The Jets look to bounce back from a disappointing performance this Sunday during a trip out to San Francisco to face the 49ers. It will be Gang Green's third trip to the West Coast of the year, the second trip to the Bay Area, and the first visit to Candlestick Park since Opening Day 1998. Glenn Foley had a career game for the Jets that day, but Gang Green suffered an overtime loss on a Garrison Hearst 96 yard touchdown run. The Jets went to the AFC Championship Game that year as Vinny Testaverde took over as starting quarterback for Foley and went on to have a career season. While a similar quarterback controversy is unlikely for this team, any hopes of finishing with an identical 12-4 record and a first round bye to that 1998 club hinge on winning this contest.
The Jets received a full fledged butt whipping last weekend against Denver. It is likely this was only a blip on the radar. The Jets were coming off the emotional high of two impressive road wins, were due for a stinker after five straight wins, had lousy weather, and had some bad calls go against them. If any of these rationalizations are true, this team needs a big effort against the Niners. If the Jets flounder, losing a second straight game and a second contest of 2008 to a lousy Bay Area squad, it will be time to sound the alarm bells.
This is a team playing hard for a great leader, Mike Singletary. Singletary is a Hall of Fame inside linebacker and a high character individuals. He took over midseason for the fired Mike Nolan and seems to be winning fans of the team over as San Francisco has won two of three. He is a difficult guy to root against.
Shaun Hill lines up under center for the 49ers. His 101.3 quarterback rating in a pair of starts at the end of 2007 somehow landed him a seat on the bench in 2008 for the immortal J.T. O'Sullivan. O'Sullivan unsurprisingly bombed, and Hill is back in the starting role. In four 2008 starts, he has 8 touchdowns against 3 interceptions and a 94.6 quarterback rating. He has hit over 60% of his throws. Hill had his first 300 yard passing game in a loss to Dallas two weeks ago. He is very accurate on his underneath throws, which has to be a scary thought for a defense that struggles to cover receivers on crossing routes and tight ends period. His primary targets, Issac Bruce and Bryant Johnson are solid. Bruce is a sure Hall of Famer, who is tied for the team lead with 39 receptions and leads his club with 625 yards but not the same threat he was during his days in St. Louis. Johnson has 28 grabs for 353 yards. Arnaz Battle and Jason Hill, neither of whom has had much impact, round out the San Francisco receiving corp, along with tight end Vernon Davis. Davis was a workout wonder who has yet to live up to his Draft hype. There must be something about the name Vernon. No Niners receiver has impressive numbers, which shows how inefficient their passing game was before Hill took over. The 43 sacks their offensive line has allowed cannot help matters.
Frank Gore is the most dynamic weapon his team has. He ranks ninth in the league with 926 yards on the ground and sports a 4.3 average. He is also tied with Bruce for the team lead with 39 receptions. Given the lack of success of the receiving corps, he will be the guy the Jets need to shut down. Hill has been solid, but his inexperience makes New York want the game on his shoulders.
San Francisco does not have much of a defense. Despite the signing of an excellent cover corner in Nate Clements this offseason, the Niners give up 239.8 yards per game through the air. Part of the reason is that this team resembles the Jets of 2006 and 2007 on defense. San Francisco runs the 3-4 even without the right personnel. The defense only has 22.5 sacks on the year. Justin Smith, a standout in Cincinnati's 4-3, has 4 sacks playing the hybrid defensive end-outside linebacker role. Parys Haralson has 2 more. However, there has not been production from other spots. There is no Shaun Ellis on the line. There is no David Bowens coming in on passing downs. Manny Lawson and Roderick Green may have 3 sacks apiece, but there is no consistent push. Linebacker, safety, and cornerback blitzes have not been an effective part of the defensive repertoire. When the sacks do not come, quarterbacks are rarely facing pressure. Part of the problem is that San Francisco lacks a true nose tackle to draw double teams and create one on one matchups for other players.
