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December 20, 2004 Edition > Section:  Sports

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Aggressive Jets Put It All Together
Coach On The Couch

BY SEAN LAHMAN
December 20, 2004

What a difference a week makes.

A week after his worst game of the season, Jets quarterback Chad Pennington bounced back with an outstanding showing against the Seahawks yesterday. He masterfully dissected Seattle's defense, spreading the ball around and showing just how dangerous the Jets' short passing game can be when it's working well. His 148.1 passer rating was the best of his career.

With a dominating offensive line and a pair of powerful running backs, the Jets' ground game has been consistently productive. When the team struggles to score points, it's usually because the passing game is ineffective. Neither Pennington nor backup Quincy Carter had thrown for 200 yards in a game since the Jets' Week 6 victory over San Francisco. Gang Green went 4-4 in the ensuing eight games, scoring 17 points or fewer six times.

One of the problems was the conservative play-calling of offensive coordinator Paul Hackett. Too often, the Jets would find themselves in third-and-long situations because of their unwillingness to throw the ball on first down. That all changed yesterday; Pennington completed 8-of-10 passes on first down for 139 yards, and the Jets gained an average of 8.3 yards on first downs throughout the afternoon. They also completed 11-of-14 third downs and never punted. The word for that kind of offensive output is "unstoppable."

Much of this success owed to Hackett's more aggressive play-calling. When Seattle blitzed, he countered by calling screen passes to fullback Jerald Sowell. When the Seahawks brought a safety up and played a four-man front to contain the Jets' running game, Hackett responded with play-action calls and intermediate routes to receivers in man coverage. The results were overwhelmingly successful: New York's 482 yards of total offense were a season high.

The loosening of the passing game allowed Pennington to show that he's still capable of throwing the ball downfield, alleviating concerns that his shoulder injury was still limiting his arm strength. He had three completions of more than 20 yards, including a 32-yard touchdown pass to Santana Moss in the second quarter.

As is often the case, Pennington was helped by the Jets' strong running game. Curtis Martin and LaMont Jordan combined for 218 yards on the ground, the third time this year that both have rushed for at least 70 yards in the same game. In the first six games this year, Jordan carried the ball just six times. That meager pace was not only keeping an effective weapon idle on the sidelines, but at the same time running the risk of wearing down Martin.

Since the start of November, Jordan has had 10 or more carries five times, and the Jets have won each of those games. He offers a fresh pair of legs, especially late in the game when the team needs to chew time off the clock and protect a lead. Martin has also seen his rushing average increase as Jordan has helped lighten his load. When Jordan gets 10 carries or more, Martin averages 5.3 yards per carry. When Jordan gets fewer than 10 carries, Martin's average drops to 4.2 yards per carry.

With Seattle's defense ravaged by injuries, it shouldn't come as a complete shock that the Jets were able to shake off their offensive doldrums and have a big day. Nonetheless, with two tough games on the schedule and the playoffs looming, the offensive spark couldn't have come at a better time.

On the other side of the ball, the Jets delivered another superb defensive performance. Gang Green has fielded a championship-caliber defense all season long; Sunday's game marked the seventh time this year (and the fourth time in the last five games) that the Jets have held their opponent scoreless in the second half. They've gone eight straight games without allowing an opposing passer to throw for 200 yards.

The Jets' defense did two things exceptionally well yesterday. First, they put pressure on Seattle quarterback Matt Hasselbeck. Defensive coordinator Donnie Henderson likes to blitz, and that aggressive style of play resulted in three sacks - one by a defensive end, one by a linebacker, and another by a safety. Even when they weren't bringing the quarterback down, they kept him from having enough time in the pocket to throw downfield, and Hasselbeck didn't complete a pass of over 20 yards.

The other outstanding aspect of the Jets' defensive performance was the way they shut down Seattle's running game. The Seahawks came into this contest averaging 134.5 rushing yards per game - the seventh highest total in the league. Shaun Alexander is the NFC's leading rusher, but the Jets held him to just 77 yards on the day. Alexander was stopped for 3 yards or less on more than half of his carries, including three plays during a key goal-line stand late in the third quarter, which ended with Alexander fumbling the ball into the end zone on fourth-and-goal.

Most impressively, the Jets' defense continued to excel without their best player, John Abraham, who remains sidelined with a sprained knee. One of the players who stepped up to fill the void is linebacker Eric Barton. He forced Shaun Alexander to fumble on a play at the goal line, recovered another fumble by Hasselbeck, and notched an interception and a sack. He's making a strong case to earn his first Pro Bowl invitation, as are rookies Jonathon Vilma and Erik Coleman, whose ability to contribute right away has helped the Jets' defense improve from 21st in the NFL last year to sixth in 2004.

Good as the defense is, though, the Jets will need the offense to run full-throttle against good teams - not just lousy ones - if they want to win big games. Jet fans are hoping that the coaching staff won't abandon yesterday's aggressive approach and revert to conservative play-calling in coming weeks.

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