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January 3, 2005 Edition > Section:  Sports

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Gang Green Puts Its Weaknesses On Display
Coach On The Couch

BY SEAN LAHMAN
January 3, 2005

Late in the fourth quarter of their loss in St. Louis yesterday, the Jets players and coaches along the sideline saw the good news on the scoreboard. The Buffalo Bills had lost their game against the Steelers, eliminating them from playoff contention and vaulting the Jets into the playoffs as the AFC's fifth seed.

Everything else about the day was a disappointment for Gang Green.

The Jets' performance in the 2004 finale was emblematic of their entire season. The defense made some big plays, but it wasn't enough to overcome a lackluster offense that could neither create its own scoring opportunities, nor capitalize on the ones it was given.

The same old problems that have plagued them all year stifled them once again. The exasperating dink-and-dunk strategy of offensive coordinator Paul Hackett produced several long, time consuming drives that eventually stalled. In the first quarter, for example, the Jets held the ball for nearly twelve minutes on a couple of drives but managed just 54 yards of net offense on 22 plays. Those two long drives produced just three points.

The Rams and Jets are completely opposite in their offensive strategies, as was demonstrated in the second quarter. While Gang Green seems to prefer getting their yards in small chunks, St. Louis is all about the big play. The Jets started the second quarter with another long drive that went nowhere, chewing 5:05 off the clock in eight plays before punting it into the endzone. The Rams responded with a 3-play, 80-yard touchdown drive that reminded Jets fans of how limited their team's offense is.

On first down, Marc Bulger threw deep down the middle to a wide-open Kevin Curtis for 34 yards. On the next play, the Jets were caught in an all-out blitz as Bulger dumped off to running back Steven Jackson for a 19-yard pass. Bulger then capped it with a 27-yard touchdown strike to Isaac Bruce.

The Jets didn't have a single play all day that was as explosive as anything the Rams did on that drive. The biggest plays the Jets pulled out of their playbook were quick slants and out passes for 10-15 yard gains. Later in the second quarter, they were able to string enough of those together to score a touchdown. Unfortunately, to be a successful playoff team, those kinds of throws have to be the bread and butter of your passing attack, not the biggest weapon in your arsenal.

As usual, big plays by the defense and special teams helped keep the Jets in this game. Trailing 21-10 in the third quarter, they got back into the game when rookie Jerricho Cotchery returned a kickoff 94 yards for a touchdown. Two plays later, Jason Ferguson forced a fumble and Donnie Abraham recovered to give the Jets the ball back on the Rams' 34-yard line. But again the offense failed to capitalize, settling instead for a short field goal. Later in the third, Jonathon Vilma took the lead back for the Jets when he intercepted a slant pass and ran it down the sideline for a score.

The inability of Pennington and the Jets to muster any sort of attack in the fourth quarter left the team unable to put the game away. They went three plays and out on their first two possessions, the latter of which consumed just 15 seconds. A team like the Rams will commit their share of turnovers, but given enough opportunities, they'll make their share of big plays, too.

After the Rams retook the lead midway through the fourth quarter, the Jets launched into another long, frustrating drive that ended with Doug O'Brien's third short field goal on the day.

If you hadn't seen this team play all year, you might think that the lack of fire and intensity the offense displayed was due simply to their knowing that they'd already clinched a playoff berth. The reality is that this is the way the Jets have played more often than not this season. The defense is aggressive, always attacking and intent on setting the tone. This style of play enables teams to win championships, but that will never happen so long as the offense plays like a wallflower - slow, plodding, and manically methodical.

This loss to the Rams also exposed some weaknesses that might not have been apparent in previous weeks. Somewhere in a darkroom in San Diego last night, Chargers coaches and players were looking at the tape of this game to see how the Rams did two things to the Jets that hadn't really been done before.

First, they scorched the Jets secondary, racking up 450 passing yards and completing seven passes of more than twenty yards. They did this by spreading the ball out with three and four receivers and taking advantage of soft spots in the Jets' zone defense. Bulger also looked for mismatches in man coverage, particularly with cornerbacks Terrell Buckley and Oliver Celestin, which he was able to exploit for big gains.

Secondly, Pennington was sacked a career-high six times. St. Louis blitzed quite a lot, but blitzes mean generating pressure with linebackers or defensive backs. All six sacks came from the Rams' defensive linemen, suggesting they found ways to get past the normally solid pass protection of the veteran Jets line. Jason Fabini in particular had a hard time with defensive end Bryce Fisher, who beat him twice for sacks and induced Fabini to commit two false start penalties.

So the Jets limp into the postseason having lost three of their last four games. After returning from St. Louis, they'll have a short week and a cross-country flight before a playoff game in San Diego on Saturday night. To get to the Super Bowl, they'll have to beat the 12-4 Chargers, then, likely, the 14-2 Patriots, followed by the 15-1 Steelers. None of that seems plausible for a team that put all its limitations on display yesterday.

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