BGA: Jets at Steelers – 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 27-10 loss to the Steelers, together with detailed analysis of personnel groupings and individual performance.

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

Was I imagining things, or did that first half really happen? Coming off their big win on opening weekend, the Jets seemingly showed that they could, at worst, be competitive with a top team, even when missing a couple of key players. Or so it seemed. They then turned in a putrid second half performance where they achieved almost nothing on offense and the defense paid the price, looking exhausted by the time the Steelers iced the game with a time consuming fourth quarter drive.

So, what happened? Well, that’s presumably what you’re here to find out, but sometimes it’s challenging to figure out how a game can spiral out of control so badly. It does happen though, as anyone who also watched the Giants game will have seen.

People will point to coaching adjustments and perhaps suggest that the Jets were outcoached and failed to respond to adjustments. While I’m sure there is some truth to that, it’s difficult to find any obvious adjustments the Steelers made to their system because they’re a team that rarely changes their formations or rotations. However, they did rattle the Jets with blitzes and their secondary played with extreme physicality – which while it cost them a few penalties, certainly seemed to pay off in the long run.

While the game came down to a few key moments (Jeremy Kerley fumble, jump ball touchdown on third and long), the biggest key was the Jets’ inability to bring down Ben Roethlisberger in the pocket – which ultimately prevented them from getting off the field on third downs – which they forced a ton of. Perhaps more disconcerting was the way the offense completely ground to a halt after looking sharp early on. The Steelers are a good defense, but when they’re missing two of their better players, you have to be able to gain more than 68 yards in 40 minutes.

After having led for much of the first half, the Jets gave up a touchdown after a costly penalty and a whiffed opportunity to sack Roethlisberger on third down in the red zone. That was a sign of things to come. At that point the Jets trailed 13-10 and decided not to try and score with a minute remaining in the first half, causing plenty of consternation and debate amongst Jets fans.

It didn’t surprise me at all when they did that, even though the Jets had called a timeout on the first play after the two minute warning, seemingly to try and leave time on the clock. Not risking a turnover and playing it safe does seem to be the prevailing strategy around the league in such situations. After the Steelers picked up a first down but didn’t score on the play after the timeout, the Jets left the clock running, so I’d imagine they would have made an effort to advance the ball if the Steelers scored with two minutes on the clock, then changed their thinking. Also playing on their mind would have been the fact that the Steelers had two timeouts of their own and could theoretically have got the ball back themselves if the Jets went three and out.

However, the biggest thing that would have impacted the Jets’ thinking here is that the last time they played the Steelers (in the 2010 AFC Title Game), they tried to advance the ball in an almost identical situation and the Steelers ended up returning a fumble for a back-breaking score. How badly would Rex have been killed if he allowed that to happen again? While he shouldn’t care what people might say to him, lightning does sometimes strike twice and you can understand him being jaded.

So, they returned the kickoff and handed the ball off to ensure the Steelers couldn’t get the ball back, with their thinking perhaps being that if the return or the run gained significant yards, then they might take a shot downfield. It didn’t, so they basically ate the ball and went in satisfied with a three point deficit. The risk of a turnover was considered too great, despite the fact that the Jets have fumbled the ball whilst running and returning kicks so far this season, but have actually protected it pretty well so far in the passing game.

What the Jets did in that situation was to play the percentages, which is a good thing. I’m just not convinced they played those percentages correctly.

Let’s get into some individual and position group analysis…

Quarterbacks

Here’s a game where Mark Sanchez had a terrible statline. He only completed 10-of-27 passes, but that included a long period where he was just 3-for-17. While it may seem like he was victimized by a lot of drops, there were only really two clear drops on plays that counted. However, a couple of others were off the fingertips or broken up and there were a few plays that were dropped but ended up not counting because there was a penalty anyway. Also, there were a few obvious examples of his receivers not being on the same page as him. Therefore, you could certainly say that he didn’t get too much help from his receivers.

