BGA: Cardinals at Jets – Part One (Offense)

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.

Coming up, your breakdown of yesterday’s win over Arizona, together with detailed analysis of personnel groupings and individual performance.

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

The beleaguered head coach had no other option but to turn to a fresh-faced, nervous-looking youngster with no experience and he somehow managed to lead them to victory with a big fourth quarter comeback. However, that’s enough about season one of “Friday Night Lights”, let’s look at how Matt Saracen Greg McElroy led the Jets to their fifth win of the year over the Arizona Cardinals.

After a game like that, most football analysts would be all, “If I wanted to write about New York beating Arizona 7-6, I’d have joined the staff of Metsblog”, but you know me by now. I LOVED this game. Defensive football has always been my thing, so a 7-6 win represents fantasy football as far as BGA is concerned. It’s the kind of low-scoring win that should be a staple of the Rex Ryan era. Only…

On this day three years ago, the Jets beat Buffalo 19-13 in another game Mark Sanchez was unable to finish (this time due to injury). Since that time, they were 0-18 in regular season games when they scored 21 points or less…until yesterday’s win.

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What does that mean? EIGHTEEN in a row! Is it that the defense can’t be expected to go for 60 minutes if the offense isn’t at least doing its part to keep them off the field? Is it that the offense makes so many costly mistakes that the defense concedes too many points even when it plays well? Are they just incredible unlucky when it’s a tight game? It will be interesting to see if that pattern changes with a different quarterback at the helm, although I’m still not sure that will explain it.

If more low-scoring wins are on the way, sign me up! I actually attended the last Jets-Cards game and it began similarly to yesterday’s game with no score at the end of the first quarter. However, it then morphed into a happier version of the Thanksgiving loss to the Pats, with the Jets defense taking over in a monster second quarter that gave them a 34-0 halftime lead. They went on to win 56-35, but I can honestly say I enjoyed yesterday’s game more. This time, the second quarter produced more of the same from both teams and the second half wasn’t much different either.

However, the crowd got a noticeable lift from the quarterback change and it seemed like the atmosphere inside the Jumbo Slinky was as good as it’s been for a long time. In a season which will almost certainly go down as a disappointment, yesterday was a fun diversion and a well-deserved lift for Jets fans.

Let’s look at all the individual performances:

Quarterbacks

I’m going to start with Mark Sanchez, although this might be the last time anyone ever does. I’ve been criticized for making too many excuses for Sanchez in the past and for putting too much of the blame on him, but yesterday the one person whose opinion actually matters decided he had seen enough.

Throwing a horrible interception off your back foot on the first play of the game is one thing, but Sanchez has rebounded from a bad start before. Sure enough, he made a couple of completions and moved the team pretty effectively, only to throw two more interceptions before half time. I’m not sure what he was looking at on the second interception, although Jeff Cumberland didn’t seem to help him and perhaps wasn’t expecting that throw or maybe even ran the route wrongly. On the final interception the ball was slightly underthrown, but Patrick Peterson made a sensational play to come down with the ball.

It wasn’t just the interceptions, though. He had key passes batted down, a couple more near picks, didn’t diagnose blitzes or get rid of the ball well enough and his accuracy and timing were spotty all day. It’s fair to say that his receivers didn’t help him too much with a couple of drops, although his ball placement could have been better on all of these, as he threw high on a checkdown to Bilal Powell, behind Jeremy Kerley on a slant route and underthrew Chaz Schilens who had deep separation. Underthrowing deep balls seems to have been happening a lot for Sanchez recently, adding weight to suspicions that he has been suffering with some kind of injury.

For what might be the last game of the Sanchez era, but could just be a temporary blip in his ongoing tenure as the Jets’ starting quarterback, I wanted to highlight some particular plays that illustrate where some of the issues with this offense lie.

