August 3, 2005 Edition > Section: Sports > Printer-Friendly Version

Can Pennington Shoulder the Jets' Hopes for 2005?

BY SEAN LAHMAN
August 3, 2005
URL: http://www.nysun.com/article/18034

There's only one question on the minds of people watching the New York Jets training camp, which began this past weekend at Hofstra University. How healthy is Chad Pennington? The 29-year-old quarterback, who had surgery in February to repair a torn right rotator cuff, has slowly been regaining the strength in his shoulder as camp progresses, but is still a long way from mid-season form. As fans well know, Pennington will need to be 100% if the Jets hope to challenge the Patriots for the AFC East division title.

Moving beyond Pennington, though, it's clear that there are other serious questions that the Jets must address before finishing training camp. They may not be getting as much intense media focus as Pennington's throwing arm, but the solutions to these questions will be just as important in determining how far the Jets can go this season.

WILL THE DEFENSE REMAIN AGGRESSIVE?

The Jets made a conscious decision to add youth and speed to the defensive unit last year, and the results were remarkable. They improved from 21st in yards allowed in 2003 to seventh in 2004, and jumped from 28th to fourth in takeaways. Much of the change was spurred by two rookies - linebacker Jonathan Vilma and free safety Erik Coleman. Both are big hitters with a nose for the ball, and both helped raise the intensity level of the players around them.

An NFL roster is always changing, and the loss of several defensive starters is going to make the sophomore season an even bigger challenge for Vilma and Coleman. The departure of veteran defensive tackle Jason Ferguson leaves a hole in the middle of the defensive line that may make it easier for opposing teams to neutralize Vilma. Much of his success last year was due to his freedom to make plays in space. If the Jets' line can't occupy blockers this year, those blockers will tie Vilma up and keep him from making so many tackles. The Jets signed veteran DT Lance Legree as a free agent, but it's just as likely that James Reed, the Jets' seventh-round pick in 2001, will emerge as the starter. Neither, however, can fully replace Ferguson.

Similarly, the retirement of veteran cornerback Donnie Abraham is going to put more pressure on Coleman at his free safety position. An aggressive player like Coleman can thrive in the cover-2 defense by letting the cornerbacks handle coverage responsibilities underneath. That leaves the safeties to make plays against both the pass and the run. As training camp begins, it's unclear who is going to take Abraham's place. Ray Mickens tops the depth chart for now, but he missed all of last season with a knee injury, and the 10-year veteran may not have the speed necessary to man the position.

The Jets hope that rookie Justin Miller can eventually become a starter, but he's much too raw to take the job now. If things go well, training camp will allow him to take his first steps toward replacing Mickens.

The defensive unit's strong play carried the Jets in the second half of last season, and if it regresses this year, the Jets could find it harder than expected to make the playoffs.

CAN HEIMERDINGER SOLVE THE OFFENSIVE WOES ?

Critics of former offensive coordinator Paul Hackett complained that his offense was maddeningly conservative. His supporters countered that Pennington's inability to throw the deep ball made it difficult for Hackett to be more aggressive. In truth, both were probably correct, and that's the major challenge facing the new coordinator, Mike Heimerdinger.

What will make a Heimerdinger offense different from a Hackett offense? For one thing, you'll see a larger variety of formations, especially the shotgun. You'll also see the tight end playing a role in the passing game. Under Hackett, starting tight end Anthony Becht had just 13 catches last year, which may be why he split for Tampa Bay. Under Heimerdinger last year, the Tennessee Titans' tight ends combined for 83 receptions. That's why the Jets traded their first-round draft choice to acquire Doug Jolley, who made 90 catches in three seasons with the Raiders, and could become a major weapon in Pennington's arsenal.

The Jets also reacquired Laveranues Coles, an explosive receiver who can give the Jets the big play option they've been missing since he left for Washington two years ago.

Heimerdinger has to do more than just open up the passing game. He also must find a way to keep the running game going. Last year, the Jets ranked third in rushing yards thanks to Curtis Martin's career-best average of 106 yards a game. At 32, though, it's unlikely that Martin can lead the league in rushing again, especially with powerful right tackle Kareem McKenzie defecting to the Giants.

Somehow, Heimerdinger has to find a way to keep the running game going strong, open up the passing game, and do both of these things with a quarterback whose practice time will be limited while he continues to recover from surgery.

IS MIKE NUGENT A DIFFERENCE MAKER ?

Most Jets fans were perplexed when the team used its first draft pick (a second rounder) to select a kicker. What short memories they have Doug Brien's two missed field goals in the fourth quarter of the Jets' playoff loss to the Steelers made him the goat for the disappointing end to the 2004 season. Outside of those two kicks - neither of which was a gimme - Brien hadn't been particularly bad during the regular season. He ranked 13th among kickers with an 82.8 field goal percentage and made 11 of 13 from beyond 40 yards.

The selection of Nugent was surprising for two reasons. First, because Brien hadn't actually done that poorly, aside from the nightmare ending in Pittsburgh. But more importantly, a kicker wasn't the team's biggest need. On draft day, the Jets knew they needed immediate help in the secondary and on the defensive line, as well as added depth at running back and along the offensive line. Even if Nugent becomes an All-Pro kicker, is the difference between him and Brien going to help more than adding a position player to an area of need?

Nugent made some big kicks in big games at Ohio State, and that's exactly what the Jets hope he'll do for them in the years to come. But making tough kicks against Northwestern is a much different kind of challenge than kicking field goals in Foxborough in December.

After winning ten games last year and nearly advancing to the AFC Championship game, the Jets feel like they're poised to challenge the Patriots for the AFC East and make a deep playoff run. But there are some fairly serious challenges that must be faced in training camp. If they can't plug the holes that were created during the off-season, they'll have a tough time just finishing above .500. If the team can work through those problems and make the kind of improvements they're striving for, the Jets will be as good as any squad in the league.

August 3, 2005 Edition > Section: Sports > Printer-Friendly Version