Mark this down: The Jets will tire out their running backs against the Bills’ defense Sunday.
Eric Mangini is a master at attacking opposing teams’ weaknesses, and the Bills’ weakness is stopping the run. They’re ranked 29th in the league in run defense, and that doesn’t seem to be a fluke; 12 games should serve as a pretty good body of evidence.
The question is this: Which Jets’ back will get the largest load of carries?
Each week it’s a different Jets’ back getting the bulk of carries.
Does Mangini go with the hot hands and stay with what worked last Sunday in the dominant win over the Packers, with Cedric Houston rushing for his career-high 105 yards and two touchdowns on 22 carries and Leon Washington complementing him with 40 yards and a touchdown on seven carries?
That would seem to be the way to go, particularly because Houston is a powerful back who could have some success against the smallish Buffalo defense.
Kevan Barlow was the odd man out last week, but is also a powerful back who could be used in some short-yardage situations. Barlow has worked on special teams for the first time in his career and could be called back up to the game-day roster because of that this week.
The Jets’ three-headed rushing attack has become so unpredictable in Mangini’s use of personnel that it sometimes confuses even some Jets’ players.
For example, after Houston scored his second rushing touchdown last Sunday and the Jets were celebrating amongst themselves in the Lambeau Field end zone, Jets’ right guard Brandon Moore asked Houston, “Who scored?’’
"Usually all those guys aren't in sync with all the stuff that's going on behind them," Houston said.
Houston is smart enough to know that even after a strong performance nothing is guaranteed when it comes to Mangini. Apparently, that keeps everyone on his toes.
“I'm not sure that I have a locked position," Houston said. "I just have to come out like I did last week, have a great week of practice, then on Sunday try to make something happen when I'm in the game."
Mangini this week insisted every remains the same despite the strong performance by Houston.
“It goes straight down the line, because usually what happens is we'll practice them on Wednesday when they get a pretty good mix of the different plays,’’ Mangini said. “We take a look at that and evaluate the tape. Then the next day I'll go in and I'll ask questions. It could be blitz pick-up. It could be alignments or motions _ to gauge where they are on the questions. The next day it's the same thing. You get a pretty good feel for who is leading the pack as the week unfolds.’’
Asked if he’s temped to stay with what worked last week, Mangini said, “There is definitely an element of that, but Green Bay is going to play us differently than Buffalo is. So even though sometimes that may have worked _ that combo may have worked extremely well against Green Bay _ it may not be the best mix for the Bills.
“You want to look at past performance, but you also have to anticipate how the next opponent is going to factor in and which runs they deal with the best,’’ he went on. “What do they struggle with the most and who is best at running those? Who is having the best week doing those things? Protection is always a big issue with us. We want to make sure because the backs are heavily involved with that, make sure we're sound there.
“Kevan has been working more on special teams, Cedric has been getting some reps there. Leon already has a relatively substantial role, so it's that mixture of a lot of factors.’’
One area that’s made life easier for Mangini is the selflessness of the players he’s dealing with. Washington, a rookie, and Houston, in his second year, are very humble players. And, not that Barlow came here as a star, but he did come here as a player who’d been a feature back in his NFL career. Yet he’s been a solid team player the whole way despite his disappointment about not getting more carries.
“I know what Eric is doing is what's best for this team, and that's all that matters," Barlow said. "The guy obviously knows what he's doing. We're winning and he's up for Coach of the Year, so he's doing something right."
Mangini said, “Kevan has been great. All of the guys have been great, and everybody understands that it's equal opportunity and everybody has the same opportunity each week to establish themselves as a member of the 45-man roster.
“It's not based on salary. It's not based on draft selection. It's what you do and I think that that's important for the players because it gives them a sense each week of, 'I'm not going out here giving everything I can possibly give with no opportunity to really get a chance to contribute and produce.'
“What's really important is that everybody is treated equally and everybody has the same chance to be successful and help us be successful.’’
Mangini continually talks to the players about the “fluidity’’ of the roster.
“I talk to the whole team about how each week the roster changes,’’ he said. “Your role is going to change, your ability to get in the game is based on not just what you're doing offensively or defensively, but what you're doing on special teams.’’
Look for the Jets to pound the Bills with perhaps all three backs. Buffalo is allowing an average of 140.3 rushing yards per game, a robust 4.8-yards per carry. Only the Colts, Saints and Rams allow more yards per carry in the league. The Bills have also yielded 13 rushing touchdowns. Only the 49ers (15) and Rams (14) have allowed more.
So the Jets have a chance to not only control the game with the running game, but they have a chance to score points with the run.
Sol, will it be Houston again this week?
“First it's how well you practice,’’ Mangini said. “Then, if you do create the opportunity, how well you take advantage of those opportunities in the game. I think Cedric has been very impressive at practice in the way that he finishes every single play, breaks the line of scrimmage.
“Whether or not he's caught or not caught, we want him to finish the run, run another 30 yards. It's automatic with him. His ball security has improved. I like the things that he's done in terms of pickup and his pass protection has gotten better. All those things have combined. We want everybody to be able to contribute.’’
Everyone will likely have a chance this week.