With the Rams running game ailing the Jets will have to put pressure on QB Mark Bulger on Sunday.
As the Jets prepare to battle the St. Louis Rams this Sunday, one term has remained attached to the matchup: "trap." Halfway through the season, the Jets' 5-3 record has them in a three-way tie for first place in the AFC East, but their inconsistent performances in recent weeks have left even the Jets themselves with questions. Armed with one of the league's most legendary quarterbacks, the Jets scuffled for seven weeks, barely squeaking out a victory over the hapless Chiefs (1-6) and losing to a dysfunctional Raiders franchise. For weeks they were searching for Brett Favre to enjoy his breakthrough moment as a Jet while relentlessly fidgeting through the kinks of a running game that remained stagnant. Then came last week's 26-17 win at the first-place Buffalo Bills; a game in which the Jets head coach Eric Mangini categorized as "probably our most complete game that we've had so far this season." Mangini's assessment may have seemed surprising for a team that carried a "playoffs or bust" mentality into the year after an offseason spending spree, but afterall, all Mangini's pronouncement did was mark the victory as the season's possible turning point.
The Jets will receive their opportunity to elevate their status in the month of November as road games loom against the rival New England Patriots (5-3) and undefeated Tennessee Titants (8-0), but first and foremost, the Jets have this Sunday to focus on. The 2-6 Rams will travel to the Meadowlands, seemingly presenting the Jets with an opportunity to notch another win on their slate. But while the Rams' record suggests a victory for the Jets, Mangini knows the game tape emits an entirely different story.
"In terms of the Rams, they have won two of the last four. What happens when we're in this situation is we look at the statistics and it says one thing and you turn on the film and it says something totally different. To me, what's important is what's on tape," Mangini said."
While the film may present the Rams as a legitimate threat, the statistics show that the glory years of quarterback Kurt Warner, running back Marshall Faulk and wide receiver Isaac Bruce providing the "Greatest Show on Turf" remain simply a pipe dream. Behind quarterback Marc Bulger, the Rams' offense has been invisible in 2008, ranking 30th in the NFL with 263 total yards per game. To add salt to the Rams' wounds, Pro Bowl running back Steven Jackson has not practiced this week because of a thigh injury and may miss Sunday's game. But statistics aside, Mangini has already pinned the Rams' receiving core as "explosive." The Rams currently rank eight in the NFL in passes over 40 yards.
"Most of them are going to Donnie Avery," Mangini said of the Rams' airstrikes. "He is doing a great job for a rookie. Torry Holt, I evaluated him coming out [of college]. He was one of my early evaluations. I just remember thinking, 'God I hope he goes to the NFC.' Thankfully he did."
Cornerback Darrelle Revis, who leads the Jets with four interceptions, knows that limiting the big plays will be a central concern for the Jets' secondary.
"We are going to go out there and focus on what we've got to do and the defensive schemes with what the coaches draw up. Right now, that is what we are going to focus on. We always said this is like an everyday thing with us," Revis said.
Through the season's first eight games, the Jets' pass coverage has been a weak link in an otherwise stout year for the defense. The Jets are allowing an 236 passing yards per game, ranking them 24th in the NFL.
Thus with the two underperforming units battling Sunday, what will give? Well if you are an optimist, the battle between Favre and the Rams' defense may provide the groundwork. The Rams' defense currently 29th (155 yards allowed/game) in the NFL against the run and 28th versus the pass (246 yards allowed/game). Regardless of the Rams' troubles, Mangini knows his offense will be prepared.
"Defensively [the Rams] are similar to the teams that we've faced, in terms of the penetrating style, the fast flow. Those things are consistent. There is more pressure on the wide recievers, the way that they cover them in terms of the tight man coverage," Mangini said.
With all game strategy turned aside, the Jets are not about to overlook the Rams, even with potential season-changing games sitting on the schedule in the coming weeks. St. Louis began the season 0-4, with those defeats coming by a combined score of 147-43. However, after an Oct. 5 bye, in which head coach Scott Linehan was replaced by defensive coordinator and former New Orleans Saints head coach Jim Haslett, the Rams stunned the Washington Redskins (19-17) and Dallas Cowboys (34-14) with their first two victories of the season. Even though St. Louis has lost two games since the Oct. 19 victory over the Cowboys, Mangini knows the Rams are an improved team.
"When you look at them over the last four games, they're 2-2," Mangini noted. "You can easily look at the statistics and sometimes, when you get off to a slow start, it's hard to dig out from those numbers. That doesn't mean the team hasn't improved what they've been doing, but when you lump all the numbers together, it's a little bit deceptive."
Rams 'O' vs. Jets 'D'
This Rams' offense is only a distant memory of the "Greatest Show on Turf" unit that powered the Rams to Super Bowl births in 2000 and 2002 (XXXIV, XXXVI), but Jackson has the rare ability to single-handedly control a game. Jackson has rushed for at least 1,000 yards in the last three seasons and he was currently ranked 15th in the league in rushing (128 carries, 525 yards) before a thigh injury derailed him in practice this week. To complicate matters, Jackson's two backups, Antonio Pittman (hamstring) and Travis Minor (concussion), have not practiced this week and may not play. But nonetheless, the Jets' run defense currently ranks fourth in the NFL. The Rams may be reliant on Bulger to take control of the game. Forcing an offense to be one-dimensional can be costly in the NFL.
Rams 'D' vs. Jets 'O'
The 2008 season has not been friendly to the Rams' defense, which has allowed under 20 points just twice in eight games. In last week's win against Buffalo the Jets' offense continued to struggle, gaining only 297 yards, but Favre seem content not to suffer a letdown this week. Running back Thomas Jones has quietly climbed up to second in the AFC in rushing with 601 yards on 134 carries and Sunday could be a prime opportunity for Jones to post another big day on the ground. The Rams are allowing 4.9 yards per rush this season (T-30th in NFL).
If there is one area of strength for the Rams, it is special teams. Kicker Josh Brown is 14-for-16 on field goal attempts this season and punter Donnie Jones currently leads the NFL with an average of 50 yards per punt. On kickoff and punt returns, Dante Hall does not possess the breakaway speed he once add, but he's still averaging a respectable 20.2 yards per kick return. As for the Jets, Leon Washington remains one of the league's most explosive players, as he is averaging 27 yards per kick return. Kicker Jay Feely (12-for-16 FG) and punter Reggie Hodges (41.6 avg) are respectable.
Key to Victory
While the Jets' defense helped carry the team to victory last week in Buffalo, this game could be decided on Favre's legendary cannon. If Favre can hit wide recievers Laveranues Coles and Jerricho Cotchery early and often, it will open up the Rams' defense for Jones in the second half. As always, the Jets must avoid "self-inflicted wounds" if they want to improve to 6-3 on the year.
The Rams may be playing better under Haslett, but they still remain a flawed unit. If Jackson, the Rams' best playmaker, is ruled out for Sunday, Bulger will not have enough talent on offense to win. Expect the Jets' offense to have another breakthrough performance against one of the league's worst defenses.
Jets 34, Rams 13
Game time is at 1PM local time on FOX TV. Local radio is on 1050 AM ESPN and 103.9 WRCN Long Island. Be sure to log on to JI after the game for a complete recap!
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