Rex Ryan tries to ignite Mark Sanchez

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Here they go again.

In an attempt to rouse quarterback Mark Sanchez from his two-game funk, New York Jets coach Rex Ryan has resorted to a motivational ploy that worked last season. Ryan sat Sanchez for a few plays in practice Monday and Tuesday, hoping to unlock the third-year quarterback's "fighting spirit."

This marked the first time this season that backup Mark Brunell received first-team reps in practice. Sanchez will start Sunday in a virtual must-win against the Buffalo Bills and, even though he's in no danger of losing his job, this mini-shakeup was Ryan's way of sending a message -- and showing some tough love.

"He's not happy with me," Ryan said with a smile, adding, "He hasn't talked to me -- for real. He has not said one word."

Ryan and Sanchez typically don't meet early in the week, a team spokesman explained later, but it became clear from Sanchez's clipped responses to reporters' questions that he was miffed by having to sit a few plays.

Precisely the reaction Ryan wanted.

When the coach tried this last December, leading into a huge game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, the slumping Sanchez refused to leave the huddle, nearly creating a standoff at practice. Several months later, Sanchez told a magazine he was so upset with Ryan that he "wanted to fight him."

But it worked, as the Jets upset the Steelers on the road and Sanchez played well over the final six games, including the playoffs.

"For some reason, he got a little hot under the collar and gave that super-competitive fighting spirit that we know he has," Ryan said.

Ryan also admitted that he's superstitious, so if it worked last year ... hey, why not?

The Jets (5-5) have dropped two straight, crushing losses to the New England Patriots and Denver Broncos marred by Sanchez interceptions that were returned for touchdowns. They have scored only 29 points in the past two games, damaging their playoff hopes.

And now Sanchez has a pain in the neck -- no, not Ryan. He appeared on the injury report with an undisclosed neck ailment, but it didn't limit him in practice and Sanchez said he's fine.

Now he just has to deal with his coach.

"He probably knows what I'm doing," Ryan said. "I know Mark Sanchez extremely well. I know how tough he is. If it takes me to do this, and take a punch in the nose, I don't care, I'll take it. But we have to have it from him. He's the guy. He's my guy and we have to have it from him.

"Everybody has to play (with an edge), and I just love it when he's that way. When he's that way, we're extremely hard to beat."

Ryan made light of the situation, smiling almost the whole time, but his quarterback wasn't amused when confronted by reporters. As soon as Sanchez was asked about his reduced reps, his answers got short.

Asked if it bothers him to miss reps, Sanchez said, "I guess maybe last year it did, but I don't know. That's Rex's deal."

On whether it's true he's not talking to Ryan: "No, not at all. At least not on purpose."

On whether he thinks it's a motivational ploy by Ryan: "I think that's why he's doing it, so sure."

On why he didn't make a fuss during practice like last year: "I've been through it before. There's no point."

Some might argue that it's much ado about nothing. Brunell, 41, said he took only four practice reps Tuesday (only one pass play) and two reps Monday, so we're talking about only a small percentage of the actual game preparation.

Clearly, Brunell isn't a threat to Sanchez's job, but Sanchez is fiercely competitive and hates to sit. But he also recognizes he has to improve. So does the offense.

"Absolutely, and it starts with the quarterback position," he said. "I need to play much better than I'm playing. ... A lot of it is on me. I'll improve and this team will improve."

Players downplayed Ryan's decision to sit Sanchez for a few plays, some saying they barely noticed. Brunell, Sanchez's biggest confidant, claimed there's no rift between Sanchez and Ryan.

"They have a pretty cool bond, one that's special and will be around a long time," Brunell said.

Said tight end Dustin Keller: "It's not something I'm buying into too much. Mark's still the guy."

Rich Cimini covers the Jets for ESPNNewYork.com.