Just a Little More: A few thoughts on the Jets’ running game, plus Jim Leonhard’s injury

The Jets have turned a real incredible trick as this particular season has rolled along. They misplaced a previously reliable identity, centered almost entirely on a strong running game, and seem on the cusp of becoming an aerial oriented offense.

Usually, when a team switches philosophy within a season, it is an indication that plans have gone awry, and expectations must be rearranged. Instead, the Jets are having a great campaign, currently tied for first place in the AFC East, sporting a record seven games over the breakeven mark, all while compiling a collection of heart-stopping contests sure to sway the fair weather demographic of Metropolitan fans to their side.

And yet, despite the success, there are several disconcerting signs troubling certain observers, forecasters preferring a long range viewpoint on the proceedings. The Jets reached the AFC Championship game last January primarily because they found themselves. The defense flashed a top flight form, and the offense adopted a smash-mouth, safety first approach ideal for winning road playoff games.

 They reached the summit upon defeating an extremely talented San Diego Chargers team in the Divisional Playoffs, simply grinding the heavily favored homesteaders into a prone position, ultimately benefitting from mistakes and missed field goals. It was an emotional win of the highest order, a truly remarkable sight, a Jets outfit mocked only weeks prior, storming into sunny San Diego and dictating terms against a tremendously gifted opponent.

The Jets had won because they protected Mark Sanchez from himself, and relied heavily on bulldozing halfback Thomas Jones, and rookie sensation Shonn Greene. Greene was explosive against both Cincinnati and San Diego, seemingly poised to take the League by storm in 2010.

The Jets, of course, fell short of reaching the Super Bowl, and accumulated weapons for Mark Sanchez during the offseason. General Manager Mike Tannebaum may have realized that acquiring the services of Santonio Holmes could alter their approach. Braylon Edwards, a big play threat, was already in the fold. Tannenbaum did not balk at the opportunity to land a former Super Bowl Most Valuable Player. And he was right.

Holmes is a primary reason the Jets currently reside near the top of their profession. New York may have figured their strict adherence to a ground and pound offense had hit a ceiling, in what is now undoubtedly a passing league. What they could not have counted on is the running game becoming increasingly marginalized.

Greene was supposed to be the man, carry the load left by departed team leader Jones. Newcomer and future Hall of Famer LaDanian Tomlinson figured a supporting player, one hell of a third down back, capable of corralling receptions for easy first down yardage, a legitimate safety valve for Sanchez. As often happens in sports, the plan did not play out as anticipated. Tomlinson’s frenetic early season successes forced management’s hand. He became option number one out of the backfield, and while the Jets were not mercilessly attacking the opposition with sledgehammer force, the rejuvenated former Charger was doing more than enough to make people forget about Jones, and to a lesser degree, run blocking maestro Alan Faneca.

Sanchez needed to elevate his game, ever so slightly, curtailing interceptions and occasionally hitting Edwards, and eventually Holmes, for massive gains.

It was a different recipe than utilized in 2009, but last season presented extremely unique circumstances, a loaded veteran roster held hostage by an inexperienced quarterback. Sanchez grew, and the Jets’ shocked their critics with the playoff run. Setting the stage for a further evolution was the right decision. It would have been unfair to shackle Sanchez once more, set him in training wheels and rely on a style reminiscent of 1970’s football. It was all so practical, logical, and downright sensible.

The Jets, though, could not have realized how much they would ultimately be relying on Mark Sanchez and his playmakers. Hindsight suggests that we shouldn’t be surprised Tomlinson has hit a brick wall. He has collected a ton of mileage, and the placebo effect of joining a new franchise could not last an entire season.

Even still, the man has been a massive piece of this offense, pulling down 45 receptions, rushing for 741 yards at a 4.5 per carry clip, and providing early, perhaps season-saving stability. No, Tomlinson should not be criticized in the slightest.

Though they rank highly in league wide rushing stats, the Jets could use more production from their 'backs to become a truly elite team.

The slight disappointment has been Greene. Perhaps the postseason performance set expectations far too high, but while watching the stout blazer breakout, torching the Chargers’ front seven, and blasting through Antonio Cromartie, on the touchdown which gave the Jets a commanding ten point lead against San Diego, it would have been downright pessimistic to deny witnessing something special. Greene has certainly not been a bust by any stretch of the imagination. He has 575 yards, though the single rushing touchdown is a major letdown. Greene has chipped in nine catches, within the Jets’ receiving-back obsessed offensive set.

 All considered; he has not approached the realms inhabited by the likes of Chris Johnson and Maurice Jones-Drew. Sure, this is rarified air. And the loss of Faneca has probably hurt. But if the Jets were receiving a special season from Greene, a continuation of the saga first penned in the playoffs, they would be the consensus Super Bowl favorite. As it stands, they are simply not a dominant team… certainly a scintillating one, a unique organization, one of the most interesting in contemporary sports. The running game, however, vanishes far too often; it’s effectiveness in the red zone questionable.

Greene himself remains optimistic. When asked whether he can summon the excellence discovered during last season’s stretch run, the second year back was confident. “I think so,” he said simply. “I’m satisfied and happy,” Greene said, discussing the state of the Jets’ season.  “9-2. Better than we were last year.” He noted the importance of establish the run against cold weather foes. “Teams that run the ball good are going to be able to control the game in these late season games, and into the playoffs.” When queried whether the Jets had changed stylistically, Greene offered his opinion. “Yeah,” he said, “I think we got better. I mean, we got other weapons. We’re not just a running football team. So I think we got better.”

 Forget graduating from freshman to sophomore. Sanchez has had to play savior, probably far too often for the Jets’ liking. Those wins he manufactured from dire circumstances? They count, just the same as a satisfying romp. But can the heroics be sustained? Miles to go, yet…

This Jets-Patriots Monday Night melee may seem like the most important game ever played as it approaches, but plenty of challenges still loom on the horizon.

Fact is; the Jets need to rediscover their ‘09 roots. It need to be a complete reversion, just enough to control the clock and set the tempo against upcoming monsters like the Steelers and Chicago Bears. Brad Smith provides immense value from the Seminole formation. Too much would be asked, though, if he were counted on as a game pacer.

 As 2010 continues to develop, the Jets appointment at Solider Field becomes an increasingly more difficult task. They will be pitted against the top pass defense this League has to offer, on what will no doubt be a brutally cold afternoon.  

The Jets’ dramatic victories against Detroit and Cleveland should be looked upon happily by their fans. Even so, objectively, they provide proof that this potential steamroller is not yet at peak ability. And the time is running out.

 As currently constituted, these Jets are a damn good team. Being special will require just a little more, especially from the halfbacks.  

……………………………….

   The major news of the day involved Safety Jim Leonhard. Considering the Jets’ apparent communication issues within the secondary, the last thing they needed was for Leonhard, practically a traffic cop in the defensive backfield, to be struck with a serious injury. This nightmare scenario occurred after the media departed practice, as Leonhard collided with the tall, wiry receiver Patrick Turner while pursuing a deep pass. Leonhard’s malady was to his shin, the severity of which was not immediately known, but presumably dire, considering he was carted off the field. Head Coach Rex Ryan provided more details during his presser. “We have got some terrible news,” he began. “Jim Leonhard won’t play this week. Had a- he’s got a shin that is severe. I don’t know the extent of the injury right now. But he’s, you know, he’s obviously out this week… a huge blow to us.”

Ryan expressed confidence that heady backup Eric Smith could step in ably for Leonhard, as it concerns setting positioning. Smith and Brodney Poole are likely to start against New England, who will be definitely attacking the safeties.

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