FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — The Jets have lost 12 straight games in September, with the last win coming in Sam Darnold’s first career start. Sunday, they’ll try to break that spell in Cleveland against the Browns, who just beat the Panthers … for whom Darnold is a backup quarterback.
The NFL is weird.
And maybe that is the best hope for a Jets win in Week 2 — they are heavy underdogs on the road, and there were unexpected winners all over the NFL to start the season. Coach Robert Saleh insists the Jets are a better team than they showed in a 24-9 loss to the Ravens in Week 1.
Is he right?
Here are eight final thoughts, observations and a prediction heading into Game 2.
1. Saleh got a lot of attention for his comments Monday about “taking receipts” for all the people mocking the Jets, calling them the “same old Jets” after a bad Week 1 loss to the Ravens. It might have been surprising to hear a coach say something like that after one game, but not if you understand how Saleh operates.
His message was interpreted as a shot at the media, but in the locker room, players took it as a show of support for them, a public statement of belief in their ability to turn things around, where past Jets teams failed.
But to understand those comments on a deeper level, you need to understand Saleh. He’s a passionate person who wears his emotions on his sleeve. Sometimes that shows in a news conference.
When I talked to Saleh for the story about his background and how his college buddies helped to break him out of his shell, he told me a story about a speech class he took in college. One morning he woke up and realized he’d forgotten he had to speak in front of the class that day, so on his 30-minute walk to class, Saleh thought up what he was going to say. He didn’t write anything down, and he aced the exam.
The Jets public relations staff prepares Saleh on his way to the podium, but he still mostly operates like he did for that exam.
“I don’t do (opening) statements because if I do statements, it doesn’t come off as clean as if I shoot from the hip,” Saleh told me.
He explained himself further Wednesday, two days after the hullabaloo.
“Well, you guys know me. I’m a very positive person,” Saleh said. “It’s just showing a lot of conviction in this locker room, and I know what we’re doing in this building and the type of players we have.”
The idea that these are the “same old Jets” set him off, but he also understands this team still has to prove it’s not like the Jets teams of the last decade.
“Trust me, I get it. I’ve been on losing teams. It is not fun,” Saleh said. But “I just know it’s going to happen. It’s just a matter of proving it, and that’s our job: We have to go out there and prove it. It doesn’t change. You guys caught me in a passionate moment defending the locker room, and that’s about it.”
It won’t be the last time Saleh shows that sort of passion at a news conference.
2. Expect offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur to play Garrett Wilson more in Week 2. The rookie receiver played only 41 of 84 offensive snaps against the Ravens, and six of those 41 were running plays. He didn’t get his first snap until there was 3:16 left in the first quarter, and his first target came at the 3:07 mark. That play showed exactly why Wilson needs to be on the field more, too. Quarterback Joe Flacco was being pressured and heaved it to the opposite side of the field, where Wilson came back for the ball, caught it, juked two defenders and nearly got a first down on third-and-long.
“It seemed like the ball was in the air forever,” Wilson said. “I hadn’t been in the game flow at that point, so I just went out and tried to make a play.”
He finished with four catches (on eight targets) for 52 yards. Wilson needs to be in the “game flow” against the Browns.
“We can see how dynamic he is,” LaFleur said.
Saleh said Wilson didn’t play as much at the start because the Jets were focused on using their 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends) and 13 personnel (one RB, three TE) packages against the Ravens. The Jets, according to TruMedia, ran 10 snaps in 13 personnel: eight in the first quarter, and the other two at the start of the second. LaFleur also said the Jets had plans to play Wilson more, but “when you’re not moving the ball in the first quarter outside of two chunk plays and not being able to convert on third down, we didn’t get the rotation of personnel groups that we initially wanted.”
LaFleur also intimated that Wilson is still learning how to play every wide receiver position and that he needs to be “able to operate every single play. Not just the pass plays where he knows he’s getting the ball, but also when we’re running the ball, when he’s running the fake sweeps and stuff like that, that operation needs to get to 100 percent, and he knows that.”
