Updated, 4:01 p.m. ET
Thanksgiving is a time for turkey, but Thursday night the Jets and Patriots could give each other indigestoin by grilling up several New York strips.
Jets head coach Rex Ryan had Rob Ninkovich on his mind, if not on his tongue, earlier this week in discussing one of the many challenges the Jets will face against the Pats.
“Number 50, Ninkovich, if that’s how you pronounce his name, he’s a good player. I know him by number,” Ryan said. “He’s forced, I think, five, six fumbles this year, so they do a great job of attacking the football. I think they lead the league in forced fumbles. It’s something they’ve always done a great job of, so we have to make sure we’re protecting the ball at all costs.”
Rex’s research was right on. The Patriots lead the NFL with an impressive plus-20 turnover margin. They’ve done it in large part by leading the league unofficially with 19 forces and officially with 14 fumble recoveries. Ninkovich is tied for third individually with five forces and tied for first with three recoveries.
And Ninkovich has been a Jet-killer the past two seasons. He had the two interceptions of Mark Sanchez last year on Sunday night at MetLife Stadium, one returned for a TD, and his overtime strip sack of Sanchez provided the crushing coda to the Green & White’s 29-26 overtime loss at Gillette last month.
“Ninkovich is one of the best at it, it seems,” Sanchez said. “He’s really getting after the quarterback, he’s getting after the football, and that’s really their whole defense, that’s kind of their MO.”
He’s not alone. Two other linebackers, Brandon Spikes (4 FFs) and Jerod Mayo (3 FFs) are in the top 10, along with rookie DE Chandler Jones (3 FFs). That has the attention of Joe McKnight, who looked to be back at close to full speed from his ankle injury with several nice plays on kickoff returns and out of the backfield at St. Louis.
“From the mistakes I’ve made in the past,” he said with a small smile, “I just have to be more conscious of the ball. I’m always thinking about the ball before I even get the ball.”
He even shared his informal mental checklists with us. Before each kick return it’s something like:
1. Put my mouthpiece in.
2. High-and-tight the ball.
3. Two hands in traffic.
4. Make the kicker miss.
5. Score the touchdown.
Before he gets the ball from Sanchez on a run, he has a similar list:
1. Get the ball first.
2. Two hands in traffic.
3. Keep your feet when you run through the smoke.
4. Make the safeties miss.
5. Score the touchdown.
Needless to say, such emphasis for all the Jets’ skill players will be important tomorrow night. But they are not weaponless in this high-stakes game of strip poker, even if they were to lose a fumble. That’s because they’ve been stripping the ball away from QBs and RBs (and even kickoff returners, as New England’s Devin McCourty knows from five weeks ago) almost as well.
The Jets have 11 forced fumbles this season, tied for fourth in the NFL, and recovered 10, tied for third. And recently, they’ve been on even more of a roll. Their six FFs at Seattle and St. Louis are the most in the league the past two weeks and are the most in back-to-back games since they had seven forces on two occasions in the ’08 season.
The movers and shakers in this area have been DE Muhammad Wilkerson and S LaRon Landry. Wilkerson’s been involved in three separate fumble plays in those two games — two forces and the fumble-return TD vs. the Seahawks, and that’s the most in back-to-back games by a Jets player since Calvin Pace was involved in four fumble plays in consecutive games in ’08.
“I’ve been shouting it from the rooftops since Mo first got here,” NT Sione Po said of Wilkerson’s recent emergence. “His IQ level is more of like a six-, seven- or eight-year player in terms of what he’s playing at, his production and what he does to help this team as a whole. It’s just phenomenal. I’m glad I’m playing on the same side of the ball he is.”
Landry, who has three forced fumbles this year, with two coming against the Rams, declined to give his secrets, other than his patented crunching hits, one of which forced rookie RB Daryl Richardson to cough up the ball Sunday and set up the Jets’ final TD under the Edward Jones Dome. But he provided some general guidelines.
“You’ve got to have a knack for that, man,” he said. “It’s a knack and an attitude. It takes some practice. Part of it is the point of attack, and you’ve got to be aware of what kind of offender you’re going up against, tight end, receiver, running back. And you’ve got to finish. You’ve got to have a knack for it.”
These longtime rivals have shown they’ve got the knack this year. Who’s better at the strip Thursday night may have a lot to say about who comes away with the victory drumstick.
Final Injury Report
The Jets held a short, closed practice at the Atlantic Health Training Center this morning.
Just before 4 p.m., both teams released their final injury reports of the week. The Jets’ injury list seems manageable with seven designated “questionable” for the game: CB Aaron Berry, NT Kenrick Ellis, WR-PR Jeremy Kerley, RB-KR Joe McKnight, NT Sione Po‘uha, LB Bart Scott and QB Tim Tebow. Tebow practiced full today with his sore ribs while the other six were limited.
The 11 probables: TE Jeff Cumberland, DT Mike DeVito, WRs Clyde Gates and Stephen Hill, S LaRon Landry, C Nick Mangold, guards Brandon Moore and Matt Slauson, LB Calvin Pace, RB Bilal Powell and QB Mark Sanchez.
The Patriots listed their three DNPs this week as out for the game: TE Rob Gronkowski (forearm/hip) as expected; DE Chandler Jones, tied for the team lead with six sacks; and G Logan Mankins.
Thirteen Pats are questionable: D-linemen Ron Brace and Trevor Scott, safeties Patrick Chung and Steve Gregory, O-linemen Dan Connolly, Sebastian Vollmer and Nick McDonald, TE Aaron Hernandez, LBs Dont’a Hightower, Brandon Spikes and Tracy White, and WRs Brandon Lloyd and Wes Welker. The three probables are WR Julian Edelman, DT Kyle Love and LB Jerod Mayo.
Happy Thanksgiving to all and one way or another we’ll all meet up at the game.
Tags: Calvin Pace, joe McKnight, LaRon Landry, Mark Sanchez, MetLife Stadium, Muhammad Wilkerson, New England Patriots, Rex Ryan, Rob Ninkovich, Sione Pouha, thanksgiving
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