After failing to score a touchdown against the Texans, the Jets’ first team offense surely welcomed the additions of center Nick Mangold and wide receiver Plaxico Burress—playing his first professional game in 33 months.
Missing from the game, however, was starting running back Shonn Greene, dealing with a skin infection on his right foot. The Jets were still without starting right guard Brandon Moore, recently activated from the PUP list after having hip surgery in February.
Head coach Rex Ryan was desperate for some offensive signs of life, especially in the red zone; an area the Jets struggled mightily in last season. What he got was an inspiring display from the passing game (including the triumphant return of No. 17), which was minus WR Derrick Mason (knee).
Against a Bengals offense that will surely contend as the league’s worst, the Jets defense was sound and opportunistic, collecting three interceptions, including a pair of picks from starting safeties Eric Smith and Jim Leonhard. Even without starting linebackers Bart Scott and Calvin Pace, the Jets defense looked dominant.
Here’s a look at 12 winners and losers from the Jets victory.
new york jets
The return/debut of Burress was the main storyline heading into this game, and the 34-year-old veteran did not disappoint. After hauling in a 20-yard catch on the Jets first offensive play of the game, Plax went on to add another 20-yarder, and capped his evening off with a 26-yard diving TD in the left corner of the end zone, putting the Jets up 17-7 at the end of the first half.
Burress showed no signs of rust even as the rain poured down in East Rutherford, a town he called home with the Giants for four seasons. The receiver was heavily targeted in a first half that saw QB Mark Sanchez throw 20 times. Burress looked especially vintage on the over the shoulder TD grab, a play that was similar to his Super Bowl XLII game winner, adding in the dive for good measure.
When free agency finally kicked off, question marks surrounded Burress (who rolled his ankle during training camp) over whether he had anything left in the tank. Aside from the impressive performance, Plax looked absolutely jacked, and took a huge first step in proving that like Michael Vick, his incarceration has done nothing to hinder his game.
While the Bengals have talent at cornerback (Leon Hall and Nate Clements), it didn't stop the Jets from attacking the Cincinnati secondary, leading to several big completions for Sanchez. After a snappy 6-for-7 performance (47 yards) against Houston, the Jets starting QB went 12-20 for 173 yards and 2 TD against Cincinnati.
Sanchez and the Jets offense settled for a field goal attempt on their first drive, but took advantage of great field position the second time around, leading to a first play TD strike on a quick slant to Santonio Holmes. Sanchez struggled early on third down conversions, but later hooked up with Dustin Keller on a 42-yard completion that fueled a 99 yard drive, capped by the Burress TD, to end the first half.
It was a solid performance for Sanchez, who got absolutely no help from the running game. While the Jets preach a power rushing attack, the emergence of Sanchez, and his veteran WR group, may force a change in formula for 2011.
It's a win all-around for the Jets passing game; but a special mention has to go to Keller, who entering his third season, has the chance to truly breakout as one of the league's emerging tight ends.
In the second quarter, Keller bailed Sanchez out of a 2nd-and-9 from the Jets one-yard line, getting behind the defense for a 43-yard gain. The big play was a reminder of how useful a role Keller can fill in the Jets passing game, which has plenty of veteran leadership and experience among its three WRs. Keller got off to a hot start in 2010, scoring five TDs in his first four games, but failed to add to that total from Week 6 on.
Keller finished the game with four catches for 73 yards. The chemistry between Sanchez and Keller is obviously there, whether or not they can keep it going for a whole season remains to be seen.
The Jets get a lot of attention for their star CB duo of Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie, but it was their unheralded safeties that shined brighter on Sunday night. Both strong safety Eric Smith and free safety Jim Leonhard had interceptions that turned into scoring plays.
Smith caught a tipped pass off the hands of rookie WR A.J. Green, which he smartly tossed back to a speedier Revis, who ran 22 yards down the left sideline, setting up a 1st-and-10 on the Bengals' 16 yard line. Sanchez threw a TD to Holmes on the very next play.
Smith, who was recently signed to a three-year deal, surprised many when he was chosen over Brodney Pool as the team's new starting SS. Now a co-captain, Smith made a strong case for his promotion with Sunday's performance, in which he also defended a pass on third down.
Leonhard meanwhile provided another great spark on a 35-yard pick of his own, which resulted in a Jets field goal that made the game 10-0. Of course, Leonhard is coming off an unfortunate late end to his 2010 season, in which he suffered a broken tibia during a December practice after colliding with WR Patrick Turner. Now fully healed, Leonhard returns as one of the outspoken leaders of the Jets defense, and a key component to arguably the league's top secondary (until Philadelphia proves otherwise).
Much credit of course goes to the Jets defense Sunday night, which totaled three picks, five 3-and-outs, and got a forced fumble from recent Bills castoff, linebacker Aaron Maybin. Even with the help, the Jets special teams was solid if not spectacular Sunday night. Not counting a kick-off that went out-of-bounds by Nick Folk, the Jets never gave the Bengals advantageous field position all night.
Meanwhile, rookie WR/return man Jeremy Kerley had kick-off returns of 33 and 29 yards, and will do his best to fill the shoes of Brad Smith, who the Jets similarly used as a return man, fourth wide receiver, and Wildcat specialist. Kerley will try to provide a spark in the league's revamped return game, in which kick-offs have been pushed up to the 35-yard line, causing Jets special teams coach Mike Westhoff to employ a deep return man (five yards into the end zone) as a counteraction to the rule change.
