Unless you’re a member of Nick Folk’s immediate family, the Jets’ loss to the Bengals on Sunday was as embarrassing as professional defeats come.
It was a nightmare from the very outset, with Cincinnati’s 10-play, 80-yard opening drive serving as the perfect omen for what was to come. Seven days after they turned Tom Brady into Marcia, the Jets defense regressed beyond the mean – to a level we haven’t seen in nearly two years.
Prior to Sunday afternoon, Andy Dalton was a league-average quarterback who had thrown for more than three touchdown passes just once in 39 starts and Marvin Jones was better known as a middle linebacker with the third-most tackles in Jets history.
By the end of the second quarter, Dalton and Jones were in the midst of career days and the Jets were staring at a reality check.
Sunday was supposed to be the coming-out party – a time for Rex and Co. to put the final nail in the doubters’ coffins. The defensive line would hassle Dalton into submission as Geno Smith made just enough plays against a secondary missing its best player to make it close against a division leader. Maybe, just maybe, they’d eke out an important, if not impressive, road win. Two in a row. The idea sounded so nice.
Except Dalton spent Sunday afternoon on a stroll through an often crystal-clear pocket and a defense that had been the Jets’ backbone most of the season collapsed under the weight of a severely-limited secondary. Jones, who had never registered more than 71 yards receiving or one touchdown reception in a single game, toyed with the secondary, turning rookie Dee Milliner into a traffic cone for much of the first half. After Jones picked up his second of what would be four touchdown receptions midway through the second quarter, Milliner pick was finally benched for the second time in eight games.
Halfway through the season, the Jets’ weaknesses have become abundantly clear. The inconsistent rookie quarterback plays behind an offensive line that is sub-par more often than it is dominant, which doesn’t help a running game also besieged by injuries and inconsistent play calling. On days when the secondary is not the worst unit on the field, the short-handed receiving corps likely is. The lack of game-changing talent in the passing game was never more apparent than Sunday afternoon. In a game in which the Jets’ leading receiver wasn’t even on an NFL roster a month ago, the Bengals surrounded their young quarterback with enough talent to make even Dalton’s mediocre arm look sufficient.
On most Sundays, the Jets possess an equalizer unlike almost any other team in the league – a defensive line comprised of mammoth individuals who are uniquely and wonderfully talented. Yet on Sunday, they were mostly handled by an offensive line that lost its starting left tackle mid-stream.
The plays Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson did make were wasted. After a brilliant goal-line stand, the Jets maneuvered to 3rd and 1, only to attempt to run out of the shotgun with their short-yardage back on the sideline. When Wilkerson and Richardson teamed up on the team’s only highlight-reel play of the game – a fantastic hot-potato interception of Dalton’s attempted screen pass – the Jets’ offensive drive was undone by rookie Brian Winters’ holding penalty on second down.
One week after registering six sacks, eight tackles for losses and seven quarterback hits, the Jets’ mighty front seven barely touched Dalton. Meanwhile, Geno was barely able to breathe throughout most of the game. The Bengals, including safety Reggie Nelson, tormented Smith, who had little time to throw thanks to shoddy protection from the offensive line and poor pre-snap reads by Smith himself.
By the time Chris Crocker finished sauntering into the end zone for the first of Cincinnati’s two pick sixes, it was clear the Bengals were playing in a different stratosphere. Rex’s boys apparently hadn’t bothered to show up. Veteran lineman Willie Colon confirmed as much in the postgame locker room, opting to “keep that in-house” when asked if he saw anything during the week that could’ve led to such an outright whooping.
Were the Jets too caught up in who pushed whom? Or were they simply too busy reading their own press clippings? It would be an alarming trait for a team that hasn’t proven anything on a consistent basis – outside of their maddening inability to play well two weeks in a row.
After eight games, the Jets have shown they can, on a good day, go toe-to-toe with a lot of the league. But, like most .500 teams, there’s simply not enough talent there for them to be able to take days off.
The sky is certainly not falling and the end is not nigh, but the rough midseason stretch many predicted for this team has arrived. With the Saints looming before the bye week, Rex must find a way to keep the locker room steady, his quarterback focused on the next game instead of the last one and maybe, just maybe, design one of those genius defensive game plans for which he’s so famous.
One thing’s for sure, there’s only up from here.
Corey works for NBCSports.com as an editor and can be reached at @cgriffin415 on Twitter or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.