First of all, there was a third down throw to Jeff Cumberland. Sanchez threw to Cumberland, who came back towards the football and the pass was broken up two yards short of the first down marker. Last year, most people would have blamed Brian Schottenheimer for calling a play where the primary target ran short of the first down marker. This year, most people would have blamed Cumberland for not running a perfect route. However, the picture below illustrates the problem perfectly.

Sanchez is releasing the pass as Cumberland has got some separation from Kerry Rhodes beyond the first down marker. That’s too late. The ball should have already been in the air and then Cumberland would have been able to make the catch beyond the marker. Instead Cumberland’s momentum carried him back beyond the marker and Rhodes had time to break on the ball and knock the pass down. If you re-watch the play, Sanchez hesitates, pats the ball and even pumps once before releasing it.

Now, the reason for this is obvious. He is too concerned that Cumberland isn’t going to break at the correct moment and that his throw will end up being intercepted. In fact, you could maybe link this back to his second interception and maybe he had expected Cumberland to break off his route at a different point there. While that’s a valid excuse, Sanchez simply has to trust his receivers otherwise he isn’t going to complete passes, put together drives and score points. Obviously the fans would still boo him if he did the right thing and it ended badly, so his hesitancy is understandable, but the lack of chemistry between him and his receivers is alarming at times.

Let’s look at a different situation. Here you can see that, following a play-action fake, Kerley is the primary option on another third down, running a simple quick slant.

The result of the play? Sanchez took a sack. Again, I can understand why he might be hesitant to make that throw because there’s a lineman in his sight line, but any NFL quarterback should be able to slide to the side and complete that pass.

Something I’ve been critical of Sanchez for over the course of the season has been his reading of blitzes, so here’s an example where he made the correct read.

Chaz Schilens’ man comes off the edge and he immediately makes himself hot. Sanchez threw it to him, but Rhodes made a solid open field tackle short of a first down. The issue here was two-fold. First, Sanchez waited another beat before releasing this pass. Secondly, Schilens had to jump to catch it. Had he thrown the pass immediately and in a position where Schilens could catch it with some upfield momentum, then he would have had a good chance of beating Rhodes in the open field to pick up the first down yardage.

Again, in Sanchez’s defense, there was another example of a guy coming off the edge where he looked to hit his hot read, but Stephen Hill never looked back for the ball and he had to take a sack there. I don’t know whether it would have been Sanchez’s responsibility to slide D’Brickashaw Ferguson (who double teamed Matt Slauson’s man on the play) across or to make Hill aware that he might need to go hot, but for whatever reason that didn’t happen.

You couldn’t really say the same thing on this play though:

Once again, Sanchez took a sack here. The obvious option was to throw it to Jeff Cumberland in the flat. Although he’d have had to beat a safety in the open field, there was a chance of getting a first down. Instead, Sanchez waited for Chaz Schilens’ crossing route over the middle to develop and by then the pressure was on him and he had to go down.

Maybe these are minor mistakes and I’m sure that if Sanchez was playing well, he would have made the right decision on most of these plays. However, at this time, while mired in this slump, the opportunities to move the team down the field are there and his lack of decisiveness is (was?) killing them.

I feel sorry for Sanchez because I truly feel he is capable of better than he has shown this season. Whether he never regained his confidence after how last year ended, he failed to pick up the new system as well as hoped or for some reason let his work ethic and effort slide, he’s been in a slump for a long time now and the time had come to make a move. The lift from the crowd seemed to have a knock-on effect on the team’s on-field effort and was a key factor in the win as a result, so in that respect it was definitely a good short term move. We’ll have to wait and see where it leads.

Things got better once Sanchez went to the sideline, although he did hold the clipboard like a loaf of bread.

For more information on the Jets’ options financially with respect to Sanchez, read Jason’s latest article, which echoes some of the things I’ve been talking about on the site all season.

So, let’s turn to Greg McElroy, much like Rex – perhaps begrudgingly – was forced to.

McElroy’s introduction to the game certainly lifted the crowd and seemed to have an effect on his teammates as well. He may have only passed for 29 yards, but it was enough to enable him to add a fourth quarter comeback to his resume.

