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2009 team preview: New York Jets

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Inside Slant
In only four months, Mark Sanchez has become the face of the Jets' franchise.

Yet they aren't asking the rookie from USC to be a savior, just a piece to the puzzle.

Sanchez won the job over veteran Kellen Clemens because of his upside and because Clemens wasn't consistent enough. But the Jets won't be asking him to win games by himself.

Coach Rex Ryan's plan is to support Sanchez by having a strong running game and a tough defense to take pressure off him. In other words, this is the same formula that Baltimore, Ryan's former team, used to get to the AFC championship game with rookie Joe Flacco under center last season.

The running game looks solid, with three backs potentially getting a significant amount of carries. Thomas Jones, Leon Washington and Shonn Greene all figure to get a lot of work. Jones and Washington are both unhappy with their contracts, but have been good soldiers about it in camp.

The complicated defense that Ryan and coordinator Mike Pettine brought over from Baltimore still is a work in progress, and the Jets figure to be more proficient at it later in the season than they will be in the early going, especially with outside linebacker Calvin Pace out for the first four games because of an NFL-imposed suspension.

Pace's absence could be a problem. While Bryan Thomas will move over from the other linebacker spot, Ryan already has penciled in second-year player Vernon Gholston at Thomas' position, but Gholston still struggles against the run. He hasn't been able to get off blocks and opponents likely will try to run extensively at his side. Whether he wants to or not, Ryan may have no choice but to fill this position by committee.

A committee already seems to be the plan at the second wide receiver slot, opposite returning starter Jerricho Cotchery. While Chansi Stuckey has earned the job, the Jets also may mix and match at that spot depending upon the situation. They like David Clowney's speed, which could allow them to stretch the field.

One problem that must be fixed is at punter, where the Jets still haven't made a decision. Having a punter with a strong leg who has good hang time on his boots is essential for a team that wants to play conservatively. Just ask Baltimore and Sam Koch, who helps the Ravens win field-position battles quite often.

The early schedule is tough. The first five opponents--Houston, New England, Tennessee, New Orleans and Miami--all were 8-8 or better last year, so a strong start won't be easy given the fact the Jets will have rookies at head coach and quarterback.

Yes, the Jets consider themselves a "now" team. But given all of those factors, 8-8 or perhaps 9-7 seem to be the most realistic possibilities. The schedule appears tougher than it was last season and while Sanchez is smart and talented, he's bound to have some growing pains after starting only 16 games in college.

COACHING: Rex Ryan, 1st year, 1st with Jets (0-0).

REMEMBERING: 2009 record: 9-7 (3rd in AFC East).

PREDICTING: 2009 regular season record 8-8 (3rd in AFC East).


Notes and Quotes
--His place on the team obviously is secure. Yet like many of the hopefuls trying to make the Jets' roster, seventh-year LB Calvin Pace expects to be on the field Thursday against Philadelphia long after the starters have donned their baseball caps. Pace likely will play into the second half.

That's because this will be the last game action Pace will get until Oct. 12, when he will be eligible to play again after serving a four-game NFL-imposed suspension for taking a banned substance.

"I'm going to get my work in," Pace said. "It's not a problem. ... Sometimes the older you get, the less valuable you think training camp and preseason games are. But I try to keep the same approach. Just go out there and treat it like it's a real game. ... Guys are going hard and trying to make a team on the opposite team, so it's real. You've got to go out there and make the most of it."

--Glenn Pakulak, who was waived by New Orleans last week and subsequently claimed by the Jets, never got into a game with New York. He was waived by the Jets one day before their preseason finale versus Philadelphia.

Pakulak averaged 47.7 yards gross and 37.8 net in 24 punts over eight games with the Saints in 2008. T.J. Conley and Ken Parrish also punted for the Jets last month before being waived.

Pakulak was beaten out in New Orleans by rookie Thomas Morstead, a fifth-round draft pick.

BY THE NUMBERS: 2 -- Number of rookie starting QBs for the franchise on opening day if Mark Sanchez starts at Houston on Sept. 13. Dick Jamieson started for the then-Titans in their inaugural game in 1960 and directed a 27-3 win over Buffalo.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "It's giving me the opportunity to establish myself again, considering what I went through in Philly." -- CB Lito Sheppard on being targeted by opponents who don't want to throw to CB Darrelle Revis' side.


