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As Howard prepares for his first big test, Slauson, Moore recall theirs

Austin Howard and Mark Sanchez stand during a

Austin Howard and Mark Sanchez stand during a huddle during their preseason game against the Panthers at MetLife Stadium. (Aug. 26, 2012) Credit: Getty Images

Matt Slauson can still picture it.

The dark skies up above, the heavy rain pelting the FieldTurf and the fans scattering for cover.

The inclement weather was just postponing the inevitable: his first start as a New York Jet.

And he was sick to his stomach.

After beating out rookie Vladmir Ducasse during the team's 2010 training camp, Slauson emerged as the Jets' replacement for Alan Faneca heading into the season opener against Baltimore -- and first-ever regular-season game to be played at New Meadowlands Stadium.

There was mounting pressure to perform. And his assignment that night only made things worse.  

Haloti Ngata, Baltimore's All Pro defensive tackle.

"Up until the very first play I was terrified out of my mind," Slauson, the Jets left guard, told me. "We had a thunderstorm delay, so I was getting all jacked up, ready to go and then all of a sudden the game's postponed. So I'm like, 'Really? I have to sit here freaking out for another hour?'"

The Jets ultimately lost that game in stunning fashion, as the visiting Ravens eked a 10-9 win on enemy turf. Slauson said he "graded out really high" after the coaches watched the film -- save for that third-and-4 sack of Mark Sanchez he allowed with the Jets trailing with 4:44 to go.

"But aside from that one play, the other 70 or whatever I played really well," Slauson said. "And I have the same confidence in him."

The "him" he's referring to is Austin Howard, the 25-year-old right tackle who, just two weeks ago, was Wayne Hunter's backup. Now Howard is facing the daunting task of stopping Mario Williams in Sunday's season opener against Buffalo.

Howard has one other start to his name: his Week 17 matchup with Dallas outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware (a six-time Pro Bowler). But so much more is riding on his performance Sunday: potentially a Jets' win, Sanchez's health, and Howard's own job.

"We've all been there," Slauson said of facing a big-time pass-rusher in his first NFL start. "And you've got to take your opportunity and run with it."

That's what veteran right guard Brandon Moore did back in 2003.

He doesn't remember his "big matchup" per se, but he remembers the magnitude of the moment. After getting cut a couple times by the Jets, Moore was given one last shot -- the final game of the season -- to prove he was NFL ready.

"All I remember is my mom flew down to Miami and I just went 100 miles an hour," Moore, an undrafted free-agent signing in 2002, said with a smile. "I always think back to that game. I don't know what the film looks like but I'm always trying to attain that mental and physical approach I had that day.

"You couldn't tell me nothing. Even if I messed up, I was going to hit people and do what I was supposed to do. It's probably the most fun I've had as a player."

Moore had played (albeit sparingly) in two games prior to his first start in 2003. There was the 6-0 win over the Steelers in Week 15 at Giants Stadium ("That kind of neutralized my nerves because I kind of got a feel for it," the right guard said of playing his first game in a snowstorm) and then the 21-16 loss to the Patriots six days later.

There certainly were nerves heading into his first start against the Dolphins in Week 17. But unlike Howard, Moore got to ease into his first official NFL test.

Still, there was much at stake for Moore that day.

"'This is my one shot,'" he remembered telling himself before the game. "(The Jets) were saying, 'If he can play, he'll be our guard next year.' If he can't?' 

"I’ll be back home," said Moore. "So it was literally an ultimatum right there, whether I was going to do it."

The veteran lineman hasn't felt the need to rehash his experiences with Howard or to counsel the young lineman about going up against Williams. With all the questions posed to Howard this week by the media, "why would I turn it into something that's bigger than it is?" Moore asked me. "He'll know how to handle that, it's just football." 

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