This week, I'm going to stretch out the typical one long post at the end of the week that I make to preview a game into a couple different posts. This way I can focus more and more on each individual part of the game and provide more content.
When the Jets have the ball...
Gameplan: The Jets are going to do the same thing they have done all season: run the football early, and run it as long as the pace and score of the game allow them to. Rex Ryan wants to win games based on his defense and not let his offense mess it up. The offense shot the team in the foot over and over again, specifically Mark Sanchez, and now the offense is predicated on a "Ground and Pound" philosophy, where the Jets will want to run the ball over and over. If the Jets have their way, Sanchez will be throwing the ball 15 times again, and the Jets will run the ball 40+ times.
Ground and Pound: Shonn Greene's skillset and power has given him the de facto number one runningback role. Thomas Jones gets the ball to start the game, in situations where the Jets can't afford to fumble, and whenever the Jets need a steadying hand. Jones ran for over 1400 yards this season, but he hasn't been as effective lately. He's a veteran presence, better at holding onto the ball, pass blocking, and all the little things runningbacks have to do. But Greene is the key. He has the power to run over some of the smaller Colt defenders, and if he can get to the secondary, look out. The Colts' run defense is average, but like the Chargers, their offense masks some of the deficiencies. Still, the Colts might have the quickest defense in the NFL, so running to the outside will not be easy and getting to the second level will be easier said than done. The Colts got gashed the last two weeks of the regular season, when they played over a full game with their backup defense. and by the Wildcat in week two against Miami, so their numbers are skewed up a little. Still, what the Dolphins did will be a blueprint for the Jets: run the ball like crazy and control time of possession. If they can do that, they have a very good chance to win.
The Rookie: Sanchez is one of the rare NFL quarterbacks who is not the focal point of his offense, and that's simply because he's an inexperienced rookie. He will have his hands full in this game. He was efficient and didn't turn the ball over in the first game against the Colts, but now Indianapolis will be at full strength and playing hard throughout. Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney are huge playmakers coming off the edge, and both love to strip quarterbacks. Ball security has always been key for Sanchez, but in this case, fumbles based on sacks rather than interceptions might be the bigger concern, especially if the Jets are able to keep it close and stay within their gameplan of running the ball, keeping it close, and wearing down the smaller Colts' defense in the 4th quarter. Still, the Jets will have to throw at some point, and it will be vital for the Jets to stay out of 3rd and long situations. The crowd will get into it, the Jets will have to throw the ball, and Mathis and Freeney are free to do what they do best. However, don't overrate the crowd factor. Sanchez dealt with the crowd in week 16 for a half, and QualComm Stadium was rocking last week. It's hard to imagine LucasOil Stadium surpassing the noise level in San Diego, even in a dome.
Little Margin for Error: The Jets are 10-0 when they win the turnover battle, so it will be vital for the rookies Greene and Sanchez to hold onto the football and force Peyton Manning to have long fields to score on. The key stats as far are third down conversion, red zone conversion, and turnovers. If they convert on 3rd down, they can keep Manning off the field and keep the score down, which is what the Jets certainly want. New York certainly is not a high powered offense, so converting touchdowns instead of field goals will be huge and of course turnovers will as well.
Can the Jets throw in this game? Braylon Edwards was brought in to be a big play guy. This is his type of game. The Jets need to score touchdowns in this game, so if Edwards can create opportunities by getting open deep and then completing the plays by actually catching the ball, the Jets will have a very good chance, and the running game will be opened up as well. Jerricho Cotchery is a very effective move-the-chains receiver who isn't easy to take down in the open field. Dustin Keller has been a weapon in recent games, and that needs to continue. He's had some problems with his hands at times, too, so it's imperative that he takes advantage of his opportunities. Sanchez was great when asked against Cincinnati, but last week he threw for just 100 yards on 23 throws. He needs to be better this week. The running game has consistently been better in the 2nd half than the 1st, so Sanchez may have to make a couple plays early to keep the Jets in it.
Will Brad Smith play a role? Brad Smith has had an inconsistent role this season. When you expect him to make a big difference, he usually falls short, but when you least expect him, he'll make some big plays. After back-to-back quiet games, Smith could see some more action from under center. It was effective for the Dolphins, so the Jets may be willing to try it as well. Also, with points at a premium, there's a chance that Ryan will opt for a fake punt, in which case, Smith is usually involved. It sounds crazy to try in an AFC Championship game, but the Jets have run a number of successful 4th down trick plays this season. It would take a lot of courage from Rex Ryan to put his special teams in such a situation, but Mike Westhoff's crew has come through in the past. Smith also had a 106-yard kick return for a touchdown for the Jets' first score in the first matchup between these two teams, so he's a threat returning kicks. The Colts' Pat McAfee has a booming leg, so Smith's chances will be limited, but when he gets a chance, watch out.
Bottom line: The Jets have the best offensive line in the NFL, and they have manhandled and worn down most of the defenses they have faced this season. Indianapolis is undersized, so there's no reason that can't happen again. However, that might not be good enough. Manning and company should put up more points than the Chargers, so if the Jets can't get a first down until halfway through the 2nd quarter like last game, the Jets could see themselves down double digits and in a situation they really can't afford to be in. How well the offense does has a lot to do with how well the defense does. How well will the defense do? That remains to be seen. Expect the Jets to score between 10 and 24 points. The key will be how much the defense can hold down Manning and how often the defense can give the offense easy scoring opportunities.
Coming soon... Colts' gameplan