Jets' injury-plagued O-line on 9th combination of players
FLORHAM PARK, N.J. (AP) James Carpenter knocked on the side of his locker - it's wooden - and shook his head at the fact that he's the last one standing.
The New York Jets have lost four of their five projected starting offensive linemen to season-ending injuries this season, and the left guard is the only one to start every game.
''Yeah, it's been tough and I hate to see people go down like that, but we've got good depth,'' Carpenter said. ''Everybody's just working hard and we're trying to make the best of it.''
With right guard Brian Winters being placed on injured reserve this week with a shoulder injury, the Jets will be playing at New England on Saturday with their ninth combination of linemen in 15 games.
That, of course, is not ideal. Not for a unit that is so relied upon to power both the rushing attack and passing game.
''I've always said it, that the continuity and the communication of that group might be the most important group on the field,'' offensive coordinator Chan Gailey said.
''Being able to have that where everybody is on the same page, every snap is vital for you. It's not easy, but that's what we've got to do. We've got to make sure they get on the same page.''
Left tackle Ryan Clady went down with a shoulder injury that sidelined him after just eight games.
Center Nick Mangold severely sprained his right ankle and missed four games, but re-injured it in his return.
Right tackle Breno Giacomini had a back injury that kept him out of training camp and then the first seven games of the season. But a combination of back, shoulder and calf ailments ended his season after just five games.
Winters had missed just one game earlier this season because of a concussion, but was shut down after getting hurt against Miami last Saturday night.
''The fact you would have four starters from your opening day roster all end up on IR is just crazy,'' said backup guard Dakota Dozier.
''It's very unusual, very rare. Carp's been awesome and actually been able to stay healthy, but for the rest of us, it's obviously giving a lot of guys opportunities.''
Ben Ijalana has taken over for Clady at left tackle after rotating with Brent Qvale at right tackle in Giacomini's absence. Qvale could end up starting for Winters at right guard, a spot at which Dozier and Craig Watts are also in the mix.
Rookie Brandon Shell, a fifth-round draft pick and the great-nephew of Art Shell, is expected to make his second straight NFL start at right tackle. Wesley Johnson will make his seventh start at center in place of Mangold.
And, then, there's Carpenter, who has started 30 straight games since signing with the Jets as a free agent last year - hence, the knock on wood.
''It's been wild,'' Watts said. ''It's not what you expect at the beginning of the season. You don't go into a year with your boys, your brothers and be like, `Hey, half of us are going to be really injured by the time this is all over.' That's the price of playing O-line. We knew the job when we signed up for it. Next man up, and we just want to keep this ship rolling.
''Ninth, 10th, 11th lineup, whatever it takes.''
To a man, the offensive line credits coach Steve Marshall for making a regular habit of having the backups practice at various spots. He preaches about versatility, and that has benefited in a big way with so many key contributors going down.
Sure, the backups might not play to the level of the veteran starters, but they're doing a mostly solid job of keeping the gap as small as possible.
''In this league, if you're not a starter, you're everything else,'' Ijalana said. ''Even in OTAs, we always cross train. Back then, it might've been, `Man, this is hard,' but it pays off now where something happens and they say, `OK, switch,' then I've done it before.
''It's not a completely new stimulus.''
It hasn't been all perfect, of course. There have been mistakes along the way, from missed blocking assignments to blown snap counts. Johnson took the blame for snapping the ball too early against Miami last week, resulting in Bryce Petty getting his chest bruised when he was crunched by Cameron Wake and Ndamukong Suh.
''That was a mistake that turned into a bad one,'' Johnson said. ''It was on me.''
But the injuries and adversity have also helped the unit bond, with guys knowing that they need to be closer in order to work in tandem.
So, they have frequent group chats, study extra film and many of them also hang out off the field.
''Being able to talk to each other is so underrated,'' Johnson said. ''Me being able to be very straightforward with somebody and them not taking it seriously or getting offended is good. If I razz somebody, they're going to razz me back. It's brotherly love, and that works well in our room and on our line.''
For more NFL coverage: http://www.pro32.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP-NFL