Welcome to another edition of Opposition Research, where I’ll be taking a look at the next Packers opponent, the New York Jets (5-1). The Packers have never beaten the Jets outside of Lambeau, and they’ll be limping into the New Meadowlands Stadium on Sunday to face a bye-rested team overflowing with swagger. Talk about an imposing matchup. Let’s look a little deeper.
Coming into this game, the Jets are… the best team in football – just ask them (seriously, 63,700 hits, folks). With only an opening day loss to the Baltimore Ravens keeping them from perfection, the team has fully bought into Rex Ryan’s cocksure proclamation at the start of this season of HBO’s “Hard Knocks” (and even back in May) that the Jets would lead the league in wins once all was said and done. And with an extra week to prepare, RT Damien Woody is more than ready to get back to it:
It’s an addictive feeling, winning. You just want to keep it going. That plane ride home from Denver [after the Jets’ last win] was a great feeling. We don’t want to lose.
We don’t even know what it feels like to lose. That Baltimore game seems like a distant memory. We want to continue this ride we’re on, and we feel like we have the team to do it.
Their last win, a 24-20 squeaker in Denver in W6, was the “type of game that good teams win.” The Jets offense struggled and Sanchez made two ugly interceptions, but a fumble recovery by Dwight Lowery and a 56-yard FG by Nick Folk made the difference. Like the Packers a year ago, the Jets are the league’s best in terms of turnover differential (+10 to GB’s -1). As Packer fans well know, a turnover can completely knock the wind out of an opposing offense if it comes at a critical moment.
The Jets spent the bye week self-scouting their weaknesses:
Ryan and defensive coordinator Mike Pettine designed a detailed plan to stop the Jets' offense. Offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer gave his thoughts on the best way to attack the defense. The end game was simple: Clean up areas that opponents can target.
"Sometimes you can't see the forest through the trees," Ryan said. "This (method) just shows you how an opponent would look at you.”
The Packers will be the first team that gets a crack at this newly enlightened group.
The fans at home are…just as confident as Rex Ryan about the direction of their team. They’ve asked some good questions about the Packers, but many fans are more interested in debating whether the Jets are the best. (Wait, are the Steelers better? Are the Giants? Maybe we should find out in the Super Bowl. Or not.)
And yet, “we are Jets fans…” (seriously, the tone of this phrase in the podcast is fantastic), so worries persist over the long-term health of the team and whether CB Darrelle Revis is actually 100% recovered from his post-holdout hamstring injuries.
Something to chew on… the Packers and Jets have built their teams in diametrically opposing ways. While Ted Thompson is “draft first and draft often,” Rex Ryan’s Jets went out in free agency and brought in heavy hitters like ex-Chargers LaDainian Tomlinson and Antonio Cromartie. But, along with gaudy statistics, each new Jets recruit brought his own baggage. Ex-Dolphin Jason Taylor famously swore he’d never play for the Jets. Receiver Santonio Holmes arrived from Pittsburgh with a substance abuse-related suspension. What’s more, to make room for all these egos, the Jets cut ties with veteran players and key locker room leaders like K Jay Feely, LG Alan Faneca, and RB Thomas Jones.
It’s been interesting to see how the team has responded to such roster upheaval, but thus far, Rex Ryan’s bombastic personality has dominated any dissent.
Tidbit that may interest only me: C Nick Mangold is one of the best in the business, and he’s a smart cookie - 35 on the Wonderlic, an outstanding leader on and off the field. He remembers that, two years ago, when Favre was the quarterback, the 8-3 Jets were a trendy Super Bowl pick before losing four of their last five. He’s worked to remind his teammates that early success is no guarantee of postseason glory. It’s a shrewd way to combat the hubris that comes with winning.
But, in a weird way, Mangold seems to be proud of the prospect of not being able to fully use his hands after football --- the guy doesn’t wear gloves. Ever.
I'm still a big idiot. My fingers, my hands get beat up bad. I got some good scabs going right now.
But there's something about the feel of the ball that I love. I don't know if it's going to change for me.
When looking at the Packers on film… they see a hobbled defense that still gets to the quarterback. RT Damien Woody knows he has a tough challenge against Clay Matthews, but he believes he’s up to it:
“He’s definitely a pain,” Woody said. “This guy never stops. He hustles every play.”
