The New York Jets finally figured out a way to silence the interminable debate about which of their high profile quarterbacks should be throwing the ball on offense. All they had to do was stop throwing the ball so much.
It didn't really matter who was under center for New York during the team's 35-9 rout of the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday at MetLife Stadium -- though, for the record, it was Mark Sanchez for all but a couple plays. Instead, the Jets relied more heavily than ever on running back Shonn Greene, who rushed for a career high 161 yards and tied a career best with three touchdowns in the win.
All told, the Jets gained a total of 252 yards on the ground, their best single-game effort since the 2010 regular-season finale against Buffalo. In doing so, New York, which improved to 3-3, finally started to take on the hard-nosed, head-down character that head coach Rex Ryan promised this summer.
Before Sunday, the Jets hadn't rushed for more than 118 yards in a game, and had only gained 297 yards on the ground in their previous four games, combined -- and the result was a 1-3 slide. So to see the team run often and run well was a welcome change.
"When you're down and the running game's not going as well as you want, it's easy to just give up on it and just be like, 'Whatever,'" Greene said. "But we keep working every week at practice. We keep just grinding and grinding and saying it's going to come along, and it did today."
Ryan said he challenged the team during the week to win the time of possession battle on Sunday, which the Jets did -- 33:40 to 26:20. And Greene's tireless effort made it difficult for offensive coordinator Tony Sparano to even consider deviating from the ground-and-pound strategy that was finally working so well.
"We wanted to get that big back rolling, and we knew we were close," Ryan said. "We've been working hard, and today we were able to get him going. When Shonn carries it that well and has that kind of production, it's great for the entire team."
As a result of New York's reliance on Greene, the struggling Sanchez only had to throw a season-low 18 passes, with virtually all of them -- except for one shot downfield to Chaz Schilens early in the third quarter -- occurring within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. Overall, Sanchez was consistent and largely error-free as a result.
The fourth-year starter, whose status as such has been called into question in recent weeks, completed 11 of his attempts and threw two touchdowns with no interceptions, by far his most efficient game since Week 1. Sanchez's passer rating, which was the third-lowest in the league coming into Sunday's game, was 109.0 against the Colts, and the Jets improved to 11-3 when Sanchez's passer rating is over 100.
The five offensive touchdowns for the Jets on Sunday were two more than the last four games combined, and Greene's three rushing touchdowns tripled the team's total from the first five games. Furthermore, the Jets, who entered the game having scored touchdowns on only 35.7 percent of red zone chances -- and just 14.3 percent in the last three games -- found the end zone on all five trips inside the 20-yard line against Indy.
"He has a hard job by himself," Green said of his Sanchez. "And whatever we can do as running backs and offensive line and receivers to help him and win games is going to be important for him."
Much of Sanchez's improvement Sunday should largely tied to Greene's breakout performance, but Sanchez also benefited from the return of tight end Dustin Keller, who had one catch for six yards after missing four games, as well as wideout Stephen Hill, who had three catches for 23 yards and a score.
In addition to the sudden infusion of offense into the game plan, the New York defense, which has mostly held its own this season, was stout once again. The Jets bullied Colts rookie quarterback Andrew Luck all afternoon, intercepting two passes and sacking the 23-year-old four times, with one sack causing a fumble.
"A good running game, a good defense, solid special teams, those are all a quarterback's best friends," Sanchez said. "I know that from playing a couple years now and you can't make your job any easier, so I'm thankful for the way they played."
The Jets may have to return to the air a little more next week against the New England Patriots, in a matchup that, unbelievably, is for first place in the AFC East. And if they do, it'll almost unquestionably reopen the debate about New York's other quarterback, who completed one pass for 23 yards on a fake punt on Sunday.
But should Ryan and the Jets decide to keep pounding the ball with Greene, who carried the ball a career-high 32 times against Indianapolis, he'll be ready -- and fatigue most definitely won't be an issue.
"The running backs and I had dinner this last week and I think Shonn got the biggest steak he could possibly have," Sanchez said. "If he was tired it was from that, and not from rushing the ball too much. He eats like a lineman, but he needed it all today."
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