Jets '07 preview

Jets '07 preview
By Rich Cimini for Sporting News
July 15, 2007

If the Jets were to have a soundtrack for the 2007 season, it would be "The End of the Innocence." Cue Don Henley.

After a honeymoon season that exceeded everyone's expectations, second-year coach Eric Mangini returns with largely the same team that finished 10-6 and claimed a wild-card berth.

And you know what that means: The Jets' days as gutsy overachievers are finished.

AFC EAST PREVIEWS
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With his program one year ahead of schedule, Mangini will get his first dose of New York pressure. That's what happens when you give an impatient fan base that hasn't experienced a Super Bowl in almost four decades an immediate taste of the postseason.

Mangini will stick with the winning formula he used last season, but it will be harder to achieve the same success. The Jets' schedule is tied for fifth-toughest in the league, and their overall talent level won't wow anyone. But they will be well-coached and well-conditioned, and that combo can camouflage a few blemishes.

GAME PLAN

Offense: Coordinator Brian Schottenheimer runs one of the most diverse offenses in the NFL. He uses the no-huddle whenever possible, which allows quarterback Chad Pennington to orchestrate the attack.

The Jets also rely heavily on motions and shifts and aren't afraid to run gadget plays. Through it all, the team maintains a 50-50 run-pass balance. With the addition of running back Thomas Jones, play-action could be a bigger part of the game plan.

Defense: The base defense is a 3-4, but the Jets rarely stay in the same front for an entire quarter, much less a full game. Mangini and coordinator Bob Sutton are creative, especially with third-down packages. Presnap movement is a staple, as the Jets try to disguise their coverages and pressure schemes.

They won't hesitate to send an all-out blitz, but after leaning heavily on blitzes toward the end of last season, they hope to scale back on them – if they can generate heat with a conventional rush.

SPOTLIGHT PLAYERS

RB Thomas Jones: For eight years, the Jets just gave the ball to Curtis Martin and – voila! – had a formidable running game. But when Martin finally broke down last season, Mangini was forced to use four different backs. The strategy didn't work.

Enter Jones.

Acquired from the Bears, Jones is a legitimate No. 1 back whose résumé includes two straight 1,200-yard seasons. His presence will allow the Jets to go with more of a power rushing attack rather than having to rely so much on scheme-related runs (draws, misdirections, etc.).

The ground game won't be a one-man show, though. Mangini wants Jones and Leon Washington to form a 1-2 punch. That will reduce wear and tear on Jones, who was most effective in Chicago when he shared the workload. Washington is an ideal change-of-pace back and likely will get the call on third down. He has terrific instincts and acceleration and is dangerous on screens.

QB Chad Pennington: Pennington, he of the twice-repaired throwing shoulder, saved his career last season when he started 16 games for the first time. For his next trick, he must lead the Jets to the Super Bowl.

That's not such a crazy statement. When healthy, Pennington has proved he can lead the Jets to the playoffs – they reached the postseason in each of the three seasons that he started at least 12 games. He's ideal for the team's short passing game, and he has the smarts to read defenses well and change plays at the line to create favorable matchups.

That said, Pennington's lack of arm strength restricts the offense. Safeties play closer to the line of scrimmage. Cornerbacks sit on short routes. Opponents can key on the running game. Pennington can function – even thrive at times – under these conditions, but they force him to play near-perfect football. The pressure got to him last season, when he threw a career-high 16 interceptions. Mangini won't tolerate that many mistakes again.

Backup Kellen Clemens, who enters his second season, has many of the same traits as Pennington but has a better arm. Clemens hasn't taken a meaningful snap, and Mangini won't make an in-season change unless the offense falls apart under Pennington.

ILB Jonathan Vilma: The spotlight will be on Vilma, who struggled last season. His skill set and size make him an ideal 4-3 middle linebacker, but Mangini is hellbent on making the players fit into his system, not vice versa.

The Jets have to find a way to protect Vilma and keep guards out of his face. To his credit, Vilma hasn't whined about his role and vows to make a successful transition. Regardless of the scheme, he brings terrific intangibles to the defense while serving as the signal-caller.

SS Kerry Rhodes: Rhodes is developing into a two-way force. He's dangerous near the line, especially as a blitzer, and covers a lot of ground when he's patrolling deep.

VINNIE IYER'S TAKE

After leading the Jets into the playoffs as a rookie head coach, Mangini will avoid a sophomore slump with an improved 3-4 defense and a more consistent running game.
Prediction: 9-7 (2nd in the AFC East).

FALL FORECAST

Watch out for the Jets. They're a solid, blue-collar team and extremely well-coached. That alone makes them a contender. True, their 10-6 record last season was a bit of a mirage because of a ridiculously easy schedule, but they addressed their biggest deficiency – running back – and added enough talent to make another run at the Patriots in the AFC East.

As for Super Bowl talk – not so fast. The Jets still need a couple of pieces on defense before they can join the elite class. That said, anything less than a playoff berth would be a disappointment.

Rich Cimini covers the Jets for the New York Daily News and Sporting News.

Updated on Sunday, Jul 15, 2007 2:46 pm, EDT

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