Much has been made about the 2009 Jets’ defense, and the season is still three months away. Most of this talk has come from within, as Bart Scott, Rex Ryan, and Kerry Rhodes have all made boasts about how good this defense can be. Only time will tell if they are right, but let’s take a look at the defense on paper.
A look back at 2008: What went right
For the first eleven games in 2008, the New York Jets defense seemed to have figured it all out. There were some problems containing the short passing game, but Kris Jenkins anchored a stout run defense that swallowed up some of the top rushing attacks in the league. The last five games left a sour taste in everyone’s mouth, but they showed flashes of brilliance early on, and that can’t be understated.
The offense received a lot of credit for putting up a ton of points, but the defense had just as much to do with it early on. The famed Brett Favre six touchdown game against eventual NFC champion Arizona was largely set up by 7 forced turnovers. Remember, Favre didn’t even throw for 300 yards that game! Early in the season, the Jets were able to get to the quarterback, stop the run, and force turnovers.
What went wrong?
Unfortunately, most good things with the Jets come to an end, and last year’s defense was yet another example. Jay Cutler sliced and diced the defense in a 34-17 loss, and from that point on, the run defense was vulnerable and the pass rush was non-existent.
Kris Jenkins clearly wore down as the season went on, and that manifested itself in the last few games. He was the most important player on the team, and when his play declined, the entire defense suffered.
The pass rush was also nowhere to be found down the stretch. There was no pure pass rusher on the roster, and the secondary just could not hold up. Ty Law was brought in as a temporary fix because the defensive backs struggled against short routes all season long, and Dwight Lowery got exposed with too much playing time.
Reports also came out that coach Eric Mangini scrapped the defense after the Denver loss, and that may have led to a more passive defense in the last four games. There is probably some truth to that statement, and it’s part of the reason that he is gone, and Rex Ryan is here.
Rex Ryan is here, and he is playing up expectations as much as he can. For years, the Jets have been a matchup team that would change the way they played depending on the opponent. That’s all well and good, but the best defenses usually have a swagger and an identity. The Jets have lacked both of those for years, but Ryan pledges change.
That change comes primarily in the form of aggression. Ryan comes from Baltimore, where for years, they have talked the talk, walked the walk, and punished opposing offenses. He brought with him perhaps the loudest Raven in Bart Scott. Scott had been second fiddle to Ray Lewis for years, and he is known as a sure tackler who plays well against both the run and the pass. He plays with a ton of emotion, which sometimes gets him in trouble, but his passion is evident on the field, and he’s not the type of guy to get a big contract and rest on his laurels.
The 6-2, 240 pound “Madbacker” was probably overpaid given his contributions in Baltimore as a very good but not great player. Still, hes an impact middle linebacker who should make David Harris a better player as well as bring Ryan’s fire onto the field.
Scott is not the only Raven to be brought in. In fact it’s likely that former Ravens will be starting at each level of the defense. Scott will start at middle linebacker, and Marques Douglas and Jim Leonhard are likely to start at defensive end and safety. The three players should provide some more leadership and knowledge of Ryan’s defense to their new teammates.
But they will add their own talents to the defense. Douglas replaces Kenyon Coleman, a competent run-stopper, but for all intents and purposes a JAG. Douglas is by no means a star, but he is third in the NFL over the last six years in tackles for a loss, so he does something right. The 32-year old is likely a slight upgrade over Coleman simply due to the Ryan factor.
As for Leonhard, the diminutive safety had a breakout year in Baltimore last year. The 5-8, 186 pound safety had 69 tackles and one interception, as he helped the Ravens in a number of ways. At 26 years old, he should be entering the prime of his career, though time will tell if he was a one-year wonder. He’s more of a run stopper than anything else, but he’s a Ryan favorite, so he should hold off Eric Smith, despite Smith’s impressive minicamp.
But not all of the new faces come from Baltimore. Cornerback Lito Sheppard joins the Jets after seven seasons in Philadelphia. The Eagles replaced Sheppard after a few Pro Bowl seasons in large part due to his lack of durability. Last season was just the second in his career where he played all 16 games, but he had just three starts. Still, the talent is there, and if he can play like he did when he was healthy and motivated, he will be a huge upgrade over the slop that often played opposite Darrelle Revis last year.
Finally, a few players were added to provide some depth. Former Seattle Seahawk Howard Green was brought in to provide depth along the defensive line. At 6-2, 320 pounds Green has plenty of size to push Sione Pouha as the main backup to Kris Jenkins. Cornerback Donald Strickland was also signed to provide depth in the secondary after spending his last three years in San Francisco.
What to expect in 2009?
Violence. "We want to be known as the most physical football team in the NFL," Rex Ryan said at his introductory press conference. "The players will have each other's backs, and if you take a swipe at one of ours, we'll take a swipe at two of yours."
Music to all Jets fans’ ears. Bart Scott and Rex Ryan have helped ramp up expectations with this defense. But it’s one thing to talk a good game, and it’s something completely different to turn that swagger into production.
Ryan swears by the talent on this defense being enough to carry this team. The star power is no doubt there. Kris Jenkins may be the most dominant player in the NFL when he’s healthy. Darrelle Revis is one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL. Bart Scott, Calvin Pace, Kerry Rhodes, and Lito Sheppard are all well-known talents, and David Harris, Bryan Thomas, and Jim Leonhard are solid players with the ability to be even better. Shaun Ellis and Marques Douglas are veteran defensive ends who get the job done and can still make some plays; notice Ellis had 8 sacks last year from the 3-4 end position.
