The 1-0 Jets hold their penultimate home opener at Giants Stadium this Sunday against the defending AFC Champion New England Patriots. These teams need no introduction. The clubs participate in arguably the most bitter rivalry in American sports. The Jets and Pats have seen more player and coach defections to the other side in the past decade than one can remember. Because of this Benedict Arnold style loyalty, the hatred permeates all levels of both organizations. Other rivalries feature venom spewing across fan bases, but none have the hatred crossing front offices, coaching staffs, and players like the Jets and Pats do.
Entering this game, the main story has not changed from when the NFL first announced the schedule for the 2008 season. One team enters the game with a first ballot Hall of Famer playing quarterback. The other comes in with an untested youngster looking to establish himself. Jet killer Tom Brady matches up with Kellen Clem.....hold on a second. You mean to tell me that for once the Jets have the quarterback edge? Brett Favre makes his second start for Gang Green against Matt Cassel, a man who has not started a meaningful game since high school. Tom Brady's injury has forced Cassel into the starting lineup and thrown the AFC East race wide open.
There is literally no book on Cassel. He spent his time in college at USC backing up Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart. He has backed up Tom Brady since going to the pros. For all we know, he could be the next Brady, a low round Draft pick who becomes a star. His backup status does not indicate a lack of talent. Even great signal callers probably would have sat behind a pair of Heisman Trophy winners and a two-time Super Bowl MVP. He also might be just another scrub backup in the NFL.
His lack of playing experience is both a blessing and a curse. Since he has played sparingly, there is literally no book on Cassel. The Jets have very little tape to try and break down his tendencies. His lack of experience also means he is not used to playing at game speed. All of the practices and "mental reps" the media keeps talking about do not make up for on field work.
Given the blank slate that Cassel is, it is impossible to predict how he will do. He played well in relief of Brady last week, but that was against the Chiefs, one of the worst teams in the league. The result of Cassel's play will go a long way to determining whether the Pats remain contenders, become a below average team, or fall somewhere in between.
Losing Brady probably will not sink the Pats to the degree Vinny Testaverde's injury sunk the Jets in 1999. That is because they still have plenty of pieces in place from their 18-1 team in 2007. Bill Belichick remains the best coach in the league. He is an expert of breaking down film and changing his team's system weekly to attack the weaknesses of opponents.
New England will likely depend more on Laurence Maroney than originally planned. The third year back from Minnesota has shown flashes when the Pats have called upon him. He did seem to wear down at the end of his rookie year of 2006. Partially as a result of that and partially as a result of their passing offense being so good, the Pats reduced his workload last year before leaning on him more in the Playoffs. His AFC Championship Game performance against San Diego helped compensate for an uncharateristic poor outing by Brady. The Jets also have to worry about Maroney's backup, Sammy Morris, who was great last year in Week 1 against him but not Kevin Faulk, who is suspended for drug issues.
In addition to the running game, the Pats have arguably the league's deepest receiving corps to assist Cassel. Randy Moss is a threat to score on every play. No other receiver in the league has his combination of size, strength, speed. Wes Welker is a perfect compliment as the elusively quick wideout runs underneath routes with pinpoint precision. Jabar Gaffney is a solid slot guy who has flourished in New England, finally living up to the promise he never realized in Houston or Philadelphia. He has become a reliable target, exploiting mismatches when Moss and Welker draw all of the attention. Benjamin Watson is a quality target in the middle of the field. These guys will get open plenty to make a young quarterback's life easy.
New England's offensive line might be a bit banged up, but the unit was the league's best a year ago. Matt Light, Dan Koppen, and Logan Mankins were Pro Bowlers a year ago. Russ Hochstien is out, but New England's unit is so good that they were seemlessly able to shuffle backups in and out of the lineup last year when injuries demanded it. These guys should keep Cassel upright and give him time to throw, avoiding the issues the Jets experienced with Kellen Clemens last year, when the young quarterback had trouble adjusting to the speed of the game when he face constant duress.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Pats are just as strong up front. Richard Seymour, Ty Warren, and Vince Wolfork comprise a model for a 3-4 defensive line. They dominate the point of attack, constantly manhandling opposing offensive lines to free others up to make plays. Part of the reason the Pats are so difficult to gameplan against is their ability to plug Jarvis Green into the lineup and offer a 4-3 look. Belichick's ability to find versatile players allows New England to show multiple looks and attack the weaknesses of their opponents. Any team this good up front on both sides of the ball is going to be in any game it plays.
Jerrod Mayo injects some needed youth into the linebacking corps. New England thinks it has a gem in the rookie from Tennessee, who recorded 6 tackles in the opener and participated in every defensive snap. The Pats also feature the aging but still effective Tedy Bruschi and the versatile Mike Vrabel and Adalius Thomas.
The secondary is definitely the weak link of the sqaud. Rodney Harrison is back and playing at a high level. Gone are Asante Samuel, Eugene Wilson, and Randall Gay. This leaves a shaky Ellis Hobbs, who still has treadmarks on his back from Plaxico Burress' Super Bowl winning touchdown, Deltha O'Neal, and Lewis Sanders holding down the cornerback spots. Laveranues Coles, Jerricho Cotchery, and Chansi Stuckey should be licking their lips. However, the Pats have weathered losing secondary standouts in the past because their front seven was good enough to get consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks. When a quarterback has to rush his decision-making process, the play of corners improves. One could argue that Richard Seymour and Mike Vrabel helped Asante Samuel land his big deal from the Eagles as he did since quarterbacks often had to get rid of the ball before their receivers had a chance to get open. As long as New England's linebackers do not start showing their age this year, they should be able to hide their secondary. That is not a given because things tend to go south in a hurry when old linebackers cannot do it anymore.
