FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- A look at what's happening around the New York Jets:
1. Marquee matchup: It's Sauce vs. Cheetah. Get your popcorn (and Buffalo wings) ready.
Jets cornerback Sauce Gardner was drafted fourth overall for days like this -- a showdown Sunday against Miami Dolphins star Tyreek Hill, arguably the most electrifying wide receiver in the sport. It probably won't be an every-down matchup, as the Jets figure to change coverages, but let's hope the rookie gets some man-to-man opportunities.
Gardner, hardly the bashful type, wants his shot against the best.
"It's what I dreamed about," he said. "Coming to the NFL, with the goals I have for myself -- Rookie of the Year, All Pro, Pro Bowl -- I have to go against guys like that in order to be recognized. It’s a great opportunity. Me and D.J. [Reed] and the rest of the secondary, we were talking about it. It’s a great opportunity to show the world what we can do.”
Be careful what you wish for. Hill, who leads the NFL with 477 receiving yards, can make the most seasoned cornerbacks look bad. Hill (quadriceps) is listed as questionable after showing up on the injury report Thursday, but he didn’t miss any practices and the Dolphins are “very hopeful” he will play, coach Mike McDaniel said. As for Gardner, he’s off to a good start -- no penalties and hasn't been burned on any deep balls -- but he's about to step up a weight class. Hill has video game-type speed.
"I went against guys that are fast, like Jameson Williams of Alabama," said the former Cincinnati star, referencing the Detroit Lions' first-round receiver. "He was fast. I ain't saying he's Tyreek Hill fast, but I've got certain things I like to do so I can handle guys like that."
It will be interesting to see how much the coaches trust Gardner, who also will see a lot of dangerous receiver Jaylen Waddle. Gardner has played straight man coverage about 30% of the time on passing downs, with a mix of Cover 2, Cover 3 and Cover 4 the rest of the time. It probably makes sense to play a two-deep look against Hill & Co., giving Gardner safety help.
For entertainment value, let's hope they put Gardner on an island.
2. Where's mine? Gardner is the only member of the starting secondary, including nickelback Michael Carter II, who doesn't have an interception. You know it's on his mind because he's the one who mentioned it to reporters.
3. The amazing AVT: Alijah Vera-Tucker, man of many positions, could add a fourth to his résumé. That's right, he could get the nod at right tackle against the Dolphins, one week after making his first career start at left tackle.
Vera-Tucker's versatility has saved the injury-plagued offensive line from a full-blown crisis. He held up reasonably well at left tackle, not allowing a sack or a quarterback hit. Line coach John Benton said he was "as impressed as I've ever been with a player."
With injuries mounting, Vera-Tucker started practicing left-tackle pass sets in "Flight School," the Jets' version of after-school help -- a post-practice session that allows players (mostly third-stringers and practice-squad players) to get extra work.
He did that for a few weeks before being asked to replace George Fant (knee), who replaced Duane Brown (shoulder), who replaced Fant. (Yeah, it's complicated, but there have been a lot of moving parts.) The coaches didn't force Vera-Tucker; they left it up to him and he was all-in. Now that Brown is off injured reserve, Vera-Tucker probably will flip to the right side until Max Mitchell (knee) is healthy.
"I don't think there's a position I can't play," said Vera-Tucker, who played left tackle in 2020 (USC), left guard in 2021 (rookie, 16 starts) and right guard (2022, three starts). "That's just being confident in myself."
If Vera-Tucker starts at right tackle, he'd be only the second player in the past five years to start at four different offensive line positions within his first 21 career starts, according to Elias Sports. Daniel Brunskill did it with the San Francisco 49ers in 2019 and 2020. Players and coaches shake their heads in amazement when asked about Vera-Tucker's feat.
4. Least in the east: By now, you know all about the Jets' 12-game losing streak in division games, an embarrassing trend that coach Robert Saleh emphasized in his first team meeting back in April as part of his "close the gap" campaign. That includes a wall message in the building that says, "Own the East." Here's some additional perspective on the skid:
It's the longest active streak in the league, and it's not even close for second. The next longest is five, by the Denver Broncos.
It's two losses shy of the Jets' franchise record (1995-97) and seven shy of the all-time record in the post-merger era (19, Detroit Lions, 2007-10).
Only four of the 12 losses have been one-possession games. All told, the Jets have been outscored 358-158.
"This team hasn’t won in a while within the division, and if we want to take that next step as an organization, we’ve got to do better in our division," Saleh said.
It starts Sunday.
5. Air ball: Defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich spoke with Quinnen Williams to clarify his "gasping for air" comment from last week. (When asked why Williams wasn't playing more snaps, Ulbrich replied, "There’s like these critical moments in games and ‘why is Quinnen not out there?’ and you look to the side and he’s gasping for air, so just got to be judicious with it.")
It seemed like an off-hand remark within the context of an explanation of why they prefer to rotate their defensive linemen. Ulbrich said he has "tremendous respect" for Williams, adding that he has no issue with Williams' conditioning.
Publicly, Williams shrugged it off, saying it was no big deal, but the comment resonated in the locker room.
"The competitor in him, I think it would bother anybody," defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins told ESPN. "If you're a competitor who works his ass off to be at the top of his game and gets in the best shape of his life to go out and contribute to a team's winning success, yeah, as a competitor it should bother you a little bit. But that situation has been rectified and everybody is on the same page."
6. Not so sweet at home: The Jets never will be perceived as a legitimate threat until they start winning at home. Since 2020, their home record is a league-worst 4-15. They're not even competitive, with a point differential of minus-184. That, too, is the NFL's worst over that span. They've scored only one touchdown in eight quarters at home this season. If they want to get the crowd behind them ... score.
7. Pick party: The Jets are tied for the league lead with four interceptions in the fourth quarter. Some perspective: They had only seven interceptions for the entire 2021 season -- in every quarter.
8. D-line dilemma? They could wind up dressing 10 defensive linemen for the second week in a row, which is highly unusual. They have 10 on the roster, with Vinny Curry eligible to come off injured reserve in the next two weeks. Would they really keep 11? That's a crazy surplus. You have to believe general manager Joe Douglas will get calls as the Nov. 1 trading deadline approaches.
9. Fantasy alert: In the first two games, running back Michael Carter got more playing time than rookie Breece Hall (87 snaps to 53), but it flipped in the next two -- an 84-66 edge for Hall. Carter will always have a role because he's too valuable, but this is definitely trending the way many anticipated.
10. The last word: "We’re in this massive, massive staff room at the stadium, the old Reliant Stadium, and it’s just me and him sitting right across from each other. Since then, we’ve been pretty darn close. ... We had a lot of really cool conversations, a lot of cool date nights with whoever he was with at the time, not his current wife ... and with my now wife." -- Saleh on Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel, a fellow low-level assistant with the Houston Texans (2006-08)