There’s more gel than an episode of the “Jersey Shore” going on right now for the Jets offensive line.
After some rocky individual performances at the start of the season and an injury to stalwart center Nick Mangold in Week 2, the line has jelled together in back-to-back solid performances. In the opening three weeks of the season, quarterback Mark Sanchez was sacked nine times, including four times apiece in Week 1 and Week 3. But on Monday night against a Dolphins pass rush that is arguably the strength of their team, Sanchez was sacked just once.
It is a testament to a line that has shown improved play and continuity the past two weeks.
“This line has taken us to the AFC Championship game two years in a row, and that’s it. When you look at this team when we took it over, the big thing was going to be if we can run the ball and protect the quarterback, we’ll have an excellent offense, and those are the things we talk about,” head coach Rex Ryan said.“I think sometimes the offensive line is taking a little bit too much of the heat, because quite honestly, in some of the pressures and all that, it's not even the line’s fault.”
A big piece to the puzzle has been the emergence of Wayne Hunter, who has quietly settled down at right tackle. After replacing the injured Damien Woody late last year, Hunter was solid throughout the stretch run of the regular season and the playoffs. After signing a four-year contract this offseason, he struggled in his first three games. Now, Hunter is looking every bit the player who earned that long-term deal.
His play against Cameron Wake on Monday night earned him a game ball from Ryan and his teammates are noticing how he is jelling with the rest of the line.
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“He’s doing a phenomenal job. His hands have improved. He’s just jacking guys up all over the field. His confidence level is high; he’s playing great,” guard Matt Slauson said. “He’s just coming out and punching guys right in the throat. He’s doing a phenomenal job, getting confident with his ability to play fast, athletic. He is one of the most athletic offensive linemen in the league and he can do things a lot of other linemen can’t. He’s figuring that out now, and his confidence level is growing.”
There are still strides to be made though, as the line faces another test on Sunday afternoon against San Diego. With their secondary employing a zone coverage, the Jets will need to give quarterback Mark Sanchez time in the pocket to let the routes of his receivers develop.
The Jets have allowed the 10th-most quarterback hits in the league and the sacks allowed are equally high, but there is progress. The ground game has progressed after four weeks of struggles, with Shonn Greene running for 83 yards two weeks ago in New England and then 74 yards on Monday night — representing his two highest rushing totals of the season. The increased production of the ground game is yet another sign that the line is coming together.
From his view in the Jets backfield, fullback John Conner sees this as the best the line has played this season.
“It is the best this year, the way they’re playing, you can see the holes that are being created,” Conner told Metro. “Things are opening up and I think we’re just getting comfortable. It’s a technique thing, a study thing, the way they’ve improved as a group. But you see the holes that Shonn has, [LaDainian] Tomlinson have right now, they weren’t there at the beginning of the year.”
Follow Jets beat writer Kristian Dyer on Twitter @KristianRDyer.