Dave Choate: Honestly, I just have to ask a big picture question: How are the Jets any good? I didn't see enough talent to maintain this level of performance on the roster, but I've been genuinely impressed with how they've hung in games.
Michael Nania: Well, it's been a mix of better-than-expected castoff additions and NFL-ready rookies that have made the Jets more competitive than we expected. Some of their best contributors have been guys who you would probably be foolish to expect much out of going into the year. WR Jermaine Kearse has had a very solid start to the season as the most consistent player on offense, and he joined the team only about a week before the start of the season. Edge defender Kony Ealy has been on a pass-batting rampage and is arguably the team's most consistent pass-rusher on the outside. TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins, who was quiet in his brief Jets stint last year, has rejuvenated himself and has made tremendous strides as a receiver and blocker. These kinds of contributions just could not have been expected by anybody, and they've driven the surprise start.
The instant impact of rookie safeties Jamal Adams and Marcus Maye has been the most paramount. Adams has struggled recently in coverage against tight ends, but his playmaking at positions all over the field has more than made up for that. The box score doesn't show it (hence why the media will ignore him more than they should), but he's been responsible for two interceptions made by teammates. Maye usually sits back in center field, and is almost always in the right positions both in coverage and as a run defender. He has two interceptions of his own. Secondary communication and prevention of the big play were two major issues on the Jets defense last year. Adams and Maye have fit together seamlessly from the start and eliminated those issues to this point.
Dave Choate: What are the Jets going to do at quarterback the rest of the year, and what is the plan for next year? Are they going to draft a franchise quarterback, or are they playing themselves out of that range right now?
Michael Nania: Josh McCown will be the starter for the foreseeable future. Until the Jets are officially eliminated from the playoffs or dangerously close to it, I can't see a switch happening. While most Jet fans would love to get a look at either Bryce Petty or Christian Hackenberg in a season that's unlikely to end in the playoffs, neither has shown anything to lead us to believe they're a better option than McCown. That's not to say McCown has been good, as regardless of his statistics, he is definitely still a below-average quarterback who limits the team's ceiling and makes mistakes at the very worst times. It's simply that the Jets gave both an opportunity to seize the job, and neither took advantage.
It's anyone's guess how the Jets attack the quarterback position this offseason, but this much is clear: they need to make a big move. They'll have a huge amount of cap space in a free agency class that could have quite a few high-quality veteran names. While they've played themselves out of top three position in the draft, they could still end up top ten. With the way the 2018 quarterback class has fallen short of expectations, it's possible the top QBs could be available in that range. Either way, the Jets have an opportunity to escape their never-ending quarterback purgatory. If they come out of this season confident in the core of this roster, they could make a run at a high-level free agent and try to compete right away. If not, they should have the extra ammunition (they currently own 9 picks in next year's draft) to trade up in the event a potential franchise quarterback doesn't seem likely to fall to them. It would be very disappointing if the Jets entered 2018 with another old veteran/hopeless mid-round pick situation at quarterback.
Dave Choate: Tell us more about your ground game, if you would, and how the Falcons can try to shut it down in a way they simply haven't up until this point.
Michael Nania: The Jets share the rock a lot in the running game. Each of Bilal Powell, Matt Forte, and Elijah McGuire have at least 150 yards on 4.0+ YPC so far. When all three have been active for a game, the carry distribution has been: Powell 37, Forte 30, McGuire 16. So, this is clearly a committee approach. Powell has been the most efficient and productive, and most Jets fans would agree he is the team's best back. His vision is really impressive. McGuire, a 5th round rookie, is #3 in carries but has looked better than Forte. McGuire has quick feet and can make some shifty open-field moves when he hits the second level. Forte still has crafty veteran vision and flashes some power now and then, but at his age is clearly not a very explosive player anymore.
The consistency of this unit has been very erratic. In their game against Jacksonville, the Jets run game (without Forte) stomped the potent Jaguars defense for over 250 yards. The following week, they were shut down by the Browns. The erratic nature of the run game's performance is embodied by the offensive line. Left guard James Carpenter is a strong run blocker, while left tackle Kelvin Beachum has his moments. However, neither is a dominating force, and the rest of the line is suspect. Center Wesley Johnson has had a very rough season. Right guard Brian Winters is highly inconsistent, while at right tackle the Jets haven't gotten much power in the run game out of either Brandon Shell (the regular starter, whose status is up in the air) or Brent Qvale. Surprisingly, the best blocker in the run game has probably been tight end Eric Tomlinson, who has made key blocks on many big runs this season. All in all, I'd describe the Jet run game as prototypical hit or miss: with a bit more missing.
Dave Choate: Defensively, this group has fared pretty well, at least to this outsider's eyes. Who should we be watching out for in this matchup, and do you have the tools on hand to shut down Julio Jones?
Michael Nania: Much like how I described the offensive line and run game, this defense is erratic and enigmatic. Against the Pats, it was strong secondary play bailing out a dormant front seven. Morris Claiborne, Buster Skrine, and Darryl Roberts were all strong in coverage to help hold New England's offense to a relatively low 24 points despite the fact that Tom Brady endured little contact.
The following week, the front seven finally came alive but was mitigated by awful secondary play. Kony Ealy, Muhammad Wilkerson, and Leonard Williams clobbered the Dolphins front as the Jets shut down Jay Ajayi and hit the quarterback twelve times. It was for naught, as an absolutely terrible outing from slot corner Buster Skrine in particular wiped out all of that. This game was especially poor from Skrine, but he is usually the team's most exploitable DB anyway, so keep an eye on how the Falcons look to attack him.
As mentioned before, the most consistently good players on defense are the safeties, Jamal Adams and Marcus Maye. Adams is a lot of fun to watch. It's a task to find where he is lined up each snap, as he can play so many different roles well. However, one role where he has been up and down recently is in coverage against tight ends, so Atlanta would be smart to explore that matchup again. Muhammad Wilkerson will also be interesting to watch out for this week. Formerly one of the league's most dominant defensive linemen, he's taken a lot of heat since the beginning of 2016 as he had gone completely silent. That changed on Sunday, as the Wilkerson of old was back, picking off a batted ball, stuffing runs and making life hard for the quarterback. Is he really back, or was that an outlier?
Julio will likely see Morris Claiborne lined up opposite him for most of the game. The Jets are really thin at cornerback past Claiborne, so he has drawn most of the toughest assignments this year. For the most part, he has done a solid job. He hasn't exactly faced a murderer's row of QB/WR combinations, but his body of work has been better than expected. Claiborne will play off coverage a lot, rarely pressing the line. It's a strategy that has worked for him, though. He is a good tackler, so he has limited the short catches made in front of him. This approach has helped him limit the amount of times he's been beaten over the top, but he has proven to be very willing to take a penalty to avoid giving up the deep reception. This will be a great test for Claiborne. The Jets blitz a lot, and don't give a ton of help to their corners. I think there are more enticing matchups for Atlanta to look to exploit, but they would be smart to test Claiborne out early on.