Strategy and Personnel
Defensive end Mike DeVito sat out practice this week with a sore right hamstring. DeVito said he was "fine" as he exited the locker room without any noticeable limp, and coach Rex Ryan expects him to be ready to play at Houston in the season opener. DeVito could start in place of Shaun Ellis, who will be serving a one-game NFL-imposes suspension.

PLAYER NOTES

--CB Lito Sheppard was targeted repeatedly by the Giants and whistled for two pass interference penalties. He also was beaten numerous times. This figures to become a trend, as opponents will want to avoid throwing at Pro Bowl CB Darrelle Revis on the opposite side.

--WR Aundrae Allison had a 70-yard touchdown reception from Erik Ainge in the fourth quarter for the eventual winning margin against the Giants. The speedy Allison is making a bid to stick in the Jets' crowded crop of wideouts.

--LB Vernon Gholston made his first start but had only one tackle in extended action as the Giants repeatedly ran at him. Gholston had a sack of David Carr, but it was negated by a helmet-to-helmet hit. Gholston will get more time than the other starters in the preseason finale vs. Philadelphia, simply because he needs the work.

--ILB Jamaal Westerman had his first sack of the preseason against the Giants. The undrafted rookie free agent has drawn praise from coach Rex Ryan since the spring, and Ryan has indicated that Westerman already has made the roster.

--DE Mike DeVito didn't practice in the two days leading up to the Philadelphia game because of a right hamstring injury. Coach Rex Ryan said he could play against the Eagles if it were a regular-season game. He is expected to be ready for opening day at Houston, where he might start in place of the suspended Shaun Ellis.

PLAYER TO WATCH: WR David Clowney -- Speedy wideout has made a strong bid for more playing time, and with Rex Ryan saying the Jets will fill their No. 2 receiver spot "by committee," Clowney definitely will get some action. When he's in there, he can give the Jets wide receiver corps a downfield threat. He's become more sure-handed than he was in the past.

DRAFT PICKS TO STICK

Rd. 1/5, QB Mark Sanchez, USC -- Beat out Kellen Clemens for starting job in camp, and already has a solid grasp of the Jets' complex offense.

Rd. 3/65, RB Shonn Greene, Iowa -- Punishing runner who can get yards after contact, but has had problems staying healthy in camp. Blocking and receiving still need a little work.

Rd. 6/193, OL Matt Slauson, Nebraska -- Tough and smart and has impressed the coaching staff with his tenacity. Not expected to be a major contributor just yet, however.

UNIT-BY-UNIT ANALYSIS

QUARTERBACK: Starter -- Mark Sanchez. Backups -- Kellen Clemens, Erik Ainge.

Sanchez won the job, as most observers expected. However, Clemens didn't make the Jets' decision very hard, as he had problems with turnovers throughout the summer, both in practice and in games. Offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer says he is very comfortable with Sanchez' progress in the offense and that "everything is available" to the Jets in terms of their offensive playbook. Sanchez has demonstrated an ability to buy time and make plays with his feet, something that had been a question mark considering the rookie from USC was sacked only 23 times in 22 games as a Trojan. Although his arm is not a cannon, he already has shown the ability to make all the throws. He may be asked to be a game manager this season, simply because coach Rex Ryan believes in running the football and playing tough defense. That was the formula that helped then-rookie Joe Flacco take Baltimore to the AFC championship game last season. Clemens, a second-round pick in 2006 who has much more experience in the system, eventually could lose his backup job to Erik Ainge. Although Ainge missed some time during the spring for personal reasons, he easily held off rookie free agent Chris Pizzotti from Harvard for the No. 3 spot. Ryan has praised Ainge numerous times this summer.

RUNNING BACKS: Starters -- RB Thomas Jones, FB Tony Richardson. Backups -- RB Leon Washington, RB Shonn Greene, RB Danny Woodhead, FB Jehuu Caulcrick.

