When the Jets take the field Friday at the Meadowlands against the Minnesota Vikings, starting QB Chad Pennington will see his first game action since the Jets loss to Pittsburgh in the AFC Divisional Playoffs last January.
“I’m really excited to get into game action and be in the huddle with my teammates and go through what a game experience is like all over again,” Pennington said. “It’s been awhile and a long road so this is kind of the first step to ending the recovery phase and just moving on, playing QB and trying to lead this team where we want to go.”
It’s been a long rehab process for Pennington since having surgery in the off-season to repair his torn rotator cuff.
“He’s looking better every day,” WR Justin McCareins said of Pennington. “He’s getting stronger and I can tell that he’s throwing the ball with more confidence.”
Edwards says it’s important for Pennington to get any kinks out now, when the games don’t count. “Once he gets in the flow of the game and gets playing we’ll find out how sharp he is,” Edwards said. “He won’t be as sharp as he will on opening day, but he has to go through it now and get his timing and stuff down.”
While of course it’s important to see how Pennington reacts to getting hit, what’s more important is how he reads defenses and directs the starting offense.
Edwards talked about what he is looking for in Pennington’s performance. “Just him getting in there with a smile on his face and having fun,” Edwards said. “Not being so critical on his own self. I know how he is. He’s harder on himself than anybody else. After every series, he’ll say ‘I didn’t do this, I didn’t do that, I should’ve done that.’ Then I’ll have to hit him in the back of the head like I always do.”
The offense should get a good test of where they are at going against a revamped Vikings defense led by former Jets defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell, who was fired by Edwards after the 2003 season.
“It’ll be good,” Edwards said about playing against Cottrell. “Ted did a great job here and he’ll do a good job there.”
Cottrell, in his second year with the Vikings, was asked earlier this week about playing the Jets by the Vikings media. “You have to leave that alone and just get ready, because I’m in a better place now,” Cottrell said. “I really enjoy this team and I enjoy working for Coach Tice and I’m happy with the players here. That’s something in the past, and I have to leave it there.”
Besides Cottrell, the Jets will also see a familiar face in LB Sam Cowart, who injured his knee in week two last year and lost his starting job to LB Jonathan Vilma and never regained it. Cowart was traded to the Vikings in the off-season.
Cowart’s knee is now healed and he looks to be a big part of the Vikings’ defense. Cowart let the media know this week that he’s upset that the Jets held him from playing his natural position at middle LB for most of his time here and now that he’s back there with the Vikes, he expects a big year.
Among the other off-season additions to the Vikings defense were LB Napoleon Harris (traded for Randy Moss), free agents S Darren Sharper, CB Fred Smoot, DT Pat Williams, and first round draft pick DE Erasmus James. Smoot is not expected to play Friday with a knee contusion.
Tice gave his assessment of Williams after the first preseason game. “He needs to work on his game conditioning,” Tice said. “He is a big, strong guy. He made a couple nice plays in the middle. He still needs to learn defensively how we’re going to play some things, as do the rest of the guys. We had some alignment issues in the game, and some alignment issues. Pat has done a real nice job, and a nice job with leadership.”
Those players were additions to a defense that already featured DT Kevin Williams, DE Kenechi Udeze, LB E.J. Henderson, S Corey Chavous, and CB Antoine Winfield.
Once Pennington and the rest of the starters come out of the game sometime in the second quarter, the shift will focus to the young players fighting for a roster spot.
“A lot of those young guys have to step-up and say, ‘I'm going to win the position,’” Edwards said. “And there are a lot of foggy areas when I look at our football team. There are a lot of back up positions that need to be solidified and hopefully in the next week or two it will be a lot clearer for us.”
Sixth-round draft pick Cedric Houston had six carries for 21 yards in last week’s preseason win over Detroit. “I think he has power,” Edwards said of Houston. “He has good feet. I think for some of the type of runs that we’re going to run, they fit his ability. There is some zone running that I think he’s done in the past. He has nice body lean. He always seems to be going north or south.”
