Jets sightings: Aaron Rodgers’ red zone magic shines light on attack’s big day

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FLORHAM PARK, NJ — Jets fans arrived at the team facility early Saturday morning, the first open practice of training camp. The energy was palpable. And the cheers when Aaron Rodgers stepped onto the pitch may have been heard as far away as East Rutherford.

Rodgers walked slowly on the training groundsclutching his Jets helmet, and gave the crowd a thumbs-up – most standing and shouting.

And then Rodgers went to do his best practice as a Jets quarterback. Maybe he was waiting for the fans. If this was a preview of how Rodgers and the Jets’ offense will look when they play at MetLife Stadium, then those fans can feel pretty good about this team’s chances of being a Super Bowl contender.

Here are the observations from Saturday’s free practice, the third in training camp.

become irritable

It was the third day of training in a row, on a hot day, in front of cheering fans. So, naturally, things went wrong. Two defensive linemen got in there with tight ends at least three times, by my count.

On one occasion, Jermaine Johnson threw a few punches at tight end Kenny Yeboah. Later, tight ends Jeremy Ruckert and Tyler Conklin had a fight with Johnson and defensive end Micheal Clemons, which ended with Ruckert and Conklin’s helmets falling off.

“Yeah, it’s hot. It was a good competitive practice,” Jets coach Robert Saleh said. “It was good to see the attack struggle a bit.”

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Big day for the offense

In the first two practices, the Jets’ defense was a clear winner — and it wasn’t particularly tight.

The offense felt disconcerting and out of sync at times. It wasn’t a perfect Saturday either, but it was a very good day for the band. At the end of the practice – which was capped off with an elite touchdown from Rodgers – the defense suffered its punishment for losing: push-ups. Finally, the attack got a break.

It didn’t start beautifully. On Rodgers’ first set of 11-on-11 drills, he made a short pass to running back Zonovan Knight, but then threw a ball too high for wide receiver Corey Davis. After that, Rodgers started to take off.

He hit Conklin obliquely to start the next drive, then connected on a short pass to fullback Nick Bawden. On the third play, Rodgers faked a throw to running back Michael Carter, spun around, and hit Knight on a screen again for a massive win.

On the third drive, Rodgers’ completion streak ended when Sauce Gardner broke up a pass intended for Garrett Wilson, but he quickly rebounded and hit Wilson on a tilt the next play – also against Gardner.

Rodgers, however, saved his best work for the red zone, which was a real problem for the Jets’ offense in 2022. To open his first red-zone drive, Rodgers hit wide receiver Allen Lazard on a short pass. On the second play, Rodgers threaded the needle on a tightly covered Conklin, who caught it impressively over his defender’s head for a touchdown. The next play was even better: cornerback DJ Reed slightly misjudged Davis’ route, and it gave Rodgers a window — a tiny one, but a window nonetheless — for the laser on Davis, who dove in and grabbed the ball in the end zone.

“I don’t think he could have put it anywhere else,” Saleh said. “DJ had a very, very nice cover.”

On Rodgers’ next practice, the practice ended after his second pitch, a quintessential tight window shot to the back of the end zone. He sailed past a crowd of defenders to wide receiver Mecole Hardman, who shuffled and carried him.

“He’s a great QB,” Hardman said. “He’s on time for everything. He tells us: Be on time, be open on time.

I had Rodgers completing 10 of 13 passes for two touchdowns and a two-point conversion.

“Just great precision,” Saleh said.

Zack attack

It’s not just the first-team attack that has intensified. Zach Wilson also had one of the best practices I’ve seen from him since I started covering the team last year. That said, it wasn’t padded practice, so the real test will come when those pads are in place and when Wilson gets some important snaps during preseason.

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But regardless, Wilson had a good day. He completed his first five passes and his sixth and seventh pitches were dropped by catcher Irvin Charles. His first achievement was a throw over his body to the opposite sideline, where wide receiver Xavier Gipson hooked him. He had a great finish on the court to Lazard, who twisted his body into an impressive hold. There was also a laser for Yeboah and effective throws for running back Travis Dye and Ruckert.

Wilson was under quite a bit of pressure and would have been sacked three times, by my count — the second-unit offensive line had some issues with a deep Jets defensive group. Even so, he ended the day having completed 7 of 9 pass attempts.

Jermaine Johnson: New year, new number… new position?

You’ll notice I didn’t include Johnson’s position earlier when referring to his role in the practice dusts. There’s a reason for that: Johnson is now listed at linebacker. It seems likely to be more of a hybrid role, though. In games where I noticed he was on defense, Johnson always lined up as a defensive end – but it’s interesting that the Jets changed his designation.

Also: Johnson changed his number from #52 to #11 (which he wore in college). The No. 11 became available when the Jets traded wide receiver Denzel Mims to the Lions.

Injury Updates

There were no new injuries to report on Saturday, although Charles got up carefully after one of his falls. Will McDonald (leg contusion) remains absent. Left tackle Duane Brown, who was dealing with personal issues, eventually showed up for training camp but did not practice. He’ll probably be back in the mix anyway, as he’s just had shoulder surgery.

Moments “Hard Knocks”

Saturday was the first practice in which we really got to see Gardner and Garrett Wilson — and, by extension, Rodgers — go head-to-head. It will be a fun match to watch, as the two look set to become superstars.

Gardner made a great play on the aforementioned pass breakup, then Wilson bounced back on the next play to catch a tilt and blast his way in for a big win. Expect the two to be the focus of the “Hard Knocks” season when it debuts, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if clips of them battling at camp end up on the show.

“Sometimes the ball isn’t even thrown and they’re out there competing because they’re lining up all the time,” Saleh said. “It’s cliché, iron sharpens iron, but it’s a pretty cool dynamic to see these two get into it. But it’s fun to watch.

Various takeaway meals

• At the start of practice, three rookie offensive linemen, led by second-round pick Joe Tippmann, ran shirtless past fans to swell the crowd. It worked.

• Quinnen Williams had a dominant afternoon. He blew the first game of team drills, a Carter run. Williams also reportedly fired Rodgers late as QB in Bawden, and he generally spent a lot of time in the backfield.

• Other players I would have awarded sacks to: Bryce Huff (for the third straight practice), defensive tackle Quinton Jefferson (twice) and undrafted rookie defensive end Deslin Alexandre, who rounded Mekhi Becton to join Zach Wilson. Becton also struggled with Huff – although that’s true for most offensive tackles in those settings given how quickly Huff leaves the line.

• Dye, the undrafted rookie, made a first impression, mostly getting reps with the second- and third-string offensive units. Undrafted rookie safety Marquis Waters also made a great play to break up a pass from Tim Boyle.

• Kicker Greg Zuerlein made all five field goal attempts at 47, 37, 35, 27 and 27 yards.

• The Jets have one more practice Sunday before a rest day. They will train with pads on Tuesday.

• The Jets signed two more players on Friday: defensive lineman Ifeadi Odenigbo and running back Damarea Crockett. Odenigbo had 3.5 sacks last year for the Colts.

(Photo by Aaron Rodgers and Zach Wilson: Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

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