Normally, preseason football is simply about getting your reps, and making sure nobody gets hurt.
But for a team, and a fanbase, that’s pinned their hopes on the right arm of a charismatic rookie quarterback, tonight was different. In what turned out to be a seesaw battle filled with big plays and late-game drama, the buzz following the final whistle was about one player, and one player only.
You could feel the electricity mounting as Mark Sanchez began warming up late in the first quarter. As he jogged on to the field for the first time as a professional, the half-empty stadium erupted with a roar normally reserved for frigid Sundays in December, and a standing ovation set aside for players you expect will one day lead your team to the promised land.
They wanted to see something from the guy the Jets traded up in the 2009 draft to get, the one who’s expected to lead Gang Green for the next decade. And on his first play from scrimmage, the Southern Cal product gave them just that.
His first pass as an NFL player was a beautiful 48-yard strike down the sideline to wide receiver David Clowney to end the first quarter, and the rookie didn’t stop there. With his family in attendance, the rookie went 3-4 in his lone drive of the game, guiding the Jets down the field on an eight-play, 93-yard touchdown drive capped by a Thomas Jones one-yard run.
“It’s really good,” Sanchez said of his first NFL experience. “It’s really special to me to have my family here. To hear the roar of the crowd when we run out of the tunnel and to complete a big play on your very first NFL pass ever, that was pretty fun and I’m glad it finally came together.”
“For a rookie to step in there like that on his first throw and unleash one like that, that is pretty impressive to me,” head coach Rex Ryan said.
Yes, the calendar still reads August. And yes, it was only one series in a preseason game. But the rookie signal caller did a lot of good things in his NFL debut when taking a closer look.
The pass play to Clowney was made possible by the pump fake Sanchez orchestrated to get his receiver a step. He was 3-4 for 88 yards on the drive, yes, but he also converted a third-and-ten with a pass to tight end Dustin Keller, which brought his team to the St. Louis two.
The Big Apple is known for placing seemingly unattainable expectations on the faces of its respective franchises. Sanchez is expected to be the next Broadway Joe, and only time will tell if he can be. But tonight we got a fleeting glimpse of the guy the franchise has put their faith in, and at least for one night in August, things are looking up.
CLEMENS SOLID IN FIRST TEAM ACTION
On the other side of the qb battle, Kellen Clemens was 4-4 in two series with the first team offense for a total of 24 yards, leading the Jets to three points. He did lose a fumble on a sack by Rams defensive end Leonard Little deep in Jets territory, something that will need to be fixed before the club’s next preseason game.
“It was good,” Clemens said of his short stint of action. “We had a lot of positives come out of it. On the second drive we got stopped on the 4th-and-one down in the red zone but we got a field goal out of it. We are going to try to eliminate the turnovers we got on the strip-sack. We’ll get that patched up in practice and be ready to go next week in Baltimore.”
Rex Ryan-lead defenses get to the quarterback, and this unit appears to be no different.
The Jets starting defense played into the early parts of the second half, registering four sacks before reserves took the field.
“When you stop the run early and get the team in third and long situations, it’s an opportunity for us to bring out our blitz package,” linebacker Bart Scott said. “So if we continue to stop teams on first and second down, we can have fun and continue to get those types of plays on third downs.”
“It’s risk, but not reckless risk. It’s all calculated and simulated pressure. It’s pressure when there isn’t supposed to be pressure. It’s an intelligent way of doing things.”
BIG NIGHT FOR CLOWNEY
Hauling in Mark Sanchez’s first completed pass as a pro wasn’t the only accomplishment David Clowney made tonight. The receiver added two more receptions, including a 50-yard touchdown catch from Eric Ainge in the fourth quarter, totaling 102 yards in all.
“We certainly saw his speed tonight,” Ryan said of his receiver. “I guess they should have read the bio.”
“I know I started off OTAs kind of slow,” Clowney said. “I definitely wanted to get (the coaches’) attention and let them know, just cause I had a minor setback, doesn’t mean I can’t do what I did last year as well.”
With the battle for the number two receiver slot anyone’s to win, tonight’s performance certainly puts Clowney’s name in the discussion heading into next week.
MUCH WORK TO BE DONE
While there were many positives from Gang Green’s opener, the scoreboard still wasn’t in their favor when the clock read zeros. Ryan feels there’s plenty of work to do to get this squad ready for the opener, mainly on the defensive side of the ball.
“I told the team, I hate losing,” he said. “I don’t care whether it’s preseason or not. It stinks. We made way too many mistakes on defense with the third unit. Sometimes, unfortunately, this game is too big for some people at times, that’s why not everybody makes this team. I’m looking for Jets. I’m looking for passionate, tough people who are smart. We’ve got to getter. We’ve got to tackle better.”
On the positive side, Ryan liked what he saw from the first team defense, and from his three quarterbacks who saw action tonight (Erik Ainge finished 10-17 for 148 yards and a touchdown).
“I thought the one defense bowed their necks pretty good. I think they were 0-5 on third down in the first half, so the first defense I think did pretty decent. I was really happy with the way our offense performed, when you consider you have three starting offensive lineman out. I thought our quarterbacks were outstanding, all three of them, today.”
NO QB DECISION
As for who will start under center in ten days when the Jets take on the Baltimore Ravens, Ryan offered up no indication of which way he was leaning after tonight’s action. With both quarterbacks looking solid, it looks like the battle will rage on into 2009’s second preseason game.
The Jets head to Cortland for their last week of camp before they permanently return to Florham Park. They’ll hit the road for their second preseason game on August 24 against the Baltimore Ravens. Kickoff is set for 8:00 PM.
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