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New York Jets and rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez show Tampa Bay Buccaneers the way forward

Mark Sanchez, above, averaged 24.3 pass attempts for the Jets this season. Fellow rookie Josh Freeman had 31.8 for the Bucs.

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Mark Sanchez, above, averaged 24.3 pass attempts for the Jets this season. Fellow rookie Josh Freeman had 31.8 for the Bucs.

As the Jets continue their improbable march through the playoffs into Sunday's AFC Championship Game, the Buccaneers would be wise to pay particular attention.

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Because the very blueprint for their success is being sketched right before their eyes.

Like the Bucs, the Jets have had to cope with the growing pains associated with a rookie quarterback — in their case, Mark Sanchez. But unlike the Bucs, who went 3-6 in Josh Freeman's nine starts, the Jets have discovered it's possible to win while developing a young prospect under center.

The ingredients include a heavy dose of defense with a dash of consistency in the running game. Throw in a rookie quarterback who can offset his inevitable mistakes with the occasional big play, and … presto.

"Hell yeah, he's going to make mistakes," longtime NFL coach Marty Schottenheimer said of Sanchez in particular and young quarterbacks in general.

"But the process is in place, and they've done a great job," said Schottenheimer, whose son Brian is the Jets' offensive coordinator. "I think they've maximized (Sanchez's) opportunities to make plays for them."

The Jets have not asked their No. 5 overall pick out of USC to be the hero as frequently as the Bucs did with Freeman — reflective of the difference between the teams.

The Bucs had the 27th-ranked defense in 2009. Their running game was inconsistent, at best, with Cadillac Williams recording the only 100-yard game of the season (Week 16 against New Orleans). As a result, the offense often was asked to play from behind, meaning more pass attempts for Freeman.

The lack of a running game exacerbated that problem because third and long became the norm, putting Freeman, the 17th overall pick in the draft, in unenviable passing situations much too often.

Conversely, the Jets led the league in total defense, allowing 252.3 yards and a mere 14.8 points per game. The Jets also led the league in rushing despite a season-ending injury to Leon Washington in Week 7.

Bucs coach Raheem Morris can only hope for luxuries such as those.

"That's the formula," he said. "It's what people have been trying to do for years in this league. … What they're doing on defense is as good as anybody's done it in the past couple of years. It's not a shock to me, and it shouldn't be a shock to anyone else how productive they've been (in the playoffs)."

When you boil this down to the respective quarterbacks, it's clear neither substantially outperformed the other.

Freeman, who turned 22 last week, completed 54.5 percent of his passes; Sanchez, 23, completed 53.8. Their ratings are similar, too: Freeman 59.8; Sanchez 63.0.

The biggest difference is Tampa Bay's games rested largely on Freeman's play. With the Jets, Sanchez had a lighter burden. For instance, he threw 24.3 passes per game during the regular season; Freeman threw 31.8, including 44 against Carolina on a day in which he threw five interceptions.

Freeman might have superior athletic ability, but he still needs help.

"Sometimes what happens is a young quarterback gets forced into playing and he doesn't have the same supporting cast, and he gets beat up a little bit," said Romeo Crennel, a longtime defensive coordinator and former Browns coach who with Schottenheimer is coaching in this week's East-West Shrine college all-star game in Orlando.

"And that can affect him for the rest of his career."

Not just physically but emotionally.

"Their confidence becomes, if not shattered, then very fragile," Schottenheimer said. "All the pressure goes on their shoulders. I'm talking about the emotional pressure that goes with being a high draft choice. All of a sudden, you're the guy.

"That's why it's not very often that you're able to find a young quarterback that's able to do the things that Mark is. In the absence of that defense and running game, he wouldn't have been able to do it."

So do the Bucs have what it takes to build what the Jets already have?

"You don't want to compare," Morris said. "But I think we have the ingredients and the people and the mind-set. It just takes time. But the Jets are setting the bar real high."

FAST FACTS

AFC Championship

Jets at Colts

3 p.m. Sunday, Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis

Line: Colts by 71/2

TV/radio: Ch. 10; 1010-AM

NFC Championship

Vikings at Saints

6:40 p.m. Sunday, Louisiana Superdome, New Orleans

Line: Saints by 31/2

TV/radio: Ch. 13; 1010-AM

Vikes' Harvin sidelined. 3C

New York Jets and rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez show Tampa Bay Buccaneers the way forward 01/21/10 [Last modified: Friday, January 22, 2010 12:00am]
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