The Jets look to bounce back from a disappointing loss to the Patriots this week as they head out to San Diego for a battle with the 0-2 Chargers. This marks the Jets' first appearance on Monday Night Football since Christmas Night 2006, when Gang Green scored a thrilling win at Miami in the final seconds. That win put the Jets in a position to make the Playoffs. The stakes are not that high this week, and the opponent is significantly more talented. This team's season will neither be made nor broken by the outcome. It is a barometer game.
Both teams had high hopes entering this season. Both have also been disappointed by their respective performances in the season's early going. With Tom Brady out for the year, the Jets seem to have a golden opportunity to return to the top of the AFC East. Those hits took a slight hit in a loss to a Brady-less Pats team in Week 2, a loss that might hurt more psychologically than it does tangibly in the standings. There is plenty of time left in the season to turn around the season. The offense will need to get more into sync. Brett Favre, his receivers, and the coaching staff do not seem entirely on the same page.
San Diego has had its heart ripped out twice in two games. The Chargers lost on a touchdown as time expired to Carolina in Week 1. Their Week 2 game was even more painful. Up a touchdown in the final minute at Denver, San Diego appeared to have the game won until a blown call on a fumble the Chargers recovered gave the Broncos new life. Denver scored a touchdown and then a two point conversion to win the game in the chaos that ensued after the disputed fumble. Very few teams have ever recovered from an 0-3 start. It virtually eliminates a team's margin for error for the season's final three months. This underscores how important the matchup with the Jets is for the Chargers.
Norv Turner is in his second year as head coach of the Chargers. After failing miserably at the helm of Oakland and Washington, he appears to be in the process of turning around his career. San Diego's slow start in 2008 will not rattle this team. Turner rallied the Bolts from a 1-3 record out of the gate a year ago to an AFC Championship Game appearance. A team depleted by injuries, San Diego gave the then undefeated Patriots all they could handle in Foxborough. This team is still very dangerous and one of the most talented in the game.
The Chargers let an elite quarterback walk away from them a few years ago when Drew Brees went to New Orleans. While one can question why the Bolts did not franchise and trade Brees in order to get something in return, Phillip Rivers is validating the faith his team showed in him by not trying to keep Brees. Rivers has completed 63.3% of his touchdowns with 594 yards, 6 touchdowns, only 1 interception, and a quarterback rating of 122.5 in his first two outings of 2008. His offensive line has been stellar in front of him, allowing only a pair of sacks thus far.
Rivers also has a stable of quality receivers. Chris Chambers, a man with whom the Jets are well acquainted from his days in Miami, and Vincent Jackson comprise an underrated duo. They have combined for 14 catches and 147 yards in the early season. Antonio Gates is a wide receiver in a tight end's body. Dustin Keller has the same physical build. The Jets can only hope he one day matches Gates' production, at least 900 receiving yards and 9 touchdowns in every year since 2004. Gates is a matchup nightmare for any defensive coordinator. Another issue for defenses is the quality of receivers the Chargers have out of the backfield. Their fullback, Mike Tolbert, has 5 receptions for 103 yards, including one for a 67 yard touchdown. Even if one takes out that big catch, he still is averaging an excellent 9 yards per reception for a running back. The Chargers also have Darren Sproles, a player much like Leon Washington. He is small, elusive, and extremely dangerous when getting the ball in space. He took a pass 66 yards to the house last week. Even when Rivers has to check down, he has playmakers at his disposal, making San Diego's passing attack frightening.
A big question mark is the status of LaDainian Tomlinson. The back, another elite receiver out of the backfield, has been slowed by a toe injury early in the season. He missed some practice time last week, raising questions as to how effective he will be or even whether he will play. LT has only carried 31 times for 123 yards in the early going as the Chargers have relied on Rivers. The good news for the Chargers is that Tomlinson recovered from a slow 2007 start to have a typical excellent year.
Ted Cottrell coordinates San Diego's defense. That name certainly brings up bad memories for Jets fans, considering the lousy defenses Cottrell ran for the Jets from 2001 to 2003. The Chargers are playing the season without their biggest defensive playmaker, Shawne Merriman, who torn knee ligaments. His absence seems to have crippled San Diego's defense early in the year. Cottrell's conservative attacks can work with a playmaker like Merriman in the lineup because he can generate a consistent pass rush out of a base defense. Without him, Cottrell's vanilla system has been exposed. Quarterbacks have had all day to throw, and receivers have had all day to get open. Even talented corners like Quentin Jammer and Antonio Cromartie cannot blanket people if they have all day to get open. The Chargers have allowed 587 yards through the air in the early going. As effective as their passing offense has been, their passing defense has been equally inept. Unless somebody steps up as a pass rusher, this team could have major issues because as Jets fans know first-hand, Cottrell does not like adapting his system.
