Jets-Ravens Week One Preview: Full Circle

It had been a complicated campaign, right from jump, a talented team ready to win immediately, forced to endure the growing pains of a charismatic young quarterback. As the 2009 season rolled along, statistics accumulated and standings tabulated in the quick vanishing, frenetic rush typifying a League powered by total desperation, it became clear that the Jets merely required competency from Mark Sanchez to perform at a Championship caliber level.

That minimum requirement often proves elusive, even for the highest touted of draft-picks. Rookie quarterbacks make mistakes. The accidents are bound to happen, equal parts inevitable and unpredictable, seemingly arriving at random junctures of games degenerating into chaotic turnover festivals, no matter how conservative the game-plan. Five interceptions against the Bills, four on the road versus New England, three merrily hosting the Falcons, these contests did not represent Mark Sanchez at his best.

Then, suddenly, magic. Fate was kind to the Jets, and they took advantage of the mystical currency, clinching a postseason spot, becoming the underdog darlings of January, their quarterback collecting experiences which could prove absolutely invaluable to his continuing professional maturation.  For any follower of football, one simple indisputable truth emerged, accompanied by a dizzying possibility. The Jets played great where their quarterback was good. And if he were ever to become great, well… the sky was the limit.

And here we are. After a tumultuous training camp, preceded by a proactive offseason, the Jets are prepared to burst into the new realm of 2010, accompanied by high expectations. What do those two words really mean, high expectations? They represent an opportunity to become, inarguably, the best football team in New York, to own a shared stadium. They provide an occasion to backup the boisterousness Rex Ryan, whereupon the mainstream may realize that the second year Head Coach is more than a manufacturer of controversial sound bites, but an impressive football mind, complimenting his big dreams with masterful schemes. Those high expectations, if cashed in, could make Ryan the face of coaching in football, a welcome antidote to a headset era typified by forced, autocratic dullness.  Another thing about those high expectations: Should they be answered with ultimate success, the best player, Darrelle Revis, begins walking on a road toward Canton. The offensive line gets a nickname. The cavernously deep secondary is measured against historical, not contemporary, competition.  And a Jets fan that hasn’t missed a game since Richard Todd was the quarterback, who suffered through the agony of Mark Gastineau roughing the passer, of Leon Johnson rolling out and looking downfield, of glory disappearing into thin Denver air, of Chad Pennington’s shredded shoulder, will get to watch a dominant team every Sunday, a highly publicized collection of talent answering, yes, high expectations. And that’s what those words mean. It’s an ideal vision of how every season should start.

Doesn’t come around but every so often…

Accompanied now by a third down halfback receiving threat in LaDainian Tomlinson and, eventually, currently suspended receiver Santonio Holmes, Sanchez is hardly exempt from the cauldron. Quite the contrary, he’s amid the blue flames, about to be judged against fantastical hopes.

Some are forgetting that New York nearly found the ultimate bounty while Sanchez managed games, instead of being tasked with winning them. In effect, by expecting Sanchez to make a leap, Jets management and fans could be setting themselves up for a fall. And make no mistake: with the new weapons in tow, more risks will be taken, and a greater responsibility placed on the quarterback. Should Sanchez struggle with inconsistency, the maturity and patience of big-play, theatrical talents like Holmes and Braylon Edwards will be tested. It is not inconceivable that the Jets return to ground and pound zealotry if faced with downed chips. But balance is the supreme recipe. By the AFC Championship game, Thomas Jones was totally burnt, worn down by carrying a team obsessed with one offensive phase. Considering Shonn Greene’s issues with reoccurring maladies of the minor variety throughout his freshman tenure, [he went down with a rib injury in the Championship game] and Tomlinson’s rapidly decreasing yards per rush number, the Jets will be best served effectively mixing run and pass. That certainly is the plan. Sanchez has many worried after a preseason of reversion, instead of continuing elevation.

A new season. The same question.

Where it concerns the Jets, Sanchez, and the passing game, the opponent for week number one couldn’t have been scripted any better. The matchup, considering the aforementioned unanswered questions, is perfect. The Ravens, featuring a positively terrifying defensive line, certainly capable of curtailing any run game, especially if that area of an opposing offense has been totally zeroed upon, do face secondary concerns. Domonique Foxworth suffered an unfortunate ACL injury, lost for the season. Ed Reed, the hard-hitting, ball-hawking safety supreme of the National Football league, will not be suiting up, dogged by hip problems. Fabian Washington is making his way back from a torn ACL endured last November. Former Special Teams ace, and current first team free safety Tom Zbikowski; has not had much experience starting.

Teams will be attempting to exploit these potential weaknesses all season. The Jets have the first shot, and just may be forced to throw. The game could hinge on Sanchez. Full circle.

