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Offense at the Bye: 'Finding Our Stride'

During the bye week we're presenting midseason reports on the three phases of the Jets attack. Today: Offense:

Rex Ryan said the Jets' sputtery offense for much of the first seven games was a matter of "we weren't being ourselves." Coordinator Brian Schottenheimer felt it was more that game situations were often dictating that the offense was "not going to have a lot of chance to run the football."

No doubt it was a little of both. And no doubt, from the sounds of it, "Ground and Pound" is back, just in time for the cold weather and some vulnerable run defenses in the last nine games on the post-bye-week schedule.

The plan going into San Diego was to run the ball with the effectiveness the Jets had in the first two seasons of the Ryan/Schottenheimer offense. And that's what they did. Their 162 rush yards and their 5.2 yards per carry, with Shonn Greene leading the way, were their high-water marks this season.

"They were hard-fought yards," QB Mark Sanchez observed. "Shonn was punishing the second-level defenders. You can tell when our running game's really rolling when I've got to run after and chase Shonn down after plays. That's a good thing when I'm running after the lineman and they're finishing downfield, finishing their blocks."

"The running game takes time," said Coach Schotty. "We finally got a really good feel for the line and moving people and finishing blocks. Shonn's a guy that needs some carries. That's what you should expect to see from us moving forward."

Benefits of Ground and Pound

All the signs are that Greene, the line and fullback John Conner are syncing up. In the first four games he was averaging 3.1 yards per carry. Over the last three it's been 4.3 per carry. Another good sign for the line's blocking is that the unofficial average yards before first contact for both Greene (2.3) and the team (2.7) were the highest they'd been in a game since Week 4 at Buffalo last season.

Now was all of this a false positive because the Jets ran into a Chargers front that the linemen — D'Brickashaw Ferguson, Matt Slauson, the healing Nick Mangold, Brandon Moore and Wayne Hunter — felt confident they could get blocked? We'll see in the second half of the season. But consider that in their first four games after the bye they play the Bills twice, and the Buffalo defense has slumped to 30th in the NFL in rushing yards allowed per game and 29th in yards allowed per carry.

In fact, the average ranking for those next nine opponents is 22nd in rush yards per game and 20th in yards per carry. And they're arriving just as the temperature is dropping, the leaves are falling and "all-weather" offenses begin to ride their running games toward the playoffs.

Of course, the biggest benefit a sound Ground and Pound provides is balance so that the passing game can operate at peak efficiency.

"I think one of the things you'll see now that we're running the ball so well," Schottenheimer said, "is that as people begin to have to load up the box, that'll open things up for more shots down the field."

The Good Hands People

And the theory extends to the receivers. More defenders in the box Sunday may have led the Chargers to singling Plaxico Burress with Antoine Cason for most of the game. That worked out fine for the Jets as Sanchez and Plax played darts for three short-range touchdowns.

And when defenses return to doubling Burress, Sanchez gets more opportunities to find Santonio Holmes, who has three TDs but has yet to have the kind of monster games he had last season, and TE Dustin Keller, who leads with the Jets with 25 receptions and 372 yards and is packing a 14.9-yard per-catch average that is fifth among TEs in the league.

Then there's the emergence of rookie Jeremy Kerley, who had four catches vs. San Diego, three of them converting third downs to equal a team season high.

"It's not too big for Jeremy. He's got a great look on his face," the OC said. "He goes out there and knows exactly what to do. He just makes big play after big play."

The hands out of the backfield also are impressive. LaDainian Tomlinson, who just cleared 600 career receptions before his illness hit him vs. San Diego, has a 13.0-yard per-catch average that is second in the NFL among RBs. Greene has caught 14 of the 15 passes targeted for him this year. The explosive Joe McKnight could be worked more into the backfield rotation.

Mark of Maturity

Last but hardly least is Sanchez. He remains a work in progress. His first-quarter and first-down passer rating is stuck in the 60s and he's directed two touchdowns in his last 53 first-quarter drives (vs. Jacksonville and at Oakland this year) dating to that Week 4 Buffalo game last year.

Yet with San Diego he's coming off the best third-down passing game of his career (9-for-11, 95 yards, two Burress TDs, 142.2 rating), he's thrown no fourth-quarter interceptions since Week 16 at Chicago last year, and the Chargers were the seventh fourth-quarter comeback victory of his career.

"Definitely you can see the maturity," Schottenheimer said. "Against San Diego in the red zone, two of the three TDs were on third down. One was an isolation to Plax, and the other one was a second progression. He came off of Dustin when we went empty and found Plax on the end line.

"Those are things he probably would've been late to the first couple of years, but he saw the isolation and took it, then he saw they doubled Dustin and he came right to Plax. That's a quarterback maturing. He's still a younger player but, boy, he's really been making great strides taking care of the football and then obviously getting touchdowns and not interceptions."

The proof as always is in the pudding and the proof of this offense will be in putting sevens and threes on the board with more regularity over the final nine games. But the offense is feeling a good vibe as it continues to rest up this week for the big push toward the postseason.

"We feel really good where we are," Schottenheimer said. "We're finding our stride right now and that's what we're excited about."

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