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Jets face challenges to make third straight AFC title game

The Jetswent down with some serious fight Sunday night. While it would be easy to nitpick all of the missed opportunities, the bottom line is New York had a very successful season. If the Jets played the first half even remotely like the second, we'd be looking at a very green-filled Super Bowl.

Instead, Monday marked the start of the offseason. On second thought, it really came directly after the game when coach Rex Ryan told CBS reporter Steve Tasker that the Jets would be back to win the thing next year.

Even as Ryan continues his single-minded focus, criticism of offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer has come full bore. As we continue our series of exit interviews, let's go topical first.

1. Can Schottenheimer answer call?

It's one thing when a team's fan base gets upset with a play call, as they are often the most passionate, and by virtue of that emotion, the most irrational. It's a little different deal when criticism comes from fans nationwide. When it's a major contributor to the offense? Not good.

Wide receiver Santonio Holmes told reporters after the game to ask Schottenheimer what happened in the loss. He didn't exactly hide his disenchantment with the game plan.

Schottenheimer is also getting roasted for the way he called the four-down sequence from the Steelers' 2 yard-line that resulted in no score. This after the Jets methodically drove down the field for eight minutes. Two pass plays didn't work, including one that was nearly picked, and then a LaDainian Tomlinson run when many felt it would've been smarter to use the powerful Shonn Greene.

On the flip side, it was Schottenheimer's play-calling that got the team down there in the first place. It's easy to come down hard on Schottenheimer, but keep in mind, he's sometimes hogtied by having a second-year quarterback in Mark Sanchez, who is clearly still developing.

Ryan said Monday that Schottenheimer will "absolutely" be back in 2011. But if his own players criticize Schottenheimer, and the offense lays an egg like it did at Heinz Field, the Jets could have a rocky road trying to get back to the Super Bowl doorstep -- especially in the media Mecca of the world.

2. What will receiving corps look like?

Speaking of Holmes, and fellow wide receiver Braylon Edwards, where will these guys be playing next year? How about Brad Smith?

Holmes was clutch this season. Whether it was his 52-yard catch-and-run in overtime to set up the winning field goal vs. the Lions, the overtime touchdown to beat Cleveland or that circus catch against the Patriots in the divisional round, he delivered. Edwards also had a very nice season. It would be tough to envision those guys not coming back, despite their free-agent status.

Smith is huge, too. Like former Jet Leon Washington, Smith can bring a kick back, or make a huge play on a routine second-and-5 that other guys can't. He's not a showboat, or a "me" guy, he just excels in whatever form Ryan needs him too.

Regarding Holmes and Edwards, Ryan said in his Monday press conference, "I don't know how feasible it's going to be, but I'd love to have both those guys back." It will certainly come down to the CBA situation and money, but both are integral to the Jets getting back to the AFC title game again.

3. Where's the rush?

Outside of re-signing the starting wideouts, nothing can be more of a priority than creating a pass rush. While the Jets posted 40 sacks (tied for eighth in NFL), many of those occurred because of outstanding coverage.

Gang Green's defense was often "Smokey and the Bandit" without the Trans Am. Nothing would make this team more killer than a DeMarcus Ware or Clay Matthews-type at outside linebacker -- guys who could capitalize on confused linemen not knowing who to pick up on one of Ryan's blitz cocktails. Granted, these dudes don't grow on trees, but Ryan and defensive coordinator Mike Pettine are too often forced to generate pressure solely with scheme more so than with great pass rushers that can do it on their own.

In a 3-4 alignment, it's difficult for the down guys to get a lot of sacks. Considering Shaun Ellis and Trevor Pryce are on the wrong side of 30, and the latter might retire, this is a major need area. Linebacker Jason Taylor could also call it quits. It's time to seriously address the front seven in the draft.

4. What's the draft plan?

So, look for the Jets to hit the front seven somewhere in the first three rounds. Not just for pass-rush purposes, either. Although run-stuffer Kris Jenkins could return in 2011, he'll be 32 and coming off two major knee injuries in as many years. With his large contract, he'll probably have to take quite a pay cut. The Jets have only had seven draft picks total in the last two years, with nary a defensive lineman or linebacker chosen.

Wideout could be a necessity if the club loses two of its receivers over the offseason. Ditto the offensive line if Damien Woody and his $3 million-plus contract are unloaded. Front seven aside, the organization will likely pick the best player on the board.

5. In need of a kick?

The kicking game is often overlooked, but it's tough to say whether Jets fans are confident in kicker Nick Folk, or punter Steve Weatherford.

Folk, who's a free agent, didn't have a bad season, but six of his nine misses in the regular season were very makeable. Throw in a missed 30-yarder against the Patriots in the playoffs, and this qualifies as an issue.

Weatherford was downright awful for a good portion of the playoffs. He hit a couple of dying quails against the Patriots, resulting in 22.3 net average. He didn't exactly light the world on fire in Pittsburgh last Sunday, either, averaging 36.5 yards per kick. While most people poo-poo the punting game, it can make a difference. His 29-yard kick in the second quarter gave the Steelers excellent field position, which led to a field goal. His next punt went just 33 yards when he could've pinned Pittsburgh inside the 10-yard line. Pittsburgh drove 66 yards to a touchdown that made the score 17-0.

One, or both, of these guys might not be around in 2011, or will likely see competition in camp.

Elliot Harrison is the research analyst for NFL RedZone on NFL Network.

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Carolina Panthers wide receiver D.J. Moore (12) makes a deep catch as Los Angeles Chargers outside linebacker Kyzir White (44) trails on the play during an NFL football game , Sunday, Sept. 27, 2020, in Inglewood, Calif.

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