FLORHAM PARK, N.J.—Shonn Greene was prepared for the frustrating questions each week for much of the first half of the New York Jets' season.
What's going on with the running game? Where's the "Ground-and-Pound" approach that coach Rex Ryan was so fond of?
Well, the Jets are pounding opponents again on the ground, and the offense has shown signs of efficiency. Just in time for perhaps New York's toughest stretch of the season.
"Obviously," Greene said Wednesday, "we have our identity back."
Thanks to Greene and a rejuvenated rushing attack, New York has returned to being a run-first offense which has helped set up Mark Sanchez and the passing game.
"I just think we're playing Jets football," Ryan said. "I feel that we're a much more confident team playing this way, this style."
There are still mistakes to be cleaned up, as evidenced by a shaky first half in a 27-11 victory at Buffalo last Sunday. But the Jets (5-3) have three straight victories, with a first-place showdown up next with the New England Patriots (5-3) on Sunday night.
The last time the AFC East rivals played, back on Oct. 9, the Jets were sent to their third straight loss. Ryan insisted he saw some improvements, a few things New York could build on. The Jets haven't lost since, and it's no coincidence the re-emergence of the running game has occurred during that stretch.
"We're starting to come into our own as an offense," Sanchez said.
The Jets ran for a modest 97 yards against New England in the first meeting, including 83 by Greene. It was the third straight game New York was without All-Pro center Nick Mangold, and his impact on both the running game and offensive line was clear as Colin Baxter tried to fill in.
Mangold went down with a sprained ankle in the second game of the season against Jacksonville, and Greene had 49 yards rushing. Greene followed that performance with 59 yards against Oakland and only 23 against Baltimore.
"We never make excuses, but I wanted to," Ryan said. "He's the best center in football. Kind of like the Darrelle Revis of corners, that's what Nick Mangold is at center. So, having him out obviously was a great loss to us."
Added tight end Dustin Keller: "He's the quarterback of the o-line, gets everybody where they need to be. He's really irreplaceable."
Mangold returned for the sixth game of the season against Miami, and Greene rushed for 74 yards. The third-year running back followed that up with 112 yards against San Diego and then 76 against Buffalo last Sunday.
"I think overall as a team, we just got more into a rhythm," said Greene, 10th in the AFC with 502 yards rushing. "Earlier in the season, we were kind of out of sync, but now we're fired up and going on all cylinders and everyone's doing well."
It hasn't all been a product of Mangold being healthy, of course. The improvements have also come from a complete change in approach on offense. Ryan has always preached the "Ground-and-Pound" philosophy, wanting what he calls an "all-weather" offense. But signing Plaxico Burress and Derrick Mason in the offseason, and pairing them with Santonio Holmes got him and offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer excited.
Suddenly, the Jets were passing more than ever under Ryan. But after that loss to New England, Ryan and Schottenheimer switched gears -- and likely saved the season.
"I got enamored with throwing the ball a little bit more out of different personnel groupings," Ryan said. "We'll throw plenty, but I think the fact that we're able to run the football and doing that more effectively than we did at the beginning of the year and making more of an emphasis in the running game, I think helps our football team."
Mason is long gone, having been traded to Houston after a short and unproductive tenure with the Jets. That move was a clear indication that New York was going a different direction: back to the type of offense that helped lead it to two straight AFC championship games.
"Well, we've just been balanced," Sanchez said. "Whether it's 30-plus pass attempts or the 25- or 28-range, I feel comfortable with all of it. But I just think our team works this way."
As does Ryan, even though he acknowledged that there could be a temptation to want to throw a little more Sunday against a Patriots team ranked last in pass defense.
"It's a balancing act," he said. "There's no question."
Sanchez is still developing a rapport with Burress and rookie Jeremy Kerley, but has been a lot more accurate starting with the last game against the Patriots. He trails only Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger in the AFC with a 94.7 passer rating during that span.
The Jets have also been solid in the red zone, converting 16 of their 25 trips inside the opponents' 20-yard line into touchdowns. That's only four shy of their total from all of last season. And, it might have been more if not for a bad interception in the end zone that short-circuited a 10-minute drive at Buffalo.
"The offense is kind of getting into a groove here," Sanchez said. "We just want to keep it going and keep taking care of the football."
Notes: Ryan acknowledged he made G Brandon Moore a team captain about a month ago, but didn't announce it at the time. He called it an "oversight," and added "it's somebody that I should have, from Day 1, made a captain." ... Ryan for the second time this week challenged Jets fans to be loud at