A 2009 Jets preview sure to raise some antennae…

As Bassett alluded to in this week’s edition of This Week in Tweet, NFLTouchdown released a very well-written, but certainly less-than-favorable preview of the 2009 Jets season. They do though, manage to drop hands-down my favorite Rex-related line of the offseason: “Words are to Ryan what sprinkles are to children: colorful and something to be used prodigiously.” It’s a preview that hits hard, is almost painfully honest and probably touches on a few fans’  fraying nerves. That said, the points made within, are valid in long stretches — including taking an intense look at the golden boy: Mark Sanchez.

As tends to happen when impatience takes over, the Jets are going from one extreme to another: out with the ancient passer, in with the callow one. Sanchez started only 16 games at USC. Though the web has become littered with football dilettantes reminding everyone that Sanchez ran a “pro style” offense, the fact of the matter is, he is utterly untested. While running USC’s “pro style offense”, Sanchez rarely had to throw from a dirty pocket. He rarely had to work through four or five progressions. He rarely had to rifle balls through tight windows. Thus, offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer could face the same obstacles in ’09 that he faced after Favre joined New York in August ’08: what plays can be called? Schottenheimer’s offense was limited to almost comical simplicity last season.

As the offseason has progressed, Jets fans have gotten more and more optimistic about the team’s 2009 fortunes, based largely on the 2008 record, returning (and added) talent, Sanchez, and the ’08 fortunes of the Ravens and Falcons. However, Andy Benoit, the scribe of said preview, makes an excellent point regarding Sanchez’s gaping lack of experience. At USC, he was surrounded by the nation’s best collection of talent, in a system he’s studied for four years against one of the weaker BCS conferences. Now he enters a new league with new weapons that are not head and shoulders above the defensive competition and he must learn a massively complicated NFL playbook. To say the chances for failure outweigh those for success is an understatement. Sanchez is just as likely to follow in the footsteps of first-year disappointments Eli and Peyton Manning as he is to follow Joe Flacco or Matt Ryan’s paths; and all this is considering that he beats out Clemens for the job. Needless to say, it would be a good thing for the excitement to be tempered in order for this season not to appear a massive disappointment if the playoffs are not broached.

See what else Benoit (and I) have to say after the jump.

When it comes to Sanchez’s success, it’s not so much about his weapons at wideout and tight end, as it is about the people directly in front of him and behind him. The Jets’ five-headed backfield will help, but it’ll be the maulers and mashers in squatted in front of the Jets QB who will make the difference.

(Thomas Jones) benefits from the occasional services of veteran fullback Tony Richardson and the regular services of one of the game’s best front fives. Left guard Alan Faneca is the big-money veteran up front, though center Nick Mangold has actually become the anchor. Rank is not important, though, because Faneca and Mangold rely on one another. Schottenheimer, like any play-caller would, loves to get both men run-blocking out in space. The Jets’ mobility-based run-blocking system on the left side is ideal for Jones’s patient, slashing style.

Right guard Brandon Moore was actually New York’s best lineman last year (granted, he always had the much simpler assignment of delivering powerful downhill blocks).

New York’s bookends are both prototypes, and a cut above average. Left tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson is an athletic pass-blocker, and right tackle Damien Woody is a mauling run-blocker. Ferguson may never be mean enough to flatten defenders in the run game, but he’s nimble out in front. And, as spongy as he tends to be in pass pro, he usually keeps his side of the pocket clean.

It’s vital that all five starters once again stay healthy for the Jets. Not a single backup has viable experience.

And there’s the rub. As has been said on numerous occasions, the Jets’ line is not only the key to their survival, but it’s also one of their weakest points once you get past the top 5 names. To say the O-line’s health in ’09 is important is akin to saying Keyshawn lives and breathes as his television time ebbs and flows. D’uh. While there’s no doubt the Jets have one of the best lines in football, if not the best, this team will rely on their line to get a greater push at the line than they did last year. Like it or not, Brett Favre (for a time) forced defenses back and the Jets were able to take advantage of that early on in the season. Also, in games against the Patriots and Titans, Favre made the throws he had to in order to keep defenses as honest as possible. It remains to be seen if Sanchez or Clemens can make those throws.

With the Jets having a weakened and likely vanilla passing attack, teams will key on the run all the time, nearly every time, simply bringing more bodies than the Jets can block on obvious rushing downs. Given that none of the Jets’ backs are elite backs, the Jets’ rushing attack is based more on a cohesion between the runner and the line. It’s harder for Jones or Leon to create something out of nothing or to make multiple guys miss. As great as the Jets’ line was last year, they’ll actually have to step up their level of play this year if they want to maintain and improve upon the level of success they had in 2008 — a necessity if the Jets are to compete for a legitimate playoff spot.

But it’s not all offense, the defense will have to be held accountable too, as the offense likely will not score a lot of points ala the team this Jets team is modeled on: the Ravens.

