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PFR’s 2011 New York Jets season preview

Posted by Chase Stuart on September 8, 2011

What should we expect from the Jets this year? New York has appeared in the AFC Championship Game in each of the past two seasons, but two bad halves (second against Indianapolis, first against Pittsburgh) prevented the Jets from making the Super Bowl. Every year with Rex Ryan is a "Super Bowl or bust" type of season: do the Jets have what it takes to meet those expectations in 2011?

Vegas views the Jets as one of the league's contenders: with a projection of 10 wins, the Jets land in the top quarter of the league. The odds say New England is the favorite, with the Steelers slightly behind the Patriots, and the Jets, Chargers and Ravens just behind Pittsburgh to win the AFC. Those five teams are the class of the conference, now that there's a Peyton Manningless-Indianapolis.

Most observers put the Jets in that 3-5 range among the AFC's heavyweights. But a full preview of the 2011 Jets should start by taking a look at both the 2009 and 2010 editions.

2009 vs. 2010 Jets

The 2009 Jets shocked a lot of people by getting to the AFC Championship Game; after all, the Jets started the season 7-7. New York flipped the script in 2010, starting the year 9-2, the second best start in franchise history. But the records belie their reality: the 2009 Jets were a bit better than their 9-7 record while the 2010 Jets may not have been as good as their 11-5 mark.

Through 13 weeks of the 2009 season, my weekly predictor rating ranked the 6-6 Jets as the second best team in the AFC. The 2009 Jets, despite an unimpressive record, had a lot of strengths. They led the NFL in rushing yards and rushing first downs, while finishing one off the lead in rushing touchdowns. Defensively? They led the league in yards allowed, points allowed, first downs allowed and yards per play allowed. The pass defense? It was 1st in completion percentage, touchdown percentage, passing yards, yards per attempt, net yards per attempt, adjusted net yards per attempt, quarterback rating, and loud coaches. Yes, the pass offense left a lot to be desired, but it wasn't hopeless. Mark Sanchez ranked 21st in net yards per pass attempt. Sure, the Jets were 9-7, but New York went 0-5 in games decided by five points or fewer, and all five of those losses came down to a single play late in the fourth quarter.

Meanwhile, the 2010 Jets seemed a bit lucky. After an incredibly demoralizing opening day defeat, the Jets won nine of their next ten games. Even when New York was 5-1, I legitimately wondered if the Jets were overrated. That was before the Jets would win four of their next five games by (1) coming from behind in the final minutes to beat the Broncos; (2) coming from behind to win in overtime against the Lions; (3) winning in overtime against the Browns; and (4) having a miraculous come-from-behind victory against the Texans. After shooting themselves in the foot in every close game in 2009, the Jets went 6-1 in one-score games in the first 13 weeks of the 2010 season. The passing offense improved last year, but the rushing game and the defense regressed.

In 2011, the Jets are hoping to get continued improvement from Sanchez in the passing game and a return by the defense to its 2009 form. That's a great formula for a Super Bowl championship, but is it likely to be achieved? Let's take a look at the not so insignificant roster turnover during the Rex Ryan era:

At running back, it's Shonn Greene's show. But it's hard to imagine the combination of Greene and Tomlinson will be noticeably better than they were last season, or come close to matching the monster numbers produced by the running attack in 2009. Part of the reason for that will be the men blocking in front of them. Going from Tony Richardson to John Conner may not hurt the team, especially if the "Terminator" can live up to his reputation. But the Jets saw a dropoff at LG when they replaced Faneca with Slauson and could see a worse regression with Hunter replacing Woody. Ferguson, Mangold and Moore are among the best in the league at their positions, but New York has taken steps back at the other two positions on the line the past two seasons.

In the pasisng game, "third-year Mark Sanchez" should be better than versions 1.0 and 2.0. But what about his targets? Adding Holmes made the offense much more explosive in 2010, but replacing Edwards, Cotchery and Brad Smith with Burress, Mason and rookie Jeremy Kerley is the big wildcard. I view that as a noticeable downgrade, but the front offense and some fans seem to think the Jets got stronger at receiver. If the front office is right, the Jets' passing game will continue to improve and put the team in position to reach all of its goals. But I don't think Burress will provide the production that Edwards did last season, and it's hard to imagine Kerley contributing as impressively as Brad Smith has over the past few seasons. Derrick Mason had a better career than Cotchery, but Mason will be 38 before the Super Bowl. Is he going to be better than Cotchery was at ages 27 and 28?

Simply put, the offensive line and the wide receiver group look worse entering 2011 than they did entering 2010, while the running game comes with more question marks. The only hope for the offense? An emergence by Mark Sanchez into an above-average quarterback. Considering Sanchez ranked 29th out of 32 quarterbacks in net yards per attempt in 2010, there is obviously lots of room for improvement.

Sanchez was very hot and cold as a rookie in 2009. He started the season strong and remains the only true rookie quarterback since 1960 to win his team's first three games. But the cold was frigid: in week six he was more responsible for a loss than you would ever think was possible. That game remains perhaps the worst performance by a quarterback over the past four seasons. Then, in the 2009 playoffs, he was hot again: his 7.8 AY/A average was better than Peyton Manning, Tony Romo, Philip Rivers or Tom Brady in the post-season, and he ranked 5th out of the 12 playoff quarterbacks in that metric.