Jones and Washington are unhappy with their current contracts, yet neither one became a distraction during camp. Washington showed up a few hours late on the report day for training camp, but has been a model citizen since, and Jones has been the same way. Jones still has some tread on his tires and showed some burst during the preseason, and Washington appears to be a go-to guy for the offense, and will get many more touches than he did in 2008. He truly is a threat to score every time he gets the ball, whether on a run, reception or return. Also look for him to line up at QB sometimes in the Wildcat. Greene, a third-round pick from Iowa, has impressed coach Rex Ryan with his ability to make yards after contact. However, he has been injury-prone, suffering ankle and rib injuries during August. The 2008 Ravens had three RBs total more than 100 carries apiece, and Ryan sees Greene as someone who can punish defenses when the Jets have the lead in the fourth quarter. Richardson, who will be 37 by opening day, still is a terrific blocker. The undersized Woodhead, a prolific rusher at the Division II level, has displayed plenty of shiftiness and is pushing hard for a spot. And if he is waived, the Jets may not be able to get him through to the practice squad, because somebody likely will claim him. Caulcrick has a chance to be Richardson's backup but missed some time during camp with a knee injury.

TIGHT ENDS: Starter -- Dustin Keller. Backups -- Ben Hartsock, Kareem Brown, Jack Simmons.

Keller has the ability to get open in the seams over the middle because of his speed, which is above average for a tight end. He figures to be a go-to guy for Sanchez. But he's still a work in progress as a blocker, although he has improved somewhat over the summer. Brown, a defensive lineman trying to make the transition, had a decent camp. Simmons, a rookie from Minnesota, was impressive in the spring but has had problems with drops. But he could be a practice-squad candidate. The Jets signed Hartsock a day after he was waived by Atlanta. Hartsock has been primarily a blocker in five NFL seasons, and his signing makes sense, considering the Jets figure to run a lot of two-TE sets to aid their rushing attack.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters -- FL Jerricho Cotchery, SE Chansi Stuckey. Backups -- David Clowney, Wallace Wright, Brad Smith, Marcus Henry, Aundrae Allison.

All of their draft-day maneuvering prevented the Jets from filling a need for a starting wideout to replace Laveranues Coles, who went to Cincinnati via free agency. Stuckey has won the No. 2 receiver job. He has great hands and excellent route-running ability and has shaken the label of third-down slot receiver. Although he isn't particularly fast, he does make plenty of yardage after the catch. Cotchery is a solid No. 2 receiver who also can get yards after the catch but lacks the speed to stretch opposing defenses. Clowney, a speedster who had some problems with drops during the spring, again has shined in preseason games working mostly against reserves, and he has the speed to stretch defenses. The Jets always have been fascinated by the multifaceted Smith, who has yet to become a big-time pass-catcher yet offers coordinator Brian Schottenheimer the chance to call gadget plays because of his pedigree as a star college quarterback. Look for him to be in the Wildcat sometimes. Allison, a speedster waived by Minnesota, has made a late bid to make the roster.

OFFENSIVE LINE: Starters -- LT D'Brickashaw Ferguson, LG Alan Faneca, C Nick Mangold, RG Brandon Moore, RT Damien Woody. Backups - G/C Robert Turner, T Wayne Hunter, G Matt Slauson, T Stanley Daniels, T Michael Kracalik.

For the first time since 2001, the Jets enter a season with the same starting O-line as the year before. However, because of injuries to Mangold, Faneca and Woody, this line didn't play together until the third preseason game against the Giants. Still, the players are confident the unit will have its timing down by opening day, and they looked good as a unit against the Giants. Ferguson, Faneca, Mangold and Woody all are former first-round draft picks. The only starter who isn't is Moore, an undrafted free agent who began his NFL career as a defensive lineman before the Jets switched him across the line of scrimmage. Yet he arguably was the Jets' most consistent O-lineman last season. The biggest challenge here will be to develop quality depth behind the starting five, but the Jets like rookie Slauson, who was coached at Nebraska by O-line coach Bill Callahan, then the Cornhuskers' head coach. Turner and Hunter were the reserves last season, and Hunter is moonlighting as a second tight end.

DEFENSIVE LINE: Starters -- LDE Shaun Ellis, NT Kris Jenkins, RDE Marques Douglas. Backups -- DE Mike DeVito, NT Howard Green, NT Sione Pouha, DE Ropati Pitoitua.

Jenkins, a 4-3 DT most of his career, was the run-stuffing nose the Jets' 3-4 desperately needed, and made the Pro Bowl in that role. But he missed over two weeks of training camp with a calf injury before returning for the Giants game. He did look good in that game, however. Ellis started fast with seven sacks in the first eight games in 2008 but had only one the rest of the way and has been assessed a one-game suspension by the league for being arrested for possession of marijuana last November. Douglas was a very underrated playmaker in Baltimore and fits Ryan's attacking 3-4 much better than former starter Kenyon Coleman, who went to Cleveland in the trade that brought the Jets the right to select Sanchez. Green is a very solid performer who should get plenty of time in the rotation. DeVito had his moments in 2008 in his second NFL season, but suffered a hamstring injury against the Giants. Still, he is expected to be ready for opening day, when he may start in place of Ellis. The run defense often fell off when Pouha came on to give Jenkins a rest, and Pouha must improve in 2009. Pitoitua turned heads with a strong showing in camp.

