HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. -- Want to annoy a New York Jets offensive lineman? Mention the number "43." Chances are, you will get a dirty look. You definitely won't get a smile.
Forty-three is the number of rushing yards the Jets produced in their Week 7 loss to the Houston Oilers. For the record, it was 43 yards in 21 carries, an embarrassing statistic for a team that prides itself on controlling the line of scrimmage. That day, the Jets' pride was stepped on and kicked around by the Oilers' formidable front seven.
"What running game?" right tackle Irv Eatman said Thursday. "We really didn't have one that day."
Said offensive line coach Larry Beightol: "[The Oilers] showed a more physical side than we did. They whipped us at our own game."
It was the lowest rushing total in 32 games under coach Bruce Coslet. And to think, only two weeks earlier, the Jets owned the top-ranked rushing offense in the NFL. The Houston game left a stain on the Jets' reputation, an ugly mark they're eager to remove in today's playoff game at the Astrodome.
"Yeah, we definitely want to right ourselves," right guard Dwayne White said.
The Oilers (11-5) have an outstanding defense, including three Pro Bowl players among the front seven -- left tackle Ray Childress, left end William Fuller and middle linebacker Al Smith. They also have tackle-tight end Lee Williams, a former Pro Bowl selection, and right end Sean Jones, a double-digit sacker in the past two seasons.
"Pretty awesome defense," said Coslet, who voted for Smith as the AFC defensive MVP.
The Oilers weren't awesome last week, allowing 193 rushing yards in a 23-20 loss to the New York Giants. They didn't have Childress, who's suffering from a broken rib and a strained back. He's listed as questionable, and his status for today "doesn't look too favorable," Oilers coach Jack Pardee said Thursday.
Big blow for the Oilers. His replacement, Williams, is a terrific player, but not a run-stuffer in the Childress mold. "He has kind of single-handedly stopped opponents' runs when we were in the pass-defense posture," Pardee said of Childress. "That's one of the big ways we miss him. . . . That big-play production is hard to replace."
The Jets aren't moaning over Childress' injury. They remember what happened last time, in the 23-24 loss to Houston at Giants jTC Stadium. The Jets began all right, rushing for 41 yards on their first two drives to take a 10-0 lead. After that, they were completely dominated -- 2 yards on their last nine possessions, 6 runs for negative yardage.
The Oilers held Blair Thomas to 9 yards in nine carries, Brad Baxter to 31 in 10 and Johnny Hector to 3 in two. Freeman McNeil hurt his knee in the first half and didn't return. Left guard Dave Cadigan sprained an ankle on the final play of the opening drive, forcing Coslet to reshuffle the line.
Cadigan is healthy now, but Thomas isn't. The Jets' leading rusher is questionable with a sprained ankle, but it shouldn't hurt the Jets -- not if Hector and McNeil run like they did last week in Miami.
Ideally, the Jets would like to duplicate last week's 231-yard performance against the Miami Dolphins. Fat chance. Even without Childress, the Oilers' defense is in a higher class than the Dolphins'. Still, the Jets will try to run; that's their game. The last thing they want to do is get in a shootout with Warren Moon.
A shootout "would be tougher for us," wide receiver Al Toon said. "Our reputation isn't the same as theirs. We're more of a ball-control offense. A shootout wouldn't be our safest bet."
It's no secret: The Jets must run. But can they? "It might have appeared like they were playing a King Kong defense [last time]," Eatman said, "but that wasn't the case at all. We simply didn't execute."
G; There were reasons, though: Fuller, Smith, Jones. . . .