The (4-4) New York Jets have surpassed mainstream expectations this year, playing far better than the comical preseason projections. Nevertheless, any playoff push will likely hinge upon the results of week 9: a win leaves them sitting pretty going into the bye week, but a loss would necessitate an almost perfect second half to have a chance. For a rebuilding team, seeing growth in the young guys is probably equally important as a playoff push, but obviously both would be nice. Unfortunately, their week 9 opponent is probably their toughest matchup of the season—a Metlife Stadium showdown with the (6-1) New Orleans Saints. The Saints are an offensive powerhouse that would present difficulties for any secondary, but will be especially challenging for a Jets defense that has allowed a 92.7 passer rating to opposing quarterbacks (11th worst in the league). This leads into the first key:
Antonio Allen: The Jets entire secondary will have to bring their A-game on Sunday, but Antonio Allen gets the honor (misfortune?) of sticking tight end Jimmy Graham, who is Drew Brees' favorite target. Brees is an absolute wizard at the quarterback position, spreading the ball around to all of his receivers. Still, Graham is almost always the safety valve when they are desperate for a first down. He leads the team in targets with 63—Marques Colston is next among receivers with 40—and is on pace for a career high 1,440 yards and 8 touchdowns. His stats would be even better if he hadn't been held catchless against the Patriots, who successfully neutralized him with a mix of Aqib Talib and Kyle Arrington. Antonio Allen has similar size to Talib, but is not quite as athletic. Nevertheless, he may be able to keep up with Graham this Sunday, as the tight end is dealing with a partially torn plantar fascia that limited him to 18 snaps and 3 targets last week against the Bills. Graham made the most of his targets (most of which were in the redzone), catching two touchdowns and generally keeping the defense honest in the process. Taking Graham out of the game wouldn't spell the end of the Saints' passing offense, but it would be a great first step.
Bilal Powell/ Chris Ivory: The Jets have two options this Sunday: put the ball in Geno Smith's hands and let him try to match Brees throw for throw, or slow it down and control the clock by pounding the ball with the two-headed running back tandem. Given the Saints' good pass defense and abysmal run defense, the latter option looks like a no brainer. New Orleans have allowed a league worst 4.8 yards per carry, including 6 runs of longer than 20 yards. The Jets have a moderately efficient running game—their 4.0 yards per carry ranks 14th in the NFL—but they have shown a serious commitment to the run, as their 30.4 attempts per game is 5th most in the NFL. Assuming the Jets scrap the gameplan from last week and do mix in a healthy amount of deep balls to keep the defense honest, the Bilal Powell/Chris Ivory tandem could be what keeps the Jets in the game. Rex Ryan is a sucker for sentimentality—game captains are often former players of the opposing teams—and I would not be surprised to see Ivory get a healthy number of carries against his former team after getting only 6 against the Bengals. If he comes through with a big game, the Jets will have a chance to upset the Saints.
D'Brickashaw Ferguson: Brick has been wildly inconsistent this season, already allowing 4.5 sacks after giving up only 4 all of last season. This might be because of the shaky play next to him—whether it be Vlad Ducasse or Brian Winters, the left guard has been awful all season—but Ferguson has had an undeniably disappointing season to date. This Sunday, he will matchup with 3rd year stud Cameron Jordan, who has dominated opposing linemen on his way to 6 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, and 2 fumble recoveries this season. Jordan is responsible for much of the pressure that the Saints generate, so stopping him will be critical to maintaining any sort of rhythm on offense. Another bad game from Ferguson would likely correlate with another disappointing effort from Geno.
Darren Sproles: If Jimmy Graham is the Saints' safety valve, Darren Sproles is the glue that keeps it all together. The jack of all trades running back has become a versatile weapon out of the backfield, both running the ball and (more notably) providing Drew Brees with yet another target in the passing game. Sproles' heavy involvement in the passing game can not be emphasized enough. His 36 receptions are only 4 fewer than Jimmy Graham's, and his shiftiness and agility on screens, swing passes and crossing routes leave the defenders–typically much heavier and slower–in his wake. Enter David Harris and Demario Davis, who will likely be tailing Sproles on many of his routes. Both have generally played well but haven't been successful in coverage. Davis' elite speed and ability to persue the ball are probably better suited to cover Sproles, but both of these linebackers must have big days for the Jets to stop Sproles. If Darren puts up his typical numbers, the Jets will be in trouble.
Players to Watch: While the Jets' defensive line is often relied upon to dominate games, it will have a hard time making a noticeable impact on the final score. Drew Brees is as solid a quarterback as any, and does not get rattled by the blitz or by pressure. The Saints' offensive line has played poorly all year, but Brees is quick to get rid of the ball and will find his receivers regardless. The Jets' corners will need to hold up in coverage, particularly Dee Milliner. Milliner has had a rough go of it in his first few career games, and will most likely line up against fellow rookie Kenny Stills, who started slow but has looked like a legitimate #2 receiver the last two games. I will be watching #27 closely this Sunday, hoping to see Rex Ryan's prediction begin to materialize.
<blockquote class="twitter-tweet"><p>Rex says by the time the season's over, Milliner will be the best rookie corner in the league. <a href="https://twitter.com/search?q=%23nyj&src=hash">#nyj</a></p>— Seth Walder (@SethWalderNYDN) <a href="https://twitter.com/SethWalderNYDN/statuses/395622738909724672">October 30, 2013</a></blockquote>
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That would be nice! Another player that I'll be watching is Josh Cribbs. The Jets special teams were playing pretty lousy football in the first few weeks of the season. In Cribbs' two games since becoming a member of the Jets, he has given the special teams units consistency and versatility. He is dynamic and intelligent on punt and kick returns, using his experience to find the seam and his natural athleticism to hit it fast and hard. He has also lined up just about everywhere on punt coverage–both as a gunner and as a blocker–and has excelled in limiting the other teams' returns. One thing that he hasn't done yet is broken off a long punt or kick return for a touchdown. The Jets will need everything to break right for them to win this game, and a big play from Cribbs may be the shot in the arm that they need to upset the mighty Saints.