The Redskins actually play a very important game this week. It’s not the Giants, Eagles, or Cowboys who will line up across from them, but the New York Jets that come to town. The Redskins have not dominated too many NFL teams of late, but the Jets (as well as the Cardinals and Bears) are the exceptions to the rule. Since the NFL realigned in 2002, just three teams in the NFL have not beaten the Washington Redskins, and a fourth has not beaten the Redskins in the regular season. The Seahawks actually are a remarkable 0-4 in the regular season since 2002 against Washington, which is remarkable only because they are 2-0 against the Redskins in the postseason.
This fact is actually somewhat mind-boggling: the New York Jets are the only team in the NFL to not beat the Redskins in the last 17 seasons, making them the team with the longest winning drought against the Redskins; even the Seattle Seahawks beat the Redskins the last time they played as an AFC opponent in 1998. You have to go back to this game to find the most recent Jets victory over the Redskins, a 3-0 loss where the Redskins were led in passing by Rich Gannon. My memory of this one is a bit hazy…I was five years old when the game was played.
So there’s at least something at stake here when the Redskins host the Bruce Coslet Pete Carroll Rich Kotite Bill Parcells Al Groh Herm Edwards Eric Mangini Rex Ryan-led Jets: a historically long winning streak over a single opponent. Futhermore, have you seen the Giants and Eagles play lately? The Redskins aren’t going to make the playoffs, but as long as the NFC East remains this muddled, you can’t rule out the Redskins either. And really, that should be the goal of the Redskins season. Playoffs? Don’t talk about playoffs. Just play your very best football of the season with your backs against the wall and make someone else in the NFC East step up and eliminate you rather than eliminating yourself. Go out and prove that you can beat the Jets and the Patriots and the Giants. And at that point, if the Redskins aren’t eliminated, then we’ll talk playoffs.
But the real question of the article should be this: how much of a threat do the Jets pose compared to other teams the Redskins have played this year? The answer is this: the Jets are a very good team. They are a mess, but a really good team. Rex Ryan is a good head coach. He has some obvious weaknesses. For example, he thinks he knows more than he does. We all know a defensive coach on some level, whether we played for a guy like this growing up or know a guy through a guy, a guy that coaches defense so very well that he excels by understanding how offensive coaches and players think and making it tough for them. We also know that as soon as that coach becomes a master of his craft, he starts to think that he can do the offensive coaches job better than they can. After all, only he knows how to beat himself, right?
Well, that’s kind of where Rex Ryan is in his career. Ryan has achieved the pinnacle of coaching defense in the NFL: he’s better at it than anyone in the game. But the Jets offense suffers from being poorly coached, among other things. And I’m not convinced the lions share of the blame should fall on their offensive coordinator, Brian Schottenheimer. Schottenheimer has clearly not had his best year as a coach, but he’s been tasked with too many other responsiblities beyond “coach, coach to score points, coach to win game.” The Jets were a really dangerous team the last two years when they were willing to do whatever it took to win: acquire big name, troubled receivers, trade up for a quarterback, trade up for a running back, draft depth on defense, make key defensive signings, and excel on special teams. This Jets team is just different. They no longer seem to want to win at all costs, they seem to want to win while defining themselves a certain way.
In particular, the development of Mark Sanchez in year three has taken a prominent spot on Brian Schottenheimer’s to-do list, I would argue it’s higher now than “score points, win game” for the first time since Sanchez has been in the NFL. It would be inaccurate to say Sanchez hasn’t developed at all, he’s simply a better player than when he came into the league three years ago. Except for one thing: Cam Newton played as much major college football as Mark Sanchez did, opted to come out with a potential year of NCAA eligibility remaining, and is unquestionably a better player as a rookie than Mark Sanchez is in year three of his career. Rex Ryan has been completely unwilling to admit that Sanchez is not the right guy for the job, even though part of the problem is that he’s clearly the best guy for the job on the Jets roster.
Sanchez is a microcosm of the problems with Jets offensive roster. They built their identity to be a veteran-laden team who could, if nothing else, run the football. Except when one of those veterans (right tackle Damien Woody) retired, a couple of the players they were depending on up front are having tough or injury prone years, and their hand picked RB Shonn Greene lacks any sort of wiggle, elusiveness, or power to get more yards than are there by the blocking. Sanchez’ tendencies as a passer also hurt the Jets backs in the passing game: opponents know that he’s coming down to them after one read and close on them accordingly. The whole issue with the Jets is that every player on the offensive side of the ball was handpicked. This is an issue similar to what the Redskins had in the middle of the decade. There is no overriding philosophy the Jets have on the offensive side for picking players. They do not make bargain basement signings. They have no depth. They throw away draft picks friviously. They simply pick players they like and expect them to fill the necessary roles, whether or not they use them properly.
