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Jets Q & A: FO’s Sean McCormick

At Football Outsiders, we all have our teams. Aaron Schatz is a Pats fan from way back, while Mike Tanier is partial to the Iggles. Bill Barnwell bleeds Giants blue, while the West Coast contingent of Vince Verhei, Ben Riley, and yours truly have that Seahawks thing going on. Sean McCormick, a Brooklyn high school teacher (he’s one of two teachers on the staff; Tanier had high school senior Joe Flacco in one of his classes), is our Jets fan. Sean contributes to FO via detailed weekly breakdowns of his team’s adventures in Audibles at the Line, and his fine work in Pro Football Prospectus. I asked Sean seven questions about his J-E-T-S as a game preview of sorts, and the quality of his answers didn’t surprise me at all.

DF: The obvious angle this week is the Favre-versus-Holmgren thing, so let's skip ahead to Favre's actual production in the Jets' offense. In his last three games, Favre has thrown one touchdown and four picks against three below-average pass defenses. Have things changed schematically, or is something else going on?
SM: Some of it is simply bad luck--witness Favre's first interception last week when a ball intended for Laverneus Coles was dropped, kicked up in the air and then intercepted by Paul Posluzny.  Another problem, interestingly enough, is the weather, as Favre is a substandard bad weather quarterback at this point in his career.  He has trouble getting air under some of his deep throws, and he loses accuracy on his short and intermediate throws, often throwing behind his receivers.  But perhaps the biggest problem is that the Jets coaching staff never really seem to know what they're going to do on offense.  They started off the year by trying to go vertical off playaction, and they dialed up deep passes like, well, like a staff that just traded in Chad Pennington for Brett Favre. 
After a while, the coaches realized that Favre would chuck the ball up whether the receiver was behind the defense or bracketed in double coverage with no real distinction, so they abruptly stopped calling for the bomb.  They tried out a version of last year's Packers offense--lots of empty shotgun, lots of slant patterns--then went for a horizontal attack with bubble screens and out patterns, then they ignored the receivers altogether and strictly worked the tight ends in the middle of the field.  Last week they went back to their wide receivers early, then stopped and returned to the tight end-heavy approach in the second half.  There's certainly something to be said for maintaining some flexibility, but at this point I'm not sure what the offense's bread and butter is, and I don't think the coaching staff knows, either.  
DF: There's another reunion of sorts in this game – Jets running back Thomas Jones will see brother Julius. Thomas has been the more productive Jones this season – he's fourth in rushing DYAR through Week 14, and top ten in most traditional stats. Why is he on track for his best season, and how does Leon Washington fit into the Jets' plans? You've mentioned that Washington's kind of like what Reggie Bush is supposed to be?
SM: I've been watching Thomas Jones since his rookie season in Arizona, and he's always been a back who is exactly as good as his blocking allows him to be.  When he has sound blocking in front of him, Jones has the discipline to hit the hole and the strength to finish off his runs.  When there is no hole, or when there is defensive penetration, he's neither strong nor dynamic enough to make something out of nothing.  The Jets have allowed very little defensive penetration this year, and Thomas has stopped trying to bounce outside; he's taking exactly what the play gives him. 
As for his newly found nose for the goal line, that's really just a regression to the mean.  Last year he had only one touchdown despite logging 310 carries.  What goes around, comes around, and this year Jones is making up for that shortfall.  As for Leon Washington, he's very much a central part of the team's plans going forward.  He's not a primary back--he simply doesn't have the build to stay healthy as a feature player, but he's a tremendous weapon in the return game, he's valuable on screens and in third down situations, and he has the potential to break long scoring runs like he did last week against Buffalo.  He gets lost in the offensive game plan sometimes, but Washington is one of the two real matchup problems the Jets can put out on the field.  (The other is Dustin Keller.)  
DF: Laveranues Coles and Jerricho Cotchery are strikingly similar in most of their numbers; they're 29th and 30th in DYAR through Week 14. How are they different on the field, and who present the bigger matchup nightmare?
SM: Coles has the reputation of being a deep threat, but he's never been particularly good at making plays on the ball on vertical routes, and at this point in his career he's almost exclusively a short and intermediate target.  He is a physical receiver and can make tough catches in traffic, but he's not an explosive player.  Cotchery is also a physical receiver, but in the last few years he's been the bigger threat to generate yardage after the catch.  Last year the Jets used Cotchery almost like a tight end, working him over the middle of the field, but this year they've mostly kept him on the outside and let Dustin Keller and Chris Baker handle the inside stuff.  
DF: The Jets are top five in Adjusted Line Yards this season after finishing 22nd in 2007; their Adjusted Sack Rate has kicked up to a bit below league average after finishing near the bottom last year. We know that a lot of cash has been thrown at that line between the draft and free agency, but how specifically have these five guys worked together?
