Here are seven things to watch as the Rams play the New York Jets at the Edward Jones Dome at noon Sunday (KMOV Channel 4):
1. MARK-ED MAN
The defense is merely middle of the pack. The running game’s not what it used to be. And the WR corps is depleted. As his supporting cast has eroded, so has the play of Jets QB Mark Sanchez. In five of his nine games, Sanchez has completed less than 50 percent of his passes. He has fumbled eight times, and four of his nine interceptions have come in the red zone. Which is a far cry from the lofty days of being only the fifth QB in the Super Bowl era to win 30 or more games in his first three seasons (‘09-11).
2. FEELING THE HEAT
The Rams haven’t been much of a blitzing defense this season but that could change this week because — well — everybody blitzes the Jets. Statistically speaking, Sanchez is the most blitzed quarterback in the league and the Jets have struggled with blitz pickup — especially slot blitzes. Cortland Finnegan, that’s your cue. Twice in Seattle last week, a blitzer came in free. Sanchez has done his best work against teams (Bills, Colts, Patriots) that don’t blitz much and play a lot of “off” coverage.
3. LIFE WITHOUT HOLMES
The Jets’ passing game isn’t the same since losing their best offensive player, WR Santonio Holmes, to a season-ending lis franc (foot) injury four games into the season. Sanchez’s best remaining option is TE Dustin Keller, who’s coming off his worst game of the season (2 false starts, 1 dropped pass) against Seattle. But Keller can get open, and tortured the Rams for 107 yards and a TD when the teams last met in 2008. At WR, Jeremy Kerley is small, quick, and physical and averages 15.3 yards per catch.
4. CHASING DANNY
With the Jets’ best defensive player, CB Darrelle Revis, out for the year with a knee injury, Antonio Cromartie usually gets assigned the opposing team’s top wideout. Cromartie has great closing speed and is playing at a Pro Bowl level. His 25 interceptions since 2007 ranks second in the NFL to Baltimore’s Ed Reed (33). But Cromartie (6-2, 210) struggles against smaller, quicker receivers, so having him shadow Danny Amendola probably isn’t the way to go, particularly when Amendola’s in the slot.
5. WHERE’S THE RUSH?
Here’s all you need to know about the Jets’ pass rush: Their sack leader from a year ago, LB Aaron Maybin, was waived Tuesday. He had zero sacks this season. Although they did have four sacks last week in Seattle, the Jets have only 16 all season — tied for seventh-worst in the NFL. Their sack leader this year, LB Bryan Thomas, has only 2½. As a result, the Jets have had to manufacture a rush through blitzing, overloads, stunts, and multiple looks. “They give you a lot to prepare for,” Rams C Rob Turner said.
Last week, Johnny Hekker became the first NFL punter since 2004 to complete two passes in a game. But when it comes to fake punts, Hekker has nothing on Tim Tebow of the Jets. Serving as an up-back on the punt team, Tebow has run for two first downs and thrown for another out of punt formation. However, Hekker’s the better thrower overall — 3 for 3, for 42 yards and a TD when you include his toss to Amendola on a fake field goal. Counting plays from scrimmage, Tebow is 5-for-6 for 40 yards.
7. RARE VISIT
It’s been a while. The last time the Jets traveled to St. Louis, a playoff berth was at stake for both clubs. Needing a win, plus help, to earn a wild-card berth as an 8-8 team, the Rams closed the 2004 regular season with a 31-yard field goal from Jeff Wilkins in overtime to win 32-29. As the clubs headed into OT, the Jets learned they had qualified as a wild-card team by virtue of a Pittsburgh victory over Buffalo. That was Steven Jackson’s rookie season, and the Rams haven’t reached the playoffs since.