San Diego is also giving up a surprising 5.4 yards on the ground per carry. The reason this is surprising is that the Chargers have an excellent defensive front. The man from whom their defense centers, nose tackle Jamal Williams, is dealing with a minor knee injury but should suit up. Williams is considered one of the game's best nose tackles. He is joined up front in San Diego's 3-4 by Luis Castillo and Igor Olshansky. Derek Smith and Matt Wilhelm are the inside linebackers whose main job is to slow down the run inside.
The Jets do want want to get into a special teams battle. Like Leon Washington, Sproles is terrifying in the return game. He has averaged 12 yards per punt return and already has taken a 103 yard kickoff return for a touchdown. His ability to make defenders miss makes him a major weapon in the return game. Jets fans remember Nate Kaeding for a critical miss in overtime of a 2004 Wild Card Playoff game, but he has hit almost 90% of his kicks since that point. Their punter, Mike Scifres averaged over 46 yards per kick a year ago in a breakout season. He averaged over 47 in his only game at sea level this year in Week 1. Given the Jets' kicking woes, this creates quite a contrast.
Keys to victory:
1. Take Favre out of his cage: New York's offensive play calling has been very conservative early this year. It seems as if the coaching staff is afraid of Brett Favre being a gunslinger and making mistakes. The team has taken few shots downfield as a result. San Diego has been susceptible to big plays this year in the passing game due to the aforementioned loss of Merriman. With the punting situation in flux, Jay Feely as the team's kicker, and San Diego's passing offense on fire, the Jets need to move the ball with consistency and score touchdowns. This game could well turn into a shootout. The reason the Jets got Favre was to steal games on the road when the other team has more overall talent. This is the time to trust the Hall of Famer to make plays.
2. Get pressure on Rivers: The Jets have a thin secondary. Darrelle Revis, Dwight Lowery, and Kerry Rhodes are excellent, but there is a major dropoff in quality after that. This team cannot give Rivers time. He has too many weapons working against inferior competition. Somebody will eventually get open. Bryan Thomas and Calvin Pace have to force Rivers to throw earlier than he would like and make him uncomfortable in the pocket. If these two do not have big games, the Chargers will light up the scoreboard.
3. Put Lowery on Gates: Chris Chambers is the top receiver San Diego has. That is likely Darrelle Revis' man. Antonio Gates is the most dangerous pass catcher San Diego has after Chambers. The Jets could stick Kerry Rhodes on Gates, but that would limit him as a blitzer and in run support. Eric Mangini and Bob Sutton have a death wish if they put Eric Barton or David Harris on Gates, who has a wide receiver skill set. Eric Smith and David Barrett are not great in coverage by any stretch of the imagination. The Jets should put the rookie on Gates, who requires a corner to cover effectively. This will probably force New York to play a lot of nickel, but with Tomlinson banged up and San Diego's running game relatively ineffective in comparison with its pass offense, that is a trade the Jets should make. This also means creating a mismatch for Vincent Jackson, but Gang Green has to pick its poison. Gates is a bigger problem.
4. Match the intensity level: The home crowd will be fired up for a Monday night game. The Chargers will come out with a lot of intensity, furious over their loss and knowing how critical it is to avoid 0-3. The Jets cannot ease their way into the game. If the Chargers get off to a quick start, the adrenaline boost and intensity of the crowd might be overwhelming. If the Jets come out quick and take an early lead, the crowd will die down, and San Diego might remember how demoralizing the start to 2008 has been.
5. Kick it high: The Jets will likely have Jay Feely kicking and a punter in either his first career game or one in his first since 2002. They will not win it because of special teams, but they might well lose it because of special teams. Feely's kickoffs against New England were mostly line drives. This week that will mean plenty of time for the Chargers to set up blocking lanes for the dangerous Sproles. He needs to give his kicks more loft to give his coverage teams a chance to get downfield and cover the kicks. The same goes for whichever punter the Jets send out.
Key Matchup: Brian Schottenheimer vs. Ted Cottrell
The Jets offense and Chargers defense have both been held back by conservative play calling by their respective coaches. Both coordinators need to adjust to maximize the talent at their disposal. While both are reluctant to change, if one does, his team will benefit.
Best case scenario:
The Jets open up the playbook and score a quick touchdown on an 80 yard drive to silence the crowd. Calvin Pace strips Rivers on San Diego's first play, setting up another Jets score. Gang Green controls the game throughout en route to an easy win.
Worst case scenario:
The Chargers come out fired up and force a three and out for the Jets on their first drive. San Diego's pass protection holds up well, giving Rivers time to exploit New York's secondary. Brian Schottenheimer remains very conservative until it is too late, and San Diego's defensive front controls the point of attack, rendering New York's rush offense ineffective.
What will happen:
Unfortunately, I think this game will look a lot like the worst case scenario. The Jets certainly want to win this game and will play hard, but the Chargers NEED to win this game. Brian Schottenheimer has not opened up the offense in two years. There is no reason to expect he will now, which will not allow Favre to exploit the soft spots on the defense. This is also a typical big game with all the makings of Bob Sutton going into his shell and calling a conservative defensive game, which will give Rivers time to carve the New York secondary. Even though the Jets should be able to contain San Diego's run game, it will not be enough.