In their 2013 regular season finale, the (7-8) New York Jets have very little to play for. They are out of the playoffs, and a loss would seemingly do more good than bad, especially given the deep draft class. However, a chance to spoil the (8-7) Miami Dolphins' playoff chances looms large, and pride is always at stake when matched up with the Fins. While Miami dominated the week 12 matchup on their way to a 23-3 victory, the Dolphins have major holes that the Jets should in theory be able to exploit. Their offense is below average– having scored 20.7 points per game–and their run defense is nothing to write home about either, allowing 4.2 yards per carry. While the Jets were unable to exploit the Dolphins' weaknesses in their last meeting, improvements from key players make this a very winnable game. This leads into the first key matchup.
Dee Milliner vs. Brian Hartline: in their Week 12 matchup, Dee Milliner was taken to school by the 5th year receiver, as Hartline accumulated a season high 127 yards on 9 catches. Milliner had a particularly rough game even in the scope of his disappointing rookie season, giving too much cushion most of the time and compounding the problem by missing tackles after allowing receptions. The off-coverage may have been the gameplan against Hartline–the Jets played Stevie Johnson similarly with Darelle Revis–but it assumes situational awareness (Rex chided Milliner for not pressing in certain scenarios), and that a tackle is made immediately after the catch. Alas, Hartline rumbled for 50 yards after the catch, and Milliner was benched in the second half. Dee comes into this week riding a wave of improved play, displaying much improved coverage and the ball skills that made him a consensus top 10 selection. Whether he draws Hartline is yet to be set in stone–he might draw the tougher assignment in Mike Wallace–but if he does he will need to tighten up his tackling, which is the one area of his game that hasn't improved over the course of the year. His inability to tackle the Panthers' Deangelo Williams on a screen pass 2 weeks ago was the most noticeable gaffe, but Milliner has been tackling with his arms for much of the year. Although he will never be confused for a big hitter unless he bulks up his wiry frame, he was generally pretty competent bringing down ball handlers in college. In the final game of his rookie campaign, continued improvement from the young corner would not only be key to the Jets' chances against Miami, but would also allow the team to head into the offseason with high hopes for their number one pick.
Sheldon Richardson vs. John Jerry: Big Shel has been a monster all season long, racking up game tape that will likely make him the favorite for Defensive Rookie of the Year. His relentless motor allows him to make a positive impact on almost any play, and his performance against the run has particularly stood out as some of the best in the entire league. When looking back on his rookie year, the week 12 matchup against the Dolphins will stand out as an especially dominant game. Right Guard Jerry Jones stood no chance against Richardson, as he blew up run after run, holding the Dolphins to just 3.5 yards per carry. Richardson has flashed talent rushing the passer as well–his 30+ quarterback hits attest to that–and will be looking to add to his season total of 3.5 sacks. The Dolphins have been a awful in pass protection this year, allowing a league leading 58 sacks (Jacksonville is a distant 2nd with 47 sacks). In fact, the 1 sack they gave up against the Jets stands out as an outlier in an otherwise terrible year for the offensive line. If the Jets hope to spoil the Dolphins' playoff ambitions, the defensive line must live up to its billing.
Chris Ivory: Chris Ivory has been one of the Jets' lone bright spots on offense, racking up 814 tough yards behind a line that has generally struggled to generate running lanes. Against the Dolphins in week 12, Ivory ran for 61 yards on 12 carries, an impressive number given that 65 of those yards came after first contact. That's not a typo; Ivory gained 4 more yards after contact than he did in total, which speaks to the disastrous day that the offensive line was having. In many ways, Ivory has been everything the Jets could have hoped for when they traded away a fourth round pick to acquire him. He has always been one of the more talented and productive running backs in the league, but could not stay healthy long enough to prove it. Given his running style, it is a wonder that he managed a career high 177 carries this year, an achievement that I attribute largely to the Jets' interchangeable usage of their running backs. He has nothing left to prove in the Jets' season finale, but another big game (this time against a vulnerable run defense that has allowed the 8th most rushing yards in the NFL) would be critical to the Jets' chances this Sunday.
Players to Watch: To put it lightly, Geno Smith floundered through the month of November, racking up 0 TD and 8 interception from October 27 to December 1st. The week 12 matchup with Miami was probably the low point, as Matt Simms eventually replaced him after a terrible first half. Many of Geno's problems were caused by his footwork, apparently because he was being "too methodical with his reads and footwork".
"At times," the rookie quarterback said Wednesday, "I was playing like a robot...It goes back to not thinking about all my past mistakes. I think I got into this zone where I just tried to be way too perfect, and that's almost impossible to do at any level, especially as a rookie."
However, Geno has turned a bit of a corner since the benching, with 4 TD and 2 interceptions while facing the stingy Panthers and Browns (as well as the terrible Raiders). Throughout his rookie year, Geno has flashed the perseverance and poise of a veteran, but a big game against the team that caused his benching would certainly give John Idzik food for thought if/when Johnny Manziel or another big name college quarterback is available when the Jets are picking in the first round.
Another player to keep an eye on is Quinton "Ceasar" Copes, who has now logged a sack (or at least half of a sack) in 4 consecutive games. His emergence as a force off the edge is definitely one of the positives to take into next season, especially if he can go out with a bang. Facing veteran offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie is exactly what the doctor ordered, given that McKinnie has allowed 9 sacks in 9 games since joining Miami. Look for #98 to dominate this Sunday.