Tight end C.J. Uzomah is unlikely to play this week, leaving rookie Jeremy Ruckert and converted receiver Lawrence Cager as the backup tight ends. There likely won’t be such a focus on multi-tight-end packages this week, and don’t expect the Jets to take as long to get Wilson involved, either.
— Zack Rosenblatt (@ZackBlatt) September 15, 2022
3. Fans were already calling for Mike White to replace Flacco in Week 1, and Saleh added some fuel to that fire, coyly suggesting he hadn’t decided as of Monday who would start against the Browns. The reality: It was always going to be Flacco, a source told The Athletic. It’s unclear how long Flacco’s leash is, but he certainly has to play better than he did in the opener, even if the circumstances weren’t great around him. The offensive line struggled, receivers dropped four passes and there were multiple fumbles against the Ravens.
“There’s just a comedy of errors that led to what looked like a bad performance by him,” Saleh said. “Now, it wasn’t the best performance, but I think it wasn’t as bad as people think it was.”
Saleh pointed out that when Flacco had a clean pocket, he was “very, very efficient,” which is true. Flacco completed 32 of 40 passes for 266 yards, one touchdown and one interception with a clean pocket; the pick came when Cager slipped while running a route. But Flacco also was 5-of-19 on passes when he was pressured, and Saleh acknowledged Flacco needs to “just deliver the ball where it needs to and just get off of certain reads.”
WELCOME TO BALTIMORE @MarcusWilliams ‼
TUNE IN ON CBS. pic.twitter.com/vFGY4oDXZx
— Baltimore Ravens (@Ravens) September 11, 2022
Another thing that can’t continue: Flacco threw 59 passes, a league high, and only one of them — a 24-yard completion to Elijah Moore in the first quarter — traveled more than 20 yards in the air. He had the lowest rate (1.7 percent) of deep passes and ranked 30th of 31 qualified quarterbacks in air yards per attempt (4.85).
LaFleur acknowledged he “needs” to call more deep passes, though he said the Jets did call a few of them but the Ravens were operating in a way defensively that forced Flacco to check down.
“We’re never just going to throw it up and pray we come down with plays when there’s two guys on one,” LaFleur said. “It’s just not going to happen. That’s just not how it works. They’re just forcing you to check it down. If they weren’t doing that, they were bringing some heat.”
Flacco getting pressured was an issue, too, and that won’t get much easier to prevent against Myles Garrett and the Browns.
“The problem was when (the Ravens) were bringing a four-man rush, they were bringing pressure on us, too,” LaFleur said. “That can’t happen. That’s got to be fixed, and that’s got to be fixed now.”
Flacco didn’t seem to think the Jets will be airing it out this week.
“Maybe we’re going to have to go the long, hard way a few drives,” Flacco said. “I think we are willing to get it done that way.”
4. It seems as if safety Jordan Whitehead (ankle) will play Sunday, which Saleh sounded less optimistic about earlier in the week when he called it a “week-to-week” injury. The Jets signed Will Parks off the practice squad, and he’d likely get the majority of the playing time (ahead of Ashtyn Davis and Tony Adams) if Whitehead can’t play — or can’t finish the game.
Uzomah hurt his hamstring in practice and will be a game-time decision. Punter Braden Mann has a back injury and was listed as questionable on the injury report. The Jets signed punter/kicker Ty Long to the practice squad this week in case Mann can’t play — and maybe to eventually replace him if Mann shanks another 20-yard punt this week.
Quarterback Zach Wilson (knee) is still out, though he showed some encouraging signs this week in practice, participating in seven-on-seven and individual drills. He’s still not expected to return until the Steelers game in Week 4.
Zach Wilson stretching with the team before practice: pic.twitter.com/f8XE0TkiLU
— Zack Rosenblatt (@ZackBlatt) September 15, 2022
5. Jets coaches said they were encouraged by rookie right tackle Max Mitchell’s debut last week. He wasn’t perfect, but he also didn’t make as many noticeable mistakes as you’d expect from a fourth-round pick starting in his first game — especially because the Jets drafted him as a developmental prospect. LaFleur said he’s “ascending,” and Saleh said Mitchell is “going to be a very good tackle for a very long time.”
