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Jets offense takes baby steps, but still can't find way into end zone

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The Jets sputter on offense but might have found their new right tackle in Austin Howard (77). (Getty Images)  
The Jets sputter on offense but might have found their new right tackle in Austin Howard (77). (Getty Images)  

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Oh, these wacky New York Jets, they just can't put it all together. Even on a night in which they made some incremental gains from their execrable offensive standard, it always comes with a caveat, or two.

Sunday night, in their third preseason contest, they at least exhibited an offensive pulse in a 17-12 defeat to the Carolina Panthers at MetLife Stadium. They finally protected Mark Sanchez, completed some passes of 20 yards or more, moved at a decent pace, received a stout performance from new right tackle Austin Howard and found themselves running plays in the red zone.

On the downside, none of those drives led to a touchdown (they have yet to score one this preseason), they continue to lack a semblance of offensive playmakers, Mark Sanchez still finished his night with another woeful box score, including a pick at the end of the half that set up Carolina's touchdown.

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And, to make matters worse, tight end Dustin Keller, one of their few proven pass catchers, went out early with a hamstring injury, and top linebacker David Harris left with an ankle injury.

One step forward ... and possibly three leaps back.

"The way I see it, we're saving all of our good stuff for the regular season," said Sanchez, who expressed a glass-half-full mantra that seemed to be scripted for this offense in their postgame comments.

The running game showed a brief burst at the start of the second half, but Shonn Greene, the nominal starter, rushed 10 times for 26 yards in the first half against a Panthers defense that hemorrhaged yards on the ground a year ago. Even with the improved protection, Sanchez was hit at a couple of inopportune times. Top receiver Santonio Holmes returned from a long absence with a rib injury, but had only one catch for eight yards.

"We're making progress, I can honestly say that," Holmes said. "We're still looking for the right guys in the right places."

It amounted to a field goal exhibition, but even that wasn't smooth, as a promising opening drive of the second half devolved amid penalties and ended up with a missed attempt. "We had a couple of nice drives … then found a way to shoot ourselves sin the foot," Ryan said. That drive was the last time Sanchez was on the field.

Sanchez wound up 11 of 18 for 123 yards and an interception (75.3 rating). This, too, was a mixed bag, making a dart of a throw on a 32-yard gain, but unable to make much happen on third down or when the confines closed in (and, again, he is largely devoid of weapons). Sanchez was only 7 of 14 for 90 yards in the first half, completing all four passes on the opening drive of the second half, before being pulled (probably best to go out on a strong note, as that's about as hot as it gets for this outfit).

"I love the way Mark threw the football," Ryan said, pointing out the assortment of drops that undermined him.

On the bright side, the Jets also found a way to get embattled former starting right tackle Wayne Hunter back on the field often on that drive, using him as a tackle eligible as they got back to the" Ground And Pound" approach and finally got Greene going some too. Hunter was emasculated by Giants rusher Jason Pierre-Paul a week ago -- coordinator Tony Sparano, hardly notoriously creative, also hung him out to dry with limited help in that ill-conceived matchup. Tonight Howard, the new starter there, got regular help from a tight end with Charles Johnson, one of the higher-paid defensive ends in the NFL, his assignment, and Howard more than held his own, one of the biggest takeaways of this game (Carolina wasn't exactly going all out with Ron Rivera's pressure packages, either, it should be noted).

"I thought there was great improvement up front." Sanchez said.

Tim Tebow, America's Backup, entered late in the third quarter, to the requisite burst of applause, but he was aimless in the red zone as well. His first drive ended with another field goal, and really should have resulted in six points … for the Panthers. Tebow chucked an errant pass in the general vicinity of a receiver, but pretty much directly into the hands of linebacker David Nixon, who promptly dropped it.

"You've got to find a way to put the ball in the end zone," Tebow said.

Tebow (4-for-14 for 55 yards, an interception and 45 rushing yards) was clearly flustered against the Giants last week, and, for as much as Sanchez has suffered, Tebow has provided scant competition. His highlight here was a wild, 20-yard scramble, where his ubiquitous elusiveness was on display, and which he punctuated with a fiery first pump rarely seen in August football (and he followed up by holding the ball too long on a sack and then throwing an ugly interception).

Yet again these Jets giveth and then taketh away.

"It was kind of good news, bad news," Ryan said of Tebow, in what could end up being the motto of the 2012 Jets offense.

Of course, while the Jets' quarterback conundrum has been a fixture on sports networks, seems no one talks all that much at Cam Newton, even though he may be the most electrifying player in the game and is coming off the greatest season by a rookie quarterback in NFL history. This was no vintage performance from Newton, though, as several Panthers told me before the game, Carolina is holding pretty much everything back for the regular season (including some innovative formations featuring hybrid running back/fullback/H-back/slot guy Mike Tolbert).

Newton, whose primary target, Steve Smith, sat this one out, still flexed his ridiculous size and speed, even on an off night (6 of 15 for 60 yards and a touchdown). On the opening drive he eluded three Jets on a scramble, pulling away from speed rusher Aaron Maybin and plowing through the tackle of lineman Muhammad Wilkerson for a first down gain. Newton also showed a growing chemistry with emerging receiver Brandon Lafell, whose development will be paramount to this ascending organization. Newton made several tough passes to tight end Greg Olsen look easy and there is no reason to believe he will not continue to make history in 2012 and well beyond.

Panthers rookie linebacker Luke Kuechly was all over the field and will make an immediate, resounding impact, and even oft-injured linebacker Thomas Davis got back on the field for the first time this preseason and picked up a sack on his first snap.

And New York's defense deserves major kudos, too. Despite not having an abundance of natural proven pass rushers, they swarmed Newton (few can scheme it up as well as Ryan) and they neutralized the dynamo. Erratic corner Antonio Cromartie broke up some plays, and the Panthers multi-pronged running attack never got going.

So, there's another positive for you, Jets fans. Then again, there's is a flipside to this, as with all things New York Jets: As was the case tonight, even holding an explosive outfit to 17 points probably won't be enough on most Sundays to get a victory, given the state of affairs on the other side of the ball.


Before joining CBS Sports, Jason La Canfora was the Washington Redskins beat writer for The Washington Post for six years and served as NFL Network's insider. The Baltimore native can be seen every Sunday during the season on The NFL Today.
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