In the wake of his team’s uncharacteristically sloppy defensive effort against the Bears on Sunday, Jets coach Rex Ryan said he’d get the unit back into form, back to playing basics.
I don’t doubt this. Ryan earned his head-coaching gig on the strength of his acumen as an x’s-and-o’s defensive guy, and he’s lived up to that billing two years into his tenure. Gang Green’s defense in 2009 was brilliant, and their 2010 counterparts have been very good, too, albeit relatively vulnerable at times.
What I do doubt, however, is whether Ryan can or will address an uglier and more insidious ill that fells the Jets — his game-management and decision-making.
I raise this issue because after Sunday’s loss, I poured through the stats sheet, expecting to find one unflattering number after another. While some of those tell-tale figures weren’t pretty (4.4 yards per rush by Matt Forte and the mediocre Bears offensive line), many of them weren’t as bad as I had assumed, either (Jay Cutler was just 13-of-25, completing 52 percent of his passes).
The Jets’ secondary is thin, yes, and it certainly did not look strong Sunday in surrendering three long touchdown passes. But the Jets normally allow opposing quarterbacks to complete only about 50 percent of their passes, which is exceptionally low and the best in the NFL. So, seeing as Cutler’s completion percentage was barely better than that, it’s fair to say that he enjoyed a somewhat fluky touchdown-to-completion ratio.
Of course, flukes do happen, but they shouldn’t be aided by bad coaching. The simple truth is this: The Jets and Bears were about evenly matched, and Ryan outsmarted himself in two crucial spots. And that’s what makes the Jets a scary proposition as they embark on the playoffs.
The most egregious mistake was committed when the Jets curiously attempted a fake punt from their own 40-yard line while owning a seven-point lead early in the third quarter.
Even if we generously give the Jets a pass on Mark Sanchez’s plain-as-day inclusion in the backfield of the punt formation, the decision itself makes little sense. The potential reward of gaining the first down in that situation simply is not worth the risk of giving the ball to the Bears at the Jets’ 40.
Sure, Chicago’s offense had looked good in the first half, particularly in its next-to-last drive before halftime that made the score 24-17, but a punt was the right call because it would have given the Jets one of their few opportunities to pin the Bears relatively deep in their own territory. After all, we should trust a defense that allows opposing quarterbacks to complete just 50 percent of passes, right?
The failed fake set in motion the chain of events that ultimately spelled defeat for the Jets. On the ensuing play, Cutler hit Johnny Knox for a tidy 40-yard touchdown pass. Something tells me that Chicago might not have been quite as aggressive on first and 10 from, say, its own 20. Of course, this is not to excuse the poor defensive play, but Ryan’s boneheaded decision certainly didn’t help matters.
And the alarming thing is that this isn’t the first time it’s happened.
Compounding my frustration is the fact that the Jets’ offense was especially efficient on this day — keeping them in the game and setting up Ryan’s second blunder.
Mark Sanchez was playing arguably his best game as Jets quarterback, completing 65 percent of his passes (24-of-37), and the rushing attack was solid if unspectacular, but Ryan saw fit to punt from the Bears’ 35-yard line on 4th down and six yards to go with about six minutes remaining in the fourth quarter and the Jets down by four.
Now, the Jets downed Steve Weatherford’s punt at Chicago’s 10-yard line, resulting in a net gain of 25 yards on the play. That’s a nice outcome, but the minutes were dwindling at that point, and there was a good chance that the Jets would only have one more possession from there. What’s the downside in going for it from your opponent’s 35-yard line? Turning the ball over on downs?
As it turned out, the Jets had two more drives after that — one was a three-and-out which ended with a punt from their own 45 (also a dubious decision), the other a last-minute desperation drive that ended after two plays on a Sanchez interception.
So, Ryan was aggressive when he should have been conservative and vice versa.
And here’s the kicker: As I wrote last week, the Jets pushed all the right buttons at all the right times against the Steelers in Pittsburgh. Their defense was sharper, sure, so that made things a lot easier to digest, but they were selectively aggressive and prudently conservative — they looked better prepared and more singularly focused.
That’s what makes this all so unsettling. The Jets took a step forward against the Steelers and two back against the Bears, dubiously kicking to Devin Hester, getting burned repeatedly on deep passes and, worst of all, making bad decisions. And now, they’re in the playoffs, where the stakes are higher, each decision more crucial, and the margin for error narrower.
Strategically, the Jets will bounce back, because they’re talented on defense and because Ryan is a damn good x’s-and-o’s coach. But whether Ryan will drop the ball in one of those few instances — when a head coach’s decision can alter the course of a (playoff) game — remains to be seen.