Last time, I looked at the season opener against the Steelers, and part of what I talked about was that, as I see it, the Titans match up extremely well against the Steelers. Well, in this installment of the 2009 Opponents Preview series, I will look at a team that potentially flips that script on the Titans, the J-E-T-S Jets.
The Jets come into this season having jettisoned the nauseatingly over-hyped, old and busted Brett Favre, choosing instead on draft day to trade up 12 slots and pick USC QB Mark Sanchez. The Jets also kicked Head Coach Eric Mangini to the curb, making him the most recent Belichick disciple to fall flat after leaving New England. Mangini has been replaced by former Baltimore Ravens defensive architect Rex Ryan.
More on why this could be a nasty trap game for the Titans after the jump.
Last season these teams met in Week 12, with the 10-0 Titans coming off of back-to-back gutsy road wins against the Bears and Jaguars. The Jets entered the game plenty hot themselves, on the heels of a 4 game winning streak including the previous week in Foxboro against their hated AFC East rival New England Patriots. On the day, however, only one team showed any evidence of riding a big win streak. In what was easily their most miserable all-around performance of the season last year, the Titans fell 34-13 without ever looking dangerous.
Looking back at that game, the Jets succeeded because they gave the Titans a heeping dose of their own medicine. The Jets rolled up 192 yards rushing at a clip of 4.9 yars per carry with both Thomas Jones and Leon Washington going for 85+ yards. On the other side of the ball, they flat out dominated Smash and Dash, which was really more like just Dash, as on the day, Lendale White would see only 1 carry for -1 yards. Kerry Collins was decent but he would have had to be other-worldly, walk-on-water amazing to lead the Titans to a win that Sunday. In the end Justin McCareins was the leading receiver with 4 catches for 43 yards. Ugh.
This New York Jets team should be a real handful on defense. One year removed form switching to a 3-4 scheme, the Jets appear to actually have the right personnel in place this season. Not only did they take Baltimore's Defensive Coordinator to be their new head coach, they also added former Ravens ILB Bart Scott, FS Jim Leonhard and DE Marques Douglas. But the Jets didn't stop there. They also added CB Lito Sheppard, who will be a darn good #2 CB across from one of the better young corners in the league, Darelle Revis. For a team that was already in the top half of NFL defenses last season to add 3 quality starters under a proven defensive mastermind like Rex Ryan and his "right hand man" Mike Pettine, a long time assistant in Baltimore as well, is a big statement. If this defense stays healthy, they should be one of the best in the NFL this season.
Up front, this 3-4 defense is not going to give up much on the ground. According to Football Outsiders, the Jets ranked 7th against the run last season, thanks in large part to the All-Pro season that NT Kris Jenkins put together. Adding a force like Bart Scott at ILB to fill the gaps that Jenkins creates will make for a nearly impenetrable interior run defense. Also keep an eye out for the other ILB, thrid year man David Harris. He has showed plenty of promise in his first two seasons, though injuries cost him 5 starts last year. Sticking Scott next to him, who is a blocking priority on every play, can only help.
The secondary was suspect at times last season, but the Jets hope that an infusion of quality starters will lock it down. As mentioned, they replaced an over the hill Ty Law with Lito Sheppard, and sent an oft ineffective Abram Elam packing in favor of Jim Leonhard. With Darelle Revis and Kerry Rhodes already in place, the Jets have, at least on paper, one of the best secondaries in football.
The other major strength of this New York Jets team is the running game. Like any good rushing attack, it starts with the big guys up front, and this unit was stellar in run blocking last season, ranked #2 overall by Football Outsiders. Behind that line, Thomas Jones had a great year last season, coming in ranked at 5th in DYAR and 7th in DVOA. Leon Washington was also a great asset, scoring a DVOA roughly equivalent to Brandon Jacobs. Keep in mind that DVOA is a measure of per play value, and Jacobs had almost 3 times a many carries as Washington. However, when the ball was in his hands, few people were more valuable than Leon Washington. Despite great success last season, the Jets still felt it necessary to add Iowa RB Shonn Greene to the stable. There were plenty of people that were high on this guy in the lead up to the draft, and if he pans out the Jets could have quite the 3 headed monster in the backfield.
