OWINGS MILLS – The New York Jets’ metamorphosis from a smash-mouth, run-first offense into a free-wheeling passing outfit is by necessity as much as choice.
Yes, the Jets have been forced to throw to get back into games. And they haven’t gotten ideal production out of running backs Shonn Greene and LaDainian Tomlinson.
Those negative factors have coincided with the emergence of quarterback Mark Sanchez into a dangerous passer and the presence of some outside weapons in wide receivers Santonio Holmes, Plaxico Burress and Derrick Mason as well as athletic tight end Dustin Keller.
Heading into Sunday night’s game against the Baltimore Ravens, Sanchez has completed 63.1 percent of his throws for 886 yards, six touchdowns and four interceptions for a respectable 90.9 passer rating.
“They’re throwing it a little more,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “Sanchez has grown, he looks good. He’s very talented, he can really throw it. So, that’s what they’re doing right now.”
The Jets rank 10th in passing, averaging 278.7 yards per game.
Conversely, their running game has regressed despite the presence of the NFL’s leading active rusher in Tomlinson, who has gained 13,466 career yards.
The Jets have only attempted to run the football 73 times with just two touchdown runs while launching 120 throws.
“You look at our attempts, it’s not close to where we have been the last couple of years,” Jets coach Rex Ryan said during a conference call. “Your opponent has a lot to do with that as well. We’ve been down in a couple of games this year, so that kind of dictates that we’ll have to throw the ball more than we have done in the past.
“You have to be able to run the football. It helps your defense. When you do get ahead, if you get a lead and things like that, you need to be able to run the football. I think it opens up opportunities in the passing game like the vertical passing game.”
Ryan cited the Ravens as an example of a team who had earned enough respect with running back Ray Rice to dictate single-coverage outside. And rookie wide receiver Torrey Smith caught three touchdown passes from quarterback Joe Flacco.
“When you look at the Ravens game, shoot, they just came out chucking it like crazy, but part of that is due to their running game,” Ryan said. “St. Louis was concerned with their running game. That allowed some opportunities down the field.”
Nonetheless, Sanchez’s star is definitely rising.
The former USC star has posted three consecutive games with at least a passer rating of 85 or better and two touchdown passes.
In a loss to the Oakland Raiders, Sanchez passed for a career-high 369 yards.
“Sanchez is a guy who is still growing, but can throw every ball,” Ravens All-Pro free safety Ed Reed said. “That’s why you’re seeing a little bit more passing. Now, he’s definitely a good quarterback.”
Sanchez also benefits from his personnel.
Since 1983, no NFL receiver has caught more touchdown passes in the final minute of the fourth quarter or overtime than Holmes with five such plays.
The speedy former Pittsburgh Steelers starter has caught 10 passes for 131 yards and a touchdown.
“We know what Santonio represents,” Reed said. “He brings a lot to the table.”
Keller is too swift for most linebackers and safeties to cover and leads the Jets with 16 catches for 249 yards and two touchdowns.
Mason, a two-time Pro Bowl selection with the Ravens until being released as a salary-cap casualty before training camp, has 10 catches for 71 yards.
Back in the NFL after serving nearly two years for a gun charge after accidentally shooting himself in the leg at a Manhattan nightclub, Burress has contributed seven catches for 127 yards and two scores.
“I’ve been playing against Plaxico for a long time, and he’s very respected, especially by me,” Reed said. “I have so much respect for him with what he’s been through. I’m glad he’s back on the field.”
Sanchez has led the Jets to consecutive AFC championship game appearances.
And his formidable receiving corps of Burress, Holmes and Mason has combined for 24,317 yards and 147 touchdowns, more than any other trio in the NFL.
The Ravens will be looking to shut down the Jets the old-fashioned way by harassing Sanchez, who has already been sacked nine times and doesn’t have much of a running game to take the pressure off of him.
“Anytime that you can stop the run, kind of the way we play, the run will make you one-dimensional,” All-Pro middle linebacker Ray Lewis said. “Anytime we make you one-dimensional, then we can pretty much get after your quarterback the way that we dictate. That’s kind of the thing that we have had around here for many years, priding ourselves on stopping the run and making sure that nobody comes in there to create that mentality.
“Once you start letting that build up, then everything comes. Then the play-action comes open, then all those different things. If you take that one aspect away, you can really get after people’s quarterback.”