After being down 21-10 in the first half on Sunday, the New York Jets never gave up and came back strong to defeat the New England Patriots 30-27 in overtime. New York is now 4-3 and just one game behind New England in the AFC East. With a lot of offseason turnover and starting a rookie quarterback in Geno Smith, many thought the Jets would contend for the first overall pick in the 2014 draft rather than be competing for the division. We saw on Sunday another example of how Rex Ryan and his coaching staff are doing an outstanding job of playing to their roster strengths.
Can the Jets make the playoffs this season?
The Jets' offense revolves around Smith and his decision-making, and although the rookie signal-caller and has had some very up-and-down moments so far this season (including struggling against the Steelers' complex defense one week ago), the game has never looked too big for him. He is a very comfortable player who can make all the throws, particularly deep downfield, where he has shined this year. Smith also is a dangerous runner with the ball in his hands and at times Sunday exploited the Patriots' defense when they turned their back on him in man coverage (New England's preferred coverage). But Smith is a passer first, which is exactly what you want to see from a young quarterback. Smith very well could be the long-term answer for the Jets at the game's most valuable position.
On Sunday, the Jets' offense exploited several of the Patriots' defensive shortcomings. New York was smart to stick with its power running game to eventually wear down the Patriots' interior defensive line, which was without Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly. The replacement defensive tackles held up very well for much of this game, but late in the game and especially in overtime, the Patriots' defense was gouged by the Jets' big, heavy offensive line. Chris Ivory and his fresh legs (returning from injury) ran with outstanding power and conviction for 104 yards on 34 carries. The Jets nearly doubled the Patriots in time of possession, and the running game paid off in a big way when it mattered most for New York.
In another showing of very good coaching, the Jets attacked New England's linebackers repeatedly in the passing game. Jerod Mayo is done for the season with a pectoral injury and has the best range of the Patriots' original starting linebackers. Mayo isn't great in coverage either, but Brandon Spikes and Donte Hightower are true liabilities in this regard. They are far better playing downhill and attacking the run game rather than playing in space. The Jets got Stephen Hill on a crossing pattern early in the game against Spikes, who had zero chance of keeping up, but with much more regularity, New York got Jeremy Kerley out of the slot and Jeff Cumberlandmatched up against the Patriots' second-level defenders. Again, New England's linebackers had little chance in this matchup and if it were not for a few dropped passes by Jets pass-catchers, this approach could have proven to be even more fruitful for New York.
On the defensive side of the ball, New York's outstanding defensive line was dominant once again, sacking Tom Brady four times while holding the Patriots to just 90 rushing yards in an overtime game. The very young trio of Muhammad Wilkerson, Sheldon Richardson and Damon Harrison has been utterly dominant all season. Wilkerson is having a borderline Defensive Player of the Year season. Richardson, in my opinion, is the best rookie in the entire NFL this season and Harrison is a true diamond in the rough as a prototypical nose tackle that just rarely moves backward. Ryan has stemmed everything he does on defense off these three -- and they haven't let him down.
The Jets are more active at the second level with the insertion of DeMario Davis at linebacker than they were a year ago and don't have a dominant edge pass-rusher. Their secondary also has been far from great in 2013 and guys like first-round pick Dee Milliner are very much a work-in-progress. However, because this defensive line is so talented, the Jets don't blitz nearly as much as most assume with Ryan calling the plays and that very much held true again Sunday. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Jets sent four or fewer pass-rushers on 88 percent of Brady's dropbacks. Brady was only 20-of-41 passing against that pressure with an interception and three sacks.
Not everything was roses for the Jets on Sunday, however, and there is still a lot they need to clean up. For starters, New York had a very difficult time containing Rob Gronkowski in his debut. Gronkowski finished with eight catches for 114 receiving yards on 17 targets. Both red-zone offense and red-zone defense have been problem areas for the youthful Jets thus far, as too many drives have stalled with field goals or red-zone turnovers. Penalties have also been a massive problem for this team, especially since several have been mental mistakes. This is a young team with a lot of new pieces from a year ago, so maybe they will improve in this area, but taking nine penalties as they did Sunday is a recipe for disaster -- because the Jets, due to their lack of offensive weapons, are never going to blow their opponents out.
Finally, Smith threw an awful interception Sunday that was easily returned for a touchdown. He is turning the ball over too much, and will make some "wow" throws followed by some head-scratchers. That being said, not only is Smith a rookie but he came from a true spread offense at West Virginia, so he will have a longer adjustment period.
To continue to progress this season, the Jets must win games like the one on Sunday by battling to the end and finding mismatches in their favor while being patient and limiting penalties and turnovers. I don't think this team has enough to make the playoffs this season, but they are a promising success story and are certainly further along the rebuilding road than most people thought at the beginning of the year.