Breaking down Sunday's New York Jets at New Orleans Saints game (4:05 p.m., CBS)...
1. The Jets' blitz versus the Saints' short passing game. Here's my knee-jerk reaction: I don't like Rex Ryan's aggressive, blitz-happy scheming against offensive mastermind Sean Payton's short passing game, which is chock-full of short dump-offs to Reggie Bush, quick slants to Jeremy Shockey, and screens to a full complement of wide receivers. Simply put, the very design of those types of plays is to a.) make up for a Saints offensive line that leaves much to be desired; and b.) beat the blitz. And blitz the Jets will.
New York is firm in its philosophy about standout quarterbacks: the way to beat them is to attack with everything you've got. So expect Brees to get a treatment similar to what Tom Brady saw in Week 2. But two things were different in that game: First, Brady was playing on a shaky knee. Brees is far more mobile and will prolong some of the types of plays that were rushed into incompletions for New England. Second, the Patriots were without Wes Welker, and he's the guy who could have killed the Jets on those short passes. When Bush is used as a receiver or Devery Henderson steps back and receives a pass behind the line of scrimmage, each of those guys can be just as dangerous as Welker.
So here's the question: does Ryan adapt? Or does he stand pat against a Saints team that is built to beat the blitz?
2. Home field matters -- at least in this game. I tend not to weigh that advantage too heavily in assessing matchups, but here's a case where it's hard to overlook. Since the start of 2008 the Saints are 7-2 and particularly proficient at putting some serious points on board when they play in the Superdome. In nine home games they've averaged 515 total yards, 60 more than they do on the road, and totaled 33 touchdowns, versus 24 in one more away game. Meanwhile, Drew Brees's home passer rating in that period stands at 119.4 (which would be the third-best single season rating ever if carried out through 16 games), while he posts a more pedestrian 82.9 on the road. So, yeah, the Saints are happy to be at home against the 3-0 Jets this week.
The alternative, Giants Stadium, would've been a welcome site for the Jets, who have had the benefit of a particularly raucous home crowd this season in wins against the Patriots and Titans. No such luck in Week 4, and that shouldn't be overlooked, especially given New York's rookie quarterback, Mark Sanchez.
3. On to that rookie quarterback; he needs to start faster. The Jets' average for yards to go on second down is 8.82, tied for 29th in the NFL. That starts with the running game, where the Jets are stumbling to 3.4 yards per first down carry, 27th in the NFL (they're barely better at 3.8 ypc within the overall game). But some of the blame has to fall on the offensive playcallers. Perhaps because Sanchez is a rookie, the Jets pass less on first downs than any other team does. When Sanchez does throw on first downs, however, he goes for over 15 yards per completion, which ranks third in the NFL. So maybe it's time they let him rip it a bit.
Just as important is a strong start to the game, and that's been a problem for the young quarterback, who has three first-quarter fumbles in three games. Consider the Jets' first three offensive series in each of their first two games. Against Houston in Week 1, they went:
1. Three-and-out. 2. Field goal in a drive that included a Sanchez fumble, which the Jets recovered. 3. Three-and-out.
Against New England in Week 2 they started with:
1. Three-and-out in a drive that included a Sanchez fumble, which the Jets recovered inside their own 20-yard line. 2. One play, a Leon Washington fumble, which the Patriots recovered inside the Jets' 20. 3. Three-and-out.
New York finally righted the ship with two opening scoring drives against Tennessee in Week 3 (aided by a Titans fumble on a kickoff), but those first two games are hard to ignore.
Here's why it all matters: If New York repeats the slow starts it had against Houston and New England, New Orleans will be up 14-0 before Ryan has a chance to blink. In the bigger picture, if the Jets don't control some clock and chew up some yards, their defense will wear down, just as the Bills' defense eventually did late in the fourth quarter against the Saints last week. Through three games, the Jets have more three-and-out series, 15, than every team but the 49ers. And if that trend continues on Sunday it could make for an exasperating final 15 minutes for the Jets' defense.
4. Infirmary focus: The Jets' defensive backfield. Against Brees, the NFL's most prolific passer of the past five years (about whom I'd have written more, but I'll let the numbers speak for him: 18,327 yards, 121 touchdowns in that period, and counting), the Jets' chances may come down to the collective health of its defensive backfield. On Thursday afternoon New York practiced without cornerback Lito Sheppard (quad) and nickelback Donald Strickland (ankle). On Wednesday strong safety Jim Leonhard (knee) sat out. And two other starters, free safety Kerry Rhodes (knee) and cornerback Darrelle Revis (hammy), who's played like a shoo-in All-Pro, are nursing ailments. Of course, if Ryan is worried about it, he's not saying.
"With all those DBs on the report, you would think I would feel nervous, but we're only playing New Orleans," he joked after Wednesday's session. "So I'm not really worried about having to cover anybody with Drew Brees and somebody right there."
Bring on the Saints.
Every week, I'll lend my thoughts on a few particularly startable or sit-worthy players. Here's who's I like in this Week 4 matchup:
Jeremy Shockey -- The closest thing New Orleans has seen to an attacking defense like New York's came in Week 2 at Philadelphia. In that game Brees beat the blitz and drew the Eagles' corners up early on by finding his tight end for quick strikes three times in the first series. He added six more looks throughout that game. I see things playing out similarly here.
Mark Sanchez -- If coordinator Brian Schottenheimer is ever going to unleash his rookie, now's the time. Sanchez, who's available in about 50 percent of fantasy leagues, is a solid pick-up on the first week of byes (meaning if you have Kurt Warner, Matt Ryan or Donovan McNabb). You can expect the Jets to pass plenty in what has the potential to be a shootout.
Thomas Jones -- Jones is still running in neutral; meanwhile, opposing backs have totaled 179 yards in three games against the Saints. Chalk that up to some large leads that have kept opponents passing. It could happen again here.
Marques Colston -- Look no further than the outputs of A-level guys like Andre Johnson (4 catches, 35 yards) and Randy Moss (4 catches, 24 yards) against the Jets' top corner, Revis, so far this year. Cast your eyes away from Colston for just this one week.
I don't like the Saints' offensive line, especially at left tackle, where Jermon Bushrod has struggled to block anything that doesn't come straight at him. I'm not confident in their defensive backfield, whose interception count has no doubt been inflated by guys like Matthew Stafford, Trent Edwards and Kevin Kolb in his first NFL game. And I think New Orleans' kick coverage team, ranked 26th in the NFL, gives the Jets another opportunity to stay in this game.
But I just can't bring myself to believe the Jets rookie quarterback corrects all of the offense's problems that I described in one game and then carries his team to a win -- because that's what it would take. Maybe in December, at the Meadowlands, and after a dozen more starts. But not Sunday. Saints win, 31-24, with at least seven of those Jets points coming on defense or special teams.
Overall record: 2-1 (Week 1 prediction: Packers 27, Bears 20. Result: Packers 21, Bears 15).(Week 2 prediction: Cowboys 23, Giants 10. Result: Giants 33, Cowboys 31).(Week 3 prediction: Vikings 23, Niners 20. Result: Vikings 27, Niners 24).