EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ: Things were looking up. Fans almost let out that sigh of relief.
With 6:47 left in the first half—and the looming stat of being the only team in the NFL not to have scored a touchdown this preseason—rookie Quinton Coples stripped a stumbling Cam Newton, leading to Mark Sanchez and the offense taking over at the Panthers 12-yard line.
Looking to finally reach pay dirt, the Jets ran three plays inside the Panthers 10 yard line resulting in five yards. After a Folk field goal and a three and out forced by the defense, Sanchez looked to extend their six point lead with good field position at their own 38-yard line.
Then the team who doesn’t have enough firepower to make mistakes, simply, made mistakes.
Sanchez fired an accurate, deep pass to Santonio Holmes down the left side line, hitting Holmes in the chest before finding the ball rolling around on the turf for an incomplete pass. “I think he just put the ball out there a little early,” said Holmes. “Timing was perfect, but the ball just came out super fast and I didn’t have a chance to get my head turned around.”
The next play, rookie Stephen Hill watched a ball tip off his hands into Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn.
“We had some drops that really hurt us,” said Ryan.
The 9-3 Jets lead quickly turned into a 10-9 halftime deficit. High spirits turned into a sour taste.
“We found a way to shoot ourselves in the foot,” said Rex Ryan. “We do have to do a better job of getting in the end zone,” said Holmes. “We got to finish,” said Shonn Greene.
To open the game, Cam Newton drove the Panthers down to the red zone, but were stopped before reaching the end zone. The Jets defense gave up 65 yards, but recorded a forced fumble (Cromartie) and more importantly, a coverage sack on second down to force the Panthers in a third and long situation when the Panthers were threatening for a touchdown.
The Jets offense burst out of the gate, with Sanchez firing consecutive 20-yard completions on their first two plays from scrimmage to Dustin Keller and Patrick Turner. But after a short run and a screen play that went for negative yards, the Jets were left to settle for three, with a 46-yard field goal by Nick Folk.
Both teams failed to put anything significant together after scoring on their first possession. After a short, five-play drive by the Panthers, the Jets showed their willingness to at least attempt a big play, as Sanchez missed a streaking Holmes for a long incomplete pass.
Newton and the Panthers seemed to be on their way to another trip to the red zone after two first downs, but a tipped ball by Kenrick Ellis and a pass breakup by Cromartie would get Jets the ball back.
The Jets longest, most diverse drive of the game began at their own 12-yard line. After two first downs from a defensive holding on Hill and a Sanchez scramble up the middle, Greene had two straight carries for 14 yards to add to the first down tally. Sanchez then hooked up with Holmes for eight yards on third down to keep the chains moving.
“All is well when you move the chains,” said Holmes.
Greene’s ability to run the ball allowed Sanchez to find a wide-open Hill for a 32-yard pass off play action. Greene 10-yard run, Holmes eight-yard catch and a Hill 32-yard catch in a five-play span—positive signs for the Jets offense.
And that brings us back to the top of the story.
A what-could’ve-been complete first half of offense turned into a head-scratching realization. Ball security is this year’s most important offensive aspect.
With the defense looking in mid-season form, there is an actual pressure on the Jets offense to not lose the team the game.
The defense gives up chunks of yards at times, but have shown the ability to bear down on their side of the 50 when push comes to shove. The Panthers had a 13-play drive for 65 yards that was worth three points in the first quarter and a nine-play, 34-yard drive which resulted with a punt in the second quarter.
“Overall I thought the defense was playing well,” said Ryan. “What we have to do better is getting off the field on third down. You play to your strength, you just don’t let them in the end zone and you’ll win the game.”
The offense demonstrated they are capable of double digit, time consuming drives with their 12-play, 72-yard trip in the second quarter that lasted over six minutes resulting in three points.
“We had a couple of nice drives, couple of 10, 12-play drives,” said Ryan.
The Jets will play in games with a smaller number of possessions and points will come at a premium. Be prepared for a season that could go either way, with more close games than anyone will be comfortable with.
The Jets saw injuries to two significant players on Sunday night. Tight end Dustin Keller left the game with a hamstring injury early in the game and linebacker David Harris sprained his ankle. Harris’ injury was thought to be greater, but X-rays were negative.
Josh Baker received a more serious knee injury on a pass breakup thrown by Sanchez in the second quarter. “That’s going to be more serious of an injury,” said Ryan, “It didn’t look good, that’s for sure.”
Newly appointed starter Austin Howard’s name was not mentioned often on Sunday night, which is good news. Howard was not going against a top of the line starter and had some help, but for the most part all signs were positive.
LaRon Landry intercepted a pass thrown by Panthers backup Derek Anderson in the third quarter.
Josh Brown missed a 45-yard field goal in the third quarter. All indications are Folk has won the kicking competition.
Tim Tebow threw an interception, but also had the crowd cheering the loudest when he scrambled his way for a 20-yard gain. He also had an opportunity to win the game on the final drive but fell short.