Monday, July 7, 2008

Top 5 reasons why the Jets will have a top 5 defense

After a disappointing 2007 season in which everything seemed to go badly, the New York Jets went into the offseason hoping to patch up major holes, both in their offense and their defense.

Most of the attention went to how they shelled out big contracts to Alan Faneca and Damien Woody. And while the Jets did everything they could to try to strengthen the offensive line, the defense was made an even bigger priority.

The defense was decent in 2007, allowing 22.2 points per game and 331.9 yards per game. That was good enough for 20th and 18th respectively in the NFL.

Just like in 2006, however, the defense improved leaps and bounds in the second half of the season. They held five of their last seven opponents to 20 points or less.

But Eric Mangini has made it clear that he's tired of the defense only making strides after the bye week. He's committed to stopping opposing teams' offenses from the onset.

With new acquisitions Kris Jenkins, Calvin Pace, and Vernon Gholston, he hopes to finally make the Jets' fans proud of their defense again.

There are several reasons to believe he'll actually come through on that promise. Here are five reasons why the Jets will not just be a good defense, but one of the best in the NFL.

1. The players finally fit their roles.

The biggest criticism Mangini endured about his defense was that he had been trying to fit square pegs into round holes.

This offseason, he and GM Mike Tannenbaum committed themselves to ridding the defense of players who did not fit the 3-4 scheme. Gone are former first-round picks Jonathan Vilma and DeWayne Robertson, players they traded for conditional 2009 draft picks.

Robertson was drafted as the perfect 4-3 under tackle who could generate pressure through his low center of gravity and impressive size-speed ratio.

Unfortunately, while his size was fine for the 4-3, a 6'1", 310-pound nose tackle who had been used to trying to penetrate in the backfield for years could not adjust to the new role.

He had his moments, but in the end, the Jets needed a pure nose tackle who took pride in taking double teams and controlling gaps. Enter Kris Jenkins, a 6'4", 360-pound beast of a man. He's never played 3-4 nose tackle, but his offseason quotes make him sound more than willing to play the role.

Jenkins certainly has the size. In fact, many times last year he was too big, letting his weight fluctuate to almost 400 pounds. However, he's come to camp in shape this year, and with weight clauses in his contract, he's likely to stay in shape.

Just a few years ago, he was the best tackle in football. A motivated Jenkins gives this 3-4 defense the nose tackle it has sorely needed for two years.

Vilma was drafted 12th overall in the 2004 draft, making an immediate impact by winning the Defensive Rookie of the Year that year. Despite his small size, 6'2", 228 pounds, he again had a big year in 2005, leading the NFL in tackles and again leading the Jets' defense.

Enter Eric Mangini and the 3-4.

Vilma struggled in 2006 in the middle of the defense. The 3-4 defense negated his pursuit and tackling ability, and forced him to take on more blocks, one of his weaknesses.

Despite that, both he and the coaches both believed he could succeed in 2007 in the new defense. Unfortunately, after six weeks of frustration, his season ended due to a knee injury.

Vilma's injury spelled the end of his career in green and white. Second-round pick David Harris stepped up into the starting role and thoroughly outplayed him. In his first two starts, Harris made 41 tackles, ending the season with 127 tackles, five sacks, and two forced fumbles, despite only starting nine games.

With Harris and Jenkins now manning two essential pieces in the defense, rather than the undersized Robertson and Vilma, the defense is ready to make major strides. As good as Harris was last year, imagine how he could do with a real nose tackle taking up blocks in front of him.

The run defense had been inconsistent at best since the 3-4 took place. With Harris, Jenkins, and new linebacker Calvin Pace, all committed to stopping the run, it's hard to imagine the run defense not taking significant strides forwards.

2. The Jets made the pass rush a priority.

What's a pass rush?

That's the question the Jets' fans have been wondering the last few seasons. Opposing quarterbacks have had excruciatingly long times to look for receivers, as the Jets have really struggled to generate any sort of consistent rush since John Abraham left before the 2006 season (and he was barely on the field).

The pass rush in the 3-4 comes from the outside linebacker position. Last year, the two outside linebackers were Victor Hobson and Bryan Thomas. Hobson is now a backup on the Patriots after providing no pass rush over his Jets' career. Thomas followed a 2006 breakout year with a disappointing season.

"I feel like I slacked off last year," Thomas said in various interviews. He also admitted his practice habits weren't up to par, leading to a drop from 8.5 sacks to 2.5 sacks.

The Jets gave him a big contract extension, but he'll be fighting for his job in 2007 thanks to two big-money additions, one from free agency and one from the draft. If that doesn't motivate him, nothing will. Expect Thomas to fight for his job and try to prove that 2006 was not an aberration.

Calvin Pace, like Thomas, was considered a bust in the 4-3 until a breakout season in the 3-4, leading to a big, six-year, $42 million contract by the Jets. He led the Arizona Cardinals with 106 tackles and also contributed 6.5 sacks.

A 270-pound linebacker with good speed, he'll definitely be a starter this season, as the Jets really like his ability both against the run and the pass.

Possibly the biggest addition to the pass rush won't even start. Vernon Gholston might not start as he gets adjusted to the 3-4 and to the speed of the NFL game. However, the sixth-overall draft pick has both the freakish measurables and the collegiate production to produce in the NFL.

Gholston put up one of the most impressive combine performances, with a 4.58 40-yard dash, a 42-inch vertical jump, and 37 bench repetitions, complementing his 6'3", 264-pound frame.

