San Diego’s Frustrations Could Overwhelm Jets
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If the Jets lost to the Patriots by nine at home in Week 2, and the Patriots lost at home by 25 on Sunday, what does it say about the state of the AFC East?
Tonight, that topic will be the least of the Jets’ concerns as they face a San Diego Chargers team that is 0–2 and angry — at itself and referee Ed Hochuli — for its poor start.
The Jets come into the game with questions of their own, most centering around the team’s play-calling in the Patriots loss, specifically with three consecutive runs starting at the Patriots’ 3-yard line. Head coach Eric Mangini has vowed to let Brett Favre be Brett Favre, so all eyes will be on the passing game to see if the Jets will finally open things up.
“Hopefully, these questions will subside at some point,” Favre said last week. “I have the utmost confidence in our offensive line. Would I [have] liked to have thrown it? Sure, I would, but I would much rather get the ball in, whether it be running or throwing. Any quarterback who would sit up in front of you right now and tell you, in that situation, he didn’t want to throw the ball would be lying.”
The Chargers face their own potential offensive limitations, with All-World running back LaDainian Tomlinson hobbled by a bad toe and listed as questionable heading into this matchup.
But there are just as big questions on the other side of the ball. The Chargers’ defense, which was a ball-hawking and high-pressure unit a year ago, has started slowly. It has allowed 437 yards a game the first two contests, clearly missing Pro Bowl linebacker Shawne Merriman and not getting enough production from banged-up cornerback Antonio Cromartie and nose tackle Jamal Williams.
Could this game turn into one of those great shoot-outs from the 1960s between these old AFL rivals? You can imagine Favre would be quite happy with that.
When the Jets have the ball
One thing to watch is whether Favre and WR Laveranues Coles can get on the same page offensively after not playing together in the preseason and having mixed-bag chemistry through two games. We saw a glimmer of their potential on a 54-yard reception last week when the original play broke down and Coles made a big run after the catch, but that has been the exception to the rule so far. Cornerback Quentin Jammer probably has played the best of the Chargers’ defensive backs along with rookie nickel back Antoine Cason so far, but Jammer can’t match Coles’s speed.
Favre appears more comfortable throwing to wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery as his prime option so far, but don’t overlook Chansi Stuckey, who appears to have overtaken the no. 3 receiver role, and tight end Dustin Keller, who might be ready to break out.
Before Merriman went down for the season, the Chargers were regarded as one of the best pass-rushing teams in the NFL. Now, with only two sacks on 93 opponents’ pass plays, the team must find a way to generate pressure. Linebackers Shaun Phillips and Jyles Tucker have that ability, but they have been bottled up without a healthy Merriman and the defensive line not caving things inside.
The Jets’ offensive line still has work to do, according to left guard Alan Faneca. This will be a good test, and if they can open holes on first down for the running game of Thomas Jones and Leon Washington, Favre should have a lot easier time finding a rhythm. And if the pressure is not there, Favre can make a lot of plays downfield. Jake Delhomme and Jay Cutler were able to find wide-open receivers in the Chargers’ first two games.
The pressure is on Williams, who didn’t practice this week and whose knees are looking old these days, to make some kind of impact. He does not command double teams as often these days, and will work in a rotation with Brandon McKinney and Ryon Bingham.
When the Chargers have the ball Tomlinson will likely play, but he could end up having a pitch count put on him. He was restricted to 10 carries in the loss to Denver, and Darren Sproles was able to show off his value with a tremendous game — 53 yards rushing, 72 yards receiving, and a kick return for a touchdown. At 5 feett 6 inches and 181 pounds, Sproles can’t take the between-the-tackles punishment that Tomlinson can, but he’s a slippery and forceful runner who will break tackles.
Whereas the Chargers’ Williams is struggling, the Jets’ counterpart — nose tackle Kris Jenkins — appears to be an emerging force in the middle. He has played well in the first two games and now has a matchup with Chargers center Jeremy Newberry that will force the Chargers to tandem block and double team Jenkins quite often.
It’s not clear how the Jets will defend Chargers All-Pro tight end Antonio Gates, but it could involve a number of looks. After watching Dolphins tight ends Anthony Fasano and David Martin tally 137 receiving yards in Week 1, the Jets have to be concerned about Gates, even if with a toe injury he’s not 100% healthy. Look for the Jets to use safety Eric Smith, cornerback Dwight Lowery, and others to cover Gates, depending on where he’s lined up.
QB Philip Rivers has led two fourth-quarter comebacks in two games but has no wins to show for it. Still, he’s off to an excellent start, averaging nearly 10 yards per attempt and spreading the ball around. With most secondaries choosing to focus on Gates, wide receivers Vincent Jackson and Chris Chambers have made plays. The Jets should be willing to concede the short passes to Tomlinson and Sproles, rather than allow the other pass catchers to get behind them.
Prediction: This won’t be quite the shoot-out that it could be with everyone healthy, but the Jets should open things up and have success downfield. That said, the Chargers know that to make the playoffs, they need to avoid an 0–3 start. They’ll be ready in a 28–20 win.
Mr. Edholm, a senior editor at Pro Football Weekly, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.