The Jets and Bucs battled in one of the closest games on Sunday, if not necessarily one of the most well-played ones. I was at the game, rooting on the home team, and can file this game under “all’s well that ends well.” While there are many takeaways from the game, the Bucs’ discipline problems will dominate discussion in Tampa Bay this week.
The Buccaneers looked unprepared at the start of the game and sloppy throughout. The Bucs were having some problems with Josh Freeman’s headset, which might explain why the team had to call timeout after an incomplete pass on the fourth snap of the game. But Tampa Bay followed that timeout with a delay of game (how?), which was followed by another delay of game (how??). That was followed by a sack, a false start, and then another false start.
The discipline problems continued throughout the game. Freeman wasn’t prepared for a Jeremy Zuttah snap, which resulted in a safety (and another penalty when Freeman kicked the ball out of the end zone). New Buc Dashon Goldson committed a brutal personal foul on Jets tight end Jeff Cumberland on one drive; on the next, the other safety, Mark Barron, was flagged for unnecessary roughness on an eight-yard pass to Jeremy Kerley on 3rd-and-21. That gave the Jets a first down, and let to New York’s only offensive touchdown of the game, a seven-yard throw from Geno Smith to ex-Buc Kellen Winslow.
Leading 14-12 in the fourth quarter, the Jets had 3rd-and-6 from their own 27. Smith couldn’t find anyone and ran out of bounds, but a defensive holding kept the drive alive (which led to a field goal). But despite all the penalties, Tampa Bay still managed to gain the lead in the game’s final minute. With 15 seconds remaining, the Jets had the ball at their own 45, a good 15-20 yards away from field goal range. Geno Smith scrambled and ran out of bounds with seven seconds left, placing the Jets at the Tampa Bay 45-yard line. But after the play, second-year linebacker Lavonte David was flagged for a personal foul, putting the Jets in field goal range. Nick Folk connected from 48 yards out, and David’s blunder is up there with Dwayne Rudd‘s helmet toss as the most costly penalties of the last 15 years.
But there were many things to take away from Sunday’s game besides Tampa Bay’s discipline problems. Let’s start with some positives. The Buccaneers completed a remarkable worst-to-first turnaround in rush defense last year, after ranking as the league’s worst unit against the run in 2011. David, Gerald McCoy, Mason Foster, and Daniel Te’o-Nesheim played well, and the Jets running game was completely ineffective. Bilal Powell and Chris Ivory combined for 44 rushing yards on 22 carries, while Jeremy Kerley added lost a yard on a Wildcat run.
Darrelle Revis was brought in to cure a pass defense that allowed opposing quarterbacks to throw for over 4,900 yards in 2012. He may not be fully healthy — he largely shadowed an also gimpy Santonio Holmes — but he looked the way Revis has always looked. He knocked away two passes intended for Holmes, and the Jets largely avoided him the rest of the game.
Most Jets wins involve strong production from the defense and special teams, and this one was no different. Let’s take a second and appreciate Nick Folk, who connected on a 48-yard field goal to win in the most high-pressure situation possible: trailing by two, in the final seconds, that kick is the difference between a win and a loss. Since 2009, Folk is just the third kicker to hit such a long field goal while trailing by one or two points in the final thirty seconds of a game.1 Folk had a shaky training camp and preseason, and won the Jets kicker battle despite having an ugly preseason. He justified the team’s faith in him in a big way on Sunday.
The Jets defense lost Darrelle Revis, Bart Scott, Sione Pouha, LaRon Landry, Mike DeVito, and a host of coaches in the offseason. And the team was playing without Quinton Coples, New York’s top pass rusher, who was out with an ankle injury. The defense is always expected to pay more than its fair share under Rex Ryan, but the unit delivered on Sunday.
Tampa Bay scored a touchdown after a Geno Smith fumble recovered at the Jets five-yard line. If we ignore that “drive” and the team’s end-of-half kneel, here were the results of the Bucs first ten drives:
— 6 plays, 6 yards, Punt
— 3 plays, -3 yards, Safety
— 3 plays, -9 yards, Punt
— 5 plays, 44 yards, Touchdown
— 6 plays, 35 yards, Punt
— 3 plays, 3 yards, Interception
— 11 plays, 55 yards, Punt
— 3 plays, -2 yards, Punt
— 6 plays, 29 yards, Punt
— 3 plays, -14 yards, punt
The defense allowed a short drive for a touchdown, but was otherwise outstanding until the final drive of the game. That was despite the fact that neither cornerback played well: Antonio Cromartie struggled when put on an island against Vincent Jackson, and Dee Milliner looked like a rookie from start to finish. Safety Antonio Allen, the culprit on David Wilson‘s 82-yard run in the preseason, got burned on what was nearly the defining play of the game: On 3rd-and-10 at the Tampa Bay 37, Freeman hit Jackson for a 37-yard pass to bring the Bucs from desperation to field goal range. Still, if you give the Bucs defense credit for the five-yard touchdown drive, that means the Jets defense held the Bucs offense to just eight net points.
Geno Smith, who gets credit for leading a fourth quarter comeback in his first start, had an uneven performance. The fumble near his own goal line was Mark Sanchez-like and unacceptable; the interception later was just as bad. On the other hand, this was in many ways a quintessential Sanchez win, as Smith did just enough to keep things close and then pulled out a victory at the end. Smith became just the second Jet to rush for 45 yards and throw for 250 yards in a game, a trick Al Dorow did twice when the Jets were the Titans.
The Jets now head to Foxboro to face the Patriots on Thursday Night Football, in a game that won’t be dominated by questions of when will the Jets fire Rex Ryan. Tampa Bay has to play the Saints and Patriots the next two weeks, which could set the team up for an 0-3 start unless the offense comes out of its shell. Doug Martin was limited to just 65 rushing yards on 24 carries, and that included a 17-yard run in the final two minutes when the Jets were playing the pass. Martin wasn’t any better in the passing game, as Freeman connected with him on just two passes for -1 yard on six targets. Credit the Jets front seven for containing Martin, but it was an ugly performance for a player expected to carry the offense.
Martin’s expected to carry the offense, of course, because of the questions at quarterback. Josh Freeman’s numbers were not terrible (15/31, 210 yards, 1 touchdown, 1 interception, three sacks) but those numbers were aided by an excellent performance by Vincent Jackson, who gained 154 receiving yards and averaged 11.8 yards per target. Freeman’s other 18 passes went for just 56 yards, a pathetic 3.1 yards per pass. Mike Williams (52 yards on 8 targets) wasn’t the problem: the real issue is the lack of any targets in the passing game outside of the team’s top two receivers. Ryan’s defense can confuse even the best of quarterbacks, but Freeman looked too much like the bad Josh Freeman on Sunday.