Four weeks into the season and the New York Jets have defied all expectations, as they do not find themselves in the race for the first overall pick and Sam Darnold, but rather for the top of the AFC East. The 2-2 Jets entered Week 5 tied for second place in the division with the New England Patriots, one game behind the 3-1 Buffalo Bills. How is it that the team who was expected to be the worst in the league somehow has the same record the defending Super Bowl champs at the quarter-mark of the season? What have been the keys to Gang Green’s success and is their success sustainable with three quarters of the season still left to play?
Smart and savvy offseason moves
Four weeks into the season and Jets GM Mike Maccagnan looks like a genius for making the moves he did this past offseason. One of Maccagnan’s savviest moves was trading safety and massive headcase Calvin Pryor to the Cleveland Browns in exchange for linebacker Demario Davis. Pryor was released by the Browns after fighting with a teammate during practice and now finds himself sitting on the Jacksonville Jaguars’ injured reserve list. Meanwhile, Davis has been a major contributor on defense for the Jets and is currently one of the league’s top linebackers. Through four games, he has compiled 40 tackles, good for third most in the entire NFL. He is quite an impressive tackler, as evidenced by this masterful hit on Bills tight end Charles Clay, and there is no reason why his strong play should not continue as the season progresses.
Another smart move made by Maccagnan was trading Sheldon Richardson to the Seattle Seahawks for Jermaine Kearse and a second round pick. The defensive line has kept up its solid play and production despite the absence of Richardson, while the Jets managed to pick up a valuable draft pick and a reliable wide receiver, especially with the hole in their starting lineup due to Quincy Enunwa’s season-ending injury. Kearse has been a productive and consistent target for Josh McCown, and has also been a valuable mentor and locker room presence for a young Jets team. So far, Kearse has 18 catches for 182 yards and two touchdowns, and his production should continue to make up for the hole left by Enunwa.
Taking chances on other teams’ castoffs is another strategy that has paid off for Maccagnan, as evidenced by the acquisitions of defensive end Kony Ealy and safety Terrence Brooks. Ealy was claimed off waivers after he was cut loose by the Patriots, and it looks like a wise decision thus far. Ealy was key to the Jets’ overtime victory over the Jaguars last week, as he had one tackle, four passes defensed, and an interception in the contest. Brooks was acquired from the Eagles to be the team’s third safety in exchange for cornerback Dexter McDougle. While McDougle has played sparingly for the Eagles, Brooks has been a solid contributor, and was a major presence in the Jets’ Week 3 victory over the Dolphins, where he had two tackles, three passes defensed, and two interceptions. These low-risk, high-reward moves have paid dividends for the Jets, as these two players have become important contributors on the defensive side of the ball.
Maccagnan’s best moves in the offseason were his draft selections. He took two safeties with his first two picks, selecting Jamal Adams in the first round and Marcus Maye in the second round. Both Adams and Maye are stars in the making and will anchor the Jets’ secondary for many years to come. Thus far, Maye has 19 tackles, and Adams has 16 tackles, a sack and two passes defensed. Adams made many key plays in the Jets’ victory againast the Jaguars last week, and was a major reason why the Jets were able to pull off a win, as he was clutch with the game on the line in the fourth quarter and overtime. Another great pick was running back Elijah McGuire, who was selected in the sixth round. So far, McGuire has 23 carries for 156 yards and a touchdown, including an incredible performance against a talented Jaguars defense, where he ran 93 yards and a touchdown on ten carries. Look for all three of these rookies to continue playing a major role throughout the entire season.
Strong defensive play
With the exception of the Jets’ Week 2 match-up with the Raiders, in which Oakland scored 45 points, Gang Green’s defense has actually been pretty good. They only gave up 21 points to the AFC East-leading Bills, they limited the Dolphins to just six points, and they held a Jaguars team that put up 44 points against the Ravens to just 20 points.
