November 9, 2004 Edition > Section: Sports
Strong Jets Team Faces Biggest Test Yet
BY SEAN LAHMAN
After struggling in the early parts of the last three seasons, the Jets have to be feeling positive about their 6-2 start. But recent history should also be on their minds - they need only look back to the 2000 season, when a 6-2 first-half performance finished as a disappointing 9-7 season.
The Jets reach the midway point of the season facing the one thing they most dreaded, an injury to Chad Pennington. On top of that, the schedule gets exceedingly tough in December, with the last four games bringing likely playoff teams.
Still, there are plenty of reasons to feel good about how this team performed in the first half of the season. A unit-by-unit breakdown shows plenty of reasons to feel optimistic.
Much of the success of the running game has been due to the improvements the Jets have made on the interior of their offensive line. Center Kevin Mawae has not been slowed by his hand injury; in fact, he's having one of his best seasons. Right guard Brandon Moore has emerged as a tough, physical player in his second season. The addition of left guard Pete Kendall in mid-August was an unexpected blessing. These three are ferocious blockers who have helped the Jets control most opponents along the line of scrimmage.
Curtis Martin is off to the best start of his career, ranking among the league leaders in rushing yards and touchdowns. He got more work during the preseason, which seems to have made a big difference. The big concern has to be avoiding overwork. Despite indications that Lamont Jordan would get more playing time, he's actually on pace for fewer carries than he had last year.
Offensive coordinator Paul Hackett finally seems to have the personnel to make his West Coast offense work. The addition of receiver Justin McCareins has paid immediate dividends. With his size and physical style, he's the kind of tough, over-the-middle receiver this system needs in order to be successful.
McCareins has helped open up deeper routes for Santana Moss, though the Jets haven't shown a propensity to throw downfield. True to form, most of the passes are quick timing routes, and the two leading receivers are running backs - Jerald Sowell and Martin.
Pennington has completed two-thirds of his attempts with only three interceptions, and the offensive line has done a good job of giving him time to throw. The obvious question for the second half is how well Quincy Carter will be able to run the offense in Pennington's absence.
The Jets made a risky decision during the off-season to make sweeping changes at linebacker, going with three new starters. So far, the difference has been incredible. The new linebacking corps has a tremendous amount of speed and they deliver big hits. Free agent addition Eric Barton and second-year man Victor Hobson cover a lot of ground. Rookie Jonathan Vilma leads the team in tackles and is emerging as a leader at middle LB.
The defensive line has improved against the run, particularly defensive tackle Jason Ferguson and defensive end Shaun Ellis. The big hitters in the secondary have also done a good job of helping against the run. Last year the Jets ranked 28th against the run; right now they're 12th.
Years of investing high draft picks on the defensive line are paying off. Coverage has been solid and the pass rush has been outstanding. John Abraham leads the league with 8.5 sacks; the other starters have combined for another 8.5 sacks. The Jets have put consistent pressure on opposing QBs, which has helped take pressure off of the secondary.
Three of the four starters in the secondary are new. Free agents Reggie Tongue and David Barrett are both big hitters; rookie Erik Coleman, a fifth round pick from Washington State, has done an outstanding job at free safety; Donnie Abraham has returned an interception and a fumble for a TD; reserves Terrell Buckley and Jon McGraw each have two interceptions.
The secondary has been vulnerable to TD passes when protecting a lead late in the game. But they've generally been solid during the heart of the game.
Coverage teams have not done well, ranking 27th on both punts and kickoffs. Punter Toby Gowin has largely failed at pinning opponents back, and his 38.3 average is worst in the AFC. Kicker Doug Brien has missed two field goal attempts from inside 40 yards. The Jets have been average on kick and punt returns.
It's hard to find fault with any of Herm Edward's decisions, either in the way he assembled this team or the way he runs it from the sidelines. Donnie Henderson has done an outstanding job of getting a defense with six new starters to play well as a unit. Hackett deserves credit for finally getting his offense in gear, though there is understandable concern about Martin's workload and Carter's ability.
Two close losses on the road in the last three weeks were disappointing, but it would be hard not to be encouraged by the progress the Jets have made so far this season. Nearly every off-season addition is paying dividends, making this the most talented team of the Herm Edwards era. The biggest challenge is avoiding a letdown and dealing with the injuries as they head towards the finish line.