Response time: Sanchez must improve

With Dolphins, Steelers and Bears looming, Jets need second-year QB to stop slump

Updated: December 10, 2010, 5:30 PM ET
By Rich Cimini |

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- It's a good thing Rex Ryan didn't decide to bury Mark Sanchez's interception balls in the ground. It would've been an overcrowded Jets cemetery. Apologies to Stephen King.

As the New York Jets make the turn toward home for the final quarter of the season, it's fair to use the "S" word to describe the recent play of their quarterback -- slump. Sanchez is the key to the season and postseason, and they have to get him turned around, starting Sunday against the Miami Dolphins in The Rebound Game.

[+] EnlargeMark Sanchez
Ronald C. Modra/Sports Imagery/Getty ImagesMark Sanchez has thrown 11 interceptions in his past seven games.

A glaring trend has developed with Sanchez: He is terrific in hurry-up situations, like the final two minutes of a half, but he struggles to generate points out of a conventional offense. The way to fix that, according to analysts and opposing scouts, is to simplify things for Sanchez and lean more heavily on the running game.

It's a great quality for a young quarterback to have, pulling out games in the fourth quarter, but Sanchez needs to improve his production within the confines of a structured offense. Coordinator Brian Schottenheimer has to figure out a way to take Sanchez's innate talents -- all the good stuff that surfaces in crunch time -- and spread them out over 60 minutes.

Schottenheimer can start by reducing Sanchez's mental load -- or "brain clutter," as ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer called it. By that, he meant run checks, protection calls, dummy calls and "kill" options at the line of scrimmage. Sanchez is an intelligent quarterback, and he doesn't make too many mental errors at the line, but the veteran-like responsibilities could be inhibiting his game.

"For a second-year quarterback, it's a little too much," Dilfer, a former NFL quarterback, said in a phone interview. "I'm not ripping Schotty or [quarterbacks coach] Matt Cavanaugh. Mark is smart and he works hard, and they probably feel he can take on more than he really can. But all that brain clutter makes you less instinctive as a player. These last two games, he's stuck on paralysis by analysis."

Schottenheimer disagreed, saying, "I know for a fact that he doesn't have too much on his plate." But Sanchez has played poorly the past two games (a 47.8 passer rating), including Monday night's three-interception meltdown in New England. The competition is getting better, and so must Sanchez.

Ryan admires Sanchez's resilience, listing examples over the past two seasons in which he rebounded from bad losses, yet the head coach felt compelled Thursday to huddle one-on-one with his quarterback to discuss the nuances of Miami's defense.

After a fantastic start, Sanchez has thrown at least one interception in each of the past seven games -- a total of 11 in that span -- but the most troubling development has been an inability to sustain drives out of the base offense. Not counting the final two minutes of a half, the Jets have produced only three touchdown drives of three plays or more over the past six games.

"Maybe the Jets got some false sense of confidence that these games can be won and lost on his arm, based on some of those October and November performances he had through the air," said an NFL personnel executive, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "He still needs a running game so the play-action element is in play.

"In the hurry-up, the field is spread ... so the reads are easier and the progressions can be processed a bit cleaner," the executive said, adding, "in the base offense, there's likely more checks, adjustments, a lot more to think and process, pre-snap."

Dilfer believes Sanchez does a good job with his pre-snap reads but gets into trouble during the first second or two of the play. He said Sanchez tends to "play the game before the snap," meaning that he envisions how the play should turn out before it unfolds.

That led to his first interception in New England. After a hard run fake at the Patriots' 9, Sanchez threw quickly to Braylon Edwards in the middle of the end zone, never seeing linebacker Brandon Spikes at the 2 -- a crushing turnover.

"He predicted the picture before he threw it," said Dilfer, adding that Sanchez fell into the same trap on his third interception -- an ill-advised throw into zone coverage.

It takes years for quarterbacks to master the art of reading defenses. Sanchez has improved to the point that he can come off the field and describe in detail what just happened before seeing the aerial photo. He's light years ahead of last season, but his inexperience still shows up, especially against zone coverages.

Fortunately for the Jets, Sanchez has played well in three career starts against Miami (six touchdown passes, no interceptions). Psychologically, this is a must-win for the Jets, whose collective ego took a major hit in New England. Lose to the Dolphins, ranked fourth in total defense, and it'll be a full-blown crisis.

"We'll do it right," said Sanchez, whose career record is 5-4 after losses. "Everybody will bounce back, not just me."

They'd better, especially with back-to-back road games in Pittsburgh and Chicago (both 9-3) after Miami. The Jets are 1-3 against teams with winning records, and they didn't score a single touchdown in the three losses. That's damning, but Sanchez & Co. have the ability to turn the New England debacle into a giant hiccup.

"What's going to define Mark's season," Dilfer said, "is how he responds to the last two stinkers."

Rich Cimini covers the Jets for Follow him on Twitter.

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Rich Cimini

ESPN New York Jets reporter