SM: Last year the Jets suited up a turnstile at left guard, and it really hindered the development of their two '06 first round picks, D'brickashaw Ferguson and Nick Mangold.  This year those two players don't have to worry about covering up for anyone else's mistakes, and they've both responded by raising their game.  Ferguson has developed to the point where he can really be left on an island, which allows the team to run a lot of empty shotgun sets.  He's probably the most athletic left tackle in the league, and he's very effective blocking downfield on screen passes. 
Mangold had trouble holding up against big defensive tackles last year--it was at least in part due to lower leg injuries that sapped his strength--but this year he's been able to hold up in pass protection and to use his technique to root tackles off the line of scrimmage.  Damien Woody is over at right tackle, and while he's not a particularly good pass blocker, he's much better than last year's starter, Anthony Clement.  He's also an impressive run bocker.  When Woody combines with a pulling Alan Faneca, the right side of the line gets a very good push. 
DF: On the defensive line, Kris Jenkins gets most of the attention, and justifiably so. Why has he been such a force, and who else in their front seven demands attention from Seattle's patchwork line?
SM: For the past two seasons, the Jets tried to run a 3-4 with undersized defenders who had been drafted for a Tampa-2, and the results, particularly in the run defense, were predictably terrible.  This year, with the addition of Calvin Pace and Kris Jenkins, as well as the replacement of Jonathan Vilma with second-year man David Harris, the front seven is much bigger and more physical.  Jenkins has been the key addition.  Not only does he hold his ground and stack up running plays at the point of attack, he's quick enough to shoot the gap and get into the backfield.  Jenkins' pass rush ability was decisive in the first Buffalo game, and his ability to put teams in third and long opened up the blitz packages and protected the shaky secondary.  Jenkins hasn't been as effective in the past three weeks, and it's probably been the biggest reason for the overall decline in team performance. 
Calvin Pace started off the year very strong before quieting down, and Bryan Thomas also has lost effectiveness as a pass rusher since the early going.  Vernon Gholston was drafted to be a pass rushing terror, but he's been so ineffective that the team deactivated him last week in favor of a fifth-receiver. 
DF:  How is the secondary shaking out? Who is the star, and who's bringing up the rear?
The star of the secondary is Darrelle Revis, who has everything you'd look for in a number one corner.  He sometimes has trouble against big, physical wide receivers--Braylon Edwards overwhelmed him at times last year--but this season teams have largely left Revis alone and gone after easier prey. 
For much of the year, rookie Dwight Lowery started at the other spot, with mixed results.  Lowery is a good tackler who plays the ball well, and he made game saving plays in the week one matchup with Miami.  On the other hand, he simply doesn't have the athleticism to be left alone in coverage against even average NFL receivers.  Against New England, the Pats manipulated the formations to get Lowery matched up one-on-one against Jabbar Gaffney, and Gaffney destroyed him.  The Jets were so concerned that they went out and took Ty Law out of mothballs midseason, and he's been the starter for the past five weeks.  Law plays as physically as the refs will let him to compensate for the fact that he's simply not very fast anymore. 
Kerry Rhodes has a Pro Bowl reputation but hasn't done much to justify it this year.  In fact, the Jets have been one of the worst teams in the league at covering tight ends, which is something Rhodes is supposed to excel at.  Most of the playmaking has come from Abram Elam at the other safety spot.  Elam may have saved the season with his sack and strip of JP Losman last week, and he's had several other impact plays over the course of the year.  Elam isn't anything special in coverage, but he's a hitter and is probably the best blitzer on the team. 
DF:   Coming down the stretch, the Jets are in a torrid race in the AFC East. What do they have to do to win the division, and what could stop them from doing so?
SM: The biggest key to the Jets winning the AFC East is having the run defense return to form.  When the Jets were able to stonewall the run on first and second down, it protected the secondary and allowed the pass rush time to make plays on the quarterback.  In the last few weeks, teams have been able to successfully run the ball and put the defense in a position where they had to defend against both the run and the pass, and they're just not that effective that way.  The Patriots were able to spread the field and run no-huddle, and Matt Cassel put up 300 yards in two quarters.  Fortunately, the matchups the next two weeks are much better.  Neither Seattle nor Miami figures to have the depth at receiver to force the Jets into nickel or dime packages, so the Jets should be able to keep their best defenders on the field on first and second downs. 
The offense needs to continue emphasizing the run, and they need to focus on Leon Washington and Dustin Keller, who are their best matchup players in the passing game.  If the run defense doesn't recover, though, it's going to put a lot of pressure on Favre and the offense to generate points, and that could easily turn into forced throws and interceptions.  If Favre throws 1-2 touchdowns and no interceptions in each of the next two weeks, the team should wrap up a division title.  If he throws more than one interception in either game, the Jets could be in trouble.