Folk missed a 43-yard field goal early in the game, but redeemed himself with a 50-yard strike in the third quarter. The Jets placekicker should be highly depended on again this year, after tying for fourth in field goals made last season, despite doing so at a 76.9 percent clip (tied for 24th in the league).
The Jets rookie QB impressed again, going 6-for-9 for 59 passing yards and a TD, in second half relief of Mark Sanchez. McElroy played three quarters against Houston on MNF, going 23-39 for 208 yard and a TD. He also got sacked five times in that game, and has received praise for his toughness in these early goings.
McElroy has plenty of big-game experience playing his college years at Alabama, but lacked the arm strength to be considered a top QB prospect in April's NFL Draft. With listed second-string QB Mark Brunell battling injuries, the Crimson Tide product may have done just enough at this point to overtake the 41-year-old veteran as the Jets' second in command.
McElroy connected with second year RB Joe McKnight for a three-yard TD pass in the fourth quarter. McKnight also built on a solid first game, rushing for 36 yards on seven carries.
With Shonn Greene sidelined, Tomlinson had a chance to prove he's still capable of shouldering the load of a starting RB. Unfortunately for his sake, LTD struggled to get anything going outside of a 10-yard grab, rushing nine times for 16 yards.
After receiving only one carry against Houston, the jury is still out on Tomlinson, who either hasn't gotten enough carries under his belt in this shortened camp/preseason, or is continuing the declining trend he experienced at the end of last season. While he's still one of the smartest backs in the league, and will be depended on in third-down passing situations, Tomlinson has clearly lost a step, and has trouble getting past the first level of the opposing defense.
Greene is expected to return to practice this week, despite some rumors that his foot ailment may be a staph infection. In his absence, the Jets will have a hard time employing a power running game, considering LTD's diminished ability on early downs.
This may seem like an odd selection, considering the production of the Jets passing game. Nonetheless, the Jets still struggled early to convert on third down, and were more the beneficiaries of great field position provided by the defense, than superb offensive play-calling.
The Jets' starting unit put up 17 first half points, but could have had more considering the opportunities made available. After Jim Leonhard's interception gave the Jets the ball on the Cincinnati 10, Schottenheimer dialed up a passing play on first down that went incomplete. This was followed by a LTD rush attempt that resulted in a loss of two, and then an incompletion on third down. The Jets settled for a field goal, an all-too-common memory from last year, when the Jets were 28th in the league in red zone efficiency.
While the story of this game will be the success of the Jets passing offense, it's important for the Jets to get points the easy way heading into the season. It may seem like nit-picking at this point, but Schottenheimer's decision to pass first in the red zone (which he drew up a lot last season) continues to baffle, and contradicts the mentality of what's supposed to be a "ground-and-pound" offense, anchored by a great offensive line.
Again, nit-picking as the Jets did not have many losers on the field tonight. Still, Ducasse, the Jets starting right tackle, badly needed a mistake-free game after allowing two sacks against Houston. The mistake came early on in the game, when Ducasse was called for a false start. The Bengals ended up punting on the drive.
The starting offensive line gave up one sack for a loss of two, but overall kept Mark Sanchez upright against a very overmatched Bengals team. Ducasse, who started for injured RG Brandon Moore, is still a huge work in progress, and a very vulnerable pass blocker. It has been a lot to ask of the kid, who's been rotating between right tackle and both guard spots, but 2011 may still be a year where Ducasse's exposure should be limited.
Mason is a loser for simply missing out on the fun, as a knee injury kept him out of the game. After posting three catches for 21 yards in the Jets preseason opener, Mason watched from the sidelines as everyone from Plaxico Burress to Santonio Holmes to Dustin Keller got involved in the aggressive passing attack.
With the strong outings of Burress and Keller, not to mention the Jets' preexisting run-first emphasis, it's uncertain if there will be enough targets to go around for Mason. His role as the new slot receiver (replacing the departed Jerricho Cotchery) is a bit of a departure for the career possession receiver, who is used to playing in two WR sets.
Despite the uncertainty of his role, Mason has had high spirits since entering training camp, even jumping on Coach Ryan's "Super Bowl or Bust" bandwagon. If his knee injury turns out to be minor, he will have a few more preseason games to situate his role among the other members of the Jets' passing game. At age 37, however, it is hard to expect a lot from Mason in a brand new system, with very little time to catch-up.
Similar to Mason, Brunell may have managed to hurt his stock without even stepping foot on the field.
While sitting out his second preseason game with a pulled calf (an injured pinky kept him out last week), Brunell watched rookie QB Greg McElroy play extended minutes and throw his second TD in as many weeks. Brunell served a vital role as a mentor to Mark Sanchez last season, and will likely encounter double-duty in that department this year, with the two young QBs playing in front of him.
Brunell was originally released by the Jets, when the team made its push for CB Nnamdi Asomugha a few weeks ago, but was quickly resigned at a cheaper price tag. Going into what should be his last season in the NFL, the solid veteran gets a shot at a second Super Bowl ring (has one with the Saints), even if it means his contributions off the field have to outweigh his contributions on it.
Now we have to get really creative!
Look, the Jets played well tonight, and even got some inspiring play from their backups who pitched a shutout in the second half. Sanchez enjoyed some freedom in the passing game and the defense, minus one half of its starting linebackers, was dominant and disruptive.
Still, you're only as good as your best opponent, and right now, the Bengals are about as bad as an opponent can get in this league, from top to bottom. The Jets should take away the positives from this game, but focus on the negatives (running the ball efficiently, converting easy scores) as they prepare for a tougher opponent next week in the Giants.