After falling in the waning moments of their Week 11 game to the Buffalo Bills, the Houston Texans (3-7) will square off against another AFC East foe in Week 12, the surprising New York Jets (5-5). Following a disappointing 4-12 season with departed head coach Herman Edwards at the controls, the Jets look rejuvenated under new head coach and former
assistant Eric Mangini. The first-time head coach has his squad playing tough, gritty football that may not translate to the most appealing statistical numbers, but instead is shown where it counts, the won-loss column.
The leader of the Jets, quarterback Chad Pennington, was thought to be done before the season even began with an injured shoulder, but he proved the doubters wrong by throwing for five touchdowns against one interception in New York's first three games. In order for the Jets to be successful, Pennington does not need to do anything special. Managing the offense through an effective running game and relying on turnovers from the defense have served the Jets well thus far and will continue to be the blueprint for Mangini's club. With all six of their remaining games against sub-.500 opponents, the Jets appear to be capable of an unprecedented run toward the postseason.
**The Jets' offense is not predicated on the big play, but instead relies on ball control and the sound decision making of their heady quarterback. Pennington, even before the shoulder injury, was never blessed with the strongest arm, instead focusing on accuracy and making the smart choices through the air. Over the last three games, Pennington has struggled with only one touchdown and five interceptions, but those games were against some of the best defenses in the league in
Pennington has completed close to 62 percent of his passes this season and likes to spread the ball around the field to receivers, backs and tight ends. Although his stats may not reflect his importance to the team, the drop-off from Patrick Ramsey (more physically gifted) and rookie Kellen Clemens is severe mainly due to Pennington's experience, savvy, pocket awareness and field vision.
When Pennington drops back to pass, he will have two-sure handed receivers to throw to in veteran Laveranues Coles and Jerricho Cotchery. Coles (5-11, 192) was considered a deep threat coming into the league out of
Although he may not have Ward's speed and is still improving various nuances of his game, he is quick in space and his competitive streak is seen through the way he tries to get as many yards as possible after the catch. Tight end Chris Baker is a dependable target when Pennington goes over the middle.
With the Jets' backfield missing Curtis Martin for the first time since 1997, Mangini has employed a three-man running back committee of Kevan Barlow, Cedric Houston and Leon Washington to carry the ball. None of the players may be the long-term solution for the Jets at the position, but each plays a role in the running game that is integral to its success. Barlow, acquired by the Jets right before the beginning of the season, never carried out the promise that he was thought to have had in
(5-8, 202) has run through and around defenders this season for a team-high 454 yards and 4.2 yards per carry. His size and skill set conjure up images of another former Seminole back and current NFL player, Warrick Dunn.
After the offensive line suffered through a miserable 2005 season giving up 53 sacks and rushing for only 83 yards per game, the Jets decided to rebuild the foundation of the line through the 2006 NFL Draft. With the fourth pick, the Jets selected the highly-touted left tackle out of Virginia, D'Brickashaw Ferguson.
Surrounded by veterans left guard Pete Kendall, right guard Brandon Moore and right tackle Anthony Clement, the Jets line have held their own and helped improve their running game from 31 st in 2005 to 15 th this season.
The Jets play a style that allows teams to blitz them without serious repercussions. While Pennington does possess the smarts and awareness to pick up a blitz and make the right decision with the ball, rarely are opposing teams going to get beat deep by the Jets. Pennington threw for at least 300 yards in the first two games of the season, but since then, he has exceeded over 200 yards passing only once. Stopping the run and not allowing the Jets to dominate time of possession will be integral to the Texans success.
**Mangini's success as a defensive assistant in
was supposed to bring instant credibility to the Jets' unit this season, but they have struggled more than anticipated ranking 20 th in points allowed and 29 th in yards allowed. Many of the struggles could be steeped in the transition to the 3-4 defense from the 4-3, but recent weeks have brought improvement allowing only 24 points total to
and Chicago, two of the top-10 scoring offenses in the NFL.
