The New York Jets are facing perhaps their most difficult challenge of the season on Sunday, as they travel to play the Carolina Panthers. The Panthers are the third elite team the Jets have played this season, and the Jets have been surprisingly successful in those games (home and home split with the New England Patriots and home win over the New Orleans Saints). The Jets are clinging to their playoff lives, and they can’t afford any losses.
The Panthers are a team that is built around a stellar defense and a strong run game, but they are capable of moving the ball through the air. When they do pass, Steve Smith is generally Cam Newton’s primary target. At 34, Smith is no longer an elite receiver, but he is still having a very solid season, catching 60 balls for 681 yards and 4 touchdowns. He is a very quick and explosive receiver, and he is an extremely precise route runner.
Those skills are what makes Smith a terrible matchup for the Jets’ struggling secondary. Antonio Cromartie and Dee Milliner have both had very rough seasons, and neither of them matches up well with Smith. Cromartie is very tall for a corner, and he has been dealing with a hip injury. Those two factors make him less fluid than smaller corners in and out of breaks, which could lead to disaster against a player like Smith. Unfortunately, Cromartie also sustained a concussion in Sunday’s win over the Oakland Raiders, leaving him questionable for the game against the Panthers.
Milliner has been benched at three separate points this season, and he has struggled all year. He was better against the Raiders, but there is no way that the Jets would feel comfortable putting Milliner on an island against Smith. Milliner has made some simple rookie mistakes such as giving receivers too much room and keeping his eyes in the backfield, but he can’t afford to make those errors against a veteran like Smith. If Milliner does cover Smith, he needs to get physical at the line of scrimmage, and the Jets need to give him safety help over the top.
If Cromartie can’t play, the Jets may actually be best served putting Kyle Wilson on Smith. Wilson has an undeserved reputation as a bust because he is a former first round pick who doesn’t start, but the reality is that he is actually a very solid nickel corner. Wilson almost exclusively covers slot receivers, so he actually has more experience covering quick, precise receivers than anyone on the Jets. His experience in these matchups could give him a better chance against Smith than Milliner or Darrin Walls.
Of course, Cromartie is the only one of the Jets’ corners who has the same talent level as Smith, so if he is healthy then he will get the first crack at the matchup. If Cromartie can’t go, however, then the Jets will have to get creative with their coverages of Smith. Milliner, Wilson and Walls will all need to step up, because the Jets’ pass defense has been their Achilles’ heel all season.