Houston did have a fumble last week. “He just needs to learn how to hold the ball tighter; he holds it a little loose and gets his elbow out,” Edwards said. “Anytime a runner gets his elbow out, he’s going to get stripped and lose the ball.”
One of the blockers for Houston will probably be starting RT Adrian Jones. The second-year pro has the tough task of filling the big shoes left by Kareem McKenzie. Jones stayed in the game after the rest of the starters came out last week and should stay in the game again this week so the coaching staff can get an extended look at him.
Earlier this week, Edwards declared the fifth wide receiver spot wide open. With WR Jonathan Carter not playing with a strained hamstring and WR Harry Williams, Jr. who suffered a sprained right knee in practice this week that will keep him out 2-6 weeks, Chas Gessner, Eddie Jackson, Carl Kearney, Terrence Stubbs, Brock Ralph, and Jovan Witherspoon will all have the chance to show the coaching staff what they can do.
“For them it's hard because there are so many shifts and so many formations and so many things that go through their mind that they really can't go for it fast because they are trying to figure out how to line up,” Edwards said. “Now, we'll help them because we'll make it a little easier for them with the shifts and the motions and the formations, but they still have to get it so they can play well. They've got to figure it out.”
The biggest news with the Vikings in the off-season was the trade of WR Randy Moss to the Raiders. Stepping up to replace Moss appears to be WR Nate Burleson, who caught nine touchdown passes and had 1,009 receiving yards last year. Burleson, in his third year, had a terrific training camp.
“He's obviously a playmaker and plays the game with a lot of confidence,” Vikings head coach Mike Tice said of Burleson. “He works extremely hard, a very good blocker, very athletic, great balance, tremendous enthusiasm. He's got everything you want in one of your elite players.”
Throwing the ball to Burleson will be QB Daunte Culpepper, who will provide a good test to the Jets young secondary.
Oliver Celestin, Kerry Rhodes, and Rashad Washington all are competing for the starting strong safety spot. Celestin started last week and has been taking most of the first team reps with the defense in practice. Edwards would not say who will start but did say that Rhodes will get a lot of playing time with the first team.
Rhodes was impressive last week, making an interception as well as knocking down what would have been the game-tying touchdown pass. Edwards likes what he sees from Rhodes. “He’s got a little bit of a swagger and that’s okay,” Edwards said. “It’s kind of good to see. You like guys like that. He’s got a good personality, he doesn’t get rattled and that’s good. He’s got that make up of a guy that you like playing in the secondary. There’s certain make ups you like in a guy and he has a good make up.”
Defensive coordinator Donnie Henderson said it’s important that the players learn the terminology. “They all know exactly what to do,” the DC said. “It can be communicated, but as soon as the ball is snapped, they don’t even know there name. What they try to do is get to where they have to go. It’s a system. You have to learn the verbiage of the system. Once you know the verbiage of the system then you’re able to communicate.”
CB Ty Law has been working himself back into game shape and should practice with the team this week and play in next week’s game against the Giants. CB Derrick Strait will keep the spot warm, starting this week at left cornerback.
One veteran that will be worth watching is third-year DT Dewayne Robertson. It was revealed a few weeks ago that Robertson has no cartilage in his knee due to a previous operation. Robertson went to renowned orthopedist Dr. James Andrews in Alabama for a second opinion and Dr. Andrews agreed with the Jets doctors that Robertson is fine. The condition causes a bone-on-bone effect in Robertson’s knee. Many players have been known to play with the condition. Robertson did not play in the first preseason game and returned to the practice field this week. “My knee doesn’t have anything to do with doing what I want to do or how long I want to play,” Robertson said.
No one has really emerged in the starting nose tackle position and it will probably be a rotation of James Reed, Lance Legree, and rookie Sione Pouha.
“I think it’s starting to click for him,” Edwards said of Pouha. “He’s gaining confidence in what we are asking him to do. We need him to be a player for us. He’s a young guy, drafted, and we need him to be the guy that can line up 10, 12 plays a game.”
