The Jets head out to the West Coast this Sunday for a late afternoon battle with the young Oakland Raiders. The team will look to keep the momentum it has gained from winning its past two. Given the opponent, the winning streak should be three on Sunday night.
The Jets will look to continue padding their win total as they continue in a ridiculously soft part of the schedule. This Oakland team is nowhere near the pitiful bunch the Jets faced during the last week of the 2006 season, but the Raiders still have lengths to go to even be a contender for a Playoff spot. The team has played hard and has young talent, but this would still be a devastating loss. If the Jets want to be a Super Bowl team, this is the kind of game they should win big.
This marks the return of Brett Favre to Oakland. The last time Brett played the Raiders at the Coliseum was five years ago on Monday night. It was one of his most memorable games. Deciding to take the field on the day after his father died, Favre played an almost flawless contest, throwing for 399 yards as the Packers beat the Raiders by a 41-7 score. The Jets themselves have a good recent history against Oakland. Earlier in the 2003 season, Chad Pennington led New York to a comeback victory in the Black Hole. The Raiders were one of four teams to lose to the Jets during the nightmare 2005 season and saw the Jets celebrate the culmination of a miracle Playoff run at their expense in Week 17 of the 2006 season. Of course, the Raiders have battled the Lions for the title of worst team in the league consistently since their 2002 Super Bowl loss to Tampa Bay.
Whenever the Jets and Raiders meet, it brings back memories of battles between the two old AFL rivals, most notably their two contests in the 1968 season. The first became known as the Heidi Game as NBC left coverage of the game during the fourth quarter to show the movie Heidi. Fans missed a pair of Oakland touchdowns in the final minute to pull off a victory. The game helped to revolutionize television on sports as leagues now negotiate in their television contracts that games must be covered to their conclusion. A few months later, the Jets beat the Raiders in Shea Stadium to win the AFL title and advance to their only Super Bowl to date. Even to those of us who were not around back then, seeing the Jets and Raiders play evokes a certain nostalgia.
Oakland's defensive coordinator Rob Ryan is close friends with Eric Mangini from the time they used to be on the New England coaching staff. Rumors swirled that Ryan was coming to New York last offseason, but Al Davis overruled his head coach at the time, Lane Kiffin, and kept Ryan on the staff. Ryan, the son of former Jets defensive coordinator during those fabled 1968 contests Buddy Ryan, does not have a contract beyond this season. He might very well decide to leave the circus the Oakland franchise has become, and New York would be a logical destination. We could be getting a sneak preview at a member of the 2009 coaching staff.
The Raiders put the fun in dysfunctional. Tom Cable is their new coach for the rest of the season. He replaced Lane Kiffin, who was inexplicably fired by Al Davis. Kiffin had a young team playing hard. The record may not have shown it, but Oakland gave quality teams like the Bills and Chargers real battles before losing in the fourth quarter. That is the sign of a young team that does not know how to finish games. This kind of losing is progress. What the Raiders had done in years past, putting up terrible records with veterans, was pointless losing.
The real problem seems to be Davis. He became owner of the team after serving as its head coach and seems to have become paranoid in his old age that he will suffer a mutiny. He does not appear to want a head coach who will get any credit or the respect of his players over him. That is probably why he shipped Jon Gruden out of town and hired Kiffin. Kiffin looked harmless, a college assistant who would be exceedingly loyal because Davis was the only guy in the NFL who would give him such a chance. Once Kiffin showed he was capable in his own right and stood up to the owner, he was doomed.
On the field, the Raiders are led at quarterback by second year pro JaMarcus Russell. The second year LSU product is the poster boy for current NFL scouting logic. Teams take guys with the best physical tools, regardless of how raw they are. They figure they can develop players but they cannot develop natural ability. His play thus far has been erratic. He played efficiently against the Broncos and the Chargers and struggled mightily against the Bills, Chiefs, and Saints. This is not shocking inconsistency for an inexperienced quarterback. He has hit only 50% of his passes and throws for only 165 yards per game. He has done a good job protecting the football, throwing only 2 interceptions in 134 attempts. Even though the Raiders have scaled the offense back, he at least has taken what opposing defenses are willing to give. Russell has had trouble reading defenses. As is the case with any team developing a young signal caller, a lot of Oakland's future success depends on his development.
Part of Russell's problem is a lack of targets. Young tight end Zach Miller has been his top receiver with 14 catches and 199 yards. The leading wide receivers on the team, Ashley Lelie and Ronald Curry, have 6 grabs. Five games into the season, that is not going to do the job. They are tied for sixth on the team in receptions behind Miller and four running backs. Javon Walker has been a total nonfactor. His head does not seem to be screwed on straight. This nonproduction from wide receivers is death to a passing game. Desperate to spark the passing game, Cable is going to start rookie Chaz Schilens on Sunday at wideout.
