Tick tock: Moments from a necessary Jets victory in St. Louis

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Sanchez, stripped. (nfl.com)
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First Quarter, 10:48

It’s 3rd and 6 on the Jets’ first series, and Rams safety Quentin Mikell is coming on a blitz from the slot. This isn’t surprising: The Jets were the most blitzed team in the league going into yesterday.

The man whose job to block him is Bilal Powell, and he’s not quick enough to stop Mikell’s outside rush, which also isn’t surprising: Powell’s rusty, because an injury has kept him sidelined since that happy blowout in Week 6 against Indianapolis, which moved the Jets to 3-3.

Mikell strips the ball from Sanchez, which isn’t surprising either. Sanchez has fumbled the ball four times this year, as much as any quarterback except Kansas City’s Matt Cassell. His fumble in overtime against New England four weeks ago literally ended that game. His fumble in the fourth quarter against Seattle, from a blitzer, effectively ended that one.

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But the ball takes a fortuitous bounce off the turf into Sanchez’s hands, and the domino rally of Jets catastrophes stops.

First Quarter, 3:48

Maybe Sam Bradford and Jeff Fisher knew something. The Rams' offense was at the Jets’ two-yard line, and they had just sent in motion running back Isaiah Pead, who had been dotting the I-formation but was split wide by the motion. In response, Jets linebackers David Harris and Calvin Pace shifted out of the zone in which they had previously been stationed, right around where the big script ‘R’ for ‘Rams’ is in the end zone.

Evidently, that was exactly what the Rams wanted: Two of their receivers were wide open right at the ‘R’, and Bradford hit one of them, Brandon Gibson, for an easy touchdown.

Fisher got a lot of credit for going for it on fourth down; it was the statistically sound ploy, as any statistics-minded fan will quickly tell you. But maybe if Harris and Pace hadn’t responded to the Rams’ motion exactly how the Rams wanted them to, the Rams would have called a timeout and kicked a field goal.

It’s been that kind of year for the Jets, hasn’t it?

7-0, Rams.

Second Quarter, 14:33

LaRon Landry’s effectiveness as a player is debatable.

He’s not good in pass coverage: According to Pro Football Focus' pass coverage stats (to be taken with a grain of salt because of the opacity of coverage schemes) he’s ranked 37th out of the 41 safeties playing 75 percent of their teams’ snaps. He had also committed four penalties going into yesterday, which was tied with several others for the most in the league by a safety.

What’s less debatable is that he enjoys making violent contact with people. He dives at legs. He writes “Suicide Mission” in a sharpie on his chest, “right over my tats.” He purses his lower lip and narrows his eyes into slits like Ronnie Lott, the godfather of ferocious safety play.

Safeties are often confronted with a moment that goes like this: They read the play that compels them to charge up from their deep position, and it’s their job, and likely their job alone, to make the tackle to prevent big yardage.

It seems logical that safeties like Landry who embrace contact react to this task with more alacrity. That’s exactly what Landry did when the Rams, facing a 2nd and 12, ran a wide receiver screen to scatty-quick receiver Danny Amendola. Two Rams blockers led the play and blocked the two Jets nearby. The only thing separating Amendola from a big play was the guided missile wearing number 30 coming up from his deep position.

Landry didn’t get the kill-shot he’s always looking for, but still, there’s something different about the way players go down when he tackles them. They crumble abruptly like dead guys in an ‘80s video game. Landry didn't tackle Amendola—he dropped him, after a mere 2-yard gain.

This set up a Rams 3rd and 10 on the next play, and with it, the first of many gaffes by Bradford: His panicked across-the-field pass was picked off by Eric Smith, which set the Jets up at the Rams’ 13 yard line.

With a previous field goal having trimmed the Rams’ lead to 7-3, the Jets seemed poised to take control of the game.

Second Quarter, 11:53

Just what the hell is wrong with the Jets’ special teams this year? The sudden collapse of Mike Westhoff’s longtime standout unit gives credence to the metaphysical narrative that something is rotten in the state of Florham Park. This is a more fun explanation for the Jets’ poor season than the prosaic one focusing on their declining defense and their regressed quarterback.

Somehow, Nick Folk’s 26-yard attempt got blocked. Then, the Jets failed for the first time this year on a fake punt. This had signature moment written all over it: This was when the Jets’ cutesiness caught up to them, a fitting bookend to this week of anonymous quotes about the personal punt protector who was “terrible” as a quarterback.

A 21-yard rumble by Stephen Jackson on the very next play seemingly confirmed that the 2012 Jets were the walking dead. David Harris, the playside linebacker, got sealed off easily, which has happened a lot this year. Antonio Cromartie, who for all his athletic gifts is hardly a stout physical presence, got run over.

Second Quarter, 5:24 

That fake punt was so pregnant with meaning that CBS showed a replay of it right before what was actually the most important play of the game.

It was pretty simple: Muhammad Wilkerson got a quick first step off the line, enabling him to get good leverage on a swim-move on Rams guard Shelley Smith. Wilkerson’s rush was timed perfectly to the rhythm of Sam Bradford: When Bradford’s arm went up to throw the ball, Wilkerson’s arm came down to bop it loose.

Bart Scott picked up the bounce at chest level. Because he has a bad toe, or because he’s slow, or some combination of both, he was run down from behind by Rams tight end Matthew Mulligan (40-time: 4.86 seconds).

The upshot was that the Jets averted a Rams scoring chance and took over at the Rams’ 28. How big was that play? According to AdvancedNFLStats.com, the Jets' win probability went from 28 percent to 48 percent on that play alone.

