Coming off an ugly 38-13 shellacking at the hands of the Tennessee Titans, the New York Jets are desperate for a win to start off the month of November, which coincidentally looks like the toughest stretch of the year. The Atlanta Falcons are similarly desperate, as a 1-3 record to start the season has already left them three games behind the undefeated New Orleans Saints in their division. Despite their disappointing record, the Falcons boast a truly explosive offense, especially in the passing game. However, this Atlanta team does have some clear vulnerabilities, which leads into the first key.
Geno and the Passing Game: Jets fans may not like to hear it, but the way to beat the Falcons is through the air. They have the 8th worst passing defense in the NFL in terms of passer rating (having given up a 101.5 passer rating to opposing quarterbacks), as well as the 6th most passing yards and the 4th most passing touchdowns allowed. Their pass rush is almost nonexistent, with 7 sacks (only 3 teams have less), which undoubtedly contributes to the 4 passes of 40+ yards that they have allowed (only the Bills have allowed more). When considering their solid run defense, it becomes apparent that Geno Smith needs to step up for the Jets to stand a chance. Geno has certainly had an up and down season, following up a good game against the Bills with a debacle against the Titans. His 68.6 passer rating is pretty abysmal, and his 11 turnovers are tied with Eli Manning for the most in the NFL. Nevertheless, Geno has shown a propensity for picking up yards in chunks, with the most passes of 40+ yards in the NFL (six other quarterbacks share that distinction, but it is still an impressive statistic). His downfall has been the turnovers, but the Falcons haven't been particular adept at forcing them, with only 4 forced turnovers through the first four games. Also, Marty Mornhinweg against a team that is susceptible to the deep pass? You may be able to hear the drool falling from wherever you are.
Antonio Cromartie vs. Julio Jones: The Atlanta Falcons boast one of the most dynamic passing games in the NFL, with the Matt Ryan-Julio Jones combination becoming a particularly potent duo. Roddy White has been a non-factor thus far because of a high ankle sprain, but the fact that he saw 74 of his team's 76 offensive snaps indicate that he is still being used as a decoy. The matchup to watch certainly appears to be Antonio Cromartie vs. Julio Jones. In years past, I would have considered this a wash, especially given Cromartie's spectacular play throughout much of last season. However, Cro has been downright awful so far in 2013. Last week against the Titans, he gave up 2 touchdowns and 2 other first downs, and has generally not lived up to the shutdown-corner reputation that he has earned throughout his career. He will be lining up against an elite athletic specimen that has been on top of his game in 2013, leading the NFL with 481 yards. When right, Cro can neutralize any receiver in the league. This will be a very interesting matchup, with potentially disastrous consequences for the Jets. With that said, a big game from Cromartie would be key for the Jets.
Brian Winters: Vladimir Ducasse has had a rollercoaster season thus far, with a plethora of awful performances mixed in with one dominating game against Vince Wilfork and the Patriots. Last week, Ducasse may have hit the bottom, surrendering six hurries and a hit. Enter Brian Winters, the highly regarded rookie out of Kent State. Winters looked overmatched in the preseason after dealing with an ankle injury, but was generally considered a solid prospect in the draft. According to his NFL.com draft report card, Winters "plays with a wide base and the natural flexibility to drop his hips in pass protection, yet has the foot quickness to mirror on the outside and maneuver himself into an inside position while engaged". However, "[he] likes to latch on up top...instead of keeping his head up and arms extended...which can cause him leverage problems against better defenders". He will be able to ease in against the Falcons, who have a lackluster pass rush that has accumulated only 7 sacks this season (only three teams have less). As part of an experienced offensive line, Winters won't be asked to do too much. If he can provide any sort of upgrade over Ducasse in pass protection, it would obviously be huge for the Jets' continuity on offense.
Players to Watch: In past years, one of the Jets' biggest Achilles heels was covering pass-catching tight ends. Thus far, the Jets haven't played a tight end that profiles as a weapon in the passing game, but Tony Gonzalez (even in his diminished state) certainly qualifies as such. I'll be watching Dawan Landry and Demario Davis (two new defensive starters) to see whether the Jets have truly plugged that hole or if it is just a hole that hasn't been exposed yet. Judging by Rex's recent comments, we shouldn't get too hopeful.
<blockquote class="twitter-tweet"><p>Rex on Gonzalez: "Quite honestly, I wish he would have retired." <a href="https://twitter.com/search?q=%23nyj&src=hash">#nyj</a></p>— Brian Costello (@BrianCoz) <a href="https://twitter.com/BrianCoz/statuses/385464858319151105">October 2, 2013</a></blockquote>
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Another player to watch is Bilal Powell. The Falcons pass defense is awful, but the defense against the run is nothing to write home about either, giving up an unspectacular 4 yards per carry. In order for the Jets to take advantage of the Falcons' poor pass defense, Bilal Powell must first establish himself and take the pressure off of Geno—especially with Stephen Hill and Santonio Holmes likely to miss the game due to injury.