On Sunday afternoon, the New York Jets will open their 2015 season at home against the Cleveland Browns. Looking to put last year’s dreadful 4-12 campaign as far behind them as possible, the Jets and new coach Todd Bowles are looking for a fast start in front of their fans.
But with Cleveland being far from a pushover, what does New York have to do to get the victory? Here are the game plan and the keys to success:
When IK Enemkpali’s fist removed Geno Smith from the starting lineup, the Jets were forced to change up their offensive philosophy and, specifically, what exactly they ask their quarterback to do.
While replacement Ryan Fitzpatrick is far from a slouch, he is limited athletically in what he brings to an offense. Sure, the nine-year veteran is smart, knows how to read a defense and is careful with the football—that was evident just last year when he threw just eight interceptions in 12 games. But when Fitzpatrick breaks the huddle and comes to the line, he doesn't bring a down-the-field threat with him.
In his near decade in the league, Fitzpatrick has averaged just 6.62 yards per passing attempt. During his three-year run as starting quarterback of the Buffalo Bills, he raised that number slightly but just to the tune of 6.76. Fitzpatrick simply doesn’t have the arm strength to make all the throws. He has decent arm strength, but when it comes to putting the ball on a line on a comeback or deep down the field, the quarterback struggles.
To put Fitzpatrick’s 6.62 average yards per attempt into perspective, take into consideration the other quarterbacks in the NFL. New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady’s career mark is 7.44; Eli Manning’s is 7.09. Even former Jets quarterback Chad Pennington, who was often times ridiculed for his inability to get the ball down the field, had a higher career average at 7.2.
As a result, New York’s offense isn’t going to look to stretch the field but rather methodically march up and down it.
What’s that mean?
If the Jets want to have success, they'll have to make their plays on first and second down count to set up manageable third downs.
How’s the team going to do that?
By relying on running back Chris Ivory.
Originally signed as an undrafted free agent by the New Orleans Saints, Ivory has established himself into a solid NFL back but has yet to cross the 1,000-yard milestone in any of his five NFL seasons. He’s come close, rushing for more than 820 yards each of the last two seasons. Now, that’s due in part to the fact he’s constantly been sharing the backfield with someone else.
In 2013, Ivory’s first season with the Jets, he carried the ball just 182 times. Last year? 198. No running back in the last five years has been able to eclipse the 1,000 yard mark rushing less than 200 times.
|New York Jets Leading Rushers (2013-2014)|
With Stevan Ridley on the PUP list and out the first six weeks of the season, Zac Stacy still finding his way in the offense and Bilal Powell primarily a third-down back, Ivory is in line to see the most action of his career. The Jets offense desperately needs him to perform.
If Ivory can establish a rushing attack, it will make Fitzpatrick’s life much easier. An average of four yards per carry has the Jets offense looking at 3rd-and-2 after two Ivory rushing attempts. In that scenario, Fitzpatrick can thrive.
But if Ivory is shut down and Paul Kruger, Scott Solomon and others pin their ears back and rush, it could be a long day for the Jets on Sunday.
Browns quarterback Josh McCown had a good eight-game stretch with the Chicago Bears two years ago. Filling in for an injured Jay Cutler, he completed 66.5 percent of his passes and threw for 1,829 yards with 13 touchdowns and one interception.
But before and after that? Well, he’s been below-average, and that’s putting it nicely.
Without Marc Trestman calling the shots in his quarterback-friendly offense, McCown is a career 57 percent passer and has 48 touchdowns to 58 interceptions. Aside from his 109 QB rating in 2013, he’s never had a mark over 74.9 in any of his other 12 seasons.
So the Jets' game plan on defense? Make McCown beat them.
If defensive linemen Damon Harrison, Leonard Williams and Muhammad Wilkerson can shut down the Browns' two-headed rushing attack of Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson, the Browns offense will become one-dimensional. While Andrew Hawkins, Brian Hartline and Dwayne Bowe (assuming he’s healthy) are solid receivers, New York corners Antonio Cromartie, Buster Skrine and Darrelle Revis should be able to contain them.
If New York’s defense wants to dominate, the game plan is simple enough:
- Shut down the run
- Contain the receivers on the outside
- Force McCown into making mistakes
Accomplish the first two items on that list, and the third will take care of itself.