The story of the play was Wilkerson. For all that’s gone wrong for the Jets this year, at least they’ve discovered this young star. Pro Football Focus stats had Wilkerson as having the most “stops,” or solo tackles resulting in a poor offensive play, than any other defensive lineman except for Houston’s J.J. Watt going into yesterday.

If the numbers aren’t good enough, just look at the guy: He’s mountainous, chiseled and coordinated. And he’s putting it all together in his second year.

Second Quarter, 4:37 

Dan Fouts of CBS broke down the design of Mark Sanchez’s 25-yard touchdown pass to Chaz Schilens, and it was easy to understand: Jeremy Kerley, the outside receiver, ran a quick slant. That, combined with Sanchez’s pump fake, drew the two defenders on that side to Kerley, thus clearing the way for Schilens to run free into the secondary.

Fouts gave Tony Sparano credit for the design of the play. Despite the loud cries about Sparano’s incompetence, whatever discrepancies exist in the talent of professional offensive coordinators are marginal. It’s talent and not coaching that determines the fate of an NFL team.

As for Sanchez and Schilens, well, even this pair was capable of executing a pitch and catch, albeit with a slight bobble by Schilens at the end. Either way, good enough for a 10-7 Jets lead.

Second Quarter, 2:24 

Textbook: Sanchez dropped back and fixed his eye on a receiver to his left, and then pump-faked the ball to him, drawing the deep safety over to that side. This freed up Jeremey Kerley on the opposite side in single coverage, and Sanchez stuck the ball on his hands for a 32-yard completion.

Basic stuff well-executed. Sometimes it doesn’t have to be much harder than that. The completion set up Nick Folk’s 51-yard field goal--his second of the day, mitigating the other special teams disasters--and the Jets had a 13-7 lead.

Second Quarter, 0:57

Jeff Fisher said it wasn’t a holding penalty. The SNY Postgame crew, needing to scream about something, said it wasn’t a holding penalty. In postgame write-ups, there was a common sentiment that the Jets got lucky because Chris Givens’ touchdown on a kick return was nullified by a questionable holding call.

But it was holding: Replays clearly showed that Rams’ rookie Rodney McLeod had his arms extended and was grabbing a fistful of Schilens’ jersey. This precluded Schilens from making any attempt to slow down Givens, who blew right past him. A split-second later, Schilens turned his palms skyward, pleading for the refs to rectify the injustice.

Second Quarter, 0:30

Subtle huge play by Quentin Coples on a 3rd and 1 from the Rams’ 23.  Coples started in a defensive tackle position but dropped into coverage on a zone blitz. Then he leapt in the air to get a tiny piece of Bradford’s pass.

That pass was intended for Austin Pettis, who was 12 yards behind Coples, with only Antonio Cromartie between him and the endzone. On first glance, it looked like Bradford had just short-armed a terrible throw. But it was Coples who prevented a play that could have turned the tide of the game just before halftime.

Third Quarter: 7:36

The Rams gained 86 yards on their first scoring drive. It took them seven more drives, through their second drive of the second quarter, to manage another 86 yards.

This was the story of the game more than anything else. It’s not like the Jets’ offense was doing anything great during this time, but the defense repeatedly stifled the Rams and allowed the Jets offense to slowly pull away.

Other than Wilkerson’s strip sack, it’s hard to find a signature moment for the Jets’ steady defensive dominance. Rather, it was simply the product of consistent fundamental football: Guys competently filing gaps and getting to spots in coverage. That’s defense: At its best, it looks like the absence of the more easily perceptible offensive pyrotechnics, and it’s hard to put a flashy face on an absence.

But one play among many stood out as indicative of the Jets’ defensive dominance: With the Rams facing a 2nd and 10 from their 20, Wilkerson fired off the snap and drove Rams tackle Barry Richardson straight back and into the path of the ballcarrier, Jackson, who was then swallowed up by other Jets defenders for a 4-yard-loss.

It was a triumph of quickness and leverage, along with the more obvious brute strength. Fouts called attention to Wilkerson’s effort, but it’s worth appreciating again the technical achievement for a defensive lineman to put an offensive lineman “on skates” on a running play. Usually, because the offensive player knows where the play is going and the defensive player doesn’t, it’s the other way around.

The play buffered the Jets from Ellis Lankster’s encroachment before the next snap. The Rams still faced a 3rd and 9, which they predictably didn’t convert.

Third Quarter, 4:15 

Mark Sanchez can be seductive. When he’s on his game, it all looks so easy and graceful, so repeatable. It looks like he's figured it all out.

Of course, we know now that he hasn’t figured it all out, and probably never will.

But he has those moments. Like yesterday, when the Jets took over with 6:14 remaining in the third quarter and put together a classic clock-eating drive to put the game away.

There was his 10-yard pass to Dustin Keller, on which he sensed defenders along the sides of the pocket, stepped up to avoid them, and delivered a perfect ball.

Two plays later, after CBS flashed Woody Johnson’s “I didn’t sign up for a 3-6 season” quote on the screen, Sanchez put some nice touch on a slant to Chaz Schilens to keep it over the defensive linemen’s fingertips, the same fingertips that have deflected so many of Sanchez’s passes this season.

Three plays later came Sanchez’s best play of the game: On a 3rd and 3 in Rams territory, he checked off his first option, a slanting Stephen Hill, to find in the flat a wide-open Konrad Reuland, who rumbled for an 18-yard gain.

The pass brought the Jets to a first and goal, and touchdown three plays gave them a commanding 20-7 lead.

It would be nice to say, as Jets fans have many times through the years, that the “Old Sanchez” would have forced that potentially dangerous pass to Hill. We know now that there’s not much difference between the Old Sanchez and the New Sanchez, and that Sanchez is just Sanchez. As yesterday showed, that's sometimes a good thing, too.