Toppling Titantic Tennessee Much in Jenkins’ Hands

Titans center Kevin Mawae spent eight seasons with the Jets (1998-2005) and in all but one of them, he paved the way for a 1,000 yard rusher. Mawae’s arrival with the Jets coincided with running back Curtis Martin’s trade to the Big Apple, in which the running back proceeded to rush for 10,302 yards and 58 touchdowns before playing his last snaps in the NFL in 2005. In Mawae’s first season with the Jets, the offensive improvements were stark. The team averaged 357 total yards per game (295 yards/game in 1997) and 117 rushing yards per game (92 rushing yards/game in 1997) en route to the AFC East championship and a spot in the AFC Championship game. Mawae followed up the memorable 1998 season with six consecutive trips to the Pro Bowl before signing a contract with Tennessee prior to the 2006 season.

On Sunday, Jets nose tackle Kris Jenkins will have the tough task of lining up across the line of scrimmage from Mawae, who has opened holes for a ground attack that ranks seventh in the league in yards per game (132.7 yards/game).

“He’s a good center, real solid, very crafty,” Jenkins said of Mawae. ”He knows how to play the game and he knows how to do little tricks to become more effective. I know that a lot of people look at it like he’s starting to get towards the end of his career, but he’s really not playing like it.”

Jenkins likewise heard whispers of doubt toward the end of his seven-year tenure with the Panthers, but his presence in the middle of the Jets’ defense has carried the team’s rushing defense to new heights. After two failed seasons of experimenting with Dewayne Robertson at nose tackle and watching opposing running backs thread the defense, Jenkins has transformed the run defense into the fourth-best in the NFL (81.3 yards allowed/game). To find the last running back to post a 100 yard outing against the Jets’ defense, you have to turn back to Dec. 23, 2007, when the Jets and Titans last met. Lendale White carried the ball 23 times for 104 yards in a 10-6 Tennessee win.

On Sunday, Mawae will hope to repeat history once again. However this time around, Tennessee has another weapon to throw at the Jets. Rookie running back Chris Johnson has been everything the Titans hoped for when they drafted him 24th overall back in April, as he currently ranks second in the AFC in rushing with 787 yards.

“He’s fast,” Jets head coach Eric Mangini said of Johnson. “You saw the speed in college and you see the speed now where he can get to the edge and go.”

Even though Sunday will mark the first time in Kerry Rhodes’ four-year career in which he will attempt to tackle Johnson, the Jets’ safety doesn’t have to be reminded about Johnson’s greatest threat.

“He’s the type that can take the ball the distance every time. He is one of the fastest guys in the NFL,” Rhodes proclaimed. “You give him one carry, you give him a seam and he can go the distance.”

Johnson rose up the draft charts back in April after he ran the 40-yard dash at the NFL combine in a lightning-quick 4.24 seconds. He’s used that speed to compliment White, who’s 6-foot-1, 235-pound frame gives the Titans a thunder and lightning style attack. Along with 470 rushing yards, White has scored 11 touchdowns, tying him for the league-lead with the Giants running back Brandon Jacobs.

However, if Johnson and White hope to thread the Jets’ defense and send the Titans to 11-0, they must do so against the vaunted Jets’ 3-4 defense. Or better served, Mawae against Jenkins will have a lot to say about the outcome. Today Jenkins mentioned that he’s played against Mawae in the 4-3 defense with Carolina and he had a “tough time” dealing with the Pro Bowl center (four tackles in 20-7 loss on Nov. 4, 2007). Will Jenkins fare better against Mawae now that he’s in the Jets’ 3-4 system?

“It’s kind of hard to deal with somebody sometimes when they get to tip you and they’re as good in the season as he is,” Jenkins said. “I don’t know. I can’t really predict what is going to happen, but we will see.”

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