While he flipped his touchdown to interception ratio last season, there remain a lot of flaws in his game. Still, Sanchez came into the league as a raw player from USC, and there's no reason to think he would hit his ceiling (or anything close to that) by his second year. In my opinion, the most likely outcome in 2011 is any improvement Sanchez makes as a quarterback won't be reflected in his numbers due to an inferior supporting cast.

The dominance of the Patriots, a modification to the league's playoff format, the strength of the Jets defense, and timely plays by Mark Sanchez have led to an in interesting bit of trivia: after just two seasons, Sanchez is tied for the all-time lead in road playoff victories (by his team but, by virtue of his playing quarterback, attributed to him). The Jets' rallying cry this year is to actually win the division and avoid Sanchez having to win a road playoff game. But unless Burress and Mason find the fountain of youth, the Jets will need a dominant performance by the defense (and a Patriots mini-collapse) to do so.

So how will that defense look?

The big loss on the defensive line is Shaun Ellis. The Big Cat was the longest tenured Jet -- he arrived in 2000 with a compensatory pick the Jets received from the Patriots in exchange for Bill Belichick. Now, Ellis will be playing for Belichick and the Pats on Sundays. Sione Pouha and Mike DeVito aren't household names but each had dominant seasons in 2010. Football Outsiders ranked the Jets' defensive line in the top five in adjusted line yards, while Pro Football Focus ranked Devito as thte second best 3-4 DE against the run (and 4th overall at the position) and Pouha as the fourth best run-stopping interior lineman.

But that wasn't enough for Rex Ryan. The Jets will add about 1,000 pounds of beef to the defensive line in 2011, after drafting Muhammad Wilkerson (1st round) and Kenrick Ellis (2nd round) and getting Ropati Pitoitua back from injury. Wilkerson is a natural 3-4 end with long arms and a stout frame (315 pounds) against the run. Both Wilkerson and Ellis are rawer than your average high draft pick: the former played at Temple while the latter spent the first eleven years of his life in Jamaica and played at Hampton. But as Ryan put it when speaking about Ellis, "you can't coach 6'5, 350." But Ropati Pitoitua is the one defensive player that every Jet player and coach just likes to refer to as a monster. Standing 6'8, 315 pounds, Pitoitua finally begin playing up to his potential this pre-season.

Losing Ellis (along with Kris Jenkins and Jason Taylor) may hurt the team in the veteran leadership category. But with Wilkerson, Ellis and Pitoitua primed for big roles, the Jets' defensive line will be younger, deeper, stronger and more athletic this season.

The linebackers have been remarkably consistent throughout Ryan's run as coach. The quartet of Thomas, Sott, Harris and Pace are back for year three, and help make the team elite against the run. The Jets have ranked in the top five in yards per carry allowed in each of the past two seasons, thanks largely to the contributions of Scott and Harris. New York still lacks an elite edge rusher: Thomas (6.0) and Pace (8.0) led the team in sacks the past two years, although the Jets team ended 2010 with 40 sacks. Vernon Gholston never developed into a pass rusher, and former Bills bust Aaron Maybin was a late cut in training camp. That means Jamal Westerman -- labeled as the Designated Pass Rusher by Ryan -- will be the team's main hope when it comes to sacking opposing quarterbacks. If there's a glaring hole on either side of the ball, it's the lack of anything resembling a strong pass rusher.

The Jets pass defense took a step back in 2010 despite superficially improving the talent level. While the team actually improved in completion percentage allowed (an incredible 50.7%), the Jets ranked "only" 4th in NY/A allowed. More disturbingly, the pass defense was mediocre at 14th in ANY/A allowed, thanks to below average INT and TD allowed rates.

The Jets expect more out of Eric Smith and Kyle Wilson this year, and a healthy Darrelle Revis will help cure most problems. Revis' injury, combined with certain lapses by Cromartie and the secondary following Jim Leonhard's injury, largely explained the dropoff. But behind a rebuilt defensive line and a solid group of linebackers, the Jets secondary can look to match the remarkable heights set by the '09 unit.

What to expect?

The defense, of course, will carry this team. Losing Edwards, Cotchery and Smith makes this a transition year for the offense, and Greene will be asked to carry a full load for the first time in his career. Despite overtures from the Jets about being pass-heavy this season, I have my doubts. Yes, in 2007, Burress had 12 touchdowns, Mason caught 103 passes and Holmes led the league with an 18.1 yards per reception average. But I don't think the Jets get anything close to that production in 2011, especially with more question marks along the offensive line. The talent is there, and if Sanchez improves, it's possible that the Jets offense becomes a strength. But for my money, the only way the Jets reach the Super Bowl this season is if the defense reverts to its dominant '09 form. It's a tall order asking the Jets to challenge for the league lead in points allowed, yards allowed, yards per attempt allowed and yards per carry allowed this year. But if New York wants to compete with New England, Pittsburgh and San Diego, anything else won't be enough. Rex Ryan has made the AFC Championship Game in three consecutive seasons, and his defense has ranked in the top three in each of those years. If you had to bet on one defense carrying a team, this is probably where you want to place your chips.