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Struggling Jets must throw early to get ground game going

It's funny how quickly things change in the NFL.

A few weeks ago, the New York Jets were widely hailed as the team to beat in the AFC, but consecutive losses to the New England Patriots and Miami Dolphins have cast serious doubts about their legitimacy as title contenders.

Although it's a bit premature to dismiss the Jets after falling to divisional foes in consecutive weeks, I'm convinced that New York must rediscover its offensive identity to keep its lofty aspirations afloat.

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Coach Rex Ryan has always referred to the offense as a ground-and-pound unit that bludgeons opponents running the ball with the pass serving only as a complement. However, a close examination of the tape suggests that the Jets are not the sledgehammer that Ryan proclaims.

In looking at their most recent film, the Jets have morphed into a finesse team that is relying on the passing game as the driving force of the offense. Part of that is due to playing from behind against the Patriots and Dolphins, but their season statistics mirror the lopsided run-pass ratio over the past two weeks.

The Jets are currently running the ball 47 percent of the time, and average only 32.8 rush attempts per game. Granted, they still rank as the league's sixth-best rush offense (143.7 yards per game), but those numbers are dramatically down from the 2009 version that led the NFL in rushing yards (172.2) behind a game plan that featured 58.9 percent run with 37.9 rush attempts per game.

While circumstances often dictate how a coordinator calls a game, it is interesting to note that the Jets lead the league with 261 rush attempts on first down, and that represents 63.9 percent of their plays in that situation. When looking at the film, I noticed that the tactic often left them in long-yardage situations on subsequent downs because they are running the ball into eight-man fronts when aligned in two-back sets, and seven-man looks when featuring one-back formations.

Offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer attempts to mix up his formations and personnel to disguise his intentions, but the Jets are very predictable on first down. They could benefit from incorporating more high-percentage passes to take advantage of soft coverage that accompanies the run-heavy defensive fronts. By completing quick-rhythm routes, play-action or bootlegs on first down, the Jets can stay ahead of the chains, which will allow them to stick with the running game on second and third down.

Some might suggest that flipping the first down script is the last thing that the Jets should consider given the recent struggles of Mark Sanchez. However, it could help him regain his confidence after a pair of poor performances and nearly being benched. He has only connected on 44 percent of his passes and accounted for five turnovers (four interceptions and one lost fumble) in the past two games. Some of those miscues can be attributed to the Jets routinely finding themselves in long-yardage situations on second and third down, which allows defensive coordinators to attack with a host of exotic blitzes and coverage. Sanchez has struggled identifying open receivers in those situations, and his impatience has resulted in costly turnovers.

In addition to his poor decisions, Sanchez has been woefully inaccurate. He repeatedly overthrows open receivers down the field and the passes outside the numbers have often bounced before reaching the intended receiver. Even though inclement weather has played a part, Sanchez has to find a way to put the ball on target regardless of the circumstances. The road to Super Bowl XLV will likely travel through Pittsburgh, New England and Baltimore, and the conditions in those locations will include rain, wind and possibly snow.

Sanchez could also benefit from getting better play from his receivers. Braylon Edwards, Santonio Holmes, Jerricho Cotchery and Dustin Keller have provided some highlight moments, but they have also taken turns dropping passes in critical situations. As a unit, they rank 10th in drops (26), and those missed opportunities are costing them points in the red zone. Given the slim margin for error in matchups between elite teams, the Jets have to do a better job maximizing their scoring chances.

Given the Jets' woes in the passing game, it only makes sense for the team to rely on LaDainian Tomlinson and Shonn Greene to shoulder the brunt of the load. Talk that the running game was in better hands last season with Thomas Jones as the feature back (Jones finished as the league's third-leading rusher and had seven 100-yard games) isn't necessarily true.

The combination of Tomlinson and Greene has been just as lethal. Both average 4-plus yards a carry and their skills provide an effective complement in the scheme. Tomlinson excels as an edge rusher and nifty receiver, while Greene is the hard-hitting workhorse between the tackles. Although they have only combined for two 100-yard games, the Jets have had one runner tally 20-plus rush attempts just three times this season. For that reason, the Jets' dip in rushing output might be the result of fewer chances rather than good defense or declining production.

With heavyweight bouts against the Steelers and Bears on the horizon, it is time to get back to the run-heavy game plan that Ryan prefers. For a persistent running game is akin to body blows in a boxing match. The cumulative effect eventually wears down defenses. Furthermore, the high number of attempts forces defenses to stay in run-heavy fronts, which will open up the passing game for Sanchez.

If the Jets can get back to their running roots with a sprinkle of first-down passing, they can regain the swagger and toughness that had New York envisioning a title run.

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