We've done this once - just about a month ago, we were breaking down the Jets, calling them an overrated, yet underrated opponent as they prepared for a Week 4 tilt with our Bills. As it turned out, the Bills bettered the Jets in that contest - but it was a close game. My, how times have changed in New York since that loss.
Going into the first matchup, the Jets were 1-2 and had just picked up their first victory against the then (and now) winless Miami Dolphins. The Jets' loss to Buffalo that week began a four-game tailspin that has seen the Jets get dominated (NYG), struggle to score (PHI) and blow late leads on the road (CIN). Again, we must proceed cautiously with this team, however - they've lost four straight, they're 1-6, but they're still a dangerous opponent - especially with this game taking place in the Meadowlands.
Offense: Still Pennington's Show
Veteran gets Mangini's vote: Contrary to the opinions of many Jets fans who are calling for backup Kellen Clemens to start, Jets head coach Eric Mangini has decided to stick with Pennington for this contest. The reason? While Pennington's play has not been great, he's far from the reason the Jets have lost four straight (more on that in a moment). During the losing streak, Pennington has tossed 5 touchdowns compared to four in his first two outings. All 7 of his interceptions have come in the last four games, and most of them have come in critical junctures - namely, as the Jets were driving for game-tying scores. Despite these issues, Pennington has been a steady leader for his club and he's still going to be difficult for the Bills to contain come Sunday - remember, Pennington completed 82% of his passes the last time he played us.
Run Game Gaining Emphasis: Perhaps the best offensive threat the Jets have (other than Laveranues Coles) is RB Thomas Jones - but the Jets have misused him to date. Over the team's four-game losing streak, Jones has carried the ball just 17 times per game despite the fact that the Jets have not lost any of those contests by more than 9 points. Meanwhile, Pennington is putting up 32 throws per game - the run/pass disparity in New York has been the biggest downfall of the team, let alone the offense. But it's coming around - Jones has carried 43 times over the past two weeks - so expect a heavy dose of Jones on Sunday. The Bills need to shut him down as they did in Week 4 (12 carries, 35 yards) in order to put the ball back in Pennington's hands.
Defense: Can't Keep Them In It
Vilma Likely Out?: The other big story (outside of the QB controversy) in New York is the status of Jets MLB Jonathan Vilma, who has an injured knee and may not be able to play on Sunday. The speedy middle linebacker was reportedly angry with Mangini when the coach pulled Vilma during last Sunday's loss to the Bengals because of the injury (Bengals backup RB Kenny Watson ran for 3 scores in that game, for the record). Without Vilma in the middle, rookie David Harris would likely get the call - he's played well, but it means there might be more running room for Marshawn Lynch this week.
Breakdowns Galore: New York has had difficulty staying in games because their defense has struggled to keep opponents off the scoreboard. Over the past four games, the Jets gave up 17 to Trent Edwards in his first start; 35 to a hot Giants squad; 16 to an Eagles team that has had awful troubles in the red zone; and 38 to the Bengals, most of them in the second half. The Jets are surrendering 138 yards rushing per game (28th in the league) and 240 through the air (26th in the league). With Vilma out, the Bills have a prime opportunity to pound the ball with their trio of backs (Lynch, Anthony Thomas and Dwayne Wright) and set up the play-action for Edwards. That will simplify things a bit for Edwards in his first road start, and it's the best way to attack a struggling Jets defense.
Special Teams: The Jets' Wild Card
Washington an elite KR: Leon Washington is not getting many looks at RB behind Jones (a mistake, in this humble blogger's opinion), but he is making big plays in the kick return game. Washington is tops in the NFL amongst returners with double-digit returns averaging 33.2 yards per return (an astronomical number), and two of his 20 returns have gone for scores. He's also tied for second in the league with 3 returns of 40+ yards (Terrence McGee, for the record, sits alone at the top of that list with 4 such returns). The guy, straight up, is probably the most explosive returner in the league, and a guy who can single-handedly keep the Jets in any game with a big return.
Keeping the Jets alive: Don't underestimate the importance of a strong special teams performance from the Bills on Sunday. The Jets have the type of return units and coverage units that, like Buffalo's, can significantly impact the outcome of a game. Playing in front of a home crowd will only further highlight the effectiveness of these units; the Bills will need to prove Sunday why they're considered the best special teams units in the league and neutralize the Jets' attack, especially Washington. Only then will the Bills be able to focus on outdueling Pennington and shutting down Thomas Jones.