Must-win game. It’s one of our favorite sports clichés; something number crunchers love to rebuke, due to the mathematical data always at hand.
Is it really a must-win game for the Jets? Of course not. Even if they lose, and both the Patriots and Bills win, they’d still be three games out of first in the AFC East with 10 games remaining, three against the aforementioned division leaders.
Simple math aside, the Jets are facing the 0-4 Dolphins at home; a team with little left to win this season, and a lot left to gain (Stanford phenom QB Andrew Luck) if they finish with the league’s worst record and the No. 1 pick in the 2012 NFL Draft.
Meanwhile, the Jets schedule following their Week 6 matchup consists of the AFC West-leading Chargers, a bye, and then two straight against the Bills and Patriots.
So when you consider the immediate dynamic of the Jets' 2011 season, then yes, sorry to fall hapless to the cliché, but this is absolutely a must-win game for Gang Green.
And it should be a game the Jets win rather easily. The Dolphins, albeit having played one less game (coming off their bye), are a total mess of a team right now.
Miami ranks 28th in total defense and, while they’ve been middle-of-the-pack on offense, they lost starting QB Chad Henne for the season in a Week 4 loss to San Diego.
Still, the Jets can’t just show up expecting a win, and there’s no certainty that the Dolphins are in fact throwing away the season so soon. Here are five keys to a Jets victory on Monday Night Football.
In a game where the Jets matchup very well (their top-five pass defense against a back-up QB), stopping rookie RB Daniel Thomas will be the key to the game.
The Dolphins will likely lean heavily on the first-year starter from Kansas State, especially after watching another physical back, New England’s BenJarvis Green-Ellis, muscle the Jets for 136 yards and two TDs on 27 carries last week.
Gang Green’s once top-10 run defense has been the team's greatest weakness this year, as the Jets are giving up the seventh most rushing yards per game, while they are also tied for the league lead in rushing TDs (eight) allowed.
I’ve watched some tape (OK, NFL.com videos) of Thomas, and the rook is an impressive runner, for sure. Similar to Cam Newton, he struggled mightily in the preseason, only to burst onto the scene when the games started counting.
Thomas is dealing with a hamstring injury (who isn’t these days), but he’s expected to start and the Jets should be expected to stack the box on early downs.
The Jets will definitely scrap last week’s secondary-stacked defense (included that dreaded 3-1-7 alignment), and if the front seven can make some tackles, and keep Thomas out of the end zone, Miami will struggle mightily on offense.
As bad as the Dolphins defense may appear right now, they have faced three elite offenses (New England, Houston and San Diego) in four games, and have always been a tough unit to run on.
After four games, the Dolphins have held their own against the run, allowing 4.1 yards per carry, two TDs and only one run longer than 20 yards. Once again, Miami has faced stiff competition, and are now fresh coming off a bye.
Luckily for the Jets, they don’t employ a running game that thrives or depends on big runs. Nope, with Gang Green it’s all about (please forgive me, I know everyone is sick of it) “ground and pound.”
Shonn Greene is coming off his best game of the season, gaining 80 yards and one TD on 21 carries. It was only good for a 4.0 average, but this isn’t Jamaal Charles we’re talking about.
The key for Greene is to gut those four-yard runs often and early, while also converting on third and shorts, anything to keep the chains moving. Of course, converting goal line carries is a MUST in a game where points will mostly likely be fought for on the ground.
(And Shonny, if you want to rip off one of those 50-yard bursts up the gut, from playoff years of past, that would be just gravy.)
The Dustin Keller disappearing act has already begun this season, as the fourth-year tight end was held to three catches for 17 yards in the past two weeks.
It’s a similar scenario to last season, when Keller scored five TDs in the first four weeks, only to go scoreless the rest of the way. The problem is Keller isn’t a strong blocker, and when the Jets go run-heavy, Keller becomes an afterthought.
The flaw with that theory is if Keller was meant to be blocking, he wouldn’t be going out on pass routes anyway. Either way, the Jets can’t let last year’s phasing out of Keller happen again this season.
Mark Sanchez is still trying to figure out what type of quarterback he is, but so far in his career, he’s been much better working with the middle of the field. Whether it be those signature slants to Santonio Holmes, or hitting former Jet Jerricho Cotchery out of the slot on third down, Sanchez has shown greater success throwing inside the numbers than outside them.
So going against a Dolphins team that has been vulnerable to tight ends this season, the Jets need to feature Keller, who has been one of their best big play receivers, and has always been solid in the red zone.
The Jets are currently plus-1 in turnover ratio this season, while the Dolphins are minus-5. This is a game the Jets should win out in that category, and it could be enough to secure a victory as well.
If you rewind back to Week 2, the Jets hosted a similarly situated Jacksonville team that (like Miami) struggled to pass the ball, but had a solid running game and defense.
The Jets defense was a nightmare for Jacksonville’s then-starting QB Luke McCown, picking him off four times. They also totaled two sacks—one against McCown, and one against new starter, rookie Blaine Gabbert.
Going against a Matt Moore-led offense, the Jets need to blitz heavy on third downs, while keeping Miami’s lone formidable pass-catcher, WR Brandon Marshall, locked down on Revis Island all night. The pressure the Jets bring should lead to a few fumbles or picks, which could put the game out of hand quickly.
Finally, while a conservative approach should be expected, the Jets need to take their shots down the field in this one. The key is when to do so, and offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer surely knows that all eyes will be on his game plan against Miami’s porous secondary.
Granted, the Dolphins' 31st-ranked pass defense is a little inflated after giving up 517 yards to Tom Brady in Week 1, but as great as Brady was, Miami’s secondary was just as bad.
Despite having played one less game, the Dolphins are top 10 in passing plays allowed of 20 yards-plus, and are tied for first with six plays of over 40 yards allowed. The team will welcome back stud cornerback Vontae Davis this week, but it doesn't seem to matter—you can pass on this defense.
Sanchez needs to take his shots with Holmes, Keller and even rookie Jeremy Kerely. Heck, get RB Joe McKnight in the slot on some plays, and see if he can take the lid off the Dolphins safeties.
The Jets should continue to lean on the run Monday night, but if they want any chance of being a multi-dimensional offense going forward, Sanchez needs make the play-action pass work for him.