The first place New York Jets (0-0) take on the last place Tampa Bay Buccaneers (0-0) in East Rutherford, in a match-up that brings in the new NFL season. All opening days are big, but this one features story lines that extend far beyond the expected records of both teams. It is the first time that Mark Sanchez won't be under center to start the year since 2008, and his successor—rookie Eugene Cyril Smith III, or Geno for short—will be looking to make a strong first impression after an ugly preseason. The offensive will feature at least five new starters, and the defense is completely revamped, with six new starters in the base package. Luckily for the Jets, the Bucs have not had a particularly strong off-season. Their 1-3 record in preseason play may not mean much on its own, but their manner of losing revealed more questions than answers. This is a winnable game, if Geno is able to limit his mistakes. This leads into the first key.
Chris Ivory & Bilal Powell: Arguably General Manager's John Idzik's biggest offseason move, Chris Ivory is entering his first season as a feature back. The Jets brain trust brought him in with the hopes that he could be a three-down back, and given his 5.1 yards per carry average over his 256 career carries, they might be on to something. Ivory is explosive and powerful, with talent that is a rarity even in the NFL. Regardless, he has had a hard time staying healthy over his career, and the emergence of Bilal Powell this off-season may encourage the Jets to split their carries (especially given that Powell is listed as the starter on the most recent depth chart). Powell has looked energized this off-season and could take the claim of being the Jets' most improved player. He brought a strong training camp into the preseason, displaying much improved field vision and less tentativeness on his way to 98 yards on 27 carries, including a 37 yard scamper. For a fourth round pick that was almost immediately labelled a bust, Powell's improvement is certainly significant. With a rookie starting his first NFL game and a secondary that features the likes of Darrelle Revis, Mark Barron, and Dashon Goldson, the Jets running game will be critical. The Buccaneers run defense is strong—they allowed an NFL-best 3.5 yards per carry last season—so this will likely be the match up that dictates the outcome of the game.
Geno Smith vs. Leonard Johnson: The Tampa Bay pass defense wasn't particularly strong last season, giving up a league high 4758 passing yards along with 30 passing touchdowns (5th most in the league). They did add Dashon Goldson and some guy named Revis, but Revis is coming off a torn ACL and did not play in the preseason, so some rust is expected. Regardless, we all know that Revis is capable of completely shutting down his side of the field, and I would not expect Geno to test him. The Bucs' Leonard Johnson and Johnthan Banks have battled to start as the cornerback opposite Revis, and whoever wins the job should expect to get tested early and often. With a seemingly improved Stephen Hill and Jeremy Kerley—the Jets only consistent receiver last season—providing options for Geno on the outside and in the slot, this is the one weakness in the Bucs' secondary that is vulnerable.
Muhammad Wilkerson: Being one of the best defenders in the league and arguably the best player on the team, Mo Wilkerson needs to leave his imprint on every game for the Jets to stand a chance. Wilkerson is great against the run, and he will need to bring his A-game against the Bucs' running game, which features stud tailback Doug Martin—he of the 1900 yards from scrimmage and 12 touchdowns in his rookie year—running behind seemingly healthy pro-bowl guard Davin Joseph. Wilkerson also saw an improvement in rushing the passer last season, registering 22 hurries and 5 sacks on his way to being named the second best 3-4 defensive end in the NFL behind J.J. Watt by Pro Football Focus. With the talented but very inconsistent Josh Freeman under center, a Wilkerson bull rush can swing the tide of the game. Freeman can be erratic with his accuracy, so a consistent pass rush from Wilkerson and the rest of the defensive line can force him into the mistakes that he is so prone to making.
David Harris: When David Harris signed his $36 million contract in 2011 (then an NFL record for any inside linebacker), he was well worth it. Harris was a play-maker, a game-changer, and a leader, a guy that struck fear into the opponent's running game. His game fell off a cliff last year, which contributed to the Jets' mediocre run defense. I suspect that had something to do with Bart Scott's subpar play, as Scott (in his prime) was known as a guy that would take on multiple blockers and allow Harris to come in for the stop. The Jets are attempting to put Bart Scott's successor—Demario Davis—into a similar role. If Harris, who is still only 29 years young, can return to form, it'll go a long way to stopping the Bucs' strong running game on Sunday, and 15 other teams in the coming weeks.
Players to Watch: My eyes will be glued to Santonio Holmes all game long, assuming he plays (he is currently expected to play limited snaps). Holmes is coming off a very serious Lisfranc foot injury, and may well never be the same player again. In theory, this year could represent a bounce back year for Tone Time, as he is a much better fit in new Offensive Coordinator Marty Mornhinweg's system than any other system in Holmes' Jets tenure, and quarterback Geno Smith is much more accurate on the short and underneath routes that Holmes is/was so deadly on during his prime. I'll be watching the fluidity and sharpness of Holmes' cuts. There is a great chance that he will look severely diminished from the Holmes we saw in previous years (his injury is that serious), but if he is healthy, he will have a big year. If the Bucs put Revis on Holmes, I wouldn't expect too much in this game, but the way he moves will be quite indicative of how good the passing game will be in the coming weeks. I will also be watching rookie Sheldon Richardson, who opened some eyes during preseason and training camp. If Sheldon is as good as advertised, the Jets' defensive line will be a force for the next decade. Lastly, I'll be watching Vladimir Ducasse, the Jets' 2010 2nd round pick.
"I think (Ducasse) is really pushing," Ryan said. "...This is where you wanted him when you drafted him. You might have wanted him there a year before, but this is where he's at now. He looks pretty good to me."
Vlad was widely regarded as a bust, but has picked up his play this offseason and emerged as the starting left guard. If he manages to impress and plays up to his talents, this offensive line will be among the best in the league.
Prediction: The Jets aren't expected to contend this season, but I think that they have fielded a sneakily talented roster with arguably the best o-line/d-line combination in football. The game is won at the line of scrimmage, and the Jets will very often be winning the battle in the trenches. The Buccaneers have not looked sharp in the preseason, but they have talent at the skill positions and will undoubtedly be favored. Rex's defense will always be good—in a down year, having lost their star cornerback in week 2, they still ranked 8th best in terms of yards allowed—and I'm sure that they will keep the team in the game. If the Ivory/Powell tandem can make some plays and Geno can limit his mistakes, this could be a pleasant opening day for Jets fans.