AC in the AM: Jets Always Make It Interesting

Posted Sep 22, 2017

Now it’s about taking the next step, about building on the good things that surfaced against the Chargers, about making some adjustments and correcting some mistakes. Now it’s about the New York Jets and trying to make it two straight on the road and, for that matter, two straight on the season.

That’s the importance of Sunday’s game at New Jersey’s MetLife Stadium. You can break down this matchup all sorts of ways. You can talk about a Jets team that has started 0-2 and, quite frankly, has been struggling on both sides of the ball. You can look at the rich history of this rivalry and know that nothing is a given, that records and predictions mean little when these two teams get together.

It’s the Jets. That should say it all right there.

Actually, quarterback Jay Cutler probably said it best.

“If we don’t play good football, we can go up there and lose a game really quickly,” he said. “We don’t want to look past them; don’t want to look in the rearview mirror. We’re just going to concentrate on them and try to put together a good game and get a W.”

Sounds like the right plan. From my perspective, though, Sunday is more about how the Dolphins play than their opponent. That’s the way it should be the second week of the season. You are still trying to define who you are. You are still evaluating your strengths and weaknesses. You are still trying to build something that can carry you through the season. The standings mean absolutely nothing in September. It’s how you evolve that means everything.

How will Jay Cutler respond in his second start? Will the playmakers on offense be difference-makers once again? Will the secondary show better than it did against Philip Rivers? Will the pass rush find its mojo?

These are the things that will help determine whether the Dolphins leave New Jersey with the same sense of accomplishment they had when they departed the West Coast a week earlier. What we saw against the Chargers was a nice way to start, an important opening Sunday declaration. But it was just one game, one small sampling size.

The challenge now is making it a trend.

As I break down this game, as I evaluate what the Dolphins need to do, five things quickly come to mind:

• A heavy dose of Jay Ajayi: What we saw against the Chargers is the blueprint for how this offense can be successful, balance at its finest. It’s got to start with Ajayi, setting the tone, creating a physical presence and wearing down a defense with his punishing running style. On the road against the Jets last season, Ajayi struggled with just 51 yards on 19 carries. He needs a better day than that on Sunday for this offense to flourish.

• Better results in the red zone: The Dolphins were 0-3 against the Chargers in the red zone and there is simply too much talent on this offense for that to continue. I am of the firm belief that there are more quality red zone alternatives here than we’ve seen in a long time. Between DeVante Parker, Jarvis Landry, Julius Thomas and Ajayi you’ve got four major weapons near the goal line. But it’s got to come together and Sunday against the Jets would certainly be a great time to start.

• Continued success with the rushing defense: Adam Gase was impressed with what he saw against the Chargers, the Dolphins holding star running back Melvin Gordon to just 13 yards on nine carries. “For the most part,” Gase said, “everybody was in the right gaps, playing fast, a lot of gang tackling. Really good to see.” But one strong performance does not make a resume and so much of Sunday’s success on defense will depend on turning the Jets into a one-dimensional offense. That means taking away the running game. That’s clearly the challenge for this defense.

• Win the special teams phase for the second week in a row: This was probably the deciding factor in the win over the Chargers. Four-for-four on field goals, including the game-winner. A few jarring tackles on kickoffs. A couple of quality returns. A tipped punt. The Dolphins will be looking for a similar edge against the Jets. Relatively quiet in the opener, I wouldn’t be surprised if returner Jakeem Grant became a major storyline.

• A first quarter lead: This team has shown since Gase arrived that it can win games in the fourth quarter and the importance of that can’t be overstated. But wouldn’t it be nice not to need that? The Dolphins played from behind for much of the game against the Chargers, trailing 10-3 at the half and not looking as sharp as they needed to be. That changed in the second half. What I want to see Sunday is an early game statement, maybe a long-time consuming drive, something to take control early, giving the Dolphins a chance to dictate the tempo. You can’t survive all season on fourth quarter comebacks. It just doesn’t work that way in this league.

So for the 104th time, including one playoff game, the Dolphins and Jets go at it once again on Sunday, each searching for early-season answers, both trying to identify exactly what and who they are. With these two teams, with this rivalry, you never quite know what to expect.

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