Jets playing for playoff lives

After watching a lot of film on both the Jets and Dolphins, Gary Horton picks out some key points to watch in Monday night's game.

Originally Published: November 20, 2006
By Gary Horton | Scouts Inc.

After watching a lot of film on the Jets and Dolphins and talking to coaches and scouts, I found some key things to watch in their "Monday Night Football" game (ESPN, 8:30 p.m. ET).

Keys to the Game

The Jets' ball-control passing game.
Without a consistent running game every week, Chad Pennington and the Jets are resorting to a ball-control passing game to control the clock and the flow of the game. The Jets love to run a lot of underneath crossing routes designed to convert low-risk completions and turn short passes into big plays. Miami must roll its coverage toward WR Laveranues Coles, Pennington's favorite target, and the pass-rush must at least pressure him, while the defensive linemen get their hands up and make him move around to find good throwing lanes, taking advantage of his lack of height.

Where is Miami DE Jason Taylor?
He is the most dominating defensive player in the NFL and is almost unblockable. He can line up at RDE, LDE, DT and even LB in some coverage schemes. He has excellent first-step quickness and is almost impossible to block one-on-one; although we think of him as a finesse player, the reality is that he plays with excellent leverage and power, and he can bull-rush also. Look for the Jets to help out their offensive tackles with a tight end and some double-teams, but the Dolphins will move Taylor to avoid those double-teams, and they will find good one-on-one matchups. When Taylor is lined up at right defensive end, he will have a very interesting matchup with LOT D'Brickashaw Ferguson.

The Dolphins' pass defense must be aggressive.
We see every week that the velocity on Pennington's passes is just about nonexistent. He is strictly a "touch" QB and is at his best when his timing with his wide receivers is good, and he hits them out of their breaks. He also puts good air on his vertical routes, and he has excellent touch on the fade route. Look for Miami to crowd New York's wideouts and jump some routes, because if the Dolphins guess properly they can get to a lot of balls and squeeze the Jets' passing game.

• The Jets will likely use a lot of spread formations versus the Dolphins, and Pennington will operate from the shotgun formation to give him more time to throw. He is at his best when he hits his receivers coming out of their breaks, and he loves to do it out of three-WR sets. However, a problem for the Jets is pass blocking Taylor off the edge with only Ferguson. If they have to use a TE to help out Ferguson, it could complicate their three-WR sets. Ferguson has played well for most of the season, but he gave up three sacks to Buffalo DE Aaron Schobel last week.

• Although the Dolphins have a good pass defense statistically, they are starting to give up some vertical plays and are not playing really well when they are matched up one-on-one on the perimeter. They also don't make many big plays on the ball (only eight interceptions through 14 games). Look for Pennington to maybe stretch out the Jets' passing game, and if the Dolphins roll their coverage or double Coles, he could look for a good vertical matchup with WR Jerricho Cotchery versus Miami DC Andre' Goodman.

• Look for Pennington to use a lot of play-action passes versus the Dolphins. The Miami front seven does a good job of attacking the run, but tends to bite on play fakes, especially with the linebackers. Pennington is one of the best ball handlers in the NFL and, if he can get the running game going, he can freeze the Dolphins and make some plays in the intermediate passing game behind the linebackers.

• The best two pass-rushers right now for the Dolphins are Taylor and RDT Vonnie Holliday. They are excellent pass-rushers and will chase down backside plays and cutbacks. The Jets may choose to run right at Taylor and Holliday over the left side of their offensive line to neutralize their athleticism and lateral movement, and it could also wear them down physically. However, as much as we see Taylor as a finesse player, he has remarkable strength and leverage for his size, and it is not easy to take him out of the play, but the Jets must try.

• The Jets are struggling right now in their run defense, especially on the inside. Offenses are attacking the Jets' 3-4 LBs, and backs are getting a lot of production right up the gut. It is important for the Jets' ILBs, especially Jonathan Vilma, to step up and fill, not allowing the back to get to the second level and have room to run. He needs to close down the blocking angles.

