The New York Jets (5-7) are sputtering out of playoff contention as they enter a crucial Week 14 contest against the Oakland Raiders (4-8). The Jets have experienced massive inconsistency at the quarterback position, where rookie signal-caller Geno Smith has seemingly regressed.
The second-round pick has failed to complete more than nine passes in four consecutive games, spurring serious doubt that the former West Virginia standout is capable of becoming a legitimate starting QB.
Smith has been horrendous for the Jets, posting a 54.7 completion percentage with eight touchdowns and 19 interceptions in 12 starts. For the Jets, the ongoing quarterback debacle never seems to end.
New York still sustains some chance of sneaking into the playoffs, but it will need better production from Smith, who will get the nod to start Sunday in spite of stringing together several lackluster performances. At this juncture, head coach Rex Ryan simply doesn't have a better alternative, which means New York will have to heavily depend on its defense to prevent the opposition from putting up a significant number on the scoreboard.
Fortunately, the Jets are faced with a seemingly desirable situation against the Raiders, who are hugely dependent on the run game to generate offense.
Rashard Jennings (Raiders RB) vs. Jets D-line
The most crucial matchup in this contest pits Raiders running back Rashard Jennings against the Jets' vaunted defensive line, which currently ranks No. 1 against the run, giving up a stagnant total of 77 rushing yards per game.
Jennings is averaging 4.7 yards per carry while filling in for Darren McFadden, who is currently nursing an ankle injury. For the Jets to mount success this Sunday, defensive linemen Damon "Big Snacks" Harrison, Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson need to effectively stuff Jennings at the line of scrimmage and force the Raiders into 3rd-and-long situations.
Undrafted starting QB Matt McGloin has been moderately efficient for the Raiders this season, completing 56.9 percent of his attempts while turning the ball over just twice in three starts. Stopping Jennings from having a big day on the ground should be the Jets' top priority on defense, which will force added pressure on McGloin to make big throwing decisions in need-to-be clutch situations.
Antonio Cromartie (Jets CB) vs. Rod Streater (Raiders WR)
Jets lead cornerback Antonio Cromartie has performed below expectations this season, but he remains a pivotal component of New York's success on defense. The Raiders, like the Jets, don't feature a ton of talent on offense. But wide receiver Rod Streater is a legitimate receiving threat that can slash the Jets for big chunks of yardage if Cromartie is unable to effectively play tight coverage.
Streator has recorded 43 catches on 66 targets to lead his team with 657 receiving yards and two touchdowns. He boasts the best conversion rate of the Raiders' top three receiving targets, reeling in over 65 percent of the balls thrown his direction.
Streator has developed into McGloin's favorite target, racking up at least 57 receiving yards in each of the past three games while averaging 16.7 yards per reception. He's accounted for 28 first downs and has caught seven 20-plus yard passes on the season.
The Jets currently rank 25th against the pass, giving up 257 yards through the air per game. That number is somewhat inflated, though, given how successful the Jets have been against the run. Still, the Jets secondary has mostly struggled all season, allowing the fourth-most touchdown passes (22) in the NFL.
If the Jets are going to obliterate their current three-game losing streak, Cromartie needs to neutralize the Raiders' best receiving threat.
Geno Smith (Jets QB) vs. Raiders Secondary
Rookie signal-caller Geno Smith has been atrocious, fueling the Jets to three consecutive ugly defeats. New York's offense has been virtually nonexistent since a stellar win over the New Orleans Saints (9-3) in Week 9.
Smith has completed a pathetic total of 21 passes on 65 attempts in his past three starts, which amounts to a disturbingly inefficient 32.3 percent completion percentage. New York has failed to score a touchdown in consecutive games, racking up six points in two weeks of action. Smith is the most prominent contributing factor to the Jets' wildly unproductive offense and desperately needs to play at a higher level.
Smith needs to take advantage of a below-average Raiders secondary that allows opponents to complete 66.4 percent of their pass attempts. To effectively post solid numbers Sunday, the Jets' supposed team leader needs to do a better job of going through his progressions in the pocket.
Who will win this Week 14 contest?
Smith often appears flustered when he's unable to find his first read open downfield. His lack of confidence is noticeable in the pocket, especially when the opposition is able to generate a pass rush. An extreme lack of production is the outcome of Smith's glaring uncertainty of where to throw the football when his lead receiver is covered.
Smith hasn't thrown a touchdown pass since Week 7 against the New England Patriots (9-3). His best chance at ending his horrid streak of poor performances is to target Raiders cornerback Mike Jenkins, who was rated as the 94th-best CB of 113 qualifiers at the beginning of the 2013 season, according to Pro Football Focus (via Rotoworld).
The Jets could have No. 1 receiver Santonio Holmes and slot receiver Jeremy Kerley on the field together for the first time in eight games Sunday, according to Charlie Frankel of NewYorkJets.com, which bodes well for Smith, who needs all the help he can possibly get.