The NFL's only crosstown rivalry heats up this weekend, with the Giants hosting the Jets at the Meadowlands. There will be more than just bragging rights on the line. For each team, this game will answer the questions about whether last week's startling developments were flukes, or if they were statements about where each team stands. Does the Jets' stunning loss to Buffalo — with their injury-ravaged defense and their rookie quarterback — suggest that this team has regressed in coach Eric Mangini's second season? And what about the Giants, who made headlines by registering 12 sacks against the Eagles? Was that the result of a resurgent defense or simply an overmatched Philadelphia line? Sunday's game will go a long way towards answering both questions.
JETS (1–3) vs. GIANTS (2–2)
Sunday, 1 p.m., CBS
WHEN THE JETS HAVE THE BALL The biggest problem during the Jets' rough start has been their inability to get the running game going. After four games, Thomas Jones hasn't had a run over 12 yards and he still hasn't scored a touchdown. Opposing defenses have been stacking the line of scrimmage, bringing their safeties up to keep Jones and Leon Washington from breaking free. Much of the problem stems from the fact that the Jets haven't been throwing the ball downfield. Opposing defensive backs know that they don't have to worry about getting beat deep, so they can help stuff the run.
Offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer has focused on the short passing game, because it takes advantage of Pennington's strengths as a passer. The strategy also helps to compensate for the sometimes shaky pass protection. The Jets' offensive line surrendered nine sacks in the first two games, including the one that left Pennington with a gimpy ankle.
The Jets' offense has gotten better as a unit, allowing just one sack in each of the last two games. Left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson faced off against two of the league's elite pass rushers — Miami's Jason Taylor and Buffalo's Aaron Schobel — and did not allow a sack.
He'll have his hands full again this week with Giants' end Osi Umenyiora, who set a team record with six sacks against the Eagles last Sunday night. The Giants — who had managed just four sacks in their first three games — sacked Philadelphia's Donovan McNabb 12 times in that contest, tying the NFL single game record. In that game, the Giants experimented with using all four of their pass rushers at once, rather than using them in rotation. Along with starting ends Umenyiora and Michael Strahan, they brought in backup Justin Tuck, and used linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka as a down lineman. The result was an overwhelming attack, with pass rushers coming from different locations and different angles.
The strong play up front helped to relieve the pressure that had been crushing the Giants secondary. With the Giants' sack attack garnering all of the attention, few observers noticed the strong performance of rookie cornerback Aaron Ross. Making his first NFL start last week, Ross had five solo tackles, two pass deflections, and came close to registering a sack on a blitz.
Expect the Jets to challenge Ross and his fellow defensive backs. They can't afford to keep playing so conservatively on offense.
WHEN THE GIANTS HAVE THE BALL While the Giants' defense has rebounded over the past two weeks, their offense has sagged. After throwing four touchdown passes in the opener, quarterback Eli Manning has just three scoring passes under his belt in the last three games, and has been picked off four times. Critics might be quick to conclude that it's simply the same sort of inconsistency that has plagued Manning throughout his career. But the film suggests that some of the blame falls on his receivers. There have been several dropped passes that should have been caught, and a blatant pass interference by a cornerback who was beat turned what would have been a 42-yard touchdown pass into a 32-yard penalty. Timing has also been off between Manning and Plaxico Burress, largely because an ankle injury has kept Burress from participating in practice for three weeks.
One thing that's sure to help the Giants is the return of running back Brandon Jacobs, who has been sidelined since spraining his knee in week one. While backup Derrick Ward has done a yeoman's job of carrying the ball in Jacobs' absence, he's not the same sort of power runner that coach Tom Coughlin prefers to build around. Now, though, the Giants find themselves with a pleasant problem: how to divvy up the carries between Ward and Jacobs. One possibility would be to switch the two depending on the situation. But the more likely scenario is simply to switch between the two, series by series, to keep both backs fresh throughout the game. There's nothing like a power runner with fresh legs in the fourth quarter.
The Jets have had mixed success defending against the run. They've held opponents to just 3.7 yards per carry and haven't allowed a running play of longer than 13 yards. At times, though, they have allowed their opponents to control the clock with their ground attacks.
More troubling has been the pass defense, which is ranked 27th overall. The Jets have registered just three sacks in four games, and the lack of pressure has allowed opposing quarterbacks to pick their secondary apart. That was never more apparent than last week in Buffalo, when rookie Trent Edwards completed 22 of 28 passes in his first NFL start. The Bills picked on rookie corner back Darrelle Revis, who was usually in man coverage against the slot receiver. Look for the Giants to take advantage by splitting tight end Jeremy Shockey out into the slot, either creating a mismatch, or forcing the Jets to leave Burress and Amani Toomer in single coverage.
KEYS TO THE GAME The Jets have to get their running game back on track, and to do that they'll need to find a way to better control the line of scrimmage. The Giants need to continue the strong performance from their front seven and control the pace of their game with their ground attack.
Lahman's Pick: Giants 23–17