• Pennington has a lot of work to do on his pre-snap reads versus the Dolphins' defense. First, he must locate Taylor and be prepared to find his hot read if Taylor comes free or if Miami blitzes. Second, he can attack the zone schemes of the secondary by using three-WR sets and flooding the zone (versus a front seven that will attack, but not help a lot in coverage). Third, Pennington will use a lot of motion and shifts to identify good one-on-one matchups, and will also motion his tight end to find Taylor and help on double-teams.

• In the last two weeks, the Jets are converting on third down at about a 50 percent success rate, and they are doing it with the short passing game. The short passing game with Pennington keeps the chains moving and keeps a vulnerable Jets' defense off the field. Time of possession is a key stat this week.

• If Miami has stolen opposing offensive signals (as suggested), the Jets will be very careful this week. Pennington makes a lot of calls at the line of scrimmage, and the coaches will probably change up his verbiage and signals. Ironically, Pennington is excellent at changing his cadence and creating offside penalties by opposing defensive lines, so this could be an interesting chess match between Pennington and the Miami defense.

• With the Dolphins out of the playoff race, will Nick Saban start to play QB Cleo Lemon, who may or may not be the QB of the future? Joey Harrington played so poorly last week that his hold on the QB spot is now in question, and that doesn't even include Daunte Culpepper, who should be healthy in training camp. There are a lot of questions to be answered at the QB position.

• The Dolphins' pass protection has improved from early in the season, but they still have problems with defensive fronts that show them a lot of movement. Opposing defenses aren't necessarily bringing a lot of blitzes, but they are using a lot of in-line stunts by their defensive linemen with twists, while still maintaining their gap integrity. Miami seems to struggle with assignment problems versus this scheme, and it may force Harrington (or Lemon) to use more three- and five-step drops to get the ball out quickly and avoid a lot of hits.

• We all know how well Taylor is playing right now, but fellow DE Kevin Carter is also making great plays. When he gets a sack, he turns it into a fumble and creates more turnovers than any other defender in the NFL. He has an uncanny ability to use his hands to slap the ball out of the hands of the quarterback, and is the best finisher in the business. His individual matchup versus Ferguson could be a classic, but it is unlikely that the Jets can get away with this matchup without help.

• The Dolphins must continue to maintain their aggressiveness with their defensive front seven, while also maintaining good containment. Opposing offenses like to take advantage of their overpursuit and run reverses, and the Jets have good runners at wide receiver. Pennington is also an excellent ball handler and will hide the ball well.

• Last week at Buffalo, Harrington was 5 for 17 for only 20 yards, and had a 0.00 QB rating. He made bad decisions, threw into double and triple coverages, and his receivers dropped passes. However, he has a reputation for rebounding from bad games and playing pretty well the following week.

• The Dolphins have a bad habit of bailing out on the run game if they don't have success early, and even when they go to the passing game they aren't very creative and don't really stretch the field. Offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey is under some heat for his play calling that is seen as very vanilla and conservative. In their last game, the Dolphins had zero receptions from their starting WRs, Chris Chambers and Marty Booker, and there is no explosiveness to this offense.

• Look for the Dolphins to use a shotgun/no-huddle offense this week to give their QB more time to read the defense against the aggressive Jets front seven. They also like to use some bunch formations, with three receivers almost working together out of the slot. That can lead to good man-to-man matchups versus single coverage, and the Jets won't be afraid to run off some defenders with pick plays. The Dolphins' receivers can make plays versus the Jets' corners.

• The Dolphins must avoid becoming a one-dimensional offense versus the Jets. Defensive coordinator Bob Sutton likes to use both 3-4 and 4-3 fronts to confuse opposing offensive lines, and may bring some run blitzes to further discourage the Dolphins from staying with the run. The Jets give up a lot of yardage on the ground, but they would love to lure Miami into abandoning the run game and start throwing the ball. The Dolphins must avoid that because neither of their quarterbacks can carry this offense with a passing game.

Gary Horton, a pro scout for Scouts Inc., has been a football talent evaluator for more than 30 years. He spent 10 years in the NFL and 10 years at the college level before launching a private scouting firm called The War Room.

Gary Horton spent 10 years in the NFL as a scout and another 10 years at the college level as an assistant coach and recruiter. He is the founder and most seasoned member of the Scouts Inc. staff, and his extensive experience at all levels of football make him an excellent talent evaluator.