For the New York Jets, this time it counts.
Well, sort of.
The third game of the NFL preseason schedule is like a dress rehearsal of sorts, and the Jets will be playing and coaching with regular season intensity for the majority of the game.
Although the final score is meaningless, it’s going to be the final tuneup for the Jets before their season kicks off for real on September 9.
So, as the Jets get set to host Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers this week on Sunday Night Football (8pm, NBC), here’s what Jets fans should be watching for:
The Play of the Offensive Line
We all know that the Jets’ offensive line has struggled. This week, young Austin Howard makes his first start at right tackle, and if he shows he can handle the job, he could enter the season as the starter.
If Howard proves he’s not much better than Wayne Hunter, well, that’ll be a problem. With roster cuts coming soon, the Jets may look to the scrap heap to find tackle depth if Howard falters against the Panthers.
Bottom line: the Jets offensive line has to establish dominance at the line of scrimmage. They must protect Mark Sanchez in the passing game and open up holes in the running game. Otherwise, the Jets are in for a world of hurt.
The Wide Receivers Returning to the Lineup
For the first time all summer, the Jets will have their top playmaker in the lineup, as Santonio Holmes returns from a rib injury to make his preseason debut. He and Jeremy Kerley will try to play as much as they can this week.
With a new offensive system, Sanchez needs as many reps with his receivers as possible, especially Holmes. It’s not realistic to expect Sanchez to come out firing on all cylinders to start the year, but it’s not all on him.
Kerley became one of Sanchez’s favorite third-down targets last year. He needs to step up and have a productive sophomore season after a subpar training camp. Keep an eye on how many reps Holmes and Kerley get tonight.
The Overall Play of the Jets Offense
The Jets are the only team in football that has not scored a touchdown this preseason. Considering that this is the first and only time they’ll be game-planning this preseason, they might want to try getting in the end zone.
That means that everyone needs to be in sync, from the five guys up front, to the skill position players, and the coaches. This is their last chance to show the fans that they’ll have an offense that won’t make people cringe.
Shonn Greene needs to run hard. Sanchez needs to be decisive in the pocket, provided he has time to scan the field. Move the chains. Convert on third downs. Get into the end zone. Show a pulse.
The Defense Needs to Show That They’re One Step Faster
That was the mantra we heard this offseason. One step faster, both physically and mentally.
Cam Newton is a new breed of quarterback, with the athletic ability to stretch the field horizontally, and the arm strength to punish you with the deep ball if you overcommit to stopping the run.
Newton and the Panthers boast an outstanding rushing attack, and the Jets linebackers especially need to show that they’re ready to stop an offense that can attack a defense in a variety of ways.
Keep an eye on Bart Scott, David Harris, Calvin Pace and even Aaron Maybin. It wouldn’t surprise me at all to see the speedy Maybin get an increased workload on defense as the Jets try to contain the upstart Panthers.
Who’s Getting a Leg Up on Special Teams?
Punter T.J. Conley has been inconsistent at best, and although he’s the only punter in camp, his job could be on the line with another poor performance this week. There will be plenty of free agent options if it comes to that.
Nick Folk and Josh Brown are in a dead heat for the placekicking job, and only one of them can make the team. That is, if the Jets don’t go outside the organization for a kicker.
Former Pro Bowler Billy Cundiff was just cut loose, and he won’t be the only one who does not survive roster cuts. It’s possible that the Jets’ Week 1 punter and kicker are not on their roster yet.
There are plenty of things to watch for this week. Keep your eyes peeled, Jets fans. This week’s preseason game will have a regular season feel to it. Football is oh so close to being officially back.