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Lichtenstein: Jets Developing Young Talent; Next Step Is Mental Game

By Steve Lichtenstein
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As I sat down to watch the Jets take on division rival Buffalo yesterday, my biggest concern was how the Jets would counter their opponent's speed.

You see, while the media was tossing accolades at the Jets defense, this was Gang Green's first time this season facing a mobile quarterback, which in the past has often given Jets coach Rex Ryan fits.  In addition, though Ryan has had plenty of success in the head-to-head meetings, the Bills posed matchup problems with players like running back C.J. Spiller and wide receiver Stevie Johnson, both of whom previously have had monster games by running away from Jets defenders.

Wow, was I way off base.

The Jets manhandled the Bills in virtually every way in their 27-20 victory at Met Life Stadium.  Spiller was a nonfactor, with a mere 9 yards on 10 carries (and, just as significant, he only gained a yard on his lone reception) before exiting in the third quarter with a knee injury.  And while E.J. Manuel, the rookie quarterback, did pick up 40 yards on his six scrambles/bootlegs, the Jets' front seven (plus some random-blitzing corners and safeties) ended up in his face all day.  The Jets defense was credited with eight sacks and an unreal 16 hits, which hounded Manuel into a 19-for-42 passing day.

In fact, it was the Jets who were the big-play makers.  Rookie quarterback Geno Smith took advantage of the Bills' undermanned secondary by throwing two beautiful bombs for touchdowns, including the game-winning 69-yarder to Santonio Holmes with 9:23 left in the game.  The other was to much-maligned receiver Stephen Hill, who accumulated over 100 yards receiving for the first time in his two-year career.  Third-year running back Bilal Powell broke open some big runs in his career-best 149-yard day.

So why was this game not decided until the Bills' final possession?

Look no further than the Jets' bizarre case of what-in-the-world-is-going-on mental hiccups.  For the game, the Jets committed three turnovers and incurred a franchise-record 20 accepted penalties for 168 yards.  Nine of those penalties, including a senseless one that negated a fumble recovery, occurred in the wild fourth quarter.

Jets cornerback Kyle Wilson lost his marbles, committing penalties on four straight plays during the Bills' game-tying fourth-quarter drive.  His mano-a-mano battle with Johnson got personal, and it proved costly.  The Jets would have gotten off the field if not for Wilson's personal foul following a lost fumble by Bills running back Fred Jackson.

In his postgame press conference, Ryan took the heat for his team's lack of discipline.  But he didn't go far enough.

For example, why did it take so long for Ryan to pull Wilson when it was clear he had lost his composure?  And why was Johnson Wilson's assignment?  Aren't the Jets paying Antonio Cromartie big money to cover the opposition's top receiver, while Wilson has yet to live up to anything close to his 2010 first-round billing?

Ryan also didn't delve deep into the mystery of his two ridiculous challenges in a 3:30 span during the third quarter, neither of which had any chance of being overturned.

The first one, in which Ryan challenged a spot on a third-and-short run by Powell, was especially damaging.  If Ryan was using the time to consider his fourth-down options in Bills territory, he needn't have wasted a challenge as no replay showed the spot was incorrect.   It's bad enough Ryan didn't have the foresight to think ahead in case the Jets didn't pick up the first down, but just burning a timeout would have sufficed.

This came back to haunt the Jets when Manuel clearly fumbled following a scramble early in the fourth quarter, only Ryan was out of challenges.

You would have thought that these types of gaffes would have occurred on the visiting side, what with the Bills sporting a rookie coach, a rookie quarterback, and various backups at key positions due to injuries.

It's what's made the Jets' start to this season so odd.  Though almost unanimously (myself included) denounced during the preseason for their talent deficiencies, the Jets have been better than the two dreadful teams they beat and, I will argue, they played toe-to-toe with perennial division favorite New England during their 13-10 road loss a week ago.

With Smith at the helm, the Jets look to be a lot more capable of making plays on offense.  I mean, I know it was against the Bills, but when's the last time a Jets quarterback averaged over 20 yards per completion?

On defense, the Jets have yet to allow a quarterback to complete over 50 percent of his passes.  Many of the young players, like lineman Muhammad Wilkerson and linebacker DeMario Davis, have shown excellent bursts to the ball to better defend teams with speed.

Instead it's the mental breakdowns, the lack of discipline that trickles down from the coaching staff to the players, which keeps me grounded to reality, knowing that the competition will surely pick up in the coming weeks.

In the past, Ryan was able to lean on a more veteran core to limit these mistakes.  They were never the Raiders, jumping before the snap all the time and engaging in extracurricular activities after the whistle.  In Ryan's first two seasons, the Jets were among the least penalized teams in the NFL.

But rebuilding means transitioning to young players, who have to be taught.  It's Ryan's biggest challenge as he fights to extend his job past this season.

It's been exciting to see the Jets develop a depth chart that is clearly an improvement over last season.  But if they don't master the mental game as well, we can't expect too much change in the end results.

For a FAN's perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.

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