While there is some cause for optimism, I’d preach a heavy dose of caution. As an example, Ryan Lindley went 8-for-9 on his first drive last week, leading the Cardinals to a touchdown. Then he threw four picks over the rest of the game and you saw what he looked like yesterday. McElroy did a perfect backup’s job in this game and, even if he fails to get many more opportunities to start, that’s the kind of performance that can keep a guy in the league for years.

The Jets kept things relatively simple for him and seemed to run a lot of plays where he was on the move. That suggests they might not feel confident in his ability to sit in the pocket and make plays yet. Unfortunately, as recent games against teams like the Raiders have shown, you can’t rely on rolling out too often because it cuts down your options and ultimately can lead to the quarterback being under constant pressure. However, in his relief appearance, McElroy looked composed and in control, got everyone lined up and made smart decisions. It’s perhaps a sign of how low my expectations for Sanchez have fallen that I was impressed when McElroy noticed the clock running down and called a timeout.

With McElroy in, the receivers did help out, as they hadn’t done for Sanchez. Hill and Kerley (twice) made great catches, without which McElroy would have ended up just 2-for-7. Also, the running game really took off, as the blockers seemed to lift it up a gear. That’s what enabled the Jets to drive down to the goal line twice, with McElroy rolling out for an easy touchdown to Cumberland and then able to ice the game in the victory formation.

Jets fans are all too aware of the limitations a cerebral quarterback that isn’t athletically gifted can place on an offense, but this Jets team was supposed to rely on its running game and defense, so someone who can make good decisions, avoid major mistakes and inspire his teammates to play hard for him would be an upgrade over what Sanchez has provided over the past 12 weeks.

If he doesn’t start next week, I’m sure McElroy has done enough to earn another shot at some point. Hopefully he can build upon this win. It will be exciting to see if there’s more where that came from.

Offensive Line

The offensive line continues to gel. Between them, the five starters have given up just 4.5 sacks in five games and the team is averaging 4.2 yards per carry since week five. Austin Howard, who was struggling in pass protection earlier in the year, didn’t give up a single pressure for the first time in his NFL career. He and Ferguson, who still hasn’t given up a sack all season both did an excellent job in the running game too, setting the edges and driving guys out of plays, as the Jets ran a lot of traps with their tight ends to good effect.

Brandon Moore and Dustin Keller each let their man get off their block for half a sack on the play detailed above where Sanchez could have thrown the quick slant to Kerley, but otherwise both Arizona sacks came from unblocked blitzers off the edge. There was one other play where Sanchez was almost sacked by an unblocked blitzer, but was able to evade it to throw the ball away.

Slauson did let his man get to Sanchez for the pressure that led to the opening interception, although he had held the ball for some time before that happened. Both Slauson and Moore had a positive effect in the running game, with Slauson making some particularly aggressive blocks like he had something to prove and Moore doing well on the move.

Nick Mangold had some uncharacteristic negative plays that meant he graded out poorly. A couple of times he let his man get off his block to stuff a run and he also gave up a couple of pressures. However, when the running game really kicked into gear in the fourth quarter, he played as big a part as anyone. While the Jets did seem to block well as a unit after McElroy entered the game, they did manage to rack up 81 rushing yards before Sanchez departed, so it was a pretty consistent performance throughout.

Jason Smith played a lot more than last week and did have some impact blocks, setting the edge well for one big run and driving his man out of the play on another. He did get half-beaten on the inside a few times though.

After the controversy during the week, the Jets seem to have changed the guard rotation so that Vladimir Ducasse gets every fourth series instead of every third series. Also, this week, they went three and out on all three series with Ducasse in the game, so he was only in for nine snaps. It wasn’t his fault, as he actually made a couple of decent blocks, but that’s not a good sign as they had been producing pretty well whenever he entered the game.