One doesn't have to look hard to find the glaring weakness on this Jets team. The passing game could very easily be one of the worst in the NFL. At QB, the Jets will either start a rookie in Mark Sanchez or a 3 year veteran with a 59.3 career QB rating in Kellen Clemens. I am going to assume, as most people are, that Sanchez will get the nod to start immediately, simply because Clemens is pretty awful. Last season we saw Matt Ryan put together a phenominal rookie season for the Falcons, and we saw Joe Flacco do well managing games in Baltimore. However, both of those guys had at least one high quality wide receiver to help them along. That certainly does not appear to be the case with the Jets, who let Laveranues Coles walk this offseason. That leaves Jericho Cotchery as the only wide receiver on their roster that anyone has ever heard of. The only thing that might hold their running game back is the fact that teams are going to play 8 and 9 men in the box on every play.
Mark Sanchez. This one is too obvious to devote much space to, but the big question here is whether Sanchez will be more Carson Palmer or more Matt Leinart. It's pretty much impossible to tell until the guy gets on the field, so I'm not going to waste everyone's time speculating. What I will say is that I am a big fan of starting QBs from Day 1, as long as your offensive line is good enough to keep him alive. If you drafted the right guy, he should be able to take the lumps early and be better for it.
Vernon Gholston. The 6th overall pick in the 2008 draft fell flat last season, struggling mightily to make the transition from defensive end to outside rush linebacker. He started a grand total of zero games, recorded only 13 tackles and zero sacks. However, Gholston is an eye-popping athlete and now he will be tutored by new Defensive Coordinator Mike Pettine, who previously made a living coaching outside linebackers in Baltimore. If he can teach Gholston some of the same things he taught Terrell Suggs, Gholston could be headed for a breakout season.
KEYS FOR THE TITANS
This should be a nasty slugfest because the Jets present all sorts of match-up issues against the Titans. I think this Jets defense, if healthy, could be one of the 3 best defenses in the NFL next season. They are loaded with quality starters at every level and are adding some world class defensive coaching at the expense of the Ravens. The Titans are going to have to avoid basically everything that happened between these two teams last season, like being held to only 44 yards on 11 rushes. Seeing as how the Jets defense looks to get better this season, especially with the addition of Bart Scott, running the ball just may not work very well. It is going to be absolutely crucial that Kerry Collins and the WRs show up to play early. Collins went 7-22 in the first half of that game, though he was helped to that woeful total by several drops. That simply won't cut it.
On the other side of the ball, the Titans allowed Favre to go 25/32 for 224 and 2 TDs, 1 INT. If they let Sanchez put up similar numbers in what would be his 3rd career start.... nevermind, that won't happen. The real focus of the defense will be doing a much better job of stopping the run. Letting two different guys exceed 85 yards on the same day is inexcusable. Time of possession will be a very telling statistic in this match-up again this year. Last year the Jets held onto the ball for just over 40 minutes. When a Jeff Fisher team has less than 20 minutes of possession, odds are they are getting blown out.
The Titans may have been reading a bit too much of their own press when these two teams met last season. It's probably pretty easy to lose perspective when you are 10-0, but they had better remember the way the Jets simply dominated them when they weren't so focused. Even with a fully focused and hungry team, beating a team with a defense and running game like the Jets should have, especially on the road, will be tough. By the end of Week 3, we will know what kind of defense we have sans Fat Albert and we will know how much the WR corps has been upgraded. The fact that we play our division plus the Patriots and Steelers in the first 6 weeks could lead some to overlook the Jets. But don't be fooled. This is a Jets team that is built to win ugly, and the game is in New York. The Titans will need to be running on all cylinders to redeem the egg they layed last year and win this one.