It didn't take long for the New York Jets to get to work on the ground.
The Green & White, who acquired Thomas Jones from the Chicago Bears in an off-season trade, ran 11 consecutive times to start their game against the Atlanta Falcons. Jones ended up scoring the club's first preseason points and then QB Kellen Clemens put together a sterling performance as the Jets captured a 31-16 victory at the Meadowlands.
"What we were focusing early on was running the ball," said New York head coach Eric Mangini. "That's what we really wanted to do and we wanted to see a combination of Thomas and Leon [Washington] and the different combinations of linemen we were using, some new concepts in the running game. All those things we wanted to focus on and there is no better time than in the preseason games to do that."
Jones did more than get his feet wet in just over a quarter of action, rushing eight times for 27 yards. His 1-yard score early in the second quarter followed a sensational kickoff return by backfield mate Leon Washington.
Subbing for the injured Justin Miller, Washington gave an All-Pro performance of his own with an 86-yard jaunt at the end of the first stanza. Jones then crossed the goal line to complete a two-play, 51-second drive. The Jets' first pass of the game was effective as an end zone fade from Clemens to Brad Smith resulted in a pass interference penalty on rookie CB Chris Houston.
Pennington was fresh on the sidelines following a quarter of action, finishing the game with zero pass attempts for the first time in any game in his Jets career. But Clemens didn't mind inflicting some damage himself, throwing for three touchdown passes and completing 14 of his first 16 balls for 145 yards.
"Definitely this is the best feeling I've had personally since I've been here, definitely," he said. "Fortunately we were very successful moving the ball."
To get rolling, the former second-round selection from Oregon dialed up a long toss to Justin McCareins. Despite another pass interference infraction, McCareins hauled in a 42-yard pass to get the Jets into Falcons territory. It was the Jets' first completion of the night and started another scoring drive.
Clemens, who completed five of six passes for 68 yards on the possession, culminated the series with a 2-yard score to veteran TE Sean Ryan. That wouldn't be the last time Clemens would find the Buffalo, N.Y., native in the end zone.
"Sean Ryan's first catch on the first touchdown was phenomenal," he said. "That ball should have probably been incomplete. That's a great catch on his part."
In place of Michael Vick, the Falcons started Joey Harrington behind center. He was efficient, competing six of nine passes for 88 yards. Jerious Norwood scored on a 10-yard first-quarter run for the Falcons and K Billy Cundiff pitched in with two first-half field goals.
But no other quarterback on this night was more impressive than Clemens. He used the third quarter to turn a slim 14-13 lead into a 15-point advantage. He hit Chansi Stuckey, the seventh round rookie from Clemson, for a 13-yard score, then led the Jets to a second touchdown in as many third-quarter possessions, staying in the pocket and absorbing a hit in finding Ryan from 10 yards.
"I like the fact that he's assessing the defense, being able to check us in and out of plays," Mangini said of Clemens. "I thought he had good presence. I thought he hung in the pocket really well – maybe a bit too long for right now. But I though you were seeing some of that growth tonight."
With apologies to Leon, the Clemens launch to McCareins was the start of a fantastic night. The second-year passer took command of this game and never let go.
"When you are having the success we had out there as a unit, it definitely helps all of our confidence," he said. "At the same time, we don't want to get too high and too overly confident until we go in and see the tape tomorrow. Fortunately we'll be able to make some corrections and get ready for next week."
Funniest Line of the Night
Pressbox PA announcer Eric Tosi, a media relations staffer with the New York Red Bulls and a former Jets intern, announcing Chad Pennington's stat line, "Zero for zero for zero yards."
Theft of the Night
Second-year CB Drew Coleman was in the right place in the right time in the third quarter. Rookie D.J. Shockley had a pass knocked down at the line of scrimmage by newcomer Michael Haynes and Coleman effortlessly collected the first team takeaway of the preseason.
"I was like, 'Thank God somebody caught that because that freaking hurt,'" Haynes said with a smile."When you are a defensive lineman, you know you are going to deflect it but you also realize it's going to hurt. That is one of those sacrifices for the team."
Catch of the Night
Give credit for Clemens standing in once again in the final stanza. He held the ball until the last possible second and threw a jump ball in the direction of Frisman Jackson. Somehow Jackson, in a crowd of defenders, brought the ball in with his right hand and came up with an unlikely reception.
"That play is attributed all to Frisman. I didn't get to see the whole play, but from what I hear – he made a great catch on it," Clemens said. "All the credit on that one goes to Frisman."
Hit of the Night
We'll award a tie to a couple of newcomers. Kenyon Coleman, an addition as an unrestricted free agent, came up the middle and stopped Jerious Norwood cold on a third-and-1 play inside enemy territory early in the game. Then David Harris, the second-round rookie from Michigan, stopped fellow rookie Laurent Robinson dead in his tracks after a short gain.