A New York Jets summer hero is about to make his autumn debut.
Tight end Kenny Yeboah will partake in his first NFL regular season game on Sunday as the Jets battle the Atlanta Falcons in London (9:30 a.m. ET, NFL Network). Yeboah, an undrafted free agent out of Temple and Mississippi, is perhaps best known as the recipient of a 50-yard Hail Mary at the end of the Jets’ preseason finale against Philadelphia in August. It capped off an evening that saw Yeboah earned 100 yards on four receptions, half of which went for touchdowns.
Yeboah’s debut comes in the absence of primary tight end Tyler Kroft, who is out for Sunday’s contest with a back injury. Safeties Marcus Maye and Adrian Colbert are out with concussions, as is receiver Jeff Smith.
The Jets (1-3) face off against an Atlanta team that will be missing several primary contributors. Top receiver Calvin Ridley is missing the game due to personal reasons as will fellow catcher Russell Gage and defensive lineman Marlon Davidson, each of whom are dealing with ankle issues.
While Ridley (1,374 receiving yards in 2020) is a major part of Atlanta’s attack, Jets head coach Robert Saleh said that his absence won’t make a difference in the metropolitan defensive game plan.
“We may see some different personnel groupings, (but it) doesnâ€™t really affect our game plan, it came in so late,” Saleh said, per notes from the Jets. “Ridley is a heck of a football player. But at the same time, theyâ€™ve still got a lot of weapons with (running back/receiver) Cordarrelle Patterson, heâ€™s rejuvenated, (quarterback) Matt Ryan can get the ball to anyone. Their draft pick, (tight end) Kyle Pitts, is pretty freaking good. Itâ€™s a challenge, they got a lot of weapons over there.”
American soil hasn’t been too kind to the New York Jets. Perhaps a semester abroad can do them some good.
The Jets play on a different continent for the first time since 2015, as they’ll battle the Atlanta Falcons in a British-based interconference matchup. New York won in their lone appearance in the NFL’s International Series, topping the Miami Dolphins at the rebooted Wembley Stadium.
Previous international business trips for the Jets include a visit up north to play the Buffalo Bills in Toronto back in 2009 and preseason contests in Montreal (1988) and Tokyo (2003). Atlanta, coming off a garish four-win campaign, hasn’t played overseas since 2014, when they dropped a 22-21 heartbreaker to Detroit, also at Wembley.
The Skinny On the Falcons
A new era has dawned in Atlanta. Matt Ryan is back for his 14th season as the Falcons’ franchise quarterback (the Jets have started 13 different throwers in that span) but franchise staple Julio Jones has moved on to Nashville. Atlanta also dismissed general manager Thomas Dimitroff and head coach Dan Quinn, each of whom was only four years removed from a Super Bowl appearance.
There’s a lot of things new in Atlanta (more on that in a minute). Several franchise faces that made that Super Bowl run have vanished, but Ryan has remained eternal. Having turned 36 in May, his contract dictates that he has at least two more years left as the Falcons’ man under center. Atlanta drove that point home by refusing to name an heir apparent. The role of Ryan’s understudy is down to a competition between undrafted Felipe Franks and NFL nomad Josh Rosen.
“We studied every drop-back pass, every play-action pass, everything that Matt did this past year,â€ new Falcons quarterbacks coach Charles London said after the team passed (pun intended) on several high-profile throwers at the 2021 draft, per D. Orlando Ledbetter of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. â€œWe thought as a staff that he was still performing at a high level. He could still do everything that was needed to do to run this offense…Heâ€™s been doing it in this league for a long time at a high level. We expect that to continue this year.â€
With Jones dealt away to the Titans, Ryan has found a new favorite target in Calvin Ridley, who established himself as one of the most prominent deep-ball threats for years to come with a career-best 1,374 yards. Russell Gage quietly set new personal highs in the slot and will take on full No. 2 receiver duties in Jones’ absence.
What’s New In Atlanta?