The Ravens are an impressive outfit, no doubt. Having made the playoffs for consecutive seasons under Head Coach John Harbaugh, they have advanced a long way from the unbalanced outfits defining Brian Billick’s tenure.

After securing a Super Bowl in 2000, due almost entirely to a spectacularly gifted defense, Head Coach, and supposed offensive guru, Brian Billick struggled piecing together a passing game. Elvis Grbac replaced Super Bowl hero Trent Dilfer, lasting one disappointing season. Kyle Boller had all the physical gifts, but never really put it all together, eventually succeeded by the late Steve McNair, who piloted a 13-3 team in 2006, a group eventually upset, at home, by Peyton Manning and the Colts in the postseason. And though the Ravens were a more complete team with McNair at the helm, the offense sputtered terribly in the playoff game, causing their ouster. McNair had a huge heart, but he was aging, and the Ravens sputtered to 5-11 in 2007 as he struggled with injuries. The Ravens hierarchy had apparently tired of Billick’s inability to construct a consistent offense, replacing him before 2008 with Harbaugh.

In short, Harbaugh and General Manager Ozzie Newsome have done an incredible job building an offense capable of sustaining excellence. Gone are the days of relying on a quick fix from a proven veteran like McNair. Harbaugh, Newsome, and company totally nailed it when drafting Joe Flacco eighteenth overall in ’08. Flacco posted a very impressive 80 quarterback rating in his first year, bouncing back convincingly from shaky beginnings, failing to sling a touchdown until week four. The Ravens were a surprise, reaching the AFC Championship game, falling to the eventual Champion Steelers. Many analysts have lumped Flacco and Matt Ryan together as sophomores who regressed. It’s true that Ryan took a slight downturn, but where it concerns Flacco, the charge is baffling. His quarterback rating jumped eight points. His touchdown to interception ratio improved from plus two to plus nine. His completion percentage edged upward by three percent. Flacco’s passing yardage during his rookie year: 2,971. Second year: 3,613.  His record as Ravens starter: 20-12. There was no backslide… If anything, Flacco seems primed for a special season. Why not? Within a two-year period, the Ravens drafted fellow offensive cornerstones Michael Oher, and Rutgers product Ray Rice. Surrounded by that type of talent, Flacco is bound to thrive. The multidimensional Rice, a brilliant pass catcher out of the backfield, is a matchup nightmare. Considering his equal prowess running the football, Rice is a definite sleeper pick for Most Valuable Player. Oher is a key piece of an offensive line that, along with the Jets and Titans, ranks among the best in the AFC. Oher, subject of the Sandra Bullock hit “The Blind Side,” is accompanied by the fearsome likes of Ben Grubbs and Matt Birk. It’s a downright nasty assemblage at the point of attack, taking no backseat to a defensive line comprised of Haloti Ngata and Kelly Gregg. Those practices must be intense. Indeed, the Ravens are a formidable foe.

Surely owning high expectations.

Prediction:

Bart Scott has proven quite effective shutting down opposing backs with pass catching ability. He did a memorable job against Steve Slaton in the opener last season.  But he faces a tough challenge in Rice, who nabbed an outlandish 78 receptions in 2009. 78 catches? 1339 yards rushing? Where’s the Ray Rice attention? This guy is unreal.  Scott won’t be able to do it alone.

Scott and the linebackers are going to have their hands full with Ray Rice.

Darrelle Revis versus Anquan Boldin is also a fascinating duel. Will Revis be rusty? Highly doubtful… Boldin will have something to prove in his first game with the Ravens. His addition, along with T.J. Houshmandzadeh, should help Flacco overcome his troubling tendency to lock onto one receiver, usually Derrick Mason. Mason has quietly had three straight thousand -yard receiving seasons. Todd Heap had his most catches since 2006. What a loaded offense.

Revis’ presence is huge, as it allows the Jets to delegate their resources far more effectively. Considering their opponent, New York may have faced a real struggle pulling out a win without their best player. Revis changes everything.

For everyone grousing about Sanchez’s preseason, and deservedly so:  Keep in mind that the slick motion patterns effectively employed by offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer for easy completions were probably on ice in games that didn’t count. Braylon Edwards was often seen in motion at the line of scrimmage in training camp.

There will be two keys: Baltimore, with all its weapons, especially Rice, will move the ball. Holding them to field goals, instead of touchdowns, is essential, especially in the first half. If the Jets can establish the run, keep Rice, Boldin, and all those other weapons off the field for long stretches, and make a big play or two off play action against that unproven secondary, they can win this game with room to spare.  But it won’t be that easy. Baltimore is ready to rock, and they will play very well. It’s going to be close. Real close.

Nick Folk is the hero in overtime, nailing a 44 yarder.

Jets 23 Ravens 20 [OT]

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