A multitude of storylines are buzzing around the Jets-Chargers game at MetLife Stadium. But one storyline is not in the forefront and that's a good thing for the Jets as they enter into their latest quasi-must-win contest this afternoon.
Wayne Hunter has his mojo back.
"I've got to move on, actually," the right tackle politely told reporters this week who wanted to follow up on the shutout he pitched against Miami pass-rusher Cameron Wake in the Jets' solid win over the 'Fins on Monday night. "You know you had a big game, and the last few weeks before that were good, too, but we lost. So I've just got to look past that and move on. I can't really celebrate too long."
Yet it's worth talking about that game just in the sense that it shows Hunter has moved well beyond his opening-night struggle against the Cowboys and DeMarcus Ware and is again reminding fans of his performance as he stepped in so ably for Damien Woody during last season's stretch run into the playoffs. Wake was the NFL's No. 3 sacker last year and the Dolphins' top pass rusher this season. Much of the Dolphins' upset big that night was tied to Wake applying a few sleeper holds on Mark Sanchez in the Jets' pocket.
Yet in the third quarter ESPN broke out one of its in-game highlight reels showing Hunter stoning Wake at the line three, four, five times, accompanied by Jon Gruden's analysis:
"I'm going to show you where Cameron Wake has been. He's been blocked by Wayne Hunter all evening long. You see Hunter man-to-man on him, no help. Good hands, good arm extension. He's delivering the blow, he's jamming him, not letting him get close to Mark Sanchez. ... This is a critical matchup in the game, and Wayne Hunter is winning it for his Jets."
"I didn't see it, but I heard about it," Hunter told* newyorkjets.com* of the ESPN coverage. The game, he said, "was a confidence builder, especially going against Cameron, who, the last two minutes of the game last year, I gave up two sacks to him. I had a good game all the way through the two-minute and then he messed me up. So my focus this time was don't give up sacks to him."
On the Rebound
Needless to say, Hunter is happiest and the Jets benefit most when the outside focus is not on him as it was after the Dallas opener.
"I was messing up assignments," he said. "Everyone was saying 'DeMarcus, DeMarcus.' Well, He's a great player and he got the first sack of the game, but I gave [Anthony] Spencer three pressures on Mark and I gave Kenyon [Coleman] one or two. I think for that game, there was the pressure of being 'the guy' coming in, 9/11, big game, night game.
"It just wasn't a good game."
He picked up a couple of penalties the next week against Jacksonville as well. But then one of the silver linings to the three-game road losing skid was that Hunter was tightening up his game, heading toward the showdown against Wake and the Dolphins.
"Obviously, Wayne will get a gameball for that performance," head coach Rex Ryan said. "I think he's really come on. Everybody knows the kind of player he is, but it's great to see, that's for sure."
"I've been consistent like I've wanted to be the last four games," Hunter said. "Now the key is to keep it that way."
Which brings us to today's matchup with San Diego. A much desired fast start and consistent performance for the offense depends on a number of factors, one of them being Hunter continuing his progress against Chargers OLBs Shaun Phillips and Travis LaBoy.
"We Just Have to Win"
The Jets sense they're close to busting open a big running day, and what better defense to get a little of that old "Ground & Pound" going than the 'Bolts, who are 17th in the NFL rushing yards allowed per game and 24th in yards allowed per carry.
"It's been close," Hunter said. "Even the weeks we haven't run that good, there's been so many right there that if Shonn [Greene] breaks out it would've been at least 10, 15 yards. We've been feeling that way, but it's nice now to actually see it coming. I think as an O-line, if we sustain blocks and give Shonn a chance, we'll be fine."
And while San Diego has been stingy in giving up yardage, its pass rush has had trouble getting off the mark with eight sacks in five games. There'll a chance for Hunter and his linemates to keep Sanchez clean and, if the running game pops from the start, there should be opportunities for Sanchez to work the play-action game that hasn't been as visible yet this season as it was last.
Besides those tactical aspects of the Jets-Chargers matchup, there is also the angle of RB LaDainian Tomlinson and CB Antonio Cromartie getting to play their former team for the first time.
"That's something we're all aware of a little bit," Hunter said, "probably more on a personal level than on a 'business' level. We feel for LT and we know this is a big game for him and Cro. We all know who the captains are going to be this week."
Ryan has already announced that Tomlinson will be in the starting lineup today. However the carries are divvied up in the backfield, however the ball is distributed downfield, Hunter figures to be in the middle of this big battle as the Jets seek to get back over .500 and back into the thick of the developing playoff fight.
"We just have to win, plain and simple," Hunter said. "I think because of the three-game losing streak, because of the bye week coming up, it's a must-win. Everyone feels that way."