Last January, both the Jets and Eagles were in the playoffs. Now, both teams are approaching rock bottom, wondering how things could have changed so much in such a short period of time. One problem that both teams have in common is a lack of balance in their offensive play calling. Although both have proven running backs, they seem more focused on throwing the ball, and the lack of success with their passing games hasn't dissuaded either team from continuing to air it out.
The best way for both teams to get back on track is to get back to basics and establish their ground game. That's a tough proposition for the Eagles, who have shown a strong preference for throwing the ball ever since they drafted Donovan McNabb. It's a more familiar concept for the Jets. The whole Curtis Martin-era was centered around a power running game complimented by a West Coast passing attack. The Jets need to get back to that sort of formula if they have any hope of salvaging their season.
To be sure, both teams have other problems that they need to overcome. But the path back to respectability starts with one win, and somebody is going to claim that prize on Sunday.
EAGLES (1–3) at JETS (1–4)
Sunday, 1 p.m., FOX
WHEN THE JETS HAVE THE BALL A few weeks ago, the Jets used a short passing game to pick apart the Miami defense, and Thomas Jones ran for 110 yards. Quarterback Chad Pennington threw 22 passes while Jones ran it 25 times, and that balanced attack helped Gang Green explode for 31 points and their first win of the season.
Since then, however, the offense has become decidedly unbalanced. Jones has had just 25 carries over the last two games while Pennington has attempted 75 passes. That's just crazy. Sometimes the scoreboard forces you to abandon the run early, but head coach Eric Mangini seems to give up on the run if Jones struggles early in the game. A power runner like that usually gets better as the game goes on, so it's a strategy that doesn't make sense.
Philadelphia ranks ninth in run defense, but that figure is a little misleading. Two of their opponents — Detroit and Green Bay — went pass happy and didn't even try to run the ball. That's not to say the Eagles defense isn't very good. Brodrick Bunkley is emerging as a force at defensive tackle. He reminds me of a young Warren Sapp, the way he collapses the pocket and stuffs the inside running lanes.
The Eagles also have rebuilt their linebacker corps, adding veteran Takeo Spikes to a pair of rising second year players, Chris Gocong and Omar Gaither. Defensive coordinator Jim Johnson loves to blitz, and that pressure has helped to cover up the weaknesses in the Eagles secondary. Philadelphia leads the league with an average of four sacks a game.
WHEN THE EAGLES HAVE THE BALL It's hard to know what to make of this Philadelphia offense. In week three, the Eagles exploded for 56 points in a rout of the Lions. Quarterback Donovan McNabb threw four touchdown passes and the team ran for four more scores. Outside of that game, however, the Eagles have scored just a single touchdown. That lack of offensive productivity is largely responsible for Philadelphia's descent to last place.
Running back Brian Westbrook missed the Eagles last game with an abdominal strain, and the offense looked lost. Although McNabb gets most of the press, the Philadelphia offense revolves around Westbrook. His elusiveness makes him equally dangerous running the ball or catching passes. Westbrook returned to practice on Wednesday and is expected to play Sunday.
Philadelphia can run the ball — their 4.8 yards per carry ranks fourth in the NFL — but the Eagles are only running the ball 20 times a game. For years, head coach Andy Reid has been criticized for throwing the ball too much. In his first seven seasons at the helm, the Eagles threw the ball on 58.5% of their plays — the highest percentage for any coach in NFL history with at least 100 games. The median for all other teams during the same time period was 43.8%.
That might be fine if McNabb had a Hall of Fame receiving tandem like Jerry Rice and Terrell Owens to throw to. He doesn't, and he never has. Starters Reggie Brown and Kevin Curtis are serviceable, but neither is a legitimate number one receiver. The go-to guys are Westbrook and tight end L.J. Smith.
The Jets' pass defense has been horrible, giving up a ton of yards and nine touchdown passes in five games. The coverage has been spotty, and they haven't been helped by the complete disappearance of their pass rush. The Jets are on pace to finish with just 10 sacks after totaling 35 last season.
KEYS TO THE GAME The Jets have to be more patient with Thomas Jones and keep feeding him the ball. He may not be Curtis Martin, but he proved in Chicago that he can carry a team. You can't win games just throwing six yard slants, and you can't justify trading a second round pick for a back that you're only going to give 12 carries a game.
Lahman's Pick: Jets 24–14