Without seeing the coaches film, I wouldn’t like to comment on whether he was missing open receivers or not, but it did seem like the Steelers did a good job of staying with their men. Breaking down his performance, he didn’t have many bad throws and, in fact, PFF gave him a positive grade, despite his numbers, suggesting they thought he had more good throws than bad.

Obviously most of those good throws came on the first two drives, where he looked decisive and sharp. He threw a laser to Kerley for a big gain and made it look easy on his touchdown pass to Santonio Holmes. He also had a deep incompletion to Stephen Hill, which was a well-thrown ball. He did have a couple of throws to Holmes that sailed on him – including one to the end zone – and misfired on a dump-off to the flat to Bilal Powell, but that probably only cost him a five-yard gain.

Looking for positives, the main one is that he didn’t turn the ball over. I’d also say that although he was sacked a couple of times late in the game, his blitz recognition and throwing to his hot read seems to have improved. They didn’t see a great deal of success on these plays, but last year he was getting sacked or hit in those situations on a regular basis. He definitely needs to regroup, though, as his inability to lead the team to any second half success was disconcerting.

Tim Tebow entered the game just once on offense, stayed in for three plays and then returned to the bench. However, I did notice a few occasions where he went to enter the game and then returned to the sideline, suggesting that either the Jets changed their mind or that they were just trying to get the Steelers’ personnel packages mixed up. As I noted earlier, they don’t change up their personnel very often, so this would have more effect against most other teams.

The first two plays went particularly well, as Tebow ran for 22 and then handed to Joe McKnight who avoided a couple of tackles in the backfield and gained 12. The next play saw Shonn Greene run wide for a big loss as the Steelers saw it coming a mile off and stayed at home as the Jets’ attempted misdirection (Austin Howard and Brandon Moore pulled left) just meant there were two defenders and only one blocker out in front of Greene. Sanchez re-entered the game and threw two incompletions, but you couldn’t say this took him out of his rhythm, because there was no way he was in rhythm at the point where Tebow entered.

Offensive Line

The offensive line didn’t do a bad job this week. They weren’t great in the running game, but it was definitely an improvement over last week. First contact was half a yard further downfield this week and they only allowed Sanchez to be sacked twice (once on the very last play of the game) and hit three times (two of which were unattributed). Once again, the Jets used extra blockers and quick passes to mitigate the pressure to some extent, but they did block well as a unit in pass protection. The run blocking is not quite there yet in terms of cohesiveness, but they are moving in the right direction.

As Jets fans will be used to, most of the pressure surrendered by the offensive line came from the right side. Austin Howard had his hands full with Lamarr Woodley, giving up a sack, a hit and four hurries, which in the scheme of things perhaps isn’t that bad, but it’s obvious the Jets will still need to scheme around this. In the running game, Howard had a positive impact, with a good drive block on one play, a pulling block where he surged right up the middle with the runner behind him and some good work in short yardage situations, but he wasn’t perfect by any means, getting beaten inside on one run that was bottled up.

At the other tackle position, it was another pretty encouraging performance from D’Brickashaw Ferguson, who just got beaten once for a late pressure. His man also picked up a sack on the last play, but that was on a play where Ferguson had blocked his man and Sanchez ran into him as he tried to escape the pocket. Ferguson was definitely helped by the fact that James Harrison was out, as Chris Carter and Jason Worilds don’t pose the same kind of challenge. In the running game, Ferguson was much more involved this week making a driving block on Brett Keisel on one play, taking him 10 yards downfield. However, he whiffed badly on a second level block early in the game and got beaten inside once.

It goes without saying that Nick Mangold turned in another strong performance. There was one play where he didn’t sustain his block and his man got in on the stop, but otherwise he was consistently driving his man out of the play or turning him aside to create a running lane. Naturally he didn’t give up any pressure in pass protection either. He really is the best in the business.