“It wasn’t too big for him,” LaFleur said. “Sometimes with offensive linemen, when you don’t notice them (while) watching the tape, that’s a good thing. … For the most part, he went unnoticed, which is a good thing.”
Mitchell allowed three pressures. The results of those three plays: a sack (allowed by Mitchell) and two incompletions. Running back Breece Hall had three rushes for 14 yards to Mitchell’s side, too.
Left tackle George Fant and left guard Laken Tomlinson were surprisingly bigger problems than Mitchell against the Ravens, allowing a combined 12 pressures and one sack. And they’ll be tasked with blocking Garrett, maybe the most talented pass rusher in the NFL. Last week, he had two sacks, six pressures and a 94.5 pass rushing grade (from PFF) against the Panthers and rookie left tackle Ikem Ekwonu.
“It looks like Myles is on a mission,” Saleh said. “I mean, he looked dirty last week.”
It’s not as if it will be a cakewalk for Mitchell on the right side. He’ll be matched up with Jadeveon Clowney for most of the game. Clowney had a half-sack and two pressures against the Panthers.
“Jadeveon Clowney is always going to be a problem,” LaFleur said.
6. The Browns passing attack isn’t especially scary with Jacoby Brissett at quarterback, though they do have Amari Cooper at wide receiver and the speedy Donovan Peoples-Jones, targeted 11 times in the opener. Bet on the Browns avoiding Jets cornerbacks D.J. Reed and Sauce Gardner as much as they can.
Reed and Gardner played in Week 1 like they did all summer — both look like No. 1-caliber starting cornerbacks. Reed was graded as the league’s best cornerback in Week 1 (minimum 20 snaps) by PFF, made even more impressive by what he was dealing with in his personal life that day.
Gardner was 12th in his first start and was especially impressive in his coverage of Pro Bowl tight end Mark Andrews. Combined, Lamar Jackson targeted Reed and Gardner in coverage nine times, per PFF, and they allowed one catch for 8 yards. Both had pass breakups, and Reed had a stellar interception. Both graded out well on run defense, too.
The Jets can be more concerned about safety, especially with Whitehead banged up. Lamarcus Joyner had a rough opener, too, but the Jets have two cornerbacks talented enough to make up for some of those ups and downs that will come from the safety spot.
“We put those guys on an island,” Saleh said. “If you really go dissect that tape, we were very aggressive, very aggressive with our safeties, and they did a great job. … I’m really excited about those two.”
7. All offseason, Saleh harped on the Jets’ poor run defense from 2021, which allowed a league-high 28 touchdowns, plus 138.3 rushing yards per game, which was third worst. Last week, the Jets held the Ravens to 63 rushing yards, the fewest they’ve had in any game with Jackson as their starting quarterback. It won’t get any easier against the Browns, even if they don’t have a Jackson-esque athlete at quarterback. Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt form an elite running back pairing, and Cleveland won’t be afraid to run the ball all afternoon.
The Browns had 217 rushing yards and a 5.6 yards-per-carry average against the Panthers. Chubb rushed for 141 yards on 22 carries. Hunt scored two touchdowns.
Chubb is a “guy that loves to wear people down,” Jets defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich said. “They’re both powerful, they’re both strong, they’re both extremely fast. They’ve got the ability to do the dirty work inside and push the pile and do the hard ball running. But they also have the ability to finish runs because they both have explosiveness, top-end speed.”
8. The Jets only have a shot at beating the Browns if they don’t fall behind early. As long as Flacco is at quarterback and the offensive line is getting used to playing together, they are not built for comebacks. The best hope is a grind-it-out, run-heavy attack with long drives that end in points — not drops, turnovers or missed kicks. The Jets’ rushing attack looked solid last week, and the Michael Carter/Breece Hall duo, while not quite Chubb/Hunt, should only get better as the season progresses. If the Jets offensive line can keep Flacco upright, they have a chance.
I’m not confident in that happening, but I envision a close game.
So, my prediction: Browns win 17-13.
(Top photo of Garrett Wilson: Mike Stobe / Getty Images)
This content was originally published here.