Where New York could run into some issue is with communication in the secondary. Of the five projected starters (three cornerbacks, two safeties), the only player returning from last year’s team is Calvin Pryor.
While the defensive backs have certainly come together over the course of training camp and the preseason, they’re still not 100 percent yet. As a result, there will be—and it’s completely understandable—a breakdown or two on Sunday. If McCown can find those miscues, well, things can escalate quickly.
Key Matchups and Players
Jets DE Leonard Williams vs. Browns OT Joe Thomas
Quite the first draw for New York’s first-round rookie, huh?
In his first NFL game, Williams, who’s working his way back from a calf and knee injury that sidelined him for the back half of the preseason, will face off against Joe Thomas, the eight-time Pro Bowler and five-time first-team All-Pro left tackle. And it’ll be that way all game. Per Jets defensive coordinator Kacy Rodgers, the team has no plans to flip-flop Wilkerson and Williams.
As a result, even with all of Williams' potential and talent, expect Thomas to school the rookie. In all of 2014, he allowed just one sack and three quarterback hits, per Pro Football Focus.
But if Williams can find a way to generate pressure and maybe catch Thomas by surprise? It’ll all but be the knockout blow to Cleveland’s offense.
Jets WR Brandon Marshall vs. Browns CB Joe Haden
During his decade playing in the NFL, Brandon Marshall has established himself as one of the game’s best receivers. The five-time Pro Bowler has caught 773 passes for 9,771 yards and 65 touchdowns in his career. He, on many Sundays, has made a cornerback’s life miserable.
Well, unless that cornerback's name is Joe Haden. In their two previous meetings (2011, 2013), Marshall hasn’t managed more than four receptions or 61 yards when guarded by the Pro Bowl corner.
|Brandon Marshall vs. Joe Haden|
“Man, I never look forward to going against Joe,” Marshall said earlier this week. “He’s one of the most competitive guys out there. He’s hypercompetitive, he works hard, and he’s always in the right place.
“I’m not excited to play against him. He’s one of the best cornerbacks out there.”
With Fitzpatrick’s inability to really go to Marshall deep, expect Haden to attempt to press Marshall at the line of scrimmage to disrupt any sort of short or catch-and-run patterns. That won’t necessarily be easy; at 6'4" and 230 pounds, Marshall has made a living out of outmuscling those at the line.
Throughout training camp, Cromartie and Skrine regularly attempted to come up at the line and bump Marshall. It didn't work often. Marshall would use his own strength to absorb the contact and then push over to create extra separation to make a quick grab on a slant. In fact, most times, he simply used Skrine or Cromartie's push to give him momentum in running his route.
While Haden (5'11", 195 lbs) is a step above those two Jets corners, he is still 35 pounds lighter than Marshall. That makes a difference. How much of one we'll see on Sunday.
In order for the Browns to win, they’re going to need the ball to bounce their way quite a bit. On paper, the Jets are the superior team. While both squads are relatively even at the quarterback position, New York has more talented skill players, a better pass rush and more depth at the cornerback position. From top to bottom, in 2015, the Jets have a better roster.
This one shouldn’t be close, but then again, it always seems to be when New York and Cleveland face off. In their last three games, the last two of which went the Jets' way, the average margin of victory has been just over seven points.
If the Browns want to snap New York’s mini-win streak against them, they'll need to do exactly what the Jets are looking to do to Cleveland: stop the run, pressure the quarterback and force turnovers. Both teams will be entering MetLife Stadium on Sunday wanting to run the ball.
Whichever team succeeds in doing that will likely win.
With neither team having much of a downfield passing attack, it’s tough to imagine the scoring being too high. In fact, it’s tough to imagine either team having much of an impact in the red zone, either. More players will be jam-packed into a smaller area of the field, limiting passing windows. The Jets have massive nose tackle Damon Harrison (6'4", 350 lbs) plugging holes against the run, while the Browns have the monstrous Danny Shelton (6'2", 339 lbs).
Look for field goals aplenty, and a late goal-line surge after a defense gets worn down. Who knows, we may even see a defensive touchdown.
Jets 23, Browns 13
Connor Hughes is the New York Jets beat writer for the Journal Inquirer and Scout.com. All quotes and advanced stats referenced and used are gathered firsthand.
Connor can be reached on Twitter (@Connor_J_Hughes) or via email (firstname.lastname@example.org).