There's a high likelihood that the doomsday predictions about this season for the Jets will happen, but I want to suggest how an alternative might emerge. If the Jets don't collapse now, a series of things will have to go right. There's no way to envision that the defense doesn't get hurt, but the extent of the decline might be limited if the defensive line starts playing at the level they can play, if Coples and Wilkerson develop in the way that Rex certainly hoped, if Kendrick Ellis can make the very best of his time coming off the bench. Pass-defense will certainly decline, but it might not be as bad as it otherwise could if Rex can produce some exotic blitzes, if Maybin can spend less time on the bench and more time in the opposing back-field, if McIntyre can show that his game against Pittsburgh wasn't a fluke. Coverage will definitely get hurt, but it might not collapse if Wilson can make good on the potential he does have, and if the safety corps can assure that even if the WRs do more damage, the TEs don't kill us.
The likelihood of all, or even much, of that happening isn't high, but it is possible. It's possible the Jets defense can be at least average. There's no way to imagine the Jets competing, however, unless the offense picks up a large amount of the weight. I want to suggest that that isn't impossible, and that in fact we might already be seeing the initial signs of a substantially improved offense. There are a lot of reasons to expect that the offense won't be good enough to win games immediately, and I'd certainly have been more confident if Revis could have kept the defense above average for a while as the offense gelled, but I think it is possible that we'll see the improvement sooner than anybody might have imagined.
Last year, the Jets had a third rate offense, but already, we're seeing an offense that has flashes of being a borderline first-rate squad. Last year, in a sense, everything went wrong offensively. The offensive line suddenly became highly vulnerable, and the running backs were unable to do much of anything. This put an awful lot of pressure on Mark Sanchez and the receiving corps, which was quite clearly unable to handle it. Too often, the offense seemed to depend on Sanchez throwing to just one of two people, Santonio Holmes and Dustin Keller, who are quite simply not good enough to carry a solid NFL offense, particularly with Sanchez throwing to them.
The Jets had multiple options. They could have invested in a top-tier RT or an RB, and tried to improve the running game. They didn't. Instead, they thought that by getting Stephen Hill, they could finally have a third receiving option that might give them the firepower to actually score points.
As horrible as today's news has been, a series of things have gone right offensively for the Jets this season. Sanchez has continued to develop. Most critically, though Austin Howard is far from a Pro Bowl RT, he represents a substantial improvement, and by any standard, the Jets OL is much better this year than last. It might be hard to see this considering the Jets have faced three defenses which can put significant pressure on the QB, which makes their giving up only 15 yards of sack yardage especially impressive. Some of that credit surely goes to Sanchez, who has improved in his ability to avoid pressure, but a lot of this has to do with protection. And that protection has been excellent. So far, they're third in the NFL. The median team has given up 43.5 yards, meaning that they have given up each week what the Jets have given up so far over the whole season. The median team detail is important, because last year, with Wayne Hunter, the Jets were just a little bit worse than that.
So why haven't the Jets produced more consistently offensively? Part of this is because Sanchez hasn't developed fast enough,but part of the reason is because as the rushing game continues to be less than mediocre, the Jets have also ceased to be even a 2 receiving threat team. For the last two weeks, a disturbing portion of the Jets offense seems to have become Sanchez throwing to Santonio Holmes, over and over and over again. There's a reason he's been doing that; when he's thrown to Hill and to Keller's replacement, he's gotten virtually no production over the past two weeks. And if the Jets couldn't win throwing just to Holmes and Keller, they certainly can't win throwing to Holmes alone. I'm suggesting, in other words, that as we've been (fairly) focused on Revis' being out for the last two weeks, Keller being out might have been more damaging than we might have thought.
How might the Jets improve offensively? Well, in a series of ways. First of all, Keller's return might at least give Sanchez a second reliable receiving threat. More critically, however, it's time for the Jets to acknowledge that they have already the 2nd WR they so badly needed last year, and his name isn't Stephen Hill just yet. There's been a lot of praise here for Kerley, but I'm not sure you guys realize quite how impressive he's been. Despite the offense being inconsistent at best, he's on pace for close to 1000 yards (990) and 10 receiving TDs. Here's the wild part; he's done all of that having been targeted only eleven times. To give you a sense of how little that is, Holmes was targeted fourteen times in the Dolphins game alone. (And that's just the official number, which doesn't include the times he was thrown at and penalties were called). Over the season, Stephen Hill has been targeted thirteen times; Jeff Cumberland fifteen. Combined, those two turned those opportunities into 160 yards. Kerley? 175.
Now, I'm not saying Stephen Hill is terrible, or anything like that. We saw in Week 1 that he has the potential to be a far better receiver than Kerley ever will, and I'm sure he'll have many more games like that, maybe even some this season. But he is not ready to be counted on. He should be tested deep three or four times a game --- if he can catch the ball, fantastic. If not, it will cause only limited damage. Putting more responsibility on Kerley and Keller might finally give the Jets the three-target package this offense badly needs. That was the offense we saw in Week 1, when Hill was able to perform.
That kind of passing attack might buy the space for the running game to move. Last year, it was possible to believe that the terrible running game was more the fault of the OL than Greene. This year, it is clear that that is not the case. It's very hard to distinguish the OL from the running backs, but one useful stat by Football Outsiders has been to count the times that a RB has been caught behind the line of scrimmage, normally the result of the OL being overrun. So far this year, the Jets are in the top 5 in that stat. The reason for the horrific production isn't only Shonn Greene, but he deserves a large enough portion of the blame that if the Jets are to compete, he cannot be the starting RB. I don't expect Bilal Powell and McKnight to be top-tier RBs, but if they can produce even an average amount of production, there is the chance that will help buy the space needed for this offense to be a surprisingly potent force.