Dennis Green didn’t last long as coach of the Cardinals beyond his infamous “they are who we thought they were” rant, but the turn of phrase has aged into something of a sports cliche. And, like most cliches, there is a kernel of truth to be extracted from what is hashed over so frequently without much thought.
In beating the Steelers on Sunday, the Jets were who we thought them to be. I’ve derided the coaches’ inflexibility previously, but to their credit, even as they faced mounting criticism, they rightly stuck to their guns in Week 15, which is precisely what the situation dictated. That’s right: The old formula — the one that saw them dismantled by the Pats and then nipped by the Dolphins — was the right one, and it got the Jets a much-needed win.
Whether it was a product of stubbornness or merely a happy accident, the Jets’ philosophy (and better execution of it) made all the difference. They played conservatively on offense and opportunistically on defense, and they turned in a stellar effort on special teams against a Pittsburgh squad that is usually well-coached and prepared in that phase of the game.
The Jets stripped down the offense considerably for Mark Sanchez, who completed 65.5 percent of his passes — his second-best effort on that front this season — and, most importantly, did not commit a turnover. Sure, he was only 19-of-29 for 170 yards, but considering the conditions and relative strength of the defense against which he was playing, his performance was no small victory. Sanchez appeared to take shorter drops and make one- and two-read throws — it’s amazing how short and intermediate completions trump incompletions with the occasional big-gainer, isn’t it? Football Outsiders ranked Sanchez’s outing as seventh-best of Week 15 among NFL quarterbacks. The Jets will take that every week.
The ground attack was again solid if unspectacular, averaging about four yards per rush. LaDainian Tomlinson and Shonn Greene each chipped in with their usual efforts, and even Sanchez got into the act with a nice designed run for a touchdown. But the really encouraging sign here was the balance between pass and run: 29 to 27. In fact, the Jets ran only 56 offensive plays, but they did a nice job sustaining a couple of long drives, some resulting in scores and others not.
Where Gang Green really made their hay was on special teams. Of course, the obvious example is Brad Smith’s game-opening kickoff return for a touchdown, but they also down three punts inside the Steelers’ 10-yard line, which is incredibly efficient. In deciding to punt a couple times from what may have been field-goal range, Rex Ryan again put his team at risk of being conservative to a fault, but to his credit, the coffin-corner punts vindicated his prudence.
Of course, the key here was that the Jets’ strengths matched up well against the Steelers’ weaknesses. Pittsburgh’s offensive line has been especially vulnerable of late, and with the exception of the Steelers’ too-close-for-comfort final drive, the Jets maintained a steady presence in Pittsburgh’s offensive backfield throughout the game. Jason Taylor’s tackle of Mewelde Moore in Pittsburgh’s end zone for a safety was crucial, but New York also sacked Ben Roethlisberger three times (one of which included a strip and fumble), a feather in the cap considering Roethlisberger’s elusiveness in the pocket and the defense’s intermittent sack droughts.
Troy Polamalu is as valuable to Pittsburgh as any player is to his team in the NFL, and his absence due to injury loosened up the Steelers’ defense against both the pass and the run. Sanchez’s one-read throws, in particular, would have been quite dangerous against the ball-hawking Polamalu, but you can be sure that the coaches breathed a bit easier about the prospect of their sometimes-erratic quarterback throwing into a defensive backfield that didn’t feature No. 43.
Fortunately for the Jets, they shouldn’t have to stray much from their patented style of play for their Week 16 matchup against the Bears. Chicago, like Pittsburgh, plays stingy defense, so the Jets will again have to rein in Sanchez and play it close to the vest. But the Bears are quite suspect along the offensive line; Jay Cutler has been battered like a pinata at times this year, and the strong-armed quarterback is susceptible to turnovers. Remember when the Giants tallied 10 sacks on Monday Night Football in Week 4?
With a playoff berth appearing likely and the Jets’ schedule (at Bears, vs. Bills) such that they can play the kind of game that they like to play, we’ll have to wait to see whether they can adjust when necessary. Until then, they can be what we thought they were.