The hit that ended Chad Pennington's season last year against Jacksonville. (Jets Insider.com Photo)
When Jets QB Chad Pennington injured his already-surgically-repaired rotator cuff in a loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars last September in Giants Stadium, many believed his football-playing days were through. One year later, after a highly improbable comeback from his second rotator cuff surgery, Pennington and his new-and-improved offensive line look to take on the defense that nearly ended his career and show them why he’s a top candidate for Comeback Player of the Year.
Last season’s bout saw the Jets lose both their first- and second-string quarterbacks to serious shoulder injuries. Pennington had his throwing arm ripped back during a early strip-sack by the Jaguars and was replaced by backup QB Jay Fiedler, who departed abruptly after landing awkwardly on his throwing shoulder. Pennington finished the game at quarterback.
The Jets, lead by rookie Head Coach Eric Mangini, enter Sunday’s game sporting a 2-2 record, with both wins coming on the road. They will be up against a Jacksonville team with an identical record, except the Jaguars’ two wins came at home.
Mangini has openly expressed his pleasure with the team’s offensive production so far this season, but is always quick to note that there is still much room for improvement. Of the areas that need work on offense, the Jets’ lack of first quarter scoring has been one of the young coach’s biggest concerns.
”You want to be able to play well in all four quarters,” Mangini told reporters on Thursday. “I think this is an area that we need to continue to improve on and work on… We definitely need to do better there.”
Mangini was much less direct about how the problem might be fixed, telling reporters that “you try all different things” to improve in problem areas. He then added that “it’s not always something you can quickly put your finger on.”
Pennington and the rest of the Jets offense will need to work out all of their scoring problems if they want to stand a chance against a Jacksonville defense with very few holes in it. One possible point of weakness could be the right tackle position on Jacksonville’s defense, where starter Marcus Stroud will be absent because of an ankle injury.
Jets OL Pete Kendall understands the difficulty of facing such a brutal D-line, with or without Stroud. “Some teams are fast, some teams are huge in bulk and Jacksonville falls a little bit into that. It’s not only a stiff test for me, but for everybody here.”
Jaguars Head Coach Jack Del Rio has his own concerns about match-ups this week. “They are converting third downs right at the top of the league, that was a problem for us last week,” said Del Rio during a Wednesday conference-call. “Additionally we struggled with an explosive playmaker last week and we see Laveranues Coles as being that type of guy. He already had 30 receptions. We feel like they present a lot of challenges there.”
Despite having one of the best passing-offenses in the NFL through four games, the Achilles heel of the Jets offense has been their rushing game. RB Derrick Blaylock has been benched for two weeks following his anemic numbers as the Jets’ starter in Weeks One and Two but will likely see some playing time in Jacksonville with RB Cedric Houston out with a hyper-extended knee.
RB Kevan Barlow has been the lone bright-spot in the Jets run game. Barlow has started the past two games after playing a back-up role earlier on in the season and has made the most of his opportunities, scoring four rushing-touchdowns through four games. That number is tied for the most in the AFC.
Defending against the run hasn’t been an easy task for the Jets, either, and doesn’t look to get any easier this week as they take on rookie RB sensation Maurice Jones-Drew and veteran RB Fred Taylor, both of whom are off to fantastic starts.
Even though all eyes might be on Pennington as he returns to face the Jaguars for the first time since last season’s injury, there is another star-quarterback that should draw some attention on Sunday. Jaguars QB Byron Leftwich, a former college-teammate of Pennington at Marshall University, has also gotten off to a good start this season.
Del Rio was asked about why Marshall quarterbacks seem to be so tough during Wednesday’s conference call. “I don’t know,” he replied frankly. “They’re doing something up there in Marshall. They put a couple, very intelligent, team oriented, good tough QBs in the NFL and we’re happy to have ours.”
With the consistent production Pennington has given the Jets throughout his career, it’s a safe bet that the Jets a plenty happy to have their Marshall quarterback, too.
-Pennington’s history with the Jaguars goes back beyond his injury last season. In 2002, which was the last time the Jets visited Jacksonville, Pennington was the team’s back-up quarterback behind veteran Vinny Testaverde. Testaverde was injured, making way for the third-year quarterback to burst onto the NFL scene. Pennington went on to start the remainder of the season, leading the Jets to their first postseason birth since 1998.
-One of the biggest weaknesses of the Jaguars is their inability to fight back from early deficits. In the history of the franchise, Jacksonville has a 29-59 record when their opponents score first. The Jets won’t have an easy time getting that first score if their first quarter struggles continue, though. When Jacksonville scores first, they have a 68-26 record. The Jets have not scored an offensive first quarter TD in 18 consecutive games.
-Special teams will play an important role in the outcome of the contest, especially on kickoff returns. The Jaguars are ranked third overall in the NFL in kickoff-return-yards allowed, while the Jets rank third overall in kickoff-return-yards gained. Justin Miller’s 103-yard kickoff-return touchdown against the Colts certainly helped to pad that stat for the Jets, but it also has Jack Del Rio worried.
”Special teams wise, Justin Miller had the KOR and we’ve had some problem with our special teams covering, that’s another challenge for us.”
-Jets WR Laveranues Coles is a native of Jacksonville, Florida, and is looking forward to returning and seeing some of his friends. Coles is also excited to see his newly-renovated house and its latest addition, a bowling alley. An avid bowler, Coles told reporters on Thursday that he hoped to be at around a 200 average to begin since he hasn’t bowled in a while.
Coles was so excited about the new alley, he joked about it when reporters asked him about the brace on his wrist, saying that it was for bowling and he was wearing it because he couldn’t wait to see the bowling alley. The brace was actually a precautionary measure to make sure he didn’t aggravate the right wrist he injured on the last play of the game versus Indy, but it was removed for practice and he is expected to play this week.
New York Jets
-RB Cedric Houston (Knee): Doubtful
-CB David Barrett (Thigh): Questionable
-WR Laveranues Coles (Calf): Questionable
-WR Tim Dwight (Hamstring): Questionable
-OL Pete Kendall (Thigh): Questionable
-OL Trey Teague (Ankle): Questionable
-DL Dave Ball (Hand): Probable
-RB Kevan Barlow (Calf): Probable
-LB Matt Chatham (Foot): Probable
-OL Anthony Clement (Shin): Probable
-DL Shaun Ellis (Hip): Probable
-DL Bobby Hamilton (Knee): Probable
-FB James Hodgins (Knee): Probable
-OL Adrian Jones (Thigh): Probable
-CB Justin Miller (Hip): Probable
-QB Chad Pennington (Calf): Probable
-WR Brad Smith (Thigh): Probable
-S Eric Smith (Knee): Probable
-S Kerry Rhodes (Thigh): Questionable
-DL Kimo von Oelhoffen (Knee): Probable
-WR Matt Jones (Hamstring): Out
-DT Marcus Stroud (Ankle): Out
-DE Marcellus Wiley (Groin): Out
-RB Derrick Wimbush (Knee): Questionable
-S Donovin Darius (Knee): Probable
-LB Nick Greisen (Ankle): Probable
-CB Rashean Mathis (Knee): Probable
-G Chris Naeole (Knee): Probable
Game time is at 4:05PM on Sunday, local TV on CBS 2 and local radio on 1050 ESPN radio and WCRN 104.3 on Long Island. Be sure to check back to JetsInsider.com after the game for a complete recap!