Season's over, folks. So what are the Jets' keys as they host the San Diego Chargers this Sunday?
After losing their 8th game, the Jets have all but eliminated themselves from the playoff picture. The turnover was immediate: next week's game will be quarterbacked by a player with zero starts under his belt, and I'd imagine the other young players will see their opportunities increase in the last two weeks. Another winnable game presents itself with the 5-9 Chargers invading MetLife Stadium, essentially pitting the Jets against a bizarro west coast version of themselves. The Chargers have had a down year, dealing with injuries at key positions and receiving inconsistent quarterback play because of it. The run defense has been stout however, which leads into the first key:
Greg McElroy: Nobody really knows what we have in Greg McElroy, but the 24 year old has always looked like a competent game manager when given the opportunity (albeit mostly in preseason snaps). The Jets will likely try to ease Greg in by force feeding Shonn Greene and Bilal Powell (who interestingly enough only received a combined 19 carries last week against the Titans), but the Chargers sport one of the best run defenses in the league (5th best in terms of yards per carry). If the Jets want to win, its very likely going to come down to a few throws against a shoddy San Diego secondary (20th in opposing QB rating). Can Greg make these throws? If not, we may be able to conclude pretty quickly that he is not the answer going forward. If he can, then we might have a low-cost option at QB going into next season.
Pressuring Philip Rivers: In 14 games this season, Rivers has been sacked a whopping 43 times- the most in the NFL. Despite the constant pressure, Rivers has managed to put together a season that Jets fans would be envious of: 22 touchdowns, 3290 yards, and a completion percentage of 64.3%. He has however, fumbled the ball 15 times, so applying pressure should be sprinkled throughout the Jets' gameplan. With seven sacks in their last two games, the Jets pass rush has been coming on. Led by Quinton Coples and Mo Wilkerson, the d-line could close the season with a bang by dominating this game from the get-go. Coples in particular should be in line for increased snaps this week after recording dominant performances the past two weeks (with a sack and multiple QB hits in each game).
Denario Alexander: 6'5'' receivers don't grow on trees, but the Chargers managed to scoop Alexander off the scrap heap after two disappointing seasons with the Rams, and he's played at a very high level. He recorded his first catch as a Charger in Week 9 against the Chiefs, but has already caught 33 balls for 555 yards and 5 touchdowns since then. Prorated over a full season, and that's more than 1000 yards and 10 touchdowns for the former Missouri Tiger. His size presents a tough matchup for anyone, even a seemingly unflappable Antonio Cromartie. Shutting down Alexander will be key in shutting down the Chargers passing game.
Austin Howard: After holding his own for most of the year, Austin Howard was taken to school by the various blitz packages that the Titans threw at him last week. The Chargers don't feature a frightening pass rush (23rd in the league), but the Jets need to account for Corey Liuget and the man that often lines up behind him- Shaun Phillips- if they want to keep McElroy clean. Liuget is a second year player that has taken a step forward with his pass rushing this season- increasing his sack total from 1 to 5. Phillips has been a mainstay in the Chargers' front seven for the last nine years, notching 67 career sacks, 7 this season. If the Jets don't give Howard help this week, it may be a long game for young Greg McElroy.
Braylon Edwards and Jeremy Kerley: With Dustin Keller still nursing a bum ankle, the Jets top two receivers need to step up and make plays for their young quarterback. With Keller out (and Cumberland inconsistent as always), I'd expect McElroy to heavily target Kerley in the slot, with a few intermediate/deep throws going to Braylon. Braylon saw 41 of the team's 61 snaps last week, so his role on the team is firmly entrenched for these two weeks, especially with Stephen Hill's season ending injury. However, his future with the team is still very much in doubt. Can Braylon provide steady hands for Greg McElroy? Can he form a quick connection with the inexperienced signal caller? If so, he may be able to play his way into a guaranteed contract for next season. If not, the Jets will probably be done with Braylon for good.
Rex Ryan: I'm a huge fan of Rex Ryan, so I'd be bummed if he takes the fall for the team's failures this season. I peg much of the failures on Mike Tannenbaum, Tony Sparano and an unlucky string of injuries. Its not that Rex is faultless, but he was rumored to have preferred Greg McElroy over Mark Sanchez going into the Jacksonville game (but was shot down by Mike T and Tony Sparano), and the job that he has done with a Revis-less defense has been truly spectacular. With all that said, how he manages the next two games will likely determine his future with the team. Losses wouldn't be the end of the world- we are after all out of the playoff race and more losses equate to a higher draft pick- but being embarrassed in the next two weeks could signal curtains on the Rex Ryan era. The Jets have become a circus this season, much of it media driven but some of it self induced. We're not the worst team in the league by a wide margin (in fact, there are 13 teams with worse records), but almost all of the losses have been embarrassing. If Rex steadies the ship and maintains control of the team for the next two weeks, I don't see how Woody Johnson could show him the door.
Players to Watch: I've mentioned that the Chargers have done an awful job of protecting Philip Rivers, and that Philip Rivers has done an awful job of protecting the ball. If Quinton Coples and Mo Wilkerson aren't in the Chargers backfield all game long, something went wrong. You won't have to watch for these players on Sunday; they'll be hard to miss.
Bonus Player to Watch: Greg McElroy will be making his first start this week, which likely means an end for the Mark Sanchez era. Greg was drafted very late despite his stellar college track record, largely due to concerns about his arm strength. Well, offseason surgery may have caused a pretty substantial leap in that category:
"I don't really keep track of long distance throws so I can't really say how much I added in terms of yards to my deep balls...I can make those throws obviously. But now, I can do it without having to set my feet as much and I don't have to step into it as much. There's a difference."
-Greg McElroy, via Kristian Dyer
There are some throws that every quarterback in the NFL has to make, and that is difficult without adequate arm strength. I'll be watching McElroy's intermediate and deep throws on Sunday to see if he has truly improved in that category, as Jets coaches seem to believe. If so, McElroy could carve out a niche as a starting QB in the NFL.
Prediction: This game is almost impossible to predict, given that we don't know what to expect out of the offense with a new quarterback under center. Plus, is this a game that we really want to win? The Jets stand at 6-8, holding the 14th pick in next year's draft. With six 5-9 teams in front of them, a huge jump in draft position may be possible if we lose the next two games. With nothing to play for (except the coaching staff's jobs), will the Jets sit their A-team and let the kids play? If they do, anything is possible. Either way, I'd expect the defense to hold the Chargers under 17 points. If McElroy is even mediocre, this should be a win. If he plays like the late round pick that he is, we will be in for an ugly game. I'm calling 2 touchdowns (one to Braylon and one to Cumberland) for McElroy, a touchdown run for Greene and 3 forced turnovers for the defense.
[Edit: Malcolm Floyd will not be presenting the Jets problems, since he was placed on IR this week...hat tip to Darshv3 for pointing it out]