Although the (6-8) New York Jets have been eliminated from playoff contention, the next two games still retain some significance. Does Rex Ryan retain his job? Does Geno Smith play well enough for the Jets to pass over a quarterback in the early rounds of the 2014 draft? Does Brian Winters make his first good block of the season? Their next opponent are the (4-10) Cleveland Browns, who are sneakily good for a 4-win team. Defensively, they are among the stingiest groups in the league. Offensively, they have managed to stay in the top 10 in passing yards, despite being quarterbacked by Brandon Weeden for 7 games. This will be a good test for Gang Green, and perhaps a game to build off of going forward. Lets take a closer look at some of the key players and matchups.
Josh Gordon vs. Antonio Cromartie: When asked about his matchup with Cromrartie, Josh Gordon replied "I know I'm going to have to play my A-game because I know he will." Privately, Gordon must be salivating at a chance to go against one of the worst statistically ranked cornerbacks in the league. Gordon is a big play waiting to happen, both through the air and with his legs. He leads the league in yards per reception with 19.8 and in yards after the catch with 8.4. Despite playing with some pretty awful quarterbacks, Gordon has claimed his place among the top receivers in the league. With Cromartie struggling through a down year due to some nagging injuries, it might be time to give Dee Milliner a crack at some top receivers. Regardless, this matchup looks like the one that will either make or break the Jets' chances on defense this Sunday. In many ways, Josh Gordon IS the Browns' offense. Especially with Jordan Cameron questionable to play this week due to concussion symptoms, neutralizing Gordon would essentially shut down the Browns' offense.
Jabaal Sheard: The Cleveland Browns boast one of the better defenses in the league, and have shown a balanced attack when getting to the quarterback. Although they are 11th in the league with 39 sacks, Jabaal Sheard leads the team with only 5.5. Their pass rush comes from almost every position in the front 7, but stopping Sheard will be key. He started the season slow, but has responded with a fine second half, notching a sack in each of his last 3 games. He will likely rush off the left edge (where D'Brickashaw Ferguson has allowed 7.5 sacks this season), but the Jets have to be more concerned with any inside stunt that the Browns may pull with Sheard. Exposing Brian Winters to Sheard's explosive bull rush would be akin to a death sentence for Geno Smith.
Jeremy Kerley: Given the Browns' stout run defense (they give up 3.7 yards per carry, 3rd best in the NFL), it looks like the Jets will have to go to the air at some point in order to generate offense. This is probably just as well, since Gang Green would like to give Geno Smith as many reps as possible to see exactly what they have in the young signal caller. Getting back Kerley has worked wonders for Geno, as he has regained his passable form from the beginning of the year after a few weeks of historical ineptitude. With Browns' top cornerback Joe Haden likely out due to a hip injury, the Browns pass defense suddenly looks vulnerable. A big game from Kerley would be crucial to the Jets' plans, especially if the Browns continue their spectacular play against the run.
Mitchell Schwartz: The Browns have done a subpar job of protecting the quarterback, with a total of 43 sacks allowed (4th worst in the league). This is likely due to the continuous shuffling at the quarterback position, but right tackle Mitchell Schwartz has to take some of the blame. Although he has played better in the past few games after a terribly inconsistent start, Schwartz has already allowed 11 sacks on the year, by far the highest of any Browns lineman. With Joe Thomas a stalwart on the left side of the line, the Jets would be wise to focus their game-plan on blitzing Schwartz on the right side of the line. Muhammad Wilkerson could be in line for a big day, and I would not be surprised to see Calvin Pace notch another sack—which would give him double digits for the first time in his 11 year career. Alternatively, a solid day from Mitchell Schwartz would go a long way to keeping Jason Campbell on his feet, and would give Josh Gordon more time to carve up the Jets' secondary.
Players to Watch: With the playoffs out of reach, I will be keeping my eyes on the guys that need to take a step forward in 2014. Although his transition to outside linebacker hasn't been as smooth as we hoped for, Quinton Coples' incompetence has been greatly exaggerated. He has been in opposing backfields consistently over his last few games, and has actually registered 12 QB hits this season, on par with stars like Gerald McCoy and Cameron Wake. He has 3 sacks in his last 3 games after having only 1 in his first 9 games, but admits that it has been a process.
"There's just so much stuff you've got to get used to," Coples said. "A lot more attention to detail as far as seeing receivers crossing, running backs coming out of the backfield late; it takes away from you going straight forward and getting to the quarterback.
I, for one, am very excited to see Coples' improvements as he continues to adapt to his new position. Another guy that I will be watching closely is Dee Milliner. Milliner has been one of the few players to benefit from Ed Reed's presence on the team, registering 4 pass breaks in the last 5 weeks after recording only 1 before Reed's arrival. He has shown signs of life after looking pretty listless in September and October, and actually matched up with Steve Smith quite often last week, holding up quite nicely in coverage—allowing only 29 yards on 4 targets. Continued progress from Milliner and Coples would be critical for any step the Jets hope to take next season, and will be among the main storylines to follow with the season winding down.