He was far from a workout warrior, however, as he put up 22.5 sacks in his last two seasons, the most in college football the last two seasons and the fifth most in Ohio State history. He also beat Jake Long for the only sack he allowed en route to being the No. 1 overall pick.

With Pace, and likely Thomas, being able to generate some pass rush as starters, Gholston will be fresh on third downs to terrorize offensive linemen. Shaun Ellis also has the ability from his defensive end position to get to the passer, and don't forget about Jenkins and Harris.

3. At least three Pro Bowlers will come out of this defense.

To answer your question, Harris, Darrelle Revis, and Kerry Rhodes (Pace and Jenkins may deserve it).

Last year's first-round pick Revis lived up to the hype along with Harris. He had 87 tackles and three interceptions his rookie year with no pass rush.

Those numbers are likely to improve since Revis got better as the season went on. Also, if the quarterback has less time to throw, the secondary will be much more likely to make plays on the football.

Revis is a very good cornerback, both in covering receivers and in helping stop the run. While he struggled at times, he acclimated himself well. With a better team around him, he'll put up the numbers to get significant Pro Bowl consideration.

Rhodes has been one of the league's top safeties for the last few years. He was the worst Pro Bowl snub in 2006, but ESPN, Sports Illustrated, and the Associated Press all gave him the respect he deserved, naming him to their All-Pro teams. That year, he had five sacks, four interceptions, three forced fumbles, 99 tackles, and 13 passes defended.

His 2007 season started off very quietly, but like many in the Jets' defense, he improved his play dramatically after Harris received a starting job. His numbers were down, with 68 tackles, two sacks, five interceptions, two forced fumbles, and ten passes defended. But most of that was in the second half of the season.

Both Rhodes and Revis have prototypical size and speed for their positions, and both are on the verge of being stars. Rhodes will get recognition as soon as he and the Jets get more press, while Revis and Harris are both on the verge of being great.

Through the improvements around them, and through their own work, it's not a stretch to think that at least those three will be Pro-Bowl caliber this 2008 season.

4. The offense is respectable.

This article is about the defense, but football is much too complicated to make a clean separation between the two sides of the ball. While the quarterback position is still the most pressing question on this team, that might not matter.

Let's look at all the pieces the Jets acquired to help improve the offense.

* OG Alan Faneca
* OT Damien Woody
* TE Dustin Keller
* TE Bubba Franks
* FB Tony Richardson
* RB Musa Smith
* RB Jesse Chatman

And Justin McCareins is gone!

The one thing in common with everyone they signed is size. Faneca, Woody, Franks, and Richardson will all provide major help to the team's run blocking. Chatman and Smith might get a few carries behind them.

The new offensive line, with Faneca and Woody complimenting D'Brickashaw Ferguson, Nick Mangold, and Brandon Moore, will be much better. There are also few fullbacks with as much talent at lead blocking as Tony Richardson. All signs point to a ball-control offense with Thomas Jones and Leon Washington leading the way.

There's little reason as to why the quarterback position should be such a detriment that the running game can't at least be above average.

Kellen Clemens, my pick to be the starter, is a talented, former second-round pick with enough arm strength and athletic ability to be a starter in the league. He was terrible last season, but anyone would have behind that disaster of an offensive line.

Pennington was also bad last season, but for different reasons. Say what you want about his arm strength, but the man is smart and accurate.

He had the worst velocity of any quarterback in the NFL last season, but he's fully healthy again. If the running game can get going, Pennington can lead a ball-control offense with a lot of play action with the best of them.

What does all this mean for the defense? Less time on the field and more time with the lead. A lot of carries for the running backs takes time off the clock and provides the defense with some rest, allowing the players to produce closer to their peak levels.

And if the offense can give the defense some leads, it will hamstring opposing offenses by limiting their playcalling to more pass plays. This will allow the pass rushers and ball hawks to do their jobs.

While it's unlikely for the offense to be great unless one of the quarterbacks steps up, the offense is geared perfectly toward running the ball down teams' throats.

Who needs Darren McFadden? Thomas Jones, Leon Washington, and Jesse Chatman are all talented enough to take advantage of the much-improved offensive line.

5. The schedule looks much easier.

Many dismissed the 2006 Jets season, thinking they simply took advantage of an easy schedule en route to making the playoffs. While that is an unfair assessment of the team, there is a modicum of truth in that. It appears that the 2008 schedule will be closer to 2006 than 2007.

Here's a list of the team's 2008 opponents.

* New England (twice)
* Miami (twice)
* Buffalo (twice)
* Cincinnati
* Tennessee (road)
* Oakland (road)
* Kansas City
* Denver
* San Diego (road)
* Arizona
* San Francisco (road)
* Seattle (road)
* St. Louis

While it's unfair to judge the schedule in June, this doesn't look particularly difficult, coming in as the eighth easiest schedule in the league according to last year's winning percentage. Keep in mind that it also includes two battles with the 16-0 Patriots, which skew that percentage somewhat.

The NFC West has arguably been the worst division in the NFL over the last few seasons, while the AFC West outside of San Diego is down. The other non-divisional games come against Cincinnati and Tennessee, two one-dimensional teams who both went through some offseason turmoil.

The remaining six games come against the AFC East. Obviously it's tough to pencil a win against New England, but Miami was the worst team in the NFL last season. Buffalo has many unanswered questions going into the season, although they might have enough talent to take the next step from 7-9.

Either way, the only playoff teams from 2007 that the Jets face are San Diego, Tennessee, Seattle, and New England, and there are reasons to think that Tennessee and Seattle might fall from their perches. The Jets faced six playoff teams last season.


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