Jets take baby steps in opener

HOUSTON -- Things we learned Monday night about the New York Jets:

Well, they have tough quarterbacks. Mark (Cover Boy) Sanchez wanted to fight his coach last season -- he said so in the current issue of GQ magazine -- and rookie Greg McElroy was sacked five times and absorbed several other hits, yet he kept on slinging it in a 20-16 loss to the Houston Texans.

Other than that, the story of the Jets on opening night was more about what can be, not about what was. This was a dress rehearsal, minus some key cast members.

The Jets played without recently signed wide receiver Plaxico Burress, who was home nursing a sprained ankle. He expects to practice Wednesday, meaning he should make his Jets debut Sunday night at home against the Cincinnati Bengals. They also didn't have center Nick Mangold and right guard Brandon Moore, both of whom are close to returning from the injury list.

On this night, the Jets' starters were sharp -- sorta, kinda. Sanchez (6-for-7, 43 yards) operated a low-risk passing attack and made his throws, hooking up with newcomer Derrick Mason three times for 21 yards. That was a positive, but continuing the bugaboo from last season, the offense sputtered inside the 20.

Sanchez's first drive stalled at the Houston 10, when a missed protection call by the line resulted in a free rusher and a sack by linebacker Xavier Adibi. Tight end Matthew Mulligan released instead of staying in to block, the kind of mistake that killed the Jets countless times last season.

"That's one of our big points of emphasis in this camp," said Sanchez, referring to their red-zone woes. "That's something we still need to address, clearly."

Rex Ryan hired offensive guru Tom Moore as a consultant, with the hope that he'd help with the red-zone problem. Obviously, it's a work in progress. Santonio Holmes said the team's goal is to score a touchdown on at least 60 percent of their trips inside the 20. In this game, they were 1-for-3. They also dropped five passes, including a potential game-winning touchdown by rookie receiver Michael Campbell in the final minute.

On the positive side, the No. 1 passing attack -- so spotty in practice -- was crisp and balanced. Shonn Greene, in his new role as the featured back, got off to a good start with 32 yards on five rushes. That was encouraging, considering his history as a slow starter.

Good stuff, right? Well, Ryan wasn't ready to throw bouquets in the direction of his starting offense. Consider the opposition, he said. Indeed, the Texans are learning a new scheme under new coordinator Wade Phillips, who is installing a 3-4 system -- no easy talk when you miss the entire offseason due to a lockout.

"This defense right here isn't to our caliber," Ryan said, claiming the Texans are no match to what Sanchez & Co. face every day in practice.

What upset Ryan the most was his team's pass protection, and rightly so. The Jets allowed seven sacks, including two by guard/tackle Vladimir Ducasse. And to think, there was a time early in the offseason -- pre-lockout -- when the Jets thought he could be their starting right tackle. It's a good thing they re-signed Wayne Hunter.

"I think we'll feel better when Brandon and Mangold get back out there," said Ryan, adding, "There are no excuses. We've got to figure this out. A simple, nickel pressure and the guy [Adibi] isn't touched. To say I'm disappointed with that, I think would be an understatement."

The blocking stunk, but some of the sacks could be attributed to McElroy, who held the ball too long at times. But give the kid credit: In three quarters of action, in his first game since his glory days at Alabama, McElroy (23-for-39, 208 yards) led three scoring drives and committed only one turnover, a strip sack.

"It looked like, for a minute, we were trying to find out how tough that guy was," said Ryan, once again indicting the pass protection. "I think we found out. That's a tough guy."

Despite the hiccups, the Jets remained confident that the offense will be a force once the parts are together. During the pregame warm-ups, Holmes said he locked eyes with Mason, who claimed that the only reason he signed with the Jets is to win a championship.

"We looked at each other in the eyes and we just know it's going to come down to us, making big plays for Sanchez," Holmes said.

On Night 1, there were no big plays, just little ones. Baby steps. Next week, we'll know more.