Running Backs

Shonn Greene did a solid job this week and at last saw the benefit of being kept fresh into the fourth quarter. In recent games, the Jets have fallen behind and he hasn’t seen many carries against a worn-down defense. His biggest run saw him bounce to the outside for 19 as it looked like he was set to be trapped for a loss. He also finished runs well in the fourth quarter and you know I loved the smarts he displayed by taking a knee at the goal line. In the playoff game against New England that game stayed alive for longer than it needed to because he didn’t do that – although the pillow celebration was memorable.

Bilal Powell has settled nicely into his role of change of pace back and helped spark the touchdown drive with a nice run off-tackle. He ended up with a career high 58 yards rushing. I’d also give credit to Greene and Powell for some good blitz pickups. Powell did drop a pass, although it was high off his fingertips.

Kahlil Bell made his offensive debut and stayed in to block a couple of times. However, the first time he touched the ball, he fumbled it, almost messing up McElroy’s comeback effort.

Lex Hilliard made a sketchy start at fullback, but noticeably picked it up once McElroy entered the game. I’m not sure if that reflects well on him or not. Shouldn’t we expect a more consistent effort from him throughout? Whatever the reasons, he did throw a couple of good blocks to set up some big runs as the Jets took control.

Finally, Joe McKnight suffered yet another injury, but did make a decent gain on a Jet sweep play. Maybe he deserves credit for playing through a lot of issues, but I’m sure his durability will be a concern.

Receivers

Give Stephen Hill credit for a solid performance, including one leaping clutch third down catch, although there is a slight feeling of frustration now that he has shown he can catch the ball and one wonders how much better the Jets offense would have been if he could have caught the ball that consistently all season. Hill operated more like a possession receiver, picking up 40 yards on his five catches. Hopefully, now that he’s shown the ability to get first downs by doing that, defensive backs will play up on him a bit more and he’ll be able to get downfield.

Jeremy Kerley had a disappointing drop on a ball thrown slightly behind him, but ran a good route to catch a good back shoulder throw from Sanchez in the first half and had two spectacular catches from McElroy in the fourth quarter, one of which was a key third down conversion.

Chaz Schilens caught just two passes for five yards, including one of the ones detailed above. He could have had a bigger day, getting deep twice, but both balls were underthrown and one ended up being intercepted. In the play in the first half, Schilens ran a great double-move to get deep separation, without even needing Sanchez to throw a pump-fake. The throw was only slightly underthrown, but enough that Schilens had to slow up and reach back and when it hit him in the shoulder, the defensive back was able to recover and knock it away from him. He definitely should have caught that ball, but it’s another example of a play where it would have been an easy touchdown if Sanchez had led him with the pass. As noted, the Peterson interception was just a sensational effort by the defender, but again, Schilens had a step with inside leverage and Sanchez’s throw was just slightly off-line and over his outside shoulder where the defender could get to it. Schilens’ disappointing day was compounded by him committing a false start penalty on a second and five play.

Sanchez did have a couple of nice completions to his tight ends in the first half, timing a throw well to Keller so that he could make extra yards after the catch and pick up a first down and hitting Cumberland downfield on the outside. With Keller hurt again, that could be a factor in whether or not they decide to give Sanchez another chance. Sanchez seems to struggle with him chemistry, whereas McElroy probably has better chemistry with Cumberland and Konrad Reuland anyway. Of course, it was Cumberland who caught his touchdown pass, although I think anyone could have caught that one.

The Jets used their tight ends as lead blockers quite a lot in this game, motioning them in the backfield to try and disrupt the Arizona defensive front, as noted by the announcers. Cumberland did have a few good blocks, albeit mostly from the fullback position, while Keller didn’t do much wrong other than conceding half a sack. Konrad Reuland did make a couple of glaring mistakes, but at the same time he did show some good run blocks, including one where he knocked a defensive back to the floor, so I think he has potential to continue to get better.

We’ll split BGA into two today and I’ll be back this afternoon with the defensive evaluations.