At left guard, it may surprise you to note that Vladimir Ducasse rotated series with Matt Slauson in the second half. If you didn’t notice, that shows how far Ducasse has come, because he’d often stick out like a sore thumb when called into action in the past. Unfortunately, because the Steelers controlled the ball for so much of the second half, this limited Ducasse to 10 snaps, so we didn’t really get much chance to evaluate him. However, he was clean in six pass pass blocking plays and had a tremendous block (double-teaming with Mangold) to open the hole for Tebow’s big run.

Ducasse had also filled in on two first half snaps, although it’s unclear whether Slauson, who was in on the first play of that series, was injured. The first of those plays was bottled up, as Ducasse’s assignment is to let his man get inside him and then drive him out of the play, with Ferguson kicking his man to the outside and Mangold driving the other right-sided linebacker to the outside and John Conner making a lead block up the middle. Unfortunately, the timing was way off, as Ducasse drove his man laterally, but straight into Conner, while Brandon Moore on the other side also allowed his man to get inside leverage. That was the only play where Ducasse was unable to complete his assignment, but that was more of a team breakdown than him being at fault.

We now need to consider why Ducasse got this playing time. I haven’t seen any reports that Slauson was injured, although perhaps these will surface later. Is it a sign that they think Ducasse will be ready to start soon? Are they ensuring he gets some experience because they anticipate one of the guards not lasting the whole season? Are they grooming him for a starting role next year? Is it an effort to ensure Slauson doesn’t get worn down? Are there certain plays that Ducasse does better, so they are trying to get him on the field to execute these? I don’t know, but it’s probably a combination of these factors.

It could also be an effort to push Slauson, who actually played pretty well. He did a flawless job in pass protection and had a couple of good run blocks. There was one play where he missed his man on a pulling block and another where he may have blocked the wrong guy at the second level, letting another run past him to make the stop.

Brandon Moore uncharacteristically surrendered a pressure and a hit in pass protection. According to PFF, that’s the first time he’s allowed a hit or sack in a regular season game since Thanksgiving Day in 2010 (although I still maintain that he gave up one last year). In the running game, he misfired on a couple of pulling blocks, but drove his man out of the play once, did a good job in short yardage and had a great block on Tebow’s run in a mostly positive display.

Jason Smith was in on 16 snaps, which is significant. Remember that his contract voids if he plays over 31% of the snaps? He’s currently at 29%. It will probably be easier to restructure his deal and retain him if the deal doesn’t void. Would they want to retain him? I think we need a bigger sample size. His athleticism is certainly impressive – on one play they motioned him over to a full back position. He didn’t allow any pressure, although he was half-beaten once and had to recover. There was also one running play where he got beaten on the inside.

Running Backs

While it was good to see the Jets average over four yards per carry, they actually only averaged just over three yards per carry on non-wildcat runs. While that’s a minor concern, it does show how the wildcat can give a boost to the running game when it’s floundering.

Shonn Greene left the game with possible concussion symptoms in the first half, having gained 23 yards on seven carries. In the second half, he carried four times for zero yards and also made a couple of mistakes in pass protection, holding Ryan Clark and stumbling over to allow a pressure. Should he have even been in the game? I can’t answer that, but he had a terrible time of it in the second half.

I did notice him making a couple of bad decisions and showing a lack of patience in this one and I wonder if he’s struggling to adjust to the power blocking scheme. As you’ll recall, he was in a zone blocking scheme in Iowa and when he broke out at the end of the 2009 season, that was at a time when the Jets were using a lot of zone blocking plays – more than they ever did in 2010 or 2011. I like Greene and think he’s a reliable back, but yesterday was a rare occasion where I felt he left some yards on the field.

Powell stepped in pretty well for Greene with one nice run where he bounced it to the outside and a couple of short yardage conversions. He also stayed in to block 12 times and there was only one occasion where he was half beaten. It’s a pity he doesn’t have more speed, because a more athletic back could have turned that run to the outside into a huge gain.

