2012 AFC East Preview (cont.)
What the Jets do best: Defend the pass.
This just in: The Jets have pretty good cornerbacks. And even with some underachieving play at safety in 2011 -- a position they believe they've upgraded this year with the new starting tandem of LaRon Landry and Yeremiah Bell -- New York was pretty stout against the pass again last season. The Jets surrendered less than one touchdown pass per game (15), which ranked second in the league, and their 54.2 completion percentage (4th overall) and 201 passing yards per game allowed (5th) both earned them top-five honors.
The key to New York's strength against the pass is obvious: If there is a true shutdown cornerback in today's NFL, Darrelle Revis is it. And the Jets also have the play-making Antonio Cromartie and an improving Kyle Wilson at cornerback, giving them the AFC's deepest depth chart at the position that grows ever more important with each passing year. If Landry and Bell can solidify the safety position, proving capable in both run defense and centerfield play, the Jets secondary will thrive against the three- and four-receiver sets favored by New England, Buffalo and Miami.
What the Jets need to improve: Their shorten-the-game running attack.
Time for a late-August reminder that the Jets didn't trade a fourth-round pick for Tim Tebow to threaten Mark Sanchez as their starting quarterback, they acquired him to help them return to the physical-style "Ground and Pound'' running game that worked so well in helping them reach back-to-back AFC title games in 2009 and 2010. Tebow is mostly about re-flexing New York's muscles in the ground game, and it's new offensive coordinator Tony Sparano's job to use him as effectively as possible while keeping defenses honest with his occasional passing threat.
New York got away from its winning blueprint last season and suffered for it. The Jets' Shonn Greene-led running game averaged an embarrassing 3.8 yards per carry, ranking 29th among 32 teams, and their 105.8 yards rushing per game was just 22nd, putting far too much pressure on quarterback Mark Sanchez and a passing game that is still underwhelming at times and often prone to game-turning mistakes. Tebow is the X factor in New York this season, but the Jets' fortunes won't turn on what he does with his left arm as much as they will with his legs.
Which Jet needs to step up: Austin Howard, offensive right tackle.
The Jets on Thursday finally did the expected and benched the besieged Wayne Hunter, inserting Howard into the starting lineup -- at least for now. The right tackle slot was a trouble spot all last season for New York, with Hunter being held responsible for 11 sacks, and also drawing 11 penalties. After a dreadful preseason capped by Hunter giving up three first-half sacks to the Giants last weekend, the Jets had enough and are giving Howard the chance to claim the job as his own.
Howard is a third-year veteran who went undrafted and has been cut by the Eagles and Ravens earlier in his career. How much of an improvement over Hunter he is will be worth watching closely in New York's final two preseason games. The Jets could get back into the trade market seeking a right tackle, after having the Jeff Otah deal voided by his failed physical earlier this month.
Predicted record: 7-9.
New York's defense had better rebound significantly in terms of its 2011 fall-off in points allowed (22.7 per game, 20th overall), because the Jets offense simply isn't equipped to win many shootouts. Even if Mark Sanchez can block out the Tebow chatter and have a strong season, New York's offense lacks for playmakers, especially at receiver, where the Jets are really counting on second-round rookie deep threat Stephen Hill to make an early impact.
The high-drama factor will again wear on New York's locker room at some point, and the Jets are usually their own worst enemy when it comes to focusing solely on football and not wasting precious energy on outside issues. While the Patriots and Bills look like they've improved, New York seems locked in a state of status quo, and that translates to third place in the AFC East this year.
What the Dolphins do best: Stuff the run.
It got lost in the shuffle last season, when the Dolphins started 0-7 and eventually got head coach Tony Sparano fired, but no one ran on Miami in 2011. The Dolphins defense finished third against the rush with just 95.6 yards allowed per game, third in terms of average rush (3.7), and surrendered the third-fewest rushing touchdowns (8). Much of the credit for that strength goes to nose tackle Paul Soliai, who often drew double-team blocks and still effectively clogged the running lanes. Alongside Soliai was defensive tackle Randy Starks, another underrated lineman whose ability to get off blocks and make plays should now fully be utilized with Miami going to a 4-3 defensive formation under new coordinator Kevin Coyle.
Ends Cameron Wake and Jared Odrick both have strong pass rush skills, but they're not liabilities against the run by any means. In combination with Miami's middle linebacker Karlos Dansby, who flows to the ballcarrier with solid instincts and athleticism, teams trying to run against the Dolphins will be in for some frustrating afternoons.
What the Dolphins need to improve: Their receiving depth chart.
There may not be a more anonymous group of skill-position players in the league than Miami's receiving core. With Brandon Marshall traded to Chicago and Chad Johnson currently unemployed, the Dolphins will have rookie starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill looking for the likes of Davone Bess, Legedu Naanee, Brian Hartline, Roberto Wallace, Marlon Moore and Julius Pruitt on game days. See what I mean?
Unheralded doesn't even begin to describe this group. Try finding a go-to guy in that bunch. One will certainly emerge, but for now, Bess and Naanee are as good as it gets. Maybe Miami goes receiver shopping around cutdown time and adds a name or two to the depth chart. Until then, some young players like Wallace, Moore and Pruitt might get great opportunities to contribute. Just don't look for Miami's pass catchers to go high in anybody's fantasy draft.
Which Dolphin needs to step up: Jonathan Martin, offensive right tackle.
The team's second-round pick out of Stanford has been the starter at right tackle since he arrived in Miami's training camp this summer, but his preseason has been shaky at times. Last week against Carolina he allowed two sacks and took penalties for holding and a false start.
A three-year starter at left tackle for the Cardinal, Martin was moved to the right side in deference to veteran Jake Long, one of the NFL's finest at his pivotal left tackle position. With Long, Martin and second-year veteran Mike Pouncey at center, the Dolphins offensive line has a chance to be one of the team's strengths for years to come. But at the moment, Martin is over-thinking things at times and getting caught up in the mental battle that rookies must slog through. Once he learns to play more instinctively and let his athleticism take over, he'll cut down on the mistakes.
Predicted record: 5-11.
Miami is certain to have some growing pains this year with a rookie at quarterback in Tannehill and a first-time NFL head coach in Joe Philbin, the former Green Bay offensive coordinator. It'll help accelerate Tannehill's development that his former collegiate coach, Mike Sherman, is on hand as the team's offensive coordinator and play-caller, but it would aid the rookie even more if Miami had given him a few more NFL-proven receivers to target. The Dolphins defense is pretty solid and will keep the team in games, but there aren't enough playmaking weapons on the roster to score with the likes of the Patriots and Bills. Building a better offensive arsenal is one of Miami's long-range objectives, but it leaves the Fish significantly outgunned this season.