With just three games remaining on the schedule, the New York Jets' postseason hopes lie in their ability to win their final three games to get their first winning season since 2010, starting on the road against the Carolina Panthers.
Despite coming off a blowout loss to the New Orleans Saints last week, the Panthers have a 9-4 record for a reason. Sporting one of the best defenses in football, the Panthers are capable of winning in a lot of different ways with the multidimensional Cam Newton under center.
The Jets were able to break up their three-game skid last week, but the Panthers pose a much more imposing threat to the Jets' playoff hopes than the lowly Oakland Raiders. Not only do the Jets have the inferior quarterback, but for perhaps the first time all season, they have the inferior defense as well, and by a significant margin.
Also working against the Jets is the fact that this game is taking place away from MetLife Stadium, where the Jets have been at their worst.
If the Jets are going to pull off the upset, it will take a perfect execution of a well-crafted game plan.
Bench Antonio Cromartie
Playing against the Matt McGloin-led Oakland Raiders, the Jets generated two sacks and an interception, and Dee Milliner did not allow a catch. They still yielded 27 points.
How did this happen? The culprit was no other than Antonio Cromartie, who, while having a miserable season already, is being forced into the starting lineup despite dealing with a flared-up hip injury.
Just about the entire Raiders passing attack went through Cromartie, who allowed four catches on seven targets for 89 yards (a 141.4 quarterback rating). Most concerning is that nearly half of the yards he allowed (38) came after the catch.
In other words, not only is Cromartie giving up a lot of huge plays, but he is getting beaten so badly that smaller plays are turning into big plays.
The good news is that the Jets have a young, talented player in Darrin Walls to take his place. While Walls is no superstar (the 60th-ranked cornerback in Pro Football Focus' rankings), the former undrafted player is leagues ahead of Cromartie in terms of health and consistency.
Unlike the previous 14 weeks, the Jets have a plausible excuse to keep Cromartie out of the lineup (outside of his nagging hip injury). He suffered a concussion in Sunday's game, making his status for Sunday uncertain:
Based on the past 14 weeks, the Jets have no reason to believe that their former star is capable of covering the likes of Brandon LaFell with Cam Newton throwing to them. While it may go against their natural instincts, the Jets coaches need to sit Cromartie for at least this game.
After all, not only does it give the Jets a better chance to win, but it gives Cromartie an extra week to heal his bum hip.
Use "Max Protect"
Maintaining steady drives against the second-ranked defense in football will be nearly impossible for the offensively challenged Jets. If the Jets are going to generate enough points to win the game, they must rely on the big plays that were a large part of their six wins.
However, only three teams in the NFL have more sacks than the Panthers (41). How are the Jets supposed to throw the ball deep down the field when quarterback Geno Smith will have no time to throw?
By the use of maximum protection schemes (commonly referred to as "max protect"), the Jets can buy extra time for Geno Smith to generate big plays. Max protect generally involves using at least eight blockers to protect against virtually any blitz, at the expense of the number of routes the offense can run at one time.
Most max protect schemes utilize just a few routes, obviously making it easier to cover in the secondary.
The Jets utilized this strategy early in the game against the Raiders to generate their first big play on the first drive.
The Jets keep seven in to block, although Chris Ivory's swing route essentially acts as a block, as it draws a defender away from the pocket. There are only two receivers in the route downfield.
Because Geno has enough time to scan the field and wait for the busted coverage to occur on Santonio Holmes, he is able to make the easy completion for the big gain.
Max protect schemes too often can make an offense predictable and easy to defend, but when well-timed, they have the potential to generate big plays for an offense.
Keep Demario Davis in to Spy
Stopping Cam Newton and the Panthers poses a unique challenge, since Newton's running ability creates an extra dimension that the defense must account for.
In order to deal with the nuisance of Cam Newton running the ball, the Jets' best option is to keep their fastest and most athletic linebacker, Demario Davis, in as a "spy" to keep Newton in or at least around the pocket.
Cam Newton is plenty fast, but Demario Davis has the speed to catch up to some wide receivers. After all, his best play of the season occurred when he chased down Vincent Jackson from behind in Week 1 to prevent a touchdown, saving the game.
Rex Ryan points out in media film review that Demario Davis saved the game by chasing down Vincent Jackson after Dawan Landry missed tackle.— Darryl Slater (@DarrylSlater) September 9, 2013
Obviously, keeping in Davis comes at the cost of keeping one less player in coverage or to blitz; however, this is a small price to pay when considering the damage Newton is capable of doing if he is able to escape the pocket.
The Jets can also alter their coverage style to protect against such devastating runs. The Jets are known to use mostly man-to-man coverage, but they would be wise to use more zone concepts. In man coverage, the defensive backs have their backs turned. By the time they notice the quarterback take off, he is already well on his way downfield.
In zone coverage, however, defensive backs are facing forward and are generally more evenly spaced out. A running quarterback will have a much more difficult time finding a running lane with secondary defenders watching his every move.
In truth, there are not a lot of positive matchups for the Jets in this game. While they were able to rebound against the Raiders last week, the young, developing Jets have yet to win two games in a row this season. The odds that they will find a way to break the trend against a 9-4 Panthers team (on the road) seem bleak.
However, if the Jets are able to pull out some of the same magic they had against the Saints or New England Patriots earlier in the season and generate a devastating pass rush, the Jets have a chance to pull off the upset and keep their playoff hopes alive.
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