If the ever active Matthews gets a step on Woody, would the veteran offensive lineman consider grabbing the linebacker’s signature long locks?
“If I’m not mistaken, I think that’s part of the uniform,” Woody said. “So I guess all that’s fair game. Hopefully, I won’t get in that type of situation where I need to yank a guy’s hair. I’m just going to use my sound technique and get ready for a heck of a matchup.”
Mark Sanchez knew Matthews from USC (and gives one heck of an interview – read this), and gives Woody the edge.
What We’re Up Against:
Let’s not kid ourselves. The most talented members of the Jets offense are up front, and I coveted the Jets offensive line last year when Rodgers was being tossed around like a rag doll. Left to right, this is a Pro Bowl lineup (perhaps with the exception of LG Matt Slauson, the penalty-prone substitute for All-Pro Alan Faneca, who was cut by the Jets in April’s post-draft melee). You won’t find a better pass-blocking team in the league, period --- they’ve allowed only 9 sacks and 12 QB hits (GB 14/30). In the running game, out of 193 rushing attempts, only 12 have gone for negative yardage (6.2%)…and not against slouch defenses, either (BAL, NE, MN). In short, the only holes that they allow are those they make for their running backs.
Speaking of which, the Jets took a major risk in the offseason by picking up LaDainian Tomlinson, who was unceremoniously dumped by the San Diego Chargers. New York’s belief (and LT’s strong insistence) that there was still enough in the tank has paid dividends for a running offense that probably should’ve kept Thomas Jones from walking away in free agency. While 2nd-year pro Shonn Greene lit up the league for 543 postseason yards as a rookie, he hasn’t looked like the feature back yet this season, but that doesn’t matter. With LT averaging 5.3 ypc on the ground (and 5.6 ypr through the air), there are no regrets, either in the Jets locker room or from LT:
Just being in a different environment, being around this team, this coaching staff, having a new baby boy, all that stuff has a way of rejuvenating me. I'm just so excited about the chance to play football. This is what I love to do. I've done it for 20-some years now.
While “weak” is a relative term, the least dominating part of the Jets team is their passing offense. Mark Sanchez is still a young quarterback and is the league’s least accurate starter (55.4%), but he’s definitely grown within OC Brian Schottenheimer’s system (as evidenced by his game-winning drive against the Patriots in W2). He can be baited, but Charles Woodson should be careful not to spend too much time sniffing out picks --- Sanchez has only thrown two thus far. He rarely looks to the right – his bread and butter comes over the middle (right where his security blanket TE Dustin Keller can make a move and turn upfield). Keller may be tied with WR Braylon Edwards with 343 yards on the season (and 17 first downs), but he leads the team with five scores.
On defense, a healthy Darrelle Revis is an ugly prospect for the Packers passing offense. When Revis – who is DPOY in Rex Ryan’s mind – foolishly played on a tweaked hammy, Tom Brady, Brett Favre, and Kyle Orton threw at him for touchdowns (although, Brady’s toss to Moss was pretty unreal). If he is, in fact, all the way back, Revis opens up the playbook for Rex Ryan’s defense:
That's the beauty of it. We can be flexible now. We can do whatever we want. We can play right (corner) and left. We can match Darrelle on the top guy. We can match Cromartie on the top guy. We'll let (the opponents) try to figure it out.
If Revis and partner Antonio Cromartie do their jobs (and aren’t being flagged for stupid penalties), expect Rodgers and the Packers offense to attack rookie CB Kyle Wilson with heavy doses of James Jones and Jordy Nelson. Wilson has the potential to be a great player, but he’s still trying to do too much and will get badly burned. (In fact, it wouldn’t shock me at all if, like rookie Chris Cook last week, Wilson is replaced by an older veteran, Drew Coleman, who’s far more sure-handed.)
