The perceptions surrounding the New York Jets and the Buffalo Bills have changed significantly since the Bills outlasted the Jets 21-12 at New Era Field in the 2017 season opener, a game many expected would be a battle of two of the NFL’s worst teams.
The Jets have overachieved even if their 3-5 record wouldn’t suggest that when evaluating a typical team. The Bills have been one of the NFL’s biggest surprises and enter Thursday night’s contest at MetLife Stadium with an impressive 5-2 record. If the season ended today, the Bills would be in the playoffs for the first time in 17 years, the longest postseason drought in the NFL.
First-year head coach Sean McDermott deserves to be at the very top of the Coach of the Year list for the job he’s done with a roster that many thought was in rebuilding mode. The Bills also made a move that proved they’re invested in the 2017 season on Tuesday when they acquired wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin in a trade with the Carolina Panthers.
Meanwhile, the Jets have proven they aren’t the worst team in the NFL and could seriously be 6-2 if not for a few fourth-quarter meltdowns. The Jets have held leads against last year’s Super Bowl participants, something nobody would’ve seen coming in July.
New York’s offense will have to maintain balance Thursday night. First-year offensive coordinator John Morton lost control of the gameplan in his Jets debut. Jets quarterback Josh McCown attempted 39 passes, while tailbacks Matt Forte and Bilal Powell combined for just 13 carries.
While more balance would be appreciated by Forte — the veteran tailback complained about the gameplan for last week’s loss to Atlanta — New York should still tailor the offense toward the aerial attack for a couple of reasons.
Buffalo ranks third against the run, allowing only 80.1 rushing yards per game. But the Bills rank 29th in passing defense as their depleted secondary remains susceptible. New York’s offensive line has also been putrid in recent weeks. The Jets rank 19th in rushing and haven’t had an individual eclipse 43 rushing yards in a game since Week 4, when Powell and Elijah McGuire ran wild on the Jaguars.
Pro Football Focus rates New York’s offensive line as one of the worst units in the league. Only left tackle Kelvin Beachum has garnered an overall grade higher than 49.2 (Brian Winters’ grade) through eight games. The biggest problem on the offense might not be McCown and the lack of receiving weapons, but rather the offensive line’s inability to create running lanes to keep the offense balanced.
Defensively, New York’s main focus will be on LeSean McCoy, per usual. However, McCoy hasn’t had a ton of success against the Jets since joining the Bills. McCoy actually hasn’t scored a touchdown in four games against the Jets and has only rushed for 100 yards or more twice.
The bigger concern for the Jets actually might be Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor, who is 3-1 in four starts against Gang Green. Taylor’s slipperiness in the pocket proves to be especially challenging for New York’s over-zealous front seven. He has 861 passing yards, six touchdowns and only two interceptions in those starts, plus 126 rushing yards. Elusive quarterbacks have proven to be kryptonite for the Jets and Thursday’s game might not be any different.
Taylor doesn’t have many weapons to throw to aside from McCoy, who actually leads the team by a sizable margin with 38 receptions. Jordan Matthews is the team’s leading wide receiver with only 15 receptions. This rather embarrassing group just got a big boost with Benjamin’s arrival, however. The 2014 first-round pick has 32 receptions, which is more than Buffalo’s top two receivers combined.
The question is how much will Benjamin be able to learn between the trade and Thursday night. He probably won’t get to digest much of the playbook, but the Bills might be better off throwing him out there with a limited route tree. Benjamin offers a higher upside than all of Buffalo’s receivers combined even if he only knows a portion of the plays.
Benjamin’s arrival becomes particularly worrisome as Jets cornerback Morris Claiborne nurses a foot injury suffered last weekend. Claiborne was magnificent against the Falcons, holding Julio Jones to only two receptions. Claiborne was held out of practice Monday and Tuesday and his status for Thursday appears murky. Buster Skrine has been limited in practice the past two days as he recovers from a concussion.
The Jets could be severely shorthanded at cornerback this week, which might explain why they acquired Rashard Robinson in a trade with the San Francisco 49ers. Like Benjamin, it’s uncertain how much Robinson will be able to learn before kickoff. But Robinson could provide much-needed depth to a unit that could throw Darryl Roberts and Juston Burris onto the field as its starters.
For the Jets to end their three-game losing streak, they’ll need to hope for the best in the secondary and rely on a dormant pass rush to pick up the slack against Taylor. A more balanced offense with a better running attack will also help in a multitude of ways: It will keep New York’s banged up defense off the field and will lessen the load placed on the mercurial McCown’s shoulders.