By Steve Lichtenstein
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The NFL is an NEL— a "No Excuses League."
After the New York Jets took a 27-10 beating in Pittsburgh yesterday, coach Rex Ryan and his players said all the right things. They all rattled on about how they wouldn't use injuries, even the concussion that forced future Hall-of-Famer Darrelle Revis to abandon his custom island at cornerback, as an excuse for the loss.
That may be the hard truth of life in the NFL, but I don't know if the Jets really believe it.
The League is a war of attrition. One man goes down, the next guy better be ready to step up. That's how the Steelers reacted when injuries took out some core players at key positions. Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu needed a week off after hurting his calf at Denver? In comes Ryan Mundy, who contributed with 5 tackles, including one that knocked Jets running back Shonn Greene a little woozy. Mundy also happened to pounce on Jets punt returner Jeremy Kerley's third quarter fumble for the game's only turnover.
Sometimes it takes a committee. Rashard Mendenhall, the Steelers' leading rusher last season, has not returned from a torn ACL in January. Isaac Redman was next on the depth chart, but he struggled in the first half yesterday. Jonathan Dwyer picked him up during the key second quarter drive that put the Steelers up for good, 13-10 with about a minute left before halftime. The combination then accounted for 45 of the 80 yards in Pittsburgh's 10-minute fourth quarter drive that put the game away.
The Steelers adapted and adjusted. With James Harrison recovering from a knee injury and not available to wreak havoc from his right linebacker position, Dick LeBeau's zone blitz created a mismatch with LaMarr Woodley using his speed from the left end to pressure quarterback Mark Sanchez.
For some reason, the Jets rarely have those answers. Almost every boo-boo seems to be a catastrophe. Their defense tanked the last two seasons immediately following the injuries to safety Jim Leonhard, a smart and hard-nosed player but by no means a perennial Pro Bowler. Sure, Garrett McIntyre had a strong game as a fill-in despite a few missed tackles. Of course, he was replacing Bryan Thomas, so we're not used to noticing any production from that spot, never mind two sacks of the shape-shifting Ben Roethlisberger and some hard hits.
But a week after making us believe he had grown up, Sanchez acted like he left his security blanket in New Jersey yesterday. Tight end Dustin Keller, a Sanchez favorite, was inactive after pulling his hamstring against Buffalo. I thought Jeff Cumberland looked ready to fill his shoes. With the Jets up, 7-6, in the second quarter and threatening with a third-and-five from the 19, Sanchez read a blitz and threw to Cumberland, his hot receiver, in the vacated area in the middle of the field. It looked like it hit Cumberland in the numbers. On the back of his jersey.
The Jets settled for a field goal, but Sanchez was toast for the rest of the day. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin and his staff are not the dimwits that Chan Gailey heads up in Buffalo. The Bills did nothing to disrupt Sanchez in Week 1 and were scorched. After two successful Jets drives, LeBeau dialed up the pressure and Sanchez responded by going 6-for-19. Sanchez fixated on Santonio Holmes but was only able to connect with him on one garbage-time pass in that span. The Jets needed Keller to open up the middle of the field. This is not a team that can afford to leave home without all its weapons.
And then there's Revis. Bart Scott's most devastating hit in two years was the boot he put to the back of Revis' head in the fourth quarter last week. Ryan, following League protocol, was forced to reorganize his defense on the fly when Revis was not cleared for contact.
Unfortunately, nothing Ryan designed could stop Roethlisberger's assault en route to a 125.1 passer rating. Roethlisberger found 10 different receivers, long and short, beating coverage to the sideline and in the middle of the field. When the Jets did blitz, Roethlisberger was often able to brush off the pass rush, move a little in the pocket, and then find his man downfield.
The problem is that the Jets treat Revis the way many teams value their quarterback. And you know what happens to just about every team in the NFL that loses its elite quarterback. The days of Jeff Hostetler taking a team to the Super Bowl are over.
Revis makes quarterback money, albeit guaranteed for fewer seasons. Revis' $11 million 2012 salary cap hit is higher than Roethlisberger's. Or Tom Brady's in New England. The Jets, under general manager Mike Tannenbaum, made a concerted effort to keep Revis and other players they deemed essential locked up with high-end contracts. Linebacker David Harris tops the cap hit chart at a ridiculous $12 million. The Jets' top ten cap figures consume nearly 60% of their salary cap. The Patriots and Steelers, their rivals who also happen to have quarterbacks with multiple Super Bowl rings, respectively use about 43% and 48% of the cap on such players.
No wonder those teams have better depth. Instead of just worrying about the quarterback's health, the Jets also have to cross their fingers every time their cornerback, middle linebacker, wide receiver or center goes to the ground. When you're paying your top two corners $20 million, plus your nickel back is a first-round draft choice with a $2.8 million 2012 cap figure, how much more can you invest in that position?
Look, I love watching Revis as much as any Jet fan. There are few corners in the League who can come close to matching his coverage abilities. The trust he has earned from Ryan allows the Jets defense to play a more dynamic style.
But the Jets Grand Plan is flawed. Successful teams (see Giants, New York) build around the quarterback and surround him with players acquired at an appropriate value, mostly through the draft. It remains to be seen whether teams like the Ravens or 49ers, like the Jets neither one quarterback-centric, can break through the glass ceiling. I do know that no team whose best player is a cornerback has won a Super Bowl.
And that's why Ryan always looks uncomfortable talking about just plugging in the next guy when a player like Revis can't play. Though NFL injuries are as common as September rain in New York City, Ryan knows his Jets' backup umbrellas have holes.
Are the Jets flawed by their lack of depth? Sound off in the comments below!
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