5 Struggling New York Jets Who Must Step Up vs. the New England Patriots
New York's three-game winning streak began following these two teams' last battle. The Patriots won that one pretty handily, 30-21, using a punishing running game, an incredible third-down defense and a highly efficient Tom Brady (72.7 completion percentage).
Coming into this game, however, the tables have turned.
It is now the Jets who boast a strong running game. It is now the Jets who are being discussed as the best in the AFC East following their undressing of the upstart Buffalo Bills last Sunday.
With back-to-back losses against the Pittsburgh Steelers and New York Giants, the Patriots season is on the verge of collapse. There is nothing the Jets would like more than to be the straw that broke the camel's back for the 2011 Patriots. They did it last year in the divisional round of the playoffs, and they want to do it again here.
In order to win this game the Jets will need to be nearly flawless, and they will need these five struggling players to step their games up.
5. Santonio Holmes, Wide Receiver
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For Santonio Holmes, his problem isn't an inability to get the ball in the end zone—he has done that with surprising regularity.
Rather, Holmes' struggles are apparent in his lack of receptions. Last season, Holmes seemed to always lead the team in catches, finishing with 52 in only 12 games. However, this year, Holmes is on pace to catch just 50 passes over a full 16-game season.
Something's wrong here.
First of all, the connection between quarterback Mark Sanchez and Holmes has been off. No. 10 has hauled in just 25 of the 48 passes thrown his way, an unusually low number for a catch-and-run type player like Santonio.
Second, "Slantonio" hasn't been able to get the yards after catch, which normally make him so explosive. His career YAC average is five, and this year his average (four) is as low as it's been his entire career.
For someone who got paid $45 million-plus this offseason to play the part of go-to receiver, Holmes is having a lot of trouble making plays.
However, Holmes seems to always play his best when matched up with the New England Patriots.
The Jets will need his best on Sunday, as his effectiveness opens up the field for Dustin Keller and takes pressure off of Sanchez.
4. Antonio Cromartie, Cornerback
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Antonio Cromartie, as usual, has been frustratingly inconsistent. One minute he'll be making an acrobatic play that only he can make, then the next minute he'll get flagged for a pass interference penalty that only he can commit.
He is the definition of high-risk, high-reward. Luckily for the New York Jets, it's been mostly high reward over Cromartie's one-and-a-half year stint with the team.
After the front office decided to keep him this offseason with a four-year, $32 million contract, they probably expected Cro's game to stabilize.
So far this year, that hasn't happened.
When the ball is thrown toward him, Jets fans are more anxious than excited. He could just as easily make a boneheaded play as he could make a fantastic play. Against Tom Brady and the New England Patriots, Cromartie has to be on top of his game.
Brady smartly avoids throwing towards lock-down corner Darrelle Revis, and he usually will challenge Cromartie 10-12 times a game. Last time, it worked, as Deion Branch had seven catches for 74 yards. Cromartie had an interception, but it was off of a tipped pass that actually should have been caught for a touchdown.
This weekend, with the Patriots receiving corps under fire from the media, the athletic Cromartie needs to make a statement.
The Jets must slow the Pats' passing game, and they can only do that if Cromartie is playing with his head on straight. There is no reason he can't physically overwhelm the slower, smaller Branch.
If Cro and Revis play well, Brady will have a nearly impossible time moving the ball down field through the air.
3. Bart Scott, Linebacker
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Bart Scott can talk a big game.
We all know that. We accept it too, because he usually backs up his talk with top-notch performances on the field.
However, after starting the season off red-hot, Scott's impact has all but disappeared over the past few games. Through his first four games, Scott tallied 26 tackles and two sacks.
In the four games since?
The loud-mouthed linebacker only has 13 tackles and half a sack. Facing the New England Patriots in Week 5, Scott and the rest of the New York Jets' front seven were steamrolled by the Pats' offensive line and running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis.
Green-Ellis went off for 136 yards on just 27 carries, helping New England close out the game and dominate the time of possession battle, 34-26.
If the Jets want to impose their will on the Pats offense, they will need to bottle up Green-Ellis and the Pats' running game early. The Jets expect Scott to break out of his mini-slump by doing what he does best: ferociously shutting down running lanes.
If Scott and fellow linebacker David Harris can limit the running game, containing the passing attack will be manageable. If Green-Ellis runs wild again, though, the Jets are in deep trouble.
2. Jim Leonhard, Safety
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For a team whose secondary is held in such high regard, the New York Jets' safeties have been pretty unremarkable thus far.
Jim Leonhard is one of those guys you love having on your team. He always plays full tilt and gives his full effort, and he'll usually make one or two great plays a game just to remind you how good he really is.
Overlooked by most experts because he plays in a defensive backfield with Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie, Leonhard is considered by many to be the heart and soul of this defense.
In fact, many point to Leonhard's pre-game injury as a reason why the Jets were massacred by the New England Patriots last season, 45-3. They claim that his loss devastated the team, and the defense was sluggish as a result.
That may have been true, but Leonhard hasn't been quite as big of a game-changer this season.
This being his contract year, Leonhard was expected to have one of his best seasons yet. Instead, Leonhard's performance has been questionable at best. He's had only three games with more than three tackles and is on pace for the lowest amount of tackles per game of any season since he was given the starting job in 2007.
Maybe it was because of the shortened offseason, or maybe it's just a slump. Whatever it is, Leonhard is going to be key for the Jets in this weekend's matchup. He may get Wes Welker duty, or even tougher, Rob Gronkowski duty.
Either way, Leonhard is going to have his hands full. The Jets are hoping that this is the game that gets him going for the second half.
1. Mark Sanchez, Quarterback
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Mark Sanchez is improving for the New York Jets.
The problem is that he is just not improving fast enough. The completion percentage keeps going up, but remains dangerously low (57.5 percent), the quarterback rating has finally reached respectability (84), and the touchdown-to-interception ratio is finally where it needs to be (13:7).
However, the statistics don't quite tell the whole story. There are still the bad fumbles, there are still the bad sacks, and there are still those killer interceptions in the red zone.
At this pace, Sanchez will eventually be great, but it probably won't be until 2015. I'm not sure Jets fans want to wait that long.
This Sunday, Sanchez has one of his favorite opponents. Excluding the 45-3 drubbing that the New England Patriots laid on the Men in Green last season, Sanchez has been exceptional in the other three games against his biggest division rival (since 2010).
To the tune of 580 passing yards and a 8-0 touchdown to interception ratio, Sanchez has had Bill Belichick and the Patriots' number three out of their last four meetings.
On Sunday night, Sanchez has to maintain that turnover-free, high-efficiency model that he has used to perfection time and time again.
While Sanchez hasn't been "struggling" so much lately, it is his inability to play as well against the rest of the NFL as he does against New England that makes him No. 1 on this list.
Without his terrific play, the Jets will have a hell of a hard time defeating the Patriots in prime time this Sunday night.
If Sanchez does show up?
Expect the J-E-T-S Jets, Jets, Jets to go home with their fourth victory in a row.