McKnight was only in on one play on offense (and none at cornerback!) On that play – having taken a handoff from Tebow on a Jet Sweep he made a couple of great cuts to gain 12 yards. Perhaps they should get him involved more.

Finally, John Conner went down with a knee injury on the kickoff just after the Steelers had stretched their lead to 20-10. After that point, they only had two non-wildcat runs, which gained five and three yards. As a blocker, he had a couple of good blocks early, but got in his teammates’ way a couple of times and had two bad missed blocks later on. If he is out for any extended period of time, they could opt to just use a tight end such as Konrad Reuland in the backfield, although Jason Smith and Nick Bellore represent two possible emergency options.

Receivers

Remember the last game of last season, when the Jets only threw to Holmes once? This was the exact opposite of that, as the Jet lined up for 59 plays and Sanchez threw to him 16 times. That’s over a quarter of the time and just under half of all dropbacks. Five of those plays didn’t count because of a penalty (one holding penalty negated what looked like it may have been a low catch, although it was ruled incomplete on the field and Holmes drew four first downs on penalties). Of the other 11, two were not direct targets – one was more of a throw away and another looked to be aimed at Kerley, but landed closer to Holmes as Kerley cut off his route. However, that still leaves nine targets, of which Holmes only caught three. He had a nice first down and then a touchdown on the opening drive, but then didn’t make another catch until a meaningless dump-off pass in the last minute.

Of the six he didn’t catch, Holmes dropped two, although he was hit from behind before the ball arrived as one of these hit him in the chest. That came one play after he had drawn what looked to be a dubious pass interference flag, so he was never going to get that call. Holmes compounded his bad day by dropping passes on two of the plays where he was interfered with – one as his arm was grabbed and the other as he made the catch, but then had the ball jarred loose by the safety before he established control. These don’t officially count as drops because of the penalty, but there were definitely opportunities where he could have improved on his disappointing numbers.

I tried to make an assessment of why they threw to Holmes quite so much, but obviously without the benefit of the coaches film (available later in the week), it’s difficult to evaluate this. With Dustin Keller out, Holmes was perhaps the target Sanchez felt comfortable with and perhaps if the gameplan had been to throw eight times each to Holmes and a healthy Keller, that might have opened some things up for other people.

It was disappointing that Stephen Hill didn’t register a catch, although he did get semi-open on a deep route in the first half. The resulting pass was well-thrown and bounced off his hands, but I’d hesitate to call it a clean drop because the cornerback actually grabbed his arm as the ball arrived. Hill was only targeted one more time and the Steelers did a good job of not letting him get open, including putting a linebacker on him to be physical with him at the line and slow him up whenever he was in the slot.

Kerley got open downfield for a 45-yard gain to set up the first touchdown. That would have been the Jets’ second longest play of the season had it happened last year. He also had a diving first down catch late in the game, but was only targeted four times and saw another pass go off his fingertips. I would have thought Kerley should be capable of getting open against the Steelers, so it’s disappointing that they didn’t look his way more often. Whether that was because he wasn’t open is something I’ll have to look for on the coaches film.

Chaz Schilens and Clyde Gates were both in for just a handful of snaps, although Gates did make one catch on the outside to set up a third-and-short situation.

At tight end, Jeff Cumberland and Reuland both caught two passes and did a pretty good job of blocking. Cumberland had a very good block from the fullback position as the Jets lined up in a three back set. That was despite the fact John Conner got in his way. However, he failed to read a blitz and turn around for the ball in the red zone as Sanchez threw him a quick pass. Reuland missed his block on Greene’s wildcat run that was stuffed, although that was on the play mentioned earlier where the Jets’ misdirection failed and he had to try and block two guys. Other than that, he missed a second level block, but had some good moments, including one play where he drove his man out to the sideline and a couple of good kickout blocks.

Finally, Dedrick Epps made his Jets debut and was in for just a handful of snaps, missing one block.

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