Every Play Counts is Michael David Smith's weekly look at one specific player or one aspect of a team on every single play of the previous game.
In an installment of Every Play Counts last month, I wrote about how the New York Jets' defense had dominated the Buffalo Bills' offense, and specifically how defensive tackle Kris Jenkins was a practically unstoppable presence in the middle of the line. The Bills finished that November game with just 30 rushing yards on 17 carries, and the Jets' defense looked like it could lead them deep into the postseason.
And then in Sunday's Jets-Bills rematch, Buffalo ran 32 times for 187 yards and two touchdowns, and the Jets' defense looked like it had no business playing in the postseason at all. Although Bills quarterback J.P. Losman ended up giving the game to the Jets with five turnovers, including three in the final 2:06 of the fourth quarter, the Jets' run defense was a mess.
So what's gone wrong? And can the Jets count on their run defense to lead them in the playoffs? We explore in this week's installment of Every Play Counts.
The first thing that must be said -- and this is very ominous heading into December -- is that the Jets' tackling is horrendous. There were way too many tackles to list them all, but we'll start with this: On the Bills' first offensive series, running back Marshawn Lynch took a pitch, ran around the right end, and proceeded to make the Jets look like a bunch of oversized high school kids trying to tackle an NFL running back. Linebacker David Harris had a shot at Lynch but couldn't get off the block of Bills tight end Derek Schouman and ended up just weakly sticking his arm out as Lynch ran by. Safety Abram Elam was in perfect position to make the tackle but got down into a bizarre crouch, like he was a baseball catcher and expected Lynch to run right into him. Instead Lynch cut outside and sidestepped him easily, and Elam was left grasping at Lynch's jersey. Cornerback Darrelle Revis should have had Lynch next, but he just stood there and waited and ended up getting blocked out of the play by Bills tackle Langston Walker. Linebacker Eric Barton was next; he got both hands on Lynch but didn't wrap up, and Lynch broke free with a spin move.
That's four Jets who should have had Lynch on the play, and we're not even done yet. Safety Kerry Rhodes was in good position to finally put an end to the run at the 32-yard line -- Lynch had already picked up 25 yards -- but Rhodes took a bad angle and Lynch brushed him away with a stiff arm. Rhodes did, however, slow Lynch down just enough that Revis and Elam were able to catch up (give them credit, I guess, for not giving up no the play after their missed tackles) and push him out of bounds. By the time he stepped out, Lynch picked up 35 yards on the play and still hadn't been tackled.
I use that play as an example because it was so egregious, but there were plenty of others. Notice especially the nine-yard run by Lynch with six minutes to go in the fourth quarter, which was followed immediately by a Fred Jackson 11-yard touchdown that gave Buffalo a 27-24 lead. These are the times when someone on the Jets needs to make a play, and instead we had the guys near the ball failing to make tackles and the guys away from the ball standing and watching. Jackson's touchdown was especially horrible; Jackson pushed a pile of seven Jets into the end zone, while the other four Jets -- Hank Poteat, Calvin Pace, Sione Pouha and Revis -- acting like uninterested observers.
Bad tackling is a particularly big problem this late in the season because there's not a whole lot left to do about it. If there were flaws in the Jets' schemes, the coaches would pore over the game film and figure out where the problems are. But a team isn't going to work on a problem like poor tackling in practice this late in the season because no coach wants to risk injury in a December practice. And it's not like there are a bunch of good tacklers out there as free agents just waiting for the Jets to sign them. I'm not sure what the Jets can do about bad tackling after 15 weeks of the season.
But while bad tackling is about the most fundamental problem a defense can have, another problem may be a greater cause for concern: Jenkins looks like he's wearing down. He finished the game with just one tackle, and the Bills had a lot more success running in his general direction than they did the first time these teams played.
On a first-and-10 in the second quarter, Jenkins was lined up at his customary nose tackle spot and Bills center Duke Preston and guard Brad Butler handled him with relative ease, pushing him off the ball and a few yards down the line. Lynch took the handoff and ran over the right tackle for a relatively easy 13 yards, and with Jenkins getting taken out, the Jets' defense looked nothing like the one that was stifling the Bills' running game a month ago.
There were a number of plays like that, when Preston got some help from one of the guards and took Jenkings out of the play. Obviously, if the Bills are double teaming Jenkins, as they so often did, they still have a healthy dose of respect for his ability to disrupt their offense. Here's what Bills guard Derrick Dockery told the team's official web site:
"We knew coming into this game whether it's double team, triple team, we made up our minds that if we could do what we did with (Browns nose tackle) Shaun Rogers. We can't let these guys in the middle beat us. Sometimes you've got to double and triple team them and not block them one-on-one. So we changed our schemes up. We did slides and some man-switching. We put a lot of our focus on him."
But for much of this season Jenkins was making life hell for opposing offenses even when he did get doubled. That's not the case anymore. Jenkins, who was limited in practice last week with a hip injury, looked like the long season has taken its toll on him.
That was never more apparent than a short-yardage situation late in the fourth quarter, when the Bills were clinging to a three-point lead and had the ball on third-and-1 at their own 19-yard line. It was simple: If the Jets couldn't stop the Bills here, they were almost certainly going to lose.
So what did the Bills do? They ran it up the gut, and Preston blocked Jenkins one-on-one. Jenkins got a good first step, but Preston overpowered him, putting him flat on his back, and Lynch ran for three yards and the first down that should have sealed the game.
Of course, it didn't work out that way. Bills coach Dick Jauron called the inexplicable pass play that could cost him his job, Elam sacked quarterback J.P. Losman and knocked the ball loose, and Jets defensive end Shaun Ellis scooped up the ball and rumbled 11 yards for the game-winning touchdown. Losman would throw two interceptions in the final two minutes, and that would be that.
But while Elam and Ellis deserve credit for a good play, the Jets' defense shouldn't do much celebrating. It's safe to say the Bills would have won if they had called a run on that play, because the Jets' front seven did almost nothing against the run all day.
I say "almost" because there was one player on the Jets' front seven who played a good game on Sunday: Backup defensive end Mike Devito, a second-year player out of Maine who has never started a game in his NFL career but has played in all 14 games for the Jets this season and looked very good in the defensive line rotation on Sunday. On a first-and-10 handoff to Lynch, the play was drawn up for Derek Fine to keep Devito on the inside while Bills tackle Langston Walker pulled to the outside and cleared a path. Unfortunately for the Bills, Devito blew the whole play up by pushing Fine back, creating a logjam on the right side that caused Lynch to cut back inside. Devito then tackled Lynch for a loss of a yard.
That was the only time all game that Lynch ran the ball and didn't pick up positive yardage, although Devito also had a tackle on which he stopped Lynch for just one yard on second-and-4. Devito is a player to keep an eye on down the stretch; if he gets more playing time and continues to play the way he did in limited playing time Sunday, the Jets might have some reason for optimism.
But based on Sunday's performance, there aren't many reasons for optimism. For the Jets, every game from here on out is a must-win. And although they're certainly capable of winning at Seattle on Sunday and at home against Miami a week later, if the Jets' 2008 season is going to be a success, they'd better have a plan better than just hoping the other team's coach blows the game.