On the face, the Jets seem to have three players along their defensive line that fit the scheme. End Shaun Ellis (6-5, 285) has enough size to play end, nose tackle Dewayne Robertson (6-1', 317) has the strength to play inside and on the other end, Kimo von Oelhoffen was signed particularly for his experience in the 3-4 in
. But so far, they have looked mediocre at best allowing the 29 th most rushing yards in the league and close to 4.6 yards per carry. The defensive line in the 3-4 alignment is supposed to prevent the opposing offensive line from getting to the second level, thus allowing linebackers to make the tackles. There is no question the current starters on the line for the Jets have the talent to succeed, however they seem to be simply struggling in the change in responsibilities. Ellis, after double-digit sack seasons in 2003 and 2004, looks lost in the scheme because it has taken away his ability to attack the quarterback off the edge. Robertson is still learning, but does look like he is progressing at the age of only 25 and is on pace to easily surpass his career high in tackles. Von Oelhoffen on the other end looks like he's showing his age and doesn't look like nearly the same player he did on the Super Bowl Champion Steelers last season.
Like the defensive line, the linebackers for the Jets have not had the season they are capable of, but with the youth they possess at the position and after a year experience, they should be a force to reckon with for years to come. The star in the linebacking corps is third-year inside man Jonathan Vilma. Vilma has shown a knack for making plays all over the field by using his speed and delivering the big hit. As a rookie in 2004, Vilma was an instant playmaker and leading tackler for a Jets team that survived until the second weekend of the NFL playoffs. Last season, he made his first Pro Bowl and recorded an astounding 173 tackles. While he's still on pace for close to 130 tackles this season, Vilma (6-1, 230) is undersized for the 3-4 scheme and is still getting used to playing more in space than sideline to sideline. Fellow inside linebacker Eric Barton, who was hurt for most of last season has the bulk to play in this defense and is a sound tackler, but is better laterally than taking on blocks in front of him. At one outside position is Bryan Thomas, a former defensive end and first round pick who seems to have rejuvenated his struggling career in the new defense as a rush linebacker. Thomas has already surpassed his career high in tackles with 54 and delivered three sacks. The other outside linebacker is Victor Hobson, a solid performer who is talented enough to defend the run and drop back in coverage.
The defensive backfield for the Jets has fared much better this season than the front seven. Led by young safeties Kerry Rhodes and Erik Coleman, the Jets have picked off 11 passes and are currently 16 th in pass defense, much better than their ranking against the run.
At the cornerback position, the Jets are led by veteran Andre Dyson and accompanied by three other solid players that see almost equal playing time: David Barrett, Justin Miller and Drew Coleman. They don't have the star power of Champ Bailey, but have found success this season none the less.
The Jets defense is much better than the numbers indicate and the various young playmakers that see playing time on the defense are progressing nicely as the season goes along. But with the struggles of the defensive front against the run this season, establishing the ground game should serve as the top priority not only to maintain possession of the ball, but to also open up the play-action game against the young Jets back seven. Last week, the Bears found instant success with both Thomas Jones and Cedric Benson running between the tackles, something the Texans should focus on this week.
**The Texans better be careful this week when kicking away to the Jets as they possess arguably the best overall return game in the NFL. Returning kicks is speedy Justin Miller. Drafted in the first round in 2005 out of Clemson, Miller is still refining his coverage ability, but he has already exceeded expectations as a return man. Miller currently ranks second in the NFL with 28.9 yards per return (just behind Patriots' rookie Laurence Maroney) and has as many kickoff returns for touchdowns, 2, as the rest of the league combined. On punt returns, Tim Dwight is averaging 11.2 yards per return, good enough for seventh in the NFL. Dwight has always been among the fastest and best punt returners in the league and age does not seem to be affecting him as much as others thought it was.
While the return game finds success this season, kicker Mike Nugent has struggled to find the consistency he had during his rookie season in 2005. Punter Ben Graham is in the middle of the pack in most punting statistical categories, but has excelled in one important area dropping 38.3% of his punts inside the opponents' 20-yard line.