LINEBACKERS: Starters -- OLB Bryan Thomas, ILB Bart Scott, ILB David Harris, OLB Calvin Pace. Backups -- OLB Marques Murrell, OLB Jason Trusnik, OLB Vernon Gholston, OLB Jamaal Westerman, ILB Brandon Renkart, ILB Kenwin Cummings, ILB Larry Izzo.

An apparent strength became a bit of a question mark when Pace was suspended by the NFL for the first four games of the season for violating its substance-abuse policy. He started off fast last season, with 2.5 sacks in the first four games, so the Jets surely will miss him. Ryan will move Thomas to Pace's spot for those games and has anointed Gholston as the other OLB starter. But while Gholston had a better training camp than he did last year, he still struggles against the run, having much difficulty disengaging from blocks. Thomas had a bounce back year in 2008 with 5.5 sacks after a dismal 2007 campaign, and followed that with a strong training camp. Scott, who appears poised to become a star, and Harris figure to be a prototypical 3-4 ILB tandem although Harris needs to avoid the injury bug that has plagued him. Both Scott and Harris are fierce hitters, and Scott brings an all-out intensity during practices and games that has proven to be contagious. Westerman, an undrafted rookie free agent from Rutgers, has impressed the coaching staff and should make the roster.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- LCB Darrelle Revis, RCB Lito Sheppard, SS Jim Leonhard, FS Kerry Rhodes. Backups -- CB Drew Coleman, S Eric Smith, S James Ihedigbo, CB Dwight Lowery, CB Ahmad Carroll, CB Donald Strickland, CB Marquice Cole, CB Rashad Barksdale.

Revis led the Jets with five interceptions and made the Pro Bowl in only his second season in the NFL. He missed about two weeks of camp with a balky hamstring, but the sky is the limit for the budding lockdown corner, who relishes covering the other team's best receiver and also has ballhawking skills. With teams reluctant to test Revis, Sheppard, acquired in a trade with Philadelphia, should have plenty of opportunities to prove himself after falling out of favor with the Eagles. The Giants did just that in the third preseason game, and Sheppard was hit with two pass interference penalties. The addition of Leonhard, who has experience in the new system, means that Rhodes won't have to spend quite as much time quarterbacking the DB unit. The Jets believe Leonhard can do much of the dirty work, allowing Rhodes to make more plays, much the way Leonhard did that for Ed Reed in Baltimore last season. Lowery started the first 10 games at RCB as a rookie in 2008 and has very good ball skills but lacks the speed to make up for mistakes, and he became a target for opposing teams. That trend continued this August. He is more suited for his new role of nickel back. Coleman struggled covering slot receivers and could have a tough time making the roster as free-agent import Strickland figures to get that role. Carroll was excellent on special teams and could get more time on defense. Ihedigbo and Smith both had excellent camps, particularly Ihedigbo, who made a case for much more playing time on defense.

SPECIAL TEAMS: PK Jay Feely, P Reggie Hodges, LS James Dearth, KOR Leon Washington, PR Jim Leonhard.

Feely took over the starting job last season after former Jet Mike Nugent strained his hamstring in Week One, and connected on 24 of 28 field-goal attempts, including his last 14. He missed the second preseason game because of a minor groin injury, but returned for the next game. Hodges was signed last October to replace the erratic Ben Graham, but his stats wound up being worse than Graham's, as Hodges averaged 35.5 net yards while Graham averaged 36.1 while with New York. Hodges was released in April after a poor performance at voluntary mini-camp but re-signed during mandatory mini-camp and has withstood three challenges, yet hasn't nailed down the job quite yet. Washington made the Pro Bowl as a return specialist, and averaged 25.6 yards on kickoffs in 2008. But his numbers dropped off over the second half of the season, much the way they did in 2007. That might not be as much of a problem this season, now that Leonhard will take over the punt-returning chores. Dearth still is very solid as he enters his ninth season with New York.

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