Mark Sanchez probably will be without his safety blanket this afternoon as the 2-0 Jets begin a three-game road swing against the 1-1 Raiders at O.co Coliseum, a.k.a. Oakland Coliseum. After 39 career pro starts with the same center, Sanchez hopes to lead his team to victory for the first time without the services of Nick Mangold.
"We've got Colin Baxter rolling with the ones," said the third-year signalcaller before the team departed for Northern California. "He did a great job. He's getting more and more comfortable. It wasn't an easy position for him to come in last week."
Baxter, an undrafted free agent rookie from Arizona, took over from the Jets' All-Pro center in Week 2 when Mangold went down late in the first quarter with a high ankle sprain. The Jets cruised to victory over the Jags, but they gained only 283 yards, went 3-for-12 on third downs, and Sanchez was intercepted twice.
Barring another turnover-fest from a Jets defense — which now leads the NFL with five interceptions and ranks third with seven takeaways — the offense will have to play better in Oaktown if they hope to stay perfect without No. 74.
"Nick does a good job of pointing things out and communicating," said Sanchez. "It just puts more pressure on the rest of us. That's good for us. That's a good challenge.
"We're spoiled having Nick Mangold in there. He's the best in football — hands down. He's awesome. It's a good test for me, brushing up on some Mike [middle linebacker] points and understanding exactly how some of these plays are blocked, and putting us in the best play possible."
Raiders rookie head coach Hue Jackson showed his team a clip of Sanchez digesting a hot dog in the Jets' 38-0 shutout at the Coliseum on Oct. 25, 2009. But Sanchez, still a young 24 years of age, was a rookie then and that poor decision will have no effect on the outcome of this contest.
With the Ravens' Haloti Ngata and the Patriots' Vince Wilfork on deck in Week 4 and 5, the Green & White figure to get the first in a series of stern tests from a Raiders middle featuring the likes of D-linemen Richard Seymour, Tommy Kelly and John Henderson and talented MLB Rolando McClain.
"You have Seymour, you have Kelly and you have Henderson. I mean, that's some big guys," said Jets head coach Rex Ryan. "So it's hard to handle in there. Those guys, they tie up a lot of blocks and they make plays. You have to single-block them there. Those are some huge guys."
If Baxter is having difficulty, the visitors also could move Matt Slauson over to C and then bring in Vladimir Ducasse off the bench to play LG. The Bills had success both on the ground and through the air against the Raiders in Week 2 and you have to wonder if the Jets might also attempt to spread the field and get Sanchez in the shotgun to protect him. On paper, the Jets have some clear advantages on the outside against a Nnamdi Asomugha-less secondary that favors man-to-man coverage.
"It's about winning our 1-on-1 matchups and getting rid of the football quickly because their pass rush is great," Sanchez said. "It'll be a good test for our wideouts and for our precision in the passing game hopefully."
Sanchez, who is completing 63.2 percent of his passes with four TDs and three INTs, practiced fully this week despite being listed on the injury report with an elbow injury. He insists he's fine, but he also wants to make sure he makes smarter decisions while he's in the pocket and on the move.
"As competitive as I am, I want to get the best of a play and make sure we use its full potential, even when things break down," he said. "Some of the time you just have to say uncle and avoid a hit. There's a handful of situations already, in two games, that there were some hits that I don't need to take. I'm taking them because I'm just stringing out the play. I'm not worried about it, but we'll clean things up and I have to get rid of the ball."
It would not be a surprise to see Sanchez look for Plaxico Burress early as the the big 6'5", 232-pound wideout did not catch a ball in last weekend's rout.
"If you're a wide receiver, these are the kind of games you love to play in," Burress said. "It's up close and personal, man- to-man, mano a mano, to see who is the better guy. I've played in these games before. They're fun and competitive. From an offensive standpoint, as a player, as a wide receiver, you love to play in these types of games."
Burress challenged the offense to score 28 to 30 points a game this season and the Jets are averaging 29.5 through a pair of contests. But the challenge will be greater today as they visit the Black Hole and the QB likely will be without his most trusted companion.
"We're going to need our best effort because they are a good, tough team, better than they looked a couple of years ago," Sanchez said. "This is their home opener, so they'll be charged up and ready to go. It'll be a good matchup for us."