Where Has the Pass Rush Gone?

The last time the Jets battled the Bills, the Jets were looking to set their train back on the tracks. They had played their way into a three-way tie atop the AFC East with a 5-3 record, but not without doubts. Two weeks prior, they traveled to face the lowly Raiders but left with an embarassing 16-13 overtime loss. Players termed the loss as a “wakeup call” and preached that their self-inflicted errors had been left behind them. They returned home to battle the slumping Chiefs and barely escaped with a 28-24 win. As satisfying as a win can be, having to come from behind in the final minute against a one-win team did not exactly leave the Jets thinking they were a playoff force. Even with the win, the Jets’ confidence was still teetering on the brink, but their cure was a matchup with the Bills. The Jets traveled into Buffalo and won 26-17 then followed that up with a three-game winning streak that vaulted them into the class of the AFC. Could the Jets be searching for the same cure tomorrow?

Heading into tomorrow’s showdown at the Meadowlands with the Bills, the Jets sit in a three-way tie atop the division and are facing a late season meltdown. After their 34-13 win over the previously undefeated Titans on Nov. 23 lifted the Jets to 8-3 on the year, losses to the Broncos and 49ers have them clinging to the playoff picture. Three wins will clinch them their first division title since 2002, but one loss can sink those hopes. Unlike the Jets’ showdown with Buffalo on Nov. 2, the Jets are heading into their divisional matchup with a loss, but they are facing the same circumstances. As important as tomorrow is for their playoff hopes, they are also searching for a confidence boost. The Jets are tied with the Patriots and Dolphins with an 8-5 record, but they once again are looking to get the train back on the tracks.

What’s changed since that early Novemeber battle? Start at the pass rush, which has turned from fearless and ferocious to non-existent. After recording just 29 total sacks last season, this year’s Jets looked as though they were destined to shatter the struggles of 2007. Through the first eight weeks of the season, the Jets sack totals read like this: 4, 4, 0, 5, 5, 2, 4, 5. With Calvin Pace aboard and both Shaun Ellis and Bryan Thomas performing at their levels in recent memory, the Gang Green defense was a nightmare for opposing quarterbacks. But that fierce pass rush has disappeared as the Jets have totaled just eight sacks in the last five weeks. When pressed with questions about the dropoff in sack production, head coach Eric Mangini has pointed toward each opponent’s offensive attack, suggesting that the Jets were seeing more quick throws and screen passes. He explained the struggles went back to “better execution of the core things” on defense. Teams such as the Broncos and 49ers resorted to a mix of slants, wide receiver screens and deep passes but the Jets have rarely provided pressure on five-step quarterback dropbacks. Pace began the year with 3.5 sacks in his first five games and looked poised to shatter his season-high total of 6.5 sacks while Thomas recorded 4.5 sacks in the first five games, but the two have combined for just 1.5 sacks since early October. Now 14 weeks into the season, the Jets are still waiting for sixth-overall pick Vernon Gholston to lay a finger on an NFL quarterback and for someone other than Ellis (eight sacks) to hit the quarterback. Perhaps the Jets’ struggles can change tomorrow.

In Gang Green’s first matchup with the Bills, they sacked Trent Edwards five times and forced him into two interceptions; one of which was returned 92 yards for a touchdown by safety Abram Elam. Edwards won’t have to deal with the pass rush tomorrow because he is likely to be sidelined with a groin injury, but J.P. Losman will look to exploit the Jets’ struggles. If there has been an opponent to turn around the pass rushing difficulties its Buffalo, who have allowed 32 total sacks (tied-30th in NFL). Losman is not the most elusive quarterback around and he clearly has had a penchant for turning over the football in his disappointing five-year stint with Buffalo (31 interceptions in 41 games). If the Jets are able to pressure Losman repeatedly, they can change the way the Bills attack their defense. The Jets have recorded sacks on 7.2 percent of pass plays (6th in NFL) but those statistics have proven top-heavy toward the earlier part of the season. With Buffalo featuring speedy receivers Lee Evans and Josh Reed and one of the game’s top receiving backs in Marshawn Lynch, little to no quarterback pressure will result in another long afternoon for the Gang Green pass defense.

The Jets are fighting for their lives and their confidence is clearly shaken after consecutive losses to the Broncos and 49ers. Expect them to respond with Losman at quarterback. Ever since Losman was drafted in the first round of the 2004 NFL Draft, he has always seemed to make that back-breaking mistake. With a struggling offensive line in front of him, the Jets will get their pass rush back on track….Jets 20, Bills 10

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