Jets' new-look O-line keeps on slugging
Firing Faneca was a curveball, but Matt Slauson & Co. still hitting it out of the park
FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- The fraternity has a new member, a new motivation and a new favorite play. The play is called the "Swerve," a run predicated on misdirection. It starts one way and swerves back, fooling the opposition. It's the story of the New York Jets' offensive line, 2010.
The story began April 23, the first night of the NFL draft. Alan Faneca was having dinner with teammate Nick Mangold, a close friend. The relaxing evening was shattered when Faneca received a call from coach Rex Ryan, who pulled a Donald Trump: "You're fired."
It spread quickly, players texting players with the news. Faneca was the most accomplished member of arguably the best offensive line last season, a group that had started a league-high 32 consecutive games and came within one game of the Super Bowl. Faneca's ouster incensed his linemates.
"This year is supposed to be about the Super Bowl and stacking the team at positions, and you figured our group would be intact going into the season," right guard Brandon Moore said this week. "When that happened, it shocked everybody. It was disappointing."
The front office was criticized for penny pinching, messing with a good thing. With an unproven player in Faneca's old spot, left guard, naysayers predicted a drop-off for the unit. The momentum seemed to be flowing the wrong way in the offseason, but the anger and doubt turned to motivation, like hot iron becoming steel. As Moore said, "You take things personal."
Now look: The Jets' line has swerved back to its usual path, ranking among the league leaders in the two most telling categories -- first in rushing yards per game (165.2) and tied for fifth in fewest sacks allowed (seven). After a near disastrous start, Faneca's replacement, Matt Slauson, has blended nicely into the group, allowing it to regain its swagger.
"We call ourselves a great offensive line, so you have to be able to change out a piece and still maintain a high level of performance," said Mangold, an All-Pro center.
Two weeks ago, the Jets rushed for 273 yards against the woeful Buffalo Bills, who can't stop water from running. Not impressed? The Jets followed up with 155 against the Minnesota Vikings, who had gone 51 straight games without allowing 150 yards.
Watching on TV from his home in Arizona, Faneca, now with the Cardinals, liked what he saw.
"The guys look good. I knew they would," he said in an e-mail to ESPNNewYork.com. "You put good players with a good coach, and good things happen."
It might look good now, but there were questions when the Jets released Faneca, 33, a nine-time Pro Bowl selection. The organization felt his pass blocking had slipped and that he wasn't worth his $7.5 million salary -- a sobering reminder that the NFL is a cold business.
The Jets created an open competition between Slauson and rookie Vladimir Ducasse, neither of whom shined in the preseason. Slauson got the job, but he failed at the outset to allay the team's concerns. In the season opener, he was beaten badly by the Baltimore Ravens' Haloti Ngata, who body slammed Mark Sanchez.
Slauson heard the whispers about being the weakest link.
"When Alan left, I had a feeling everyone was going to say, 'Oh, great, there goes our running game and there goes our solid protection,'" said Slauson, a sixth-round pick from Nebraska in 2009. "Following a guy like Alan, a Hall of Fame guy, there was a lot of pressure. My goal wasn't to win the job; I was planning on that. My goal was to replace Alan and not let it be a step down."
Slauson is working between two of the best at their respective positions, Mangold and left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson, who leaned heavily on Faneca's experience. Before the season, line coach Bill Callahan met individually with Mangold and Ferguson, asking them to assume leadership roles.
"[Faneca's departure] was like having the rug pulled out from under their feet," Callahan said, alluding to Ferguson and Mangold.
It was a pay-it-forward deal: Faneca helped groom them, and now Ferguson and Mangold were being asked to help groom Slauson.
On the underrated right side, it's business as usual with Moore and tackle Damien Woody, both of whom fit perfectly into the team's ground-and-pound philosophy. They've started 37 straight games, side by side, knowing each other so well they can communicate without speaking. The conductor is the cerebral Callahan, regarded as one of the top line coaches in the league.
Scheme-wise, the Jets remain a zone-blocking team, ideal for LaDainian Tomlinson's instinctive running style, but they recently incorporated the Swerve into the game plan. They borrowed the play from the New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons. The Jets' defensive coaches suggested it to Callahan after facing the Saints early last season. It works so well for the Jets because it complements their zone-based runs.
"If you take one play from another team, they say it's stealing," Callahan said, grinning. "If you take two or three, it's called research."
He used the stolen Swerve about eight to 10 times against the Bills, who were utterly clueless. Against the Vikings, Shonn Greene's 23-yard touchdown came on the Swerve. The up-front blocking flowed to the left, giving the impression it was going to be a stretch run in that direction -- one of the Jets' bread-and-butter plays.
Now, the misdirection:
After starting to the left, Green and fullback John Conner -- in the I-formation -- swerved quickly to the right. The Vikings were caught out of position. Conner sealed off the outside linebacker, and Woody blew up the defensive end, opening a huge hole for Greene. On TV, ESPN's Jon Gruden gushed, calling it flawless execution.
"Our rushing attack," Woody said, "is second to none."
Once again, the Jets' offensive line is heading in the right direction -- even if the opponent doesn't always know which direction that is.
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