That’s why I don’t think Brian Schottenheimer is much at fault here. He has no choice but to play Mark Sanchez and Shonn Greene every game. He has no choice but to play Plaxico Burress and Santonio Holmes every game. Is Dustin Keller a good player or not? He is a remarkably poor run blocker, and either he is Mark Sanchez’ first read or he’s not part of the passing offense. Keller is the one guy who can give the Redskins fits as a match-up problem, although I’m not exactly sure to what degree the Redskins should be planning against Plaxico Burress either. I have no concerns that the Redskins will be able to eliminate Santonio Holmes from the game with a steady diet of zone coverage, but Burress has about a foot in height advantage on any player who may cover him. In general, I’d say he’s not much of a threat, but the problem is that this is a game that the Redskins defense must dominate for four quarters, and even though Burress is not good, if the Redskins offense is only going to be good for 13 points, Burress — not dissimilar to Tim Tebow — is the kind of offensive player who can make a play or two to decide a close game.
The Redskins should not fear the run game of the Jets. They are a good screen team though, and even though the Redskins are typically a strong screen defense team, Mark Sanchez is crafty enough and mentally tough enough to lull you asleep with some awful coverage reads and throws, and come back and hit you with a timly screen as soon as you smell blood in the water. Nose tackle Barry Cofield will have his toughest matchup of the season against Jets center Nick Mangold, and if he can just manage to stalemate that so the Jets can’t get up on London Fletcher and Perry Riley, the Redskins will succeed on the ground.
Through the air, the Jets are a multi-dimensional attack, though limited by their quarterback. Sanchez is successful for many of the same reasons that the Indianapolis Colts’ defense has success: the Jets know that they can gameplan on offense with great confidence in their defense. Sanchez typically figures out what a defense is trying to do to him by the fourth quarter, which is why his worst games always come in games the Jets are blown out (such as the Baltimore game). At his best, he’s a very average, limited quarterback, but one that happens to be one of the better players in an incredibly inconsistent offense. It’s typically not LaDainian Tomlinson, Plaxico Burress, Shonn Green, or Santonio Holmes that will beat you: it’s Sanchez. Sanchez may be incredibly limited every time he takes the field, but that’s something entirely different from being very bad, which is a label that is accurate two or three times a season, and usually not accurate the rest of the time. The Jets are never going to feel comfortable enough with Mark Sanchez that they do not have to scheme around his weaknesses, but they are not so limited that they will not still attack your defensive weaknesses on a regular basis.
The Jets are a much different team on defense. The Jets are a fantastic pass defense in spite of the fact that they totally lack the ability to rush the passer. They do it by excelling on the coverage end, and more amazingly, they do it without a particularly high number of guys who excel in coverage. Obviously Darrelle Revis excels in coverage, but the other corners that play are Antonio Cromartie and Kyle Wilson, and those two are only average at pass coverage. There’s no obvious reason that the Jets should be able to cover as well as they do with the talent they have, far less secondary talent than the 2010 Packers enjoyed, and yet, both defenses made it to the round of four last January.
The takeaway here is that Rex Ryan understands the strength and weaknesses of every single player he plays against. He knows that Santana Moss cannot get vertical on him anymore, and he knows that when it comes to third downs, the Redskins are going to throw the ball to one of three people: Santana Moss, Fred Davis, and Jabar Gaffney. And you will see Rex Ryan alternate strategies between trying to bait Rex Grossman into throwing a bad ball interception on those downs, or just taking everyone away at the snap and forcing Grossman to take the sack. You will see Darrelle Revis matched up against Anthony Armstrong on some first and second downs in this game because Rex Ryan knows how limited the Redskins become when Armstrong — who is having a dreadful season despite last week’s TD catch — is an obvious non-factor at the same.
The obvious flaw in the Jets defense is against good, dual-threat tight ends. I mean, why do you think Bill Belichick drafted the way he did in 2010? I have no doubt the Jets will eventually find a strategy to cover elite tight ends, or at least force them to stay in for pass protection, but the Redskins need to be aggressive about using both Fred Davis and Logan Paulsen on layered routes in this game. They are the only two players (and perhaps add Darrel Young to that as well) who pose problems for the Jets. I’m not saying you don’t throw the ball to Jabar Gaffney and Santana Moss the whole game: the Redskins will enjoy some success with zone beaters and bunch formations, but they won’t beat the Jets if they are relying on their receivers to make big plays. Their tight ends and running backs have to come up big.
Roy Helu will see the toughest matchup of his young career as the Jets run defense has improved immensely since it was leaky in September and October. Still, I like Helu compared to some other runners the Jets have shut down recently. While a steady diet of Helu will have no positive effect beyond limiting the effect of Grossman on the outcome of the game, there will be a couple opportunities in the passing game for Helu to get lose on screens. Maybe just one or two in 60 minutes, but that could easily decide the game.
In terms of looking at the Jets schedule, this is really one they expect to win if they plan on contending for the playoffs, because even in victory against Seattle last week, the key contributors on the Redskins didn’t play very well. However, the Redskins would appear to be rather healthy and ready for the stretch run. The Jets are as much an obstical for the Redskins as the Redskins are for the Jets, and while that will get lost in most game analyses you read this weekend, the Redskins have a decent shot to pull out a second straight upset win. Per usual, Rex Grossman will be a major factor on the outcome of the game as long as Kyle Shanahan calls the plays, and that obviously has to favor Rex Ryan, but should you be reading a RHH game recap on Monday that talks about how understaffed the Jets defense was injury-wise in this game, it wouldn’t be horribly surprising if the Grossman-Ryan match-up didn’t fall exactly as the experts expected.