat, because although they came out in a conventional wildcat formation the first few times, some of the plays later on were more reminiscent of the Seminole or spread option formations. They also used one wildcat variation where they lined two backs up in the backfield instead of motioning one in from the wing.

I don’t need to analyze his performance in too much depth because the TV crew did a good job of putting together a “highlights” package of him basically doing nothing. However, even when they aren’t statistically productive, the true value of these packages is largely intangible, because you can’t gauge how much preparation time they use up or the on-field confusion they bring about.

Oh, and on plays immediately after Tebow was in at quarterback, Sanchez was 4-of-5 for 61 yards and two touchdowns. That should temporarily allay any concerns that using Tebow will mess with his rhythm. Two of these were the misfire down the sideline to Holmes and the slightly off-line third down pass to Kerley in the flat, though, so we should keep an eye on that.

Offensive Line

It sometimes does teams a disservice to evaluate individual performance, especially in the trenches. It was obvious that the Jets’ offensive line blocked well yesterday as a unit and sometimes we need to remind ourselves that this is more important than individual efficiency. However, we can still review each person’s role within that.

Let’s start, as is customary, with the right tackle position. There’s certainly no disputing the results here, as Austin Howard – in just his second NFL start – managed to keep in front of Mario Williams virtually all afternoon. Williams had just one tackle.

Obviously you have to give him all the credit in the world for keeping Williams so quiet (although maybe Bills fans should be worried that Mario is washed-up coming off that injury). Williams did beat him cleanly once and absolutely rocked Sanchez, but that was the extent of the damage.

It was clear that the gameplan was to get rid of the ball quickly and so Howard was going to keep him at bay by getting a good initial punch to slow his momentum. This caused some controversy after the game.

With Howard going after him so aggressively, Williams complained after the game that he was getting “punched in the face every time”. However, he also said it was “illegal hands to the face just about every time” and later softened his stance even further by saying he was getting punched in the face “just about every other time”. Sanchez dropped back to throw 28 times, so “just about every other time” would be roughly 10 times. Did Austin pop him in the chops 10 or more times – quite possibly – but I don’t know that it was “literally – not by accident” as Williams claimed. Howard was going after him, hand fighting, trying to get his hands on him and use his enormous frame to slow down his initial burst enough to allow Sanchez to get the ball out.

I was looking out for evidence of Williams’ complaint and there were times when he did get his hands up around the head area, but I didn’t see any really egregious examples. If there were any inadvertent shots to the head, these could still be punishable, but as Howard himself said, there were no flags. If there was a flag, then Howard would have had to make an adjustment. In the absence of any, maybe it was Williams who should have found some way to adjust.

While Howard deserves the plaudits, his role was made a lot easier by the Jets gameplan. If they were throwing downfield, the Jets went max-protect, so they did a good job of not leaving Howard in a situation where he was forced to stay in front of Williams for any length of time. Williams did half-beat him on four or five occasions, but Sanchez was able to get rid of the ball before the pressure got there.

The rest of the offensive line was great in pass protection, so Sanchez had a lot of clean pockets to step into. If the pocket was collapsing or Sanchez was holding onto the ball too long (both things that were happening last year) then a lot of those times where he was half-beaten would have turned into sacks or pressure.

They also gave Howard plenty of help, but mixed up their methods so as not to make it too predictable. The Bills had been saying during the week that their plan was to get pressure with four, but that enables the Jets to double team one guy or leave an interior lineman free inside to give help. Even with a matchup they (wrongly) assumed they could win on the right side of the Jets’ line, there was scope for the Jets to mitigate any pressure.

Early in the game, the Jets used a tight end on either side of the line and they both chipped the defensive end to the inside before running a route. That would have been something the ends would have had to anticipate every time they had a tight end on their side thereafter, so it contributed towards getting them on their heels even though the Jets didn’t need to do it much the rest of the way. The Jets also left extra guys in to block, especially when throwing downfield and blocked as a unit well, often forming an impenetrable three man wall on the right side of the line.