Up front, no one is playing the run better than ILB Bart Scott, except maybe his partner, David Harris. They hit hard and are stingy with yards after contact. On passing downs, the Jets are who they are. They blitz. A lot. Whether it’s Jason Taylor or Calvin Pace (back from injury) or Shaun Ellis coming from the outside, or Trevor Pryce (remember him from W13 last year?) or Sione Pouha getting pressure from the middle, or a defensive back, they’re coming. What’s more, they don’t care if you know it. The stats seem to say that the Jets are off their game a bit, both against the run and against the pass – Football Outsiders ranks last year’s #1 overall defense at #15 after 7 games. I don't buy it.
The Jets go from strength to strength on special teams, where Nick Folk has hit 13 of 15 field goals so far and P Steve Weatherford is 6th in net punting yards (although sometimes he prefers to run for the first down instead). Brad Smith – who also runs the team’s version of the Wildcat – is the league’s 2nd best kickoff return man.
Parting Shots: (AKA “Holly’s Rambling Thoughts”)
What a turnaround for the Packers defense. Before the season started, most of the questions about Green Bay involved whether the front seven could get enough pass rush and push up front to cover a potentially-weak secondary until Al Harris and Atari Bigby came off the PUP. So many of our predictions around cut-down day involved the Packers trading for a safety or a cornerback. So many of our opening-day nightmares involved Sam Shields being torched at nickel.
My my how things change. With Mike Neal, Brady Poppinga, and Brad Jones all placed on injured reserve in the last few days, the Packers front seven is looking sparse (even with new bodies). Yes, I realize that once safeties Morgan Burnett and Derrick Martin went down, we did go out and get Peprah and Anthony Smith, two players we’d cast aside once before. But my argument stands. Both Peprah and Smith have history in Capers’ system. The latest additions to the Packers roster – three linebackers and a defensive tackle – are brand new to a complex system that took months to install.
All of the sudden, the strength of the Packers defense has shifted to the backfield. Sure, Clay Matthews is still coming off the edge and BJ Raji is pushing from inside. That still leaves far too many holes that good teams will abuse from kickoff to kneel-down. The Packers aren’t facing a good team on Sunday. The Jets are a very good team. Even when our roster was brimming with linebackers and our defensive line was the biggest load in the league, I worried about how the Packers would stop the Jets rushing offense. Their offensive line can open holes for the most mediocre of backs, and neither Shonn Greene nor LaDainian Tomlinson is “just a guy.”
The Packers defensive backs will still have their hands full with the Jets receivers. Braylon Edwards has discovered that life is better if you don’t drop the ball, and Sanchez-to-Edwards has become a popular call this season. Santonio Holmes is working his way into the Jets offense, and – when Sanchez has time to set his feet – is shaping up to be the deep threat the Jets didn’t really have last year. Finally, while he may not be Jermichael Finley, TE Dustin Keller is the guy Sanchez looks for in crunch-time, across the middle, and whenever a play breaks down – a linebacker in coverage won’t suffice. Add the fact that LT has better hands than any other tailback, and the Jets offense is scarily balanced.
The Packers have been largely written off in this game (Green Bay didn't win...Brett Favre gave the game away ). I’m reminded of the Dallas game last year, where the Cowboys were on a 4-game tear and Romo was expected to chew up the Packers defense. Frankly, I would love nothing more than for Green Bay to come out snarling, and punch the Jets in the mouth. Just like the Ravens game last year, the Packers must be extremely physical if they want to be competitive in the fourth quarter. Unfortunately, the 2009 Packers had available the talents of Johnny Jolly, Brad Jones, and Nick Barnett, not to mention Ryan Grant and – for the Ravens game – Jermichael Finley. It’s hard to play “next man up” when you have to go out and get a guy to be that “next man.”
If the Packers want to win on Sunday, there is no margin for error. There is no room for miscommunications or false-start penalties. Mental mistakes in coverage will lead to big gains and big points. If Green Bay’s passing game is on point from the start, Rodgers can give the defense a lead to protect and can leech some of the energy from the New Meadowlands Stadium crowd. But if miscues or poor execution stalls drives and forces the Packers to chase the lead, they could be chasing until the clock runs out. For the Packers to steal their first win against the Jets outside Green Bay, their offense must win the momentum battle early so the defense can focus on containing the Jets offense, if not stopping it outright.
For the Packers to win, they must do what they have not yet done in 2010 and what some are beginning to doubt they can do– raise their game.
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