With Mark Sanchez rehabbing his sprained right knee back in New Jersey today, opportunity knocks for Kellen Clemens in hot and sunny Tampa as the Jets look to keep their playoff hopes alive against the Buccaneers.
"I don't look at Kellen as a backup quarterback. He's a guy who has multiple starts under his belt. He's not a rookie, he's not a [new] guy going in," said linebacker Bart Scott this week on newyorkjets.com's "Barking with Bart." "He's a guy who prepared all off-season to be the starter. It didn't work out that way, but he didn't mope about it. In this league, opportunities always present themselves and this is another opportunity for him to get out there and prove what he can do."
The 26-year-old Clemens, who started eight games for the Green & White back in 2007, came on in relief of Sanchez during the second half of the Jets' 19-13 win over the Bills on Dec. 3, completing one of two passes for 14 yards in the divisional contest. Then he took reps with the No. 1 offense this past week for the first time since August.
"I think he's moving along pretty fast," said WR Jerricho Cotchery. "Obviously he hasn't been in there with us for a while, but he spent the off-season with us running with the ones. He's catching up pretty fast. He has the offense moving at a good tempo."
After the Jets moved up to draft Sanchez with the No. 5 overall selection in April's draft, first-year head coach Rex Ryan let the Southern Cal product and Clemens battle for the top slot in Cortland, N.Y., before handing the ball to Sanchez on Aug. 26. Clemens has watched most of this year from the sideline, but he has been in coordinator Brian Schottenheimer's offense for four years and with that comes comfort.
"He's been around here for a while, so we know how to communicate with him," Cotchery said. "It's not like we are starting nowhere. We're just picking up where we left off with him as far as communication and chemistry-wise."
The Jets could make things a lot easier on Clemens today with another solid effort on the ground, and their No. 1-ranked rushing offense (168.6 yards/game) will be opposed by the Buccaneers' 31st-ranked rush defense (160.1 yards/game). It would figure that the Bucs are going to have to load the box, shed blocks well and tackle with precision to prevent Thomas Jones' seventh 100-yard game of the season. And if the Jets are running well, then Clemens will have the option to work up top with the likes of Cotchery, Braylon Edwards and Dustin Keller.
"With the stats in the NFL, it's all about showing up on Sunday," said Cotchery. "If you just try to go into the game saying 'I'm No. 1 in this category and No. 1 in that category' and if you think a team is just going to roll over for you — it's not going to happen. I'm pretty sure they're looking at some stats that we have as far as offensively and they probably think they can take advantage of some things. It's all about lining up and making plays, and that's what we're going to try and do."
The Bucs are yielding 205.7 yards per game through the air and feature one of the NFL's rising young corners in Aqib Talib, a second-year player from Kansas who already has nine pro interceptions, along with wily vet Ronde Barber.
"Talib has done a great job since he's been in the league — he makes a lot of plays on the ball and is doing a great job of coming along," J-Co said. "I think that has to go to the tutelage of Ronde because he's been in the league making a lot of plays for a long time now and Talib has been doing the same thing."
There will be one rookie quarterback on the field Sunday as Josh Freeman, the 6'6", 248-pounder from Kansas State, will make his sixth start for the Bucs. Coming off a five-interception game last week at Carolina, Freeman is going to be a challenged by a Jets defense that will show him multiple presnap looks.
"They run a lot of different things, a lot of different blitzes, a lot of different coverages," said Freeman, the 17th overall selection in the April draft. "They do a good job of mixing up the fronts. This week is one of those weeks where you really need to put in extra time studying their looks. When one linebacker is doing one thing, what's the safety doing? There are all sorts of keys we're trying to come up with, just trying to figure this thing out. Once you get protection, that's half the battle."
The Jets are happy they have insurance at quarterback with Clemens. With a win today over the 1-11 Buccaneers, the Jets would move to 7-6, remain in the playoff hunt and tie their season-long win streak of three.
"We can allow Mark to heal," Scott said. "We have a lot of confidence in Kellen, he's been there, he's been in the fire before, he's been the starter of this team before and he's a guy we can trust. We have tremendous confidence that he'll go out and get the job done."