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Jets relying too much on Sanchez; running game must lead way

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Every week, Bucky Brooks will bring a scout's perspective to some of the hot topics around the league.

If the Jets are serious about making a Super Bowl run, they must take the ball out of Mark Sanchez's hands. He's not ready to be the driving force of the offense, and the team must return to their "ground and pound" roots to have any chance of reaching their aspirations.

Sanchez has certainly been instrumental in helping the Jets reach the AFC title game in consecutive years, but he remains a work in progress and his inefficiencies have prevented New York from developing a steady rhythm this season. He has completed just 55.1 percent of his passes and has nine turnovers to six touchdown passes through four games. Sanchez's 75.9 passer rating ranks 28th, which is abysmal for a player with 35 career starts.

While those numbers should prompt the Jets to move away from their pass-first approach even as the league continues to evolve toward a game driven by quarterbacks, so should recent history.

The Jets have been one of the few teams able to ride a run-heavy offense to a playoff run the past two years. New York ranked among the top five rushing offenses in each of those seasons, including a league-best 172.2 yards per game in 2009. More importantly, the team averaged 35.6 rushing attempts over those 32 games. The steady diet of power runs allowed the Jets' massive offensive line to wear down opponents and set up Sanchez for timely deep throws off play-action. When executed, the combination of run and pass made the offense difficult to stop.

Greg Trott / Associated Press
The Jets have struggled to get their running game going in 2011, a far cry from the past two seasons.
Rushing averages per game for past three years
Year Rushes Yards Per Carry Total
2009 37.9 4.5 172.2
2010 33.4 4.4 148.4
*2011 23.0 3.1 71.0
*Through four games

That's why it is perplexing to see the Jets deviate from their running game -- currently ranked 30th in the league. The team has running backs -- Shonn Greene and LaDainian Tomlinson -- with the skills to grind it out and the line is suited to push defenders off the ball.

The guys up front, in particular, would benefit from a renewed commitment to the run with several newcomers in the rotation. Wayne Hunter, Vladimir Ducasse and Colin Baxter are getting more playing time due to injuries. A more downhill approach would allow them to come off the ball aggressively rather than sit back to take on agile rushers in one-on-one matchups.

The return to a physical ground game would also help the Jets' aging receivers see more favorable situations. With a team having to commit eight defenders to the box, Santonio Holmes, Plaxico Burress and Derrick Mason would be able to find more room to work. This would lead to easier throws for Sanchez and more production from the passing game despite fewer attempts.

Psychologically, the return of "ground and pound" would also help the Jets re-establish their identity as a blue-collar team and put the onus back on their defense to lead the way. With consecutive deep playoff runs using that approach, getting back to the basics could be a saving grace.

The Tennessee Titans are riding an old-school formula to success under defensive coordinator Jerry Gray. It's simple in theory: Eliminate big plays and buckle down in the red zone. Those principles are uttered across the league, but the fact that the defense has put the idea to practice has sparked the Titans to a 3-1 record and tied for the AFC South lead.

Tennessee's execution has been flawless through the first quarter of the season, with the unit ranking first in scoring defense (14.0) -- keyed by their ability to keep opponents out of the red zone. They have faced seven red-zone possessions and only three have resulted in touchdowns. The Titans have accomplished this feat by opting for coverage over pressure in most situations. This enables defenders to keep their vision on the quarterback and react quickly to balls thrown in front. With seven or more defenders dropping into coverage, the Titans are also able to force passers to fit the ball into tight windows.

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In running situations, the Titans are finding ways to crowd the box without compromising the integrity of their coverage. This means putting eight or nine defenders near the line of scrimmage, each having an assigned gap. With the approach guaranteeing a free hitter at the point of attack, the Titans have been able to snuff out short-yardage runs inside the 20.

Tennessee has also relied on the elimination of explosive plays to keep opponents from putting points on the board. The Titans have allowed just one run of 20-plus yards and no passes over 40 yards. This is a remarkable accomplishment considering the wide-open approach most offenses are utilizing in today's game.

Gray has remained ahead of the game by mixing his coverage, but rarely relying on the blitz to create pressure. Since he has consistently dropped seven into coverage, he's forced opponents to move the ball with short throws. This approach is based on the notion that offenses are unable to consistently string together drives without the assistance of a big play, and will eventually self-destruct via penalty, turnover or some other mistake.

While it takes tremendous effort, energy and execution from the defensive line to make the tactic work, the Titans have gotten exceptional play from their defensive front, including Derrick Morgan, Karl Klug, Dave Ball and William Hayes. That has allowed them to selectively blitz defenders off the edges.

The defense isn't as flashy as others, but its strict devotion to an old-school philosophy has made them one of the NFL's best.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.

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