Coming off a disastrous quarterbacking performance against the Saints and with an inexperienced guy facing a quality pass rush, expect the Raiders to scale things back and run the ball a lot. They have a trio of really good backs. Darren McFadden has not been the difference maker the team was expecting except for a monster game against a lousy Kansas City rush defense. However, he has a lot of natural ability and is a homerun threat. Justin Vargas, back from injury, is a solid runner. He ran for over 1,000 yards a year ago and is averaging 4.7 per carry this year. Michael Bush is the power back on the Oakland roster. Like McFadden, he had a big game against the Chiefs and has not done much else this year. Also like McFadden, he has a ton of ability. Bush may have been a first round pick two years ago had he not broken his leg with Louisville. The Raiders grabbed him on the second day of the 2007 Draft and gave him time to heal. This could be a good rushing attack for a long time.
Rob Ryan's defensive crew has been excellent against the run and poor against the pass. Opponents run for less than 4 per carry against the Oakland's front, led by tackles Gerard Warren and Tommy Kelly, thought by some to be a Jets free agent target last offseason. Terdell Sands, a space eater, rotates with them. Jay Richardson and Kirk Morrison are linebackers both with over 30 tackles this year.
It is funny that Oakland has struggled against the pass because there is a lot of talent in the secondary. Nnamdi Asomugha might be the best cornerback in the NFL, and almost nobody has heard of him. He possesses elite cover skills. He should cash in this offseason as a free agent once teams see his technique on film. On the other side is DeAngelo Hall, acquired in the offseason from Atlanta. Hall has the talent to be a number one corner in the league. Safety play has been an issue, however. Former Patriot Gibril Wilson starts at strong safety and has done nice work in run support and in coverage for Oakland. The other safety spot has been an issue, however. Michael Huff moved to free safety from strong safety this year. His lack of progress has earned the former top ten pick a spot on the bench this Sunday. Hiram Eugene will start in his place.
Although Jonnie Lee Higgins is an unspectacular return man, the Raiders have an excellent kicking game. Sebastian Janikowski has not missed a field goal try from inside 50 yards all season, and Shane Lechler averages almost 50 yards per punt.
Keys to Victory:
1. Check Down: The Raiders are going to struggle to score. They do not have the passing game to exploit New York's secondary deficiencies. Brett Favre has generally protected the football during his brief stint with the Jets. Jerricho Cotchery and Laveranues Coles are going to have a tough time getting open against Hall and Asomugha. He should not force things against those ball hawks. Not turning the ball over is critical. The Jets should play a field position game. This is a week when Thomas Jones, Tony Richardson, Dustin Keller, and Chris Baker should play an integral role in the passing game. Favre needs to read his progressions. The possible return of David Clowney this week will give Brett another slot target with Chansi Stuckey and save fans the agony of watching Brad Smith run routes.
2. Get Neon Leon Involved: This goes with the first key. Since the main receivers could struggle, Brian Schottenheimer should find way to get Leon Washington the ball in space. It is tough to have faith the interior of the offensive line can get Thomas Jones a push at this point so the Jets have to look for other ways to move the ball. Getting the biggest playmaker on the roster more involved in the offense is a logical solution.
3. Confuse Russell: The Jets should be very aggressive against JaMarcus Russell. The Raiders do not have the wideouts to burn the Jets when they gamble. New York should use multiple fronts and disguised coverages to throw the LSU quarterback off his game.
4. Rhodes in the Box: The Jets have been great against the run this year, but Oakland's only real chance is to establish the run to an extreme. If Oakland can chew the clock, win the field position battle, and shorten the game, it has a chance. The Jets should stick Kerry Rhodes in the box a lot to take away the run and dare the Raiders to let Russell put it up.
5. Gut Check: Oakland can be an intimidating place for a visitor. The fans are rowdy and dress up in absurd costumes. The Jets will have to show mettle to block this out and win the game. If this team is going anywhere, it will have to deal with hostile environments down the line.
Key Matchup: Kris Jenkins vs. Jake Grove
The key to the game will be whether the Raiders can run the ball. If Jenkins does what he has done all year long, push the interior line of the opponent into the backfield and keep his linebackers clean, Oakland is going to be in for a long day. If Grove gets a push, the Raiders can pound it and control the clock. Given Jenkins' All Pro caliber play and Grove's unspectacular reputation, the Jets probably have an edge.
Best Case Scenario:
Favre reprises his 2003 outing, Jenkins shuts down the run, and New York's pass rush rattles Russell into making critical mistakes, keying a Jets rout.
Worst Case Scenario:
Favre gets careless with the football, throwing three interceptions to set up Oakland touchdowns. The Raiders run successfully all day, wearing down the Jets defense and grind out a victory.
What Will Happen:
The Jets should expect Oakland's best shot. The Raiders have shown a lot of pride and effort this season. Coming off a miserable loss at New Orleans, they should give a big effort. This is probably going to be a lot like last week's game against the Bengals. The defense should dominate the contest. Jenkins will take away the run by bettering Grove. The Raiders will struggle to move it through the air. Favre has been protective of the ball in general. That should not change this week. The Jets will have to absorb Oakland's best shot, but they are the more talented team. They will struggle before putting it out of reach in the fourth quarter with a backbreaking drive.