Henderson talked about the positives of Pouha and Tim McGill. “What I do like is their ability to get off the line of scrimmage, block and run,” Henderson said.
The Vikings offensive line has been banged up recently and last Sunday, Tice required his offensive linemen to practice with their hands bound by elastic straps to force them to use proper techniques.
Two of the younger running backs who impressed Tice in last week’s 27-16 win over Kansas City were Mewelde Moore and Ciatrick Fason. Moore had five carries for 62 yards while Fason carried seven times for 55 yards and a score.
Second-year LB Jonathan Vilma continues to impress on and off the field.
”Jonathan is stepping up and becoming a leader on the defense along with Shaun Ellis,” Edwards said. “He's the guy last week that's didn't like the opening drive. He came hollering at me say, ‘Coach, we have to go back.’ I said, 'no, you did ok. They didn't score. Relax.' He's a passionate football player and that's what you like about the guy.”
Edwards talked about what he looks for as a head coach. “It’s a game where we want to do some things better than we did last week,” Edwards said. “And that’s what you do. You evaluate the game after the game is over with and you try to improve on all the things that you need to do.”
C Kevin Mawae talked about what the player’s goal is. “Our biggest thing is to win,” Mawae said. “Coaches say it’s not a big deal because its preseason but for us any time we compete we want to in the game. That’s our first and foremost objective.”
-Both teams feature Australian punters. Darren Bennett, 40, is in his 11th year in the NFL and last year his 39.3 yard average was last among NFC punters. Bennett struggled in last week’s preseason game. Bennett’s success in the NFL opened the door for other Australian punters including Jets 31-year-old rookie Ben Graham. Earlier this week, Edwards was asked about having two Australians in the same game. “That’ll be interesting,” Edwards said. “I think it’s good for the League. The commissioner always talks about making an international league. We have some international flavor and that adds to the fan base and I think that’s always good.”
-The Jets lead the preseason series between the teams, 3-1 with the last game coming in 1999, a 38-17 Jets victory.
-The game will be a homecoming for Vikings head coach Mike Tice who attended Central Islip High School on Long Island.
-Vikings owner Zygi Wilf lives in New Jersey and owns Garden Homes Development, located in Short Hills, New Jersey.
-The Vikings were penalized 14 times last week for 116 yards while the Jets had nine penalties for 65 yards.
-WR Justin McCareins will be honored by the Metro Radio Sports Reporters Association (MRSRA) prior to Friday’s game when he is awarded the Good Sport Award. The annual award is given to the player and public relations staff people from metropolitan area teams who have been the most cooperative, professional, and helpful, in good times and bad, while interacting with the Association and its members throughout the previous calendar year. “Justin McCareins consistently goes above and beyond to help radio sports reporters give their listeners the fullest possible coverage of New York area sports,” said Todd Ant, MRSRA president. McCareins beat out the Nets Jason Kidd, Mets catcher Mike Piazza, Giants WR Amani Toomer, and Yankees CF Bernie Williams for the award. The presentation will be shown on the giant video screens of the stadium at halftime.
FB Jerald Sowell (ribs), G Brandon Moore (hamstring), WR Jonathan Carter (hamstring), WR Harry Williams (knee-out 2-6 weeks), LB Darrell McClover (IR), and S Andre Maddox (hamstring) all will not play in the game. LB Kenyatta Wright came off the physically unable to perform list this week and will play. With Sowell out, FB B.J. Askew will start. G/C Jonathan Goodwin should start in Moore’s place.
-LB Darrell McClover (foot): IR
-WR Harry Williams Jr. (knee): Out 2-6 weeks
- WR Jonathan Carter (hamstring): Out
-CB Ty Law (foot): Out
-G Brandon Moore (hamstring): Out
-FB Jerald Sowell (ribs): Out
-S Andre Maddox (hamstring): Out
Game time is at 8 p.m. Friday. The game will be shown nationally on CBS. Local Radio is on 1050 ESPN Radio and 770 WABC Radio. Check back for a Jets/Vikings recap after the game.