The Jets’ front seven have been very solid through the first four games of the season. Demario Davis is third in the league in tackles, with 40 so far. Darron Lee has put up 26 tackles. Leonard Williams and Muhammad Wilkerson have been good as well, as Williams has 16 tackles and Wilkerson has 14 tackles thus far. Additionally, linebacker David Bass has played well, as he leads the team in sacks, with two. Kony Ealy has been a force, with seven tackles, five passes defensed, and an interception in four games.
The biggest key to the Jets’ defensive improvement has been their new and improved secondary. Buster Skrine has 19 tackles, a sack, and a forced fumble. Marcus Maye has 19 tackles, and Jamal Adams has 16 tackles, a sack and two passes defensed. Free agent acquisition and former Dallas Cowboy Morris Claiborne has 11 tackles and two passes defensed. Juston Burris has impressed, with eight tackles, two passes defensed, and an interception. Lastly, third safety Terrence Brooks has been a playmaker, as he has three passes defensed and two interceptions. As long as the Jets’ defense can continue containing their opponents, Gang Green may very well continue the success they’ve had through these first few games.
Just keep running
As evidenced by the their win over the Jaguars last week, the key to victory and success for the Jets is their explosive run game. Fortunately, the Jets have a two-headed beast in veteran Bilal Powell and talented rookie Elijah McGuire. Furthermore, keeping the ball out of Josh McCown’s hands certainly does not hurt, as it limits his ability to turn over the ball.
Powell has carried the ball 49 times for 235 yards and two touchdowns, averaging 4.8 yards per carry. His best game of the year came against the Jaguars, where he had 163 yards and a touchdown on 21 carries. McGuire has carried the ball 23 times for 156 yards and a touchdown, averaging a whopping 6.8 yards per carry. He also had his best performance against the Jaguars, where he ran for 93 yards and a touchdown on ten carries.
The key to the Jets’ success is to stop giving carries to an aging and declining Matt Forte, and instead increase the number of carries given to both Powell and McGuire. Josh McCown is inconsistent and plays best when his pass attempts are limited, and Powell and McGuire both have big-play potential, as evidenced by their 75-yard and 69-yard touchdowns against the Jaguars.
Can the Jets keep this up?
The Jets still have three quarters of their season left to play, and many wonder if it is feasible for Gang Green to keep up their strong play. The Jets do have some tough match-ups remaining which they will likely lose, as they still have to play the Patriots twice, as well as the Falcons, Broncos and Chiefs. However, they do have some very winnable match-ups remaining as well, with games coming up against the Browns, Bills, Dolphins, Buccaneers, Saints, Panthers, and Chargers.
The Browns have been dreadful and there is absolutely no reason the Jets should not exit that match-up with a win. The Jets played a close game with the Bills in Week 1 and have a shot at winning their second match-up with the current division leader. The Jets already defeated the struggling Dolphins once and could very well defeat them again. The Buccaneers have struggled this season and barely defeated the winless Giants. The Saints also have not played well and their defense is among the league’s worst, and the Jets’ ground attack could very well take advantage of that weakness. The Panthers have been inconsistent and barely beat the Bills and the Patriots. The Chargers have yet to win a game, and the Jets could give them some trouble. Lastly, there is even a slight chance the Jets could beat the 2-2 Patriots, though that is not likely.
There is a very realistic chance the Jets could end the season with a winning record. Given their remaining match-ups, they could very well finish the season 8-8, 9-7, or even 10-6. There is also a chance they could regress and finish 7-9 or 6-10. The AFC is wide open behind the Chiefs, Steelers, and Bills, thus giving the Jets a realistic shot at a wildcard spot and a playoff berth. Team Chairman and CEO Christopher Johnson was not lying when he said the Jets were not tanking. The Jets have turned a corner, as they are no longer in the hunt for the first overall pick and USC quarterback Sam Darnold, but rather in the hunt for a winning record and playoff appearance.
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