The difference between Kris Jenkins and Dewayne Robertson has made it clear how important the position is in the 3-4. Aubrayo Franklin and Issac Sopoaga have been inconsistent, which has led to trouble for the rest of the defense. Despite the iffy play up front, San Francisco is in the middle of the pack playing the run. That is because they have their own 2007 Draft alum stud at middle linebacker, Patrick Willis. Willis is a thumper, who is adept at shedding blocks and recording tackles. He has an ungodly 111 tackles this season. Like David Harris a year ago, he has thrived despite not having a beefy tackle in front of him. Willis, Harris, and Jerrod Mayo are probably the three best young 3-4 inside linebackers in football.
Joe Nedney is an adequate kicker, having made 22 of 25 attempts this season, while Andy Lee's 47.2 punting average puts him in the top half of the league.
Key Matchup: Brett Favre vs. Nate Clements
The 49ers will probably need to force turnovers to make up for the talent disparity. They cannot line up with the Jets and win. Brett Favre should look away from Clements, a talented corner with good ball skills. If Clements can bait Brett into a mistake or two, this game could get uncomfortable.
Keys to Victory:
1. Hit Gore Hard: 49ers offensive coordinator Mike Martz uses his versatile running back, Frank Gore, as a multidimensional weapon, just as he did with Marshall Faulk when he was the head coach in St. Louis. Eric Mangini was on the Patriots staff that upset the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI. In that game, the Pats seemed to get into Faulk's head by pounding him every time the ball came near him. If a pass flied over his head, New England nailed him. Punishing Gore can get into his head.
2. Air it Out: This would be a good week to go away from the spread quick slant passing game, and try to hit the deep ball. The San Francisco secondary is prone to breakdowns, and their lack of a pass rush will give Brett Favre the time he needs to wait for a receiver to get open. He will not hear footsteps and throw it up for grabs. A couple of big plays can demoralize a team playing for pride. Perhaps activating deep threat David Clowney would be a good move.
3. Focus on Davis: Vernon Davis may not have lived up to the hype, but he still has a ton of natural ability. Against a linebacking unit struggling to defend the pass, he is dangerous. San Francisco's receiving corps is hardly as dynamic as those of Denver and New England. The Jets should trust their admittedly shaky corners against them and focus on taking away Davis.
4. Man Coverage: Although the Jets do not have great corners, if they play zone, Hill's efficiency in the short passing game could lead to doom. Hill could pick them apart.
5. Find Willis, Tony: Willis is a one man run stopping crew. Tony Richardson needs to protect Thomas Jones by identifying him and using his athleticism to get on him quickly before he knows what hit him. The game's best lead blocker needs to keep the game's best run stuffing linebacker from getting a clean shot at number 20.
Best Case Scenario:
The Jets come out angry. Kris Jenkins eats Gore for dinner. The pass rush return to pester Hill all game. Brett Favre bombs the Niners deep consistently. The Jets cruise to 9-4 and show that last week was a fluke.
Worst Case Scenario:
The pass rush shows that its struggles were not the result of playing Denver's offensive line. Hill has all day to dink and dunk the Jets underneath. Gore has a big day because Martz keeps him away from Kris Jenkins and runs an array of sweeps and stretches at Bryan Thomas. Willis shuts down the running game by himself, and Favre throws three interceptions as the Jets show last week was not a fluke.
What Will Happen:
West Coast trips are never easy. The Jets are playing against a Niners team coming off a big win against the Bills. Normally a bad team returning home from a cross country flight would be primed for a letdown, but with a coach the team has seemed to rally around, it may have been a turning point. The 49ers are not that bad, especially with Hill at quarterback. However, the Jets should be able to harass him enough to force off target throws. Kris Jenkins seems fired up after a lousy game and should constantly be in the backfield making plays on Gore. Brett Favre has always played well at Candlestick Park. He was a thorn in San Francisco's side even when the Niners had terrific teams led by Steve Young. It would be tough to imagine San Francisco's defense keeping him from some big plays in the passing game, especially with Laveranues Coles and Jerricho Cotchery chomping at the bit to overcome forgettable games against the Broncos. The Jets should get their ninth win.