In the apparent name of building one last Super Bowl map for Ryan, the Falcons retooled this offseason. Arthur Smith takes over as head coach after turning the Titans’ offense into a juggernaut while former New Orleans rival Terry Fontenot was named the general manager. Granted their highest first-round pick since they chose Ryan third overall in 2008, the Falcons defined the concept of taking the “best player available” through the selection of tight end Kyle Pitts. The Florida alum’s other-worldly size (i.e. a jaw-dropping 83-3/8 inch wingspan) allowed the Falcons to feel comfortable in biding their time in finding Ryan’s successor.
Atlanta also underwent extensive renovations to their run game. The team bid farewell to 1,411 yards of production in the form of the Todd Gurley/Brian Hill/Ito Smith group and signed ex-division rival Mike Davis, who rose to the occasion after the Christian McCaffrey nightmare in Charlotte. In terms of protection, cap reasons forced the Falcons to let offensive line staple Alex Mack go. Matt Hennessy (brother of Jets long snapper Thomas) appears poised to take over the role, having beat out fourth-round selection Drew Dalman.
Provided Ryan remains reliable and Pitts fulfills expectations, the Falcons’ biggest issues lie on defense (which was overseen by new Jets defensive boss Jeff Ulbrich after Quinn’s firing). Atlanta also completely overhauled their safeties room (a group that included current Jet Sharrod Neasman) with free agent newcomers Duron Harmon and Erik Harris the favorites to take over. Succeeding Ulbrich is Smith’s former Nashville comrade Dean Pees, who brings two Super Bowl rings with him.
The Falcons’ defensive revolution was necessitated by a garish effort in the secondary, as they surrendered an NFL-worst 293 yards through the air last season. They allowed at least 300 yards in nine games, going 2-7 in such contests…five of those losses were single possession games. Their attempts to shore things up when beyond Harmon and Harris: Atlanta used second (Richie Grant) and fourth-round (San Diego State blitzer Darren Hall) picks on secondary help and also added sizable man-to-man veteran Fabian Moreau after four seasons in Washington.
Harmon, a Rutgers alum who came over from Detroit, acknowledged that while there’s a positive outlook at the Falcons’ defensive future, it’s going to take some time to develop chemistry.
“At the end of the day, itâ€™s going to take reps,â€ Harmon said in another report from Ledbetter. â€œNot just reps on the practice field, but reps in the film room. Reps at walk-throughs. Reps with us just getting together and talking ball. Itâ€™s going to take time.â€
Zach Wilson thus has an early opportunity to air the ball out against a fledgling unit on a stage that all eyes of the football-loving nation(s) will be watching. If the Jets can take advantage of this opportunity, it can help Wilson and their own developing offense generate some early momentum in a nationally televised game.
It becomes a bit more difficult with the loss of Carl Lawson, but the Jets should oblige Ryan’s request to prove he still has enough in the tank. Despite several question marks surrounding the Dirty Birds, they’re capable of putting up big numbers of both the fantasy and physical scoreboards at a moment’s notice with the offensive firepower in tow.
With the Jets’ secondary likewise set to go through their own transitional period…especially with matchups against the weaponry of Carolina, Tennessee, and Atlanta on the docket in the early going…upping the pressure against a 36-year-old quarterback will be more important than ever. Over the past two seasons, Atlanta is 2-9 when Ryan is blitzed at least 15 times.
As anyone who attended that heartbreaker against Las Vegas can attest to, the Jets had no issues blitzing under Gregg Williams’ watch (ranking sixth in blitz rate). Even with Lawson done for the year, they have the personnel to raise the heat this time around. 2020 breakouts Quinnen Williams, Foley Fatukasi, and John Franklin-Myers are a year older and they’ll also have Sheldon Rankins and Shaq Lawson in tow as well.
Robert Saleh is used to making the most of a makeshift pass rush, posting respectable results when the dominant forces of the San Francisco front seven were obliterated by the injury bug. Making the aging Ryan uncomfortable will be vital if the Jets hope to bring a victorious souvenir back from London.