Other than the big hit Howard surrendered, Slauson was also beaten badly for a hit up the middle. D’Brickashaw Ferguson looked as good as he ever has in pass protection for most of the day, but had one misstep as he tried to cut his man and got hurdled, again leading to Sanchez getting hit. The line surrendered one other pressure as Brandon Moore’s man stunted and went around the outside. As you’d expect, Nick Mangold was almost flawless in pass protection, although he did get called for a (dubious) hold when Sanchez scrambled and fumbled on the first play of the fourth quarter.

Running the ball, the Jets only managed to average 3.3 yards per carry and it was really Sanchez’s high completion percentage and third down success that enabled them to run the ball enough to rack up the yardage they did (118 yards). However, during the second half, there were perhaps a lot of runs where the Jets were happy just to take the time off the clock and not overly concerned with gaining positive yardage.

The rushing attack is extremely dependent on Mangold, who was in fine form. Nearly every successful run they had came from him taking his man and either driving him out of the play or turning them to the side to open a running lane. He wasn’t entirely perfect, getting beaten on the inside on one run that was stuffed and failing to sustain his block on a couple of other occasions, but he was definitely the most consistently dominating player upfront, as usual.

Slauson, on the other hand, didn’t get off to a great start. He had one good pulling block to the right, but too often let his man get off his block, including one play that was stuffed in the backfield. I’m still wondering just how close it was between Slauson and Vladimir Ducasse in preseason.

Moore turned in a mostly positive performance. In Sparano’s offense he is required to get on the move a lot more, something he rarely did in Bill Callahan’s scheme. On one occasion, he nailed this, pulling to the left, getting on the outside shoulder of his target and then turning him back to the inside to create an outside running lane. Most of his best work saw him drive blocking, sometimes in tandem with Howard. He did fail to sustain a couple of blocks and also false started once, but overall looked a lot better than he did this time last year.

Ferguson got beaten inside a couple of times in the running game and wasn’t required to make many key blocks, often making straightforward kick-out or second level blocks. However, he did get in front of a screen pass well, even though he didn’t make a block, the defender was backing away from him, so that created extra yardage. He had one good block on the move to the outside in the fourth quarter and did of course recover a fumble. Still, it’s pass protection that defines Ferguson’s role and on this occasion he did that well.

Howard had more of a significant role in the running game and had his ups and downs. On the whole, I’d say there was more good than bad from him, especially in the second half. None of the negative plays he had saw him beaten cleanly.

One last interesting feature on the offensive line was the use of Jason Smith in the jumbo package for 15-20 snaps. Smith was used almost exclusively in tandem with new tight end Konrad Reuland. There was one series in the fourth quarter where they had one play each without the other on the field, but other than that they entered the game together, usually on the same side of the line, but with Reuland sometimes motioning over to the other side.

While these were often running plays, they did pass sometimes out of this formation, including the flea-flicker, which was probably the longest time the protection had to hold up for all day. Smith did a good job as the sixth lineman, with some good run blocking, especially in the second half.

Running Backs

Shonn Greene had a low yards-per-carry average and fumbled the ball twice. Had Sanchez not been quite so accurate, the Jets might have tried to pass more to avoid getting into passing downs and we’d be lamenting a performance similar to the ones Greene had at the start of last season. That’s a trap the Jets fell into too often last season. However, the Jets stuck with the running game and kept their faith in it – and in Sanchez’s ability to keep the chains moving.

27 carries for Greene has to be an encouraging number and in the tradition of ground and pound and the keep-chopping-wood philosophy, he spent the whole day battling for tough yardage, but then was able to break one to the second level against a worn down defense. He also got into the endzone (one play after his second fumble, on which he did look to have broken the plane anyway).

Other than that late run, he only had one other run for more than six yards – a driving 12 yard surge up the middle in the first half. However, he was consistent in terms of picking up yardage. He lost a yard on one play and was stopped for no gain on another, but the other 25 carries all picked up positive yardage. The fumbles have to stop, though. He eliminated them almost completely last year, so hopefully this will merely serve as a reminder to protect the ball as he did last year.

