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Jets preparing to fight their way into playoffs

Jets running back Le'Veon Bell stretches during warmups

Jets running back Le'Veon Bell stretches during warmups before facing the Falcons in a preseason game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Thursday in Atlanta. Credit: Getty Images/Kevin C. Cox

Things got quite heated during a hot late-August practice and veteran linebacker Jordan Jenkins decided it was time to make it hotter.

Jenkins purposely started a fight. He and left guard Alex Lewis threw punches. Other players were involved. It’s an old trick that usually reveals something about your team and teammates, and it was “a good thing,” according to Jenkins.

“If you’re not fighting, you’re not going to be able to bring it on game day,” Jenkins said. “You got to get the tempers flaring just to see how people respond and just see the team camaraderie. Once you trade bows with a guy you get a real judge of the character and how they respond when they get hit in the mouth.”

This tack may prove prescient since the Jets could get hit in the mouth plenty this season. How they respond will determine if they have any success in a season like no other.

The Jets went 7-9 last season, thanks to a 6-2 second half. Matching that mark will be difficult. Few would give the Jets a fighting chance to end their nine-year playoff drought.

They play the NFL’s second-toughest schedule. They have a new starting offensive line that hasn’t played one game together. They need upgrades at receiver. That position was riddled with injuries during their abridged training camp.

On defense, the Jets still lack a pass-rushing presence. They also lost their two best players prior to camp. Disgruntled Pro-Bowl safety Jamal Adams was traded to Seattle and linebacker C.J. Mosley opted out of the season because of concerns over COVID-19.

But the Jets contend that they’re equipped to handle all the challenges that this season presents, and the only objective is making the playoffs.

“Our goal is going to be playing in January,” coach Adam Gase said. “It’s always going to be the goal. We have to do everything we can to make sure that’s where we end up.”

If the Jets end up there, Gase would be a Coach of the Year frontrunner after his turbulent first season with the Jets.

It likely would mean third-year quarterback Sam Darnold took a giant step. Le’Veon Bell had the bounce-back season he expected. Second-year defensive tackle Quinnen Williams became a force after an offseason of reflection, training and eating right. And defensive coordinator Gregg Williams pushed his group to play even better than last year’s surprisingly Top-10 defense.

“I’m feeling pretty good about the guys,” said Jenkins, who declared with expletives how sick he is of missing the playoffs before camp began. “There’s no egos in the locker room and everyone’s 100% bought in.”

General manager Joe Douglas’ focus was fixing the offensive line. He drafted potential 6-7, 370-pound franchise left tackle Mekhi Becton. Douglas also signed center Connor McGovern, guard Greg Van Roten, tackle George Fant and re-signed Lewis.

Keeping Darnold healthy and giving him and Bell the time and room to make plays will be huge. Darnold made improvements late last season, but more is expected now in his second year in Gase’s system.

Gase seems to be committed to featuring Bell more than last year, especially in the passing game. A happy and productive Bell would help the Jets and quiet some of the noise and drama involving him and Gase. Frank Gore, 37, appears to still have fresh legs and a lot left.

Douglas didn’t address the receiver position enough though.

Enigmatic former first-round pick Breshad Perriman replaced Robby Anderson, who signed with Carolina. Rookie Denzel Mims from Baylor has potential, but he missed valuable time in camp with a hamstring injury. 

Slot receiver Jamison Crowder remains a main target. Veteran Chris Hogan was signed for depth and much-needed experience. Tight ends Chris Herndon and Ryan Griffin give Darnold strong options on third down and in the red zone.

“I think we’re an extremely well-balanced offense,” McGovern said. “I think we’re going to be a pretty dangerous offense.”

The defense has holes, but Gregg Williams will try to mask them.

Williams will rotate his D-line and continue to throw different looks to keep offenses off-balanced. Jenkins, Neville Hewitt, Blake Cashman, Avery Williamson and Frankie Luvu should be in Williams’ linebacker rotation.

The Jets were the No. 2 rushing defense last year. Their passing defense still has deficiencies.

Fourth-year safety Marcus Maye and veteran Bradley McDougald, acquired from Seattle in the Adams’ deal, are proven players. Maye will play a similar role as Adams did last year. But replacing Adams will be difficult.

Former Colt Pierre Desir should start at cornerback with Bless Austin and Brian Poole at slot corner. Rookie safety Ashtyn Davis will have a role in the defensive backfield.

The Jets are, once again, a team in transition, but they’re optimistic they’ll surprise people.

“I feel like we have guys who will fight for one another,” Jenkins said. “I feel like everyone has bought in. People said that in the past, but you just have to wait and find out in the season, see the true test and see if we’re really about it.”

BEATMAN'S PREDICTION

Record: 6-10

Division: Tied for last in AFC East

Forecast: The offensive line hasn’t played a single game together. The defense lost its two best playmakers (Jamal Adams and C.J. Mosley). The Jets need major upgrades at wide receiver. Injuries to starters on both sides of the ball limited how much this team could play together in an already shortened camp. The schedule is brutal. They may get better as the season goes on, but it could be another long year.

This is Al Iannazzone's third season covering the Jets for Newsday.

New York Sports