But while on paper the talent is there, there is a big question on how well the group will mesh in year one of the Rex Ryan era. It’s a new scheme with a new mentality. How well will Bart Scott, Jim Leonhard, Lito Sheppard, and Marques Douglas fit in with the new defense? They will be tested early, especially in the first four games without Pace, who is suspended for use of a masking agent commonly used for steroids.
Pace had a strong start last season and was one of the better players on the defense, and Vernon Gholston will likely be pressed into the starting lineup against Houston, New England, Tennessee, and New Orleans, four of the most dangerous offenses in the NFL. After barely playing as a rookie, it will be a tall order for him to turn himself into a serviceable linebacker so quickly.
Still, Gholston is the single player on the squad who can turn the defense from very good to elite. If there’s one on paper weakness to the defense, it is a lack of a consistent pass rush. While the Jets had 46 sacks as a team last year, the rush disappeared down the stretch. Gholston is the only player on the Jets with the potential to be a great pass rusher. If his sophomore season is anything like 2008, the Jets defense will not be able to reach its full potential. Marques Murrell will be the primary OLB backup early in the season.
Even if the pass rush doesn’t step up this year, the pass defense should still be improved. Lito Sheppard was acquired from Philadelphia to start across Darrelle Revis. Sheppard has been inconsistent his last few seasons with the Eagles, but he has a few Pro Bowls in his belt, and he should be motivated having finally forced his way out of Philly. Dwight Lowery should push for playing time as well as the third cornerback. He showed a nose for the ball as a rookie, but he was beaten too often and his playing time fell. Donald Strickland and Ahmad Carroll are also around to provide depth.
At safety, Jim Leonhard replaces Abram Elam opposite Kerry Rhodes. Leonhard has more range than Elam, but he lacks some of the big play ability Elam flashed over the past two years. He knows the defense well, and his ability to stop the run makes him a nice complement to Rhodes. The rangy safety was not happy with the way Eric Mangini was running the defense, and he feels he’ll have more room to make plays this coming season. Eric Smith will provide the primary safety depth after having an impressive mini-camp.
But there is one player who will make everyone else’s job easier, and that is Kris Jenkins. #77 was the biggest addition to the Jets last year both literally and figuratively, and for 11 games, he may have been the NFL’s defensive MVP. He is a disruptive force in the middle who takes on double teams almost every play and still can’t be stopped. The key will be to keep him healthy for all 16 games this time around. Sione Pouha did not do a good job last year when he was in the game, so former Seahawk Howard Green was brought in to add additional depth. Whoever wins the primary backup job at the nose will be an unsung hero for the entire team.
Opposite Jenkins will be the veterans Shaun Ellis and Marques Douglas. Ellis is an effective pass rusher from the end position who may be one of the most under-appreciated Jets over the years. Douglas is far from a big name, but he’s been known to make plays in the backfield. He’s essentially Rex Ryan’s version of Kenyon Coleman, but Mike DeVito and others will need to spell him to keep him fresh, as Douglas was more of a rotational player last year in Baltimore.
Behind them will be the linebacking corps, the pride and joy of the Jets’ defense for many years. Scott is the newcomer, and he will be the emotional (and vocal) leader of the defense. He’s a very solid player in the middle, but he probably doesn’t make enough big plays to warrant his salary. Still, if his attitude and play is infectious, he should be worth it. Next to him will be David Harris, who took a slight step back after an impressive rookie year. Injuries hampered him last year because when healthy, Harris is a tackling machine.
If the defense stays healthy, and Gholston steps up at least a little bit, this could be a top five defense. The talent is definitely there, even if there isn’t a pure pass rusher like Terrell Suggs. The question will be how lucky the Jets are with injuries and how well the players pick up Ryan’s schemes. Last year, only David Harris and Kris Jenkins had the only significant injuries on the defensive side of the ball. The Jets might not be so lucky this year.
As for the new defense, while it is a complete u-turn from Mangini’s style, Ryan and first-time defensive coordinator Mike Pettine do have a former Raven to help communication on every level of the defense (Douglas, Scott, Leonhard). Another plus for the defense is that the so-called “Mangini guys” that have been brought in because they are smart football players are often veterans who are more likely to pick up a new defense. It would be unrealistic to think they will be at 100% efficiency early in the season, especially without Pace, but it shouldn’t be too much of an excuse, and the unit should be strong all season.
Other than the talent, the main reason to get excited is, quite frankly, because the Jets are telling you to. Rex Ryan has already ratcheted up already heated rivalries with Miami and New England. Kerry Rhodes has said that the defense will be the best in the NFL. Bart Scott probably won’t shut up once the season starts. So why not get excited? The Jets are full of talented veterans who want to prove a point, so buy into the hype, at least on this side of the ball, and let’s hope that they can walk the walk.
DE Shaun Ellis
NT Kris Jenkins
DE Marques Douglas
OLB Bryan Thomas
ILB Bart Scott
ILB David Harris
OLB Vernon Gholston
CB Darrelle Revis
S Kerry Rhodes
S Jim Leonhard
CB Lito Sheppard