What'll Mark Sanchez do for an encore?
QB's star power on and off the field has changed the Jets' recipe for success
Amid the crazy finishes of the past month, not only has Sanchez established himself as The Man, but his sudden development has changed the way the Jets play football. They still call themselves a ground-and-pound team, but they're not grounding and pounding opponents the way they did last season, and the defense isn't scaring the bejesus out of quarterbacks as it once did.
And that's OK, because the whole mix still is good enough as long as Sanchez continues to do what he's doing. It wasn't supposed to happen this quickly, only 25 starts into his career, but the Jets' Super Bowl dream rests on his right arm. Funny how quickly that changed. A year ago, they didn't want him to lose games. Now they need him to win them.
Five things to watch
1. Trap game. This has "letdown" written all over it. The Jets are coming off an emotional win, facing a demoralized team that has dropped seven straight -- including a monumental choke last week against Buffalo. The Jets are looking at a three-day respite followed by the game of the year -- at New England. They could easily lose focus. The Jets need to take control early, sucking the hope out of the Bengals, if there's any hope left. That burden falls on the offense, which has yet to score a first-quarter touchdown in five home games.
2. Marquee matchups. It doesn't get much better than this: The Jets' cornerbacks, Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie, will be in man-to-man coverage most of the night against Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco, respectively. Revis covered Ochocinco in two games last season -- and made him eat his words -- but the Jets believe T.O. is the Bengals' new No. 1 threat. T.O. said Revis is "just an average cornerback." This should be a blast.
3. Don't forget the other guys. Although T.O. and Ochocinco will draw most of the spotlight, the Jets should be concerned with the Bengals' third and fourth options in the passing game -- WR Jordan Shipley and rookie TE Jermaine Gresham. The Jets have issues with tight ends. In the past three games, they've allowed 16 receptions, 252 yards and two touchdowns to tight ends. Gresham averages six targets per game, and he can be dangerous.
4. The secondary from Hall. CB Leon Hall is the only healthy starter in the Bengals' defensive backfield. To say it has been decimated by injuries would be an understatement. Backup safeties Reggie Nelson and Chinedum Ndukwe will start, and the other cornerback spot is anybody's guess. It could be Jonathan Wade, whom they just signed off the street. The Bengals had major breakdowns last week, something the Jets should be able to exploit.
5. Uh, O-line. For the first time since the final game of 2007, the Jets will make a change in the offensive line. RT Damien Woody (knee), who's not expected to play, will be replaced by career backup Wayne Hunter. It'll feel weird for RG Brandon Moore, who has started 45 straight games alongside Woody. The Bengals figure to attack that side of the line. Why not? What do they have to lose?
-- Rich Cimini
The Cincinnati Bengals will be in the new Meadowlands Stadium on Thursday night, the ideal opponent to make a comparison. When the two teams met in January in the AFC wild-card game, Sanchez played wonderfully in his first playoff start, but he attempted only 15 passes -- none of which traveled more than 20 yards in the air.
Now look: In the past four weeks, Sanchez has thrown for more yards (1,206) than any other quarterback in the league. He should put up more numbers against the Bengals' injury-depleted secondary and meek pass rush.
"He's not Peyton Manning, but you're seeing similar growth," Jets coach Rex Ryan said. "This guy is going to be special. I think he's headed down that path."
Sanchez has graduated from the School of Game Management, and that didn't happen until recently. On opening night, the coaches were afraid to let him throw against the big, bad Baltimore Ravens, and the Jets lost. Now the Jets have evolved into a true 50-50 offense.
Actually, it's been 55-45 (pass-run) in the past three games.
"Last year it was run, run, run, run -- surprise 'em with a pass -- run, run, run," tight end Dustin Keller said. "This year, we can throw the ball when we want to, not when we need to."
Sanchez has earned the trust of the coaches, and that has made a huge difference in how they approach games. Because they're scoring more points than last season, increasing the margin for error, it has reduced the pressure on the defense.
If the defense had a bad day last season, it was curtains. The Jets were 0-5 in games when the opponent scored more than 17 points. This season they're 6-0 in those games, thanks to Sanchez and his big-play receivers, newcomer Santonio Holmes and Braylon Edwards.
The more ways you can win a game, the better off you'll be in January. It's a passing league, with recent history showing that run-oriented teams are less likely to win the Super Bowl than the multidimensional offenses.
Sanchez is backing up his prediction for the season. He arrived at training camp talking about how he was going to take ownership of the offense. It sounded good and made for a nice headline, but the words came off as hollow. An athlete doesn't announce himself as a leader; he earns it.
Now he has. Sanchez's fourth-quarter moxie is something else. When the Houston Texans took a four-point lead in the final minute Sunday, converting an interception into a field goal, Sanchez noticed the stadium was starting to empty out.
"All right," he said to himself, "the people that are here are going to get a show."
They did, as Sanchez directed his third fourth-quarter comeback win in five games. That was a knock on him when he came out of USC, scouts wondering whether he could lead a team back from the brink. He had no fourth-quarter comebacks in 16 college starts and, to the best of his recollection, none in high school.
"It's always been something that I kind of wanted," he said, meaning that reputation as a crunch-time quarterback.
Coincidentally, Sanchez happened to be watching a TV show last week that showed the 10 greatest comebacks in NFL history. He was mesmerized by the Buffalo Bills' amazing rally against the Houston Oilers in the '92 playoffs, with understudy Frank Reich leading the way.
A few days after the TV show, Sanchez did a number on the current Houston franchise, leading a 72-yard touchdown drive in 39 seconds. He saved the Jets from one of their worst defeats ever.
"How crazy is that?" he asked backup Mark Brunell in the locker room, alluding to the comeback show.
Nothing enhances a quarterback's street cred like the ability to lead in the clutch. Inside his own locker room, Sanchez isn't perceived anymore as the guy riding the coattails of others. Now he owns the coat.
Ryan tells a funny story. Just last week, he was chatting during a break in practice with Holmes, Edwards and owner Woody Johnson. Sanchez, from across the field, called for Holmes.
No, Holmes said, I'm talking with the owner.
"No, no, you're coming over here," Sanchez demanded.
This time, Holmes obeyed the command.
"That," Ryan said of his quarterback, "is the kind of clout this guy is carrying."
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