The season may be over, but the New York Jets still have plenty to play for over the next two weeks.
Not only is each player auditioning for a job next year (whether it be on the Jets or elsewhere), they are playing for the future of their head coach, Rex Ryan. These final two games will not define his legacy in New York, but ending the season on a high note may just be enough to convince the Jets to hang on to Ryan.
Meanwhile, the Cleveland Browns may have only four wins this season, but they are certainly not a team to be taken lightly. Two weeks ago, they were seconds away from a victory against the New England Patriots and have lost several other games in close endings.
The Browns have been playing sound defense for the past couple of years now, but the emergence of wide receiver Josh Gordon as one of the NFL's most explosive players has made the Browns' offense a difficult one to play against this season, despite the mediocrity at Cleveland's quarterback position.
Here is how the Jets should approach this game to get back in the "win" column.
Contain Josh Gordon
Not far removed from a record-breaking two-game stretch, the Jets top priority in this game will be to prevent Josh Gordon from (literally) running away with this game on his own.
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Gordon's dominance has vaulted him into the conversation of being among the league's best wide receivers. What makes his off-the-charts production even more impressive is that he is doing it all with Brandon Weeden and Jason Campbell as his quarterback.
Gordon is not just a blend of elite size and speed; he can beat the press and make defenses pay for being too aggressive in press-man coverage.
Even if the Jets had a healthy Antonio Cromartie who was playing as well as he did in 2012, they still would probably need a special coverage package to keep Gordon from ripping their secondary to shreds. Now Cromartie—whom Pro Football Focus (subscription required) ranks as the fifth-worst cornerback—is ailing, so the Jets will need to divert all of their resources to covering Gordon.
The only way for the Jets to keep Gordon under control is to utilize Cover 2 principles. The Cover 2, which includes two deep safeties (as opposed to Cover 1 or Cover 0 schemes that are preferred by Ryan), is designed to prevent the big play at the cost of being more vulnerable to shorter and intermediate completions.
Is there a chance that Gordon will still find a way to split the Jets' secondary no matter how much they scheme around such a possibility? Of course. By forcing an aging and slow Ed Reed into the starting lineup, the Jets' cornerbacks have not been getting the safety help they have been expecting, which explains the team's 25th-ranked pass defense.
Ed Reed was back to playing majority of snaps (52 of 64 -- 81%) again vs Panthers. Antonio Allen had only 10 snaps. Jarrett had 12. #nyj— Manish Mehta (@MMehtaNYDN) December 16, 2013
As a result, the only way for the Cover 2 to be effective is to start the younger and more versatile Antonio Allen in place of Reed.
Not only is Allen faster and less prone to giving up a big play than Reed, but he can be used in man-to-man coverage to help against some of the other weapons on the Browns' roster—something Reed cannot do at his age.
Antonio Allen vs. Jordan Cameron
Assuming the Jets use Cover 2 principles to take away Gordon's game-breaking ability, they will need to find the right matchup to ensure that they don't allow tight end Jordan Cameron to take advantage of an (uncharacteristically) passive approach to pass defense.
Having originally attended BYU to play basketball, Cameron is essentially a poor man's Jimmy Graham, possessing a rare combination of size and athleticism that he uses to come down with contested catches. With 848 yards and seven touchdowns on the season, few defenders have been able to match up with this physical specimen, especially in the red zone.
Fortunately for the Jets, they have at least one person on the roster who has shown the ability to limit the effectiveness of some of the most physical, athletic tight ends in the league—Antonio Allen.
On this play against the New Orleans Saints, the Jets drop into Cover 2 to take away the deep ball, leaving Allen in a one-on-one situation with Graham.
The Saints will take a one-on-one matchup with a safety against Graham every day of the week, but Allen is able to bother Graham just enough to force the incompletion without incurring a penalty on this crucial third down.
Involve Jeremy Kerley
The Jets offense was not a complete disaster last week, but it was missing a key element in their pass attack when slot receiver Jeremy Kerley was essentially removed from the game plan entirely, not catching a single pass until garbage time in the fourth quarter.
Most the Jets' offense was generated through sporadic big plays. If the Jets' offense is to sustain drives and give its defense a much-needed break, it will need to convert more third downs through their go-to man, Jeremy Kerley.
There are not many weaknesses in the Browns' defense. New York's best chance of success is to attack rookie cornerback Leon McFadden, who has received a negative grade from Pro Football Focus.
He has played on only 150 snaps this season, but because of an injury to Buster Skrine, McFadden figures to see an increase in playing time over the next two weeks. Against New York, the third-round pick will be put in a tough spot, lined up across from Kerley, one of the better slot receivers in the league.
McFadden was not the fastest player in the draft by any means, but he can use his physicality to jam receivers at the line of scrimmage. If Kerley is going to succeed, he must use his lateral quickness to get off the line before McFadden can get his hands on him. If Kerley is able to win the battle at the line of scrimmage, he should have a big day against the rookie.
Help Brian Winters
The biggest liability on the Jets' offense is not Geno Smith or his wide receivers—it is rookie left guard Brian Winters.
Not only has Winters been responsible for a lot of the pressure in Geno Smith's face this year (he has allowed 10 sacks in 11 games, according to Pro Football Focus), but he is getting beat in simple one-on-one situations, which disrupt passing plays before they have a chance to develop.
Here, Winters is beat cleanly on a simple inside rip move from Greg Hardy—inexcusable in a one-on-one situation.
It is one thing to give up a pressure, but to get beat so cleanly off the line is going to kill any offense no matter who the quarterback is.
After a rough week against the Carolina Panthers, Winters will have his hands full against a good, young interior front of the Cleveland Browns. Players such as Billy Winn and Ahtyba Rubin will give Winters all he can handle.
The Jets simply cannot sit back and wait for Winters to get beat over and over again. They must have center Nick Mangold slide over to help and hope their other offensive linemen can hold their own.
As we have seen before, Geno Smith with adequate protection makes the Jets' offense more than capable of putting points on the board and limiting turnovers.
Both of these teams are similar in how they are built, with strong defenses and limited offenses, although the Browns have a clear edge when it comes to talent at the skill positions.
The Browns may not have an overwhelming tradition of winning, but the Jets cannot let playing a struggling Browns fool them. This is going to be a tough matchup for them—putting together anything but a well-rounded effort will ensure them of their ninth loss of the season.
Advanced statistics provided by ProFootballFocus.com (subscription required).