Bilal Powell arguably already showed more in this game than he did all of last year. He had an easy 16 yard gain on a checkdown from Sanchez in the two minute drill and carried the ball just three times, although he picked up a first down with a nice cut, again in the two minute drill. He got plenty of playing time in the Tebow package and on third downs, staying in to block and only letting his man get anywhere near Sanchez once.

Joe McKnight carried the ball just once and didn’t get much playing time. However, I think he’s a pretty good third choice and obviously this frees him up to have a full-time role on special teams, where he excels.

John Conner had some crushing blocks from the fullback position, but he still hasn’t learned that if you try to light a guy up at the NFL level, he’ll often just bounce off you and still make the play. Therefore, he again had more negative than positive plays. On the plus side, this is another area where there is room for improvement, despite the big offensive day.

Receivers

No unit came under as much criticism as the receivers in recent weeks. While Holmes rubbed a lot of people up the wrong way with his behavior last year, he still caught over 50 passes and eight touchdowns in a down year. Chaz Schilens has always been productive when healthy. Kerley showed plenty of promise and produced well when given playing time. These aren’t a bad group of players. Now toss Stephen Hill into the mix and if he’s not going to be the first option, he can be productive too.

Hill was, to some extent, a beneficiary of the Bills stacking the box to stop the run. This left him in a lot of one on one situations and he’s been getting open in those situations all preseason. After failing to make a diving catch on the first series, he rebounded by showing good physicality to get open and make a first down catch. He then drew a pass interference penalty and ran a terrific whip route on third and two to convert another first down. His other three catches were all memorable – a long touchdown where he got easy separation on a pump and go route, a 27-yard gain on a flea-flicker where he came back to the ball and another touchdown on a pass which Sanchez pointed out was the same route he threw a pick-six on in preseason. Two major positives here – Hill’s ability to get open in a variety of ways and the fact he didn’t drop the ball.

As for Santonio Holmes, he more than did his part. All four of his catches went for first downs, he was open on two other plays that could have been big gains and was just a split second away from getting his second foot down for a spectacular touchdown catch. Even with those near misses, if he averages 68 yards for the whole season, he’ll end up with over 1,000 and there’s no question he opened things up for other people.

Kerley had a big day, with four catches on offense including one for a touchdown. It seems he’s responded to Rex Ryan’s preseason criticism well and if Rex Ryan hadn’t made those comments in the media, none of us would be any the wiser about the fact he was ever going to do anything other than build on last year’s promising rookie season.

Schilens didn’t do much – one short catch and a fumble recovery – but it was positive to see that he emerged from this game unscathed. Unfortunately, Patrick Turner did not, injuring his hamstring without seeing any real time on offense.

At tight end, Jeff Cumberland and Dustin Keller were often employed in tandem – with Cumberland on the inside. I wonder if Keller was less than 100% because Cumberland did seem to get a bigger share than I’d expect of the reps in one TE formations. Keller caught just one pass, but only had a couple of bad blocks and did make one good block on a well-executed legal pick play (where he made the block a split second after the pass was caught).

It was good to see Cumberland involved in the passing game – he caught three first down passes – and his blocking held up reasonably well. On the Sanchez interception, the pass was behind him and it was bad luck that he deflected it straight up into the air, but he isn’t totally blameless because he could have done a better job of either blocking for Sanchez or running a more definitive route as Sanchez rolled out. Ironically, Sanchez’s only interception was a product of someone else not being decisive enough.

Finally, Reuland did a solid job. He only had a couple of negative plays and certainly showed that he can block well enough to enable the Jets’ offense to remain versatile. He clearly takes pride in his blocking and had a handful of positive blocks to open running lanes and held up well the few times he was called upon to pass protect. He is apparently a smart guy and seems to have picked up the scheme well so far.

We’re only halfway through – I’ll be back tonight with a look at the defense and special teams, together with final conclusions…