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November 19, 2004 Edition > Section:  Sports

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Jets' Offense Must Revisit West Coast

BY SEAN LAHMAN
November 19, 2004

This Sunday in Cleveland, the Jets begin a three-game stretch that will determine whether or not they make the playoffs. The Browns, Cardinals, and Texans are all young teams with losing records, and the Jets have an opportunity to regain some momentum after losing three of their last four games. In order to do that, the offense must make some adjustments and overcome the problems that were holding them back even before quarterback Chad Pennington hurt his shoulder.

The Jets scored 31 points against the Bengals in their season opener and put up 34 the following week in San Diego. With the exception of a lopsided win against the Dolphins, the Jets offense hasn't scored more than two touchdowns in a game since then. They have scored 17 or fewer points in five of their last seven games; most tellingly, they've managed a total of two first-quarter touchdowns over that span. Those results have coincided with a subtle shift in the offense, as the Jets have moved away from their trademark high-percentage passing game.

The basic premise of the West Coast offense is to control the clock with short passing plays. Critics call it a dink-and-dunk approach, but it is difficult to defend when run well. It looked like the Jets would be very successful in the West Coast this season after they added Justin McCareins, a big, physical receiver who can catch slant passes and get separation at the line of scrimmage. By getting the ball to him quickly, the theory went, the Jets would move the ball with short gains on low-risk passes and force opposing defenses to play tight coverage. That in turn would opens things up for the running game and create downfield opportunities for speedy wide receiver Santana Moss.

That game plan worked to perfection in those first two games, with Curtis Martin rushing for 315 yards and McCareins and Moss combining for 15 catches. Since then, the Jets have been trying to throw the ball downfield more often, but Pennington has not been able to find his top two wideouts - McCareins and Moss have combined for an average of just five catches a game.

After throwing four TD passes in the first two games, the Jets have thrown just six over the next seven weeks. That has allowed defenses to focus on containing the running game, and Martin has dropped from 5.2 to 4.3 yards per carry since the bye week. In a strange twist, Martin and fellow running back Jerald Sowell have been the team's leading receivers.

Against weaker teams like the Dolphins and the 49ers, the Jets have gotten away with that approach because their opponents couldn't put many points on the board. But it's a different story against quality teams, who have taken advantage of the Jets' poor clock management while shutting down an offense that is stuck in neutral. Over the last four weeks, the defense has allowed a paltry 16.6 points per game and yet the Jets have managed to lose three of those contests.

The solution is clear. The Jets need to get their offense going again by revitalizing the short passing game, making a commitment to getting the ball to their receivers, and keeping defenders from being able to focus solely on stopping Martin and the ground attack.

The problem, of course, is actually making those things happen. Unlike Pennington, Quincy Carter is not ideally suited to this style of offense. He's never been a particularly accurate passer, and during his time in Dallas, he had trouble making the kind of quick passes that a true West Coast offense requires. He'd rather look for a big play downfield, then dump it off to a running back or scramble if his receivers are covered.

The Jets might be tempted to tailor the offense to Carter's strengths, but that won't necessarily work. If the Jets move farther toward a more traditional passing game, defenses will tighten their coverage and pressure Carter, knowing he's prone to untimely interceptions. That's a real danger, since the Jets' offensive line wasn't designed to provide the kind of sustained pocket that a vertical passing game requires.

These difficulties were evident against the Ravens last week. After surrendering just eight sacks in the eight games that Pennington started, the Jets gave up five last Sunday with Carter under center. The great myth of scrambling quarterbacks is that their mobility helps them avoid the pressure, but that is only occasionally true. As is more often the case, Carter gave up more yards on sacks Sunday (26) than he gained running the ball (22).

Whether it's Carter or Pennington at QB, this team was designed to run a short passing attack that sets up the running game. When the Jets have done that, they have overpowered opponents, and when they've tried a different style, the offense has sputtered.

The Jets have to get back on track over the next few weeks to keep their postseason hopes alive. After this stretch against three opponents they should beat, the Jets will close the year against four likely playoff teams. If they can't start scoring points against teams like the Browns and Cardinals in November, they have no chance of beating teams like the Steelers and Patriots in December, and they'll be home by January.

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