The Pats have a solid kicking game. Stephen Gostkowski hardly inspires the confidence of Adam Vinateri in a big spot, which is probably why Belichick passed up a long field goal to go for it on a fourth and long in the Super Bowl. He still is better than most of the league, and certainly will make Pats fans feel safer in a clutch situation than Jay Feely will. Chris Hanson (not of Dateline NBC). While he is fairly unspectacular, Hanson had a great opener when he kicked for over a 50 yard average.
Keys to victory:
1. Prepare like it's Brady: Just because Matt Cassel is under center does not mean the Jets should approach this game any differently from a defensive standpoint. Two straight years, Gang Green attacked aggressively on their trip to Foxborough, disguising their fronts and blitzing from all angles. They confused New England's offensive line and got to Brady. Since Cassel has only faced vanilla base defenses in preseason, exotic looks could confuse him. Adding a legitimate pass rusher like Calvin Pace and the return of Bryan Thomas from his one year vacation will make these blitzes even more effective. If the Jets can hit Cassel, even if they do not sack him, they can rattle the USC product and throw off his mechanics.
2. Keep Jenkins on the field: Kris Jenkins was the unsung hero of the Miami game. The Dolphins ran for less than 3 yards per carry because Jenkins dominated the interior of their line, pushing multiple blockers into the backfield and keeping Eric Barton and David Harris free to make plays. Because of the heat in Miami, Eric Mangini gave him plays off to keep him fresh. Sione Pouha failed to control the point of attack when he was in the game, and Miami was able to control the battle up front. With a presumably milder day in store for Sunday, the Jets need Jenkins to take most of the snaps at nose tackle, clog running lanes, and force the Pats to rely exclusively on Cassel.
3. Unleash Keller: The Jets have kept Dustin Keller largely under wraps in the preseason and Week 1. Now is the time to get him onto the field. The rookie tight end's athleticism will help him find seams and give the Pats the same kind of matchup problems they have with Dallas Clark, a player with similar attributes. Keller's play against Mayo could be one of the key matchups.
4. No stupid mistakes: This goes without saying, but the Pats are a team with an inexperienced quarterback. There is a good chance they will rely on their defense and try to win a game of field position. This would not be a good time for Brett Favre to start throwing into triple coverage and hand New England a short field in a contest where the other team could have trouble moving it.
5. Leave in extra blockers: Brian Schottenheimer loves to send five receivers out on routes and depends on his quarterback to quickly make the right read. Given the talent in New England's front seven and their secondary issues, it would be a good idea to leave in some extra blocker to give Favre time. This is especially true considering New York's lapses in pass protection against Miami. It is clear that this unit is still getting used to playing together. This was evident from the number of blown assigments in Week 1. The Jets have a talented receiving corps. As long as they have time to get open, they should have a lot of success. Leaving in an extra blocker or two will guarantee Favre will not have to get rid of the ball.
Key Matchup: Dwight Lowery vs. Wes Welker
Darrelle Revis handled Randy Moss well during his rookie season, but the Jets would be unwise to leave Revis on an island much in this game. Gang Green needs to limit the big plays and force Cassel to put together long drives to score. Every additional play is a chance for an inexperienced quarterback to make a mistake. This means giving Revis consistent safety help over the top to eliminate the long ball. Lowery will likely draw Welker. The rookie played well in his debut, breaking up several passes. If he can stick with the Texas Tech product and take away the underneath routes, Cassel will have to rely on his secondary weapons. New York's secondary is rather thin so this is no guarantee for success, but this team will take its chances if it can limit the damage Welker and Moss do.
Best case scenario:
Favre hits Jerricho Cotchery for an 80 yard touchdown on the first play and runs around celebrating with his helmet off like he did in Super Bowl XXXI against the Pats. New York's pass rush rattles Cassel, who throws 4 picks, while Favre carves the New England secondary. The Jets enjoy a blowout, serving as a catharsis for the past 7 years.
Worst case scenario:
Brady's injury was really fake, a brilliant plan by him and Belichick to catch the Jets off guard. He hits Moss on a deep ball on the first play, and Favre thinks he has to win this game on his own. He throws an interception on his first pass, and Hobbs takes it to the house. This scenario repeats itself through the game, and the Pats romp.
What will happen:
The Jets should have success moving the ball through the air. The Pats will apply pressure, but Favre is a master of getting the ball out quickly. With a game under his belt, he is now a little more comfortable with the playbook and the receiving corps, which will help eliminate some of the sloppiness and miscommunication from the Miami game. He knows that he does not have to put up 40 for the team to win. All he has to do is protect the football. The coaching staff will drill into him the necessity of throwing it away if nothing is there.
The Jets will play it safe defensively, carefully timing their blitzes. Cassel will avoid big mistakes, but New York will make it a point to limit the big play. The explosion will not be there for New England offensively. Belichick will scale back the playbook, depending on his defense to win the game.
New York's offensive line will give Thomas Jones enough room to make things happen. All Jones has needed is a small hole to hit against New England's defensive front in the past. He registered an outstanding performance with the Bears in 2006 in Foxborough. This line is physical enough to fight the Pats to a virtual draw, which is all Thomas will need to run effectively and help the Jets control the clock and field position. On the other side, Kris Jenkins, a legitimate space eater, will limit Maroney's effectiveness, leaving David Harris and Eric Barton the space they need to control the Minnesota product.
There is a real sense of urgency for the Jets in this game. If they cannot beat a Pats team currently in adjustment mode at home, a division title will be tough to imagine. This game is there for the taking. The Jets may be an unlucky franchise, but Cassel getting the ball back with 2:00 left needing a touchdown is far less scary than the prospect of Brady in the same spot.