The Jets D is only a cheap ersatz of the Ravens’. Newly-acquired inside linebacker Bart Scott is an intelligent, blistering tackle machine who can play the part of Ray Lewis. But he’s a poor man’s Ray Lewis. Overpaid rush-linebacker Calvin Pace looks almost like a carbon copy of Terrell Suggs. Indeed, Pace––who is an inch taller and 10 pounds heavier than Suggs––shows the same relentless motor that makes the Ravens’ stud great. But Pace is not great. He’s simply pretty good. Safety Kerry Rhodes might be great, but being a true facsimile of Ed Reed means being legendary. The acclaimed fifth-year pro is not legendary.

But maybe none of these guys have to be superstars. Maybe New York’s defense can thrive with just regular stars. Ryan … might actually have a better collection of role players to work with here than he had in Baltimore. If he can uncover a pass-rushing diamond or two––we’re all looking at you, Vernon Gholston––he’ll easily improve New York’s 29th ranked pass coverage. And he’s already stated on the record that nobody can run on his D.

I agree and disagree with Benoit here. While I concur that this Jets defense has a ways to go before even being mentioned in the same breath as the legendary Ravens defenses of the past decade, to deny the incredible collection of talent is a mistake. Yes, Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, and co. are household names, but at once they were just pieces in a scheme. Kris Jenkins is one of the finest building blocks any defense could ask for and while it’s highly unlikely Harris will ever be the surefire Hall-of-Famer that Lewis is, he’s an incredibly skilled player who fits tremendously well in Ryan’s system — especially at Scott’s side. Rhodes has the talent to be one of the league’s best safeties — free or strong — and simply needs the freedom and surrounding players to make his lofty goals a reality. Also, Darrelle Revis, who Benoit praises later in the article, is already on-par with most of the best cover corners in football. When you combine him with Rhodes, add in the development of Leonhard and Lowery, the talent of Sheppard, the Jets could have one of the most complete defenses in football… this year.

Again, that will take time and patience (and a suited-up Pace), but it will also take what Benoit pointed out the Jets already have: a good collection of role players to surround the stars. Marques Douglas, Shaun Ellis, and Leonhard we know about. What Jets fans will have to keep an eye on are Howard Green, Mike Devito, Jason Trusnik, Jamaal Westermann; guys who, while they may be second or third stringers, can do more than simply spell the starters. They have to be players that can make an impact when they’re on the field. There can be no drop off in level of play from the starters to the reserves. That’s what made the Ravens defense so special all those years. Time after time, they found player after player in the draft or free agency (undrafted or otherwise) who could not only dress but keep up and contribute in an incredibly complex scheme. It’ll be crucial that the Jets find one-to-three of those players by the end of the year, particularly on the defensive line.

However, when talent, bright lights and big money combine, it can lead to lofty predictions (as Benoit highlights in his opening, and closing).

The Jets have unusually high expectations for a team featuring a first-year head coach and rookie quarterback. However, those high expectations are largely self-created. This season comes down to the passing attack. Can Mark Sanchez flourish right away, and can this commonplace receiving core elevate to a level of acceptability? The defense lacks a premium pass-rusher, but Rex Ryan is crafty enough to fashion pressure schematically. It’s not quite a defense rigid enough to carry the team for 16 weeks, though. And with a developing offense, that’s probably what it’ll have to do.

Predicted: 4th AFC East

All of this (and much more that I simply couldn’t fit) said, this is a Jets team, like Benoit points out, with definitive and obvious holes. Youth at quarterback, lack of depth on both lines, and the lack of a crucial 3-4 pass-rusher are all reasons to doubt that 2009 will be an improvement on 2008. Yes, getting rid of Favre’s turnovers will be a plus, but there’s no reason not to expect multiple bad decisions from whatever young signal caller starts. That’s part of the game and that’s part of the reason why this season really could go several ways. It’s not likely a boom or bust year, but rather a growth year, a development year. The problem is, the Jets have veterans such as Jenkins, Ellis, Faneca, Jones, and Woody that are nearing the end of their high-level playing days. What will be important is for the Jets to develop younger players this year that can steady and eventually replace those veterans. Because of that, as Benoit pointed out, the Jets could falter and become what some may view as a disappointment (see: Florio, Mike).

Now, while it’s honestly unreasonable to expect everything to work in the Jets’ favor, the Jets will not need to be perfect in order to compete for a playoff spot. Like the Ravens and Falcons last year, the Jets have added young running backs and a rookie quarterback to a developing, talented team. If Ryan and his staff are more than competent in the way they coach and prepare the team, the Jets could very well prove Benoit and Florio wrong and reach a wild card spot. With severe luck, they could even win the division, although that is more of a pipe dream and something that is probably at least two years away.

The bottom line for this season is to see Sanchez take the reigns of the locker room by season’s end and for the defense to become the nasty, aggressive, impossible-to-run-on beast that Rex, Scott and Rhodes promise it to be. Also to watch will be the development of the young wideout group, the impact of Shonn Green and potentially Danny Woodhead and/or Jehuu Caulcrick, and the furthered progression of D’Brick, Harris, Revis, Mangold, and Leonhard. Oh, and there’s that Vernon Gholston fellow. He may just be the lynchpin to all of this.

Needless to say, this is a Jets season that is sure to be interesting and exciting to watch, and while it may not bring the results that Jets fans want and hope for, it could be the year that sets up the franchise for the next decade.