Ever since Rex Ryan became head coach of the New York Jets, fans have known that they could expect strong defensive play year in and year out. Under the reign of Ryan and Mark Sanchez, it has been the Jet defense that has carried this team to two AFC Championship appearances.
The play of the Jet defense does not tend to alternate between good and bad, but instead between good and great. Yet because of the inconsistency of the offense, the defense has needed to be great in order for the team to have a successful season.
Early indications are that this year will be no exception. Though the Jet passing offense showed positive signs in Week 1, the Week 2 struggles against Pittsburgh served as a reminder that the Jets are likely still a below-average to average offensive team.
So, can the Jet defense be great in 2012? Their secondary remains elite, and their defensive line has been stout against the run during the first two games (while C.J. Spiller broke two long runs, the line has caused a high percentage of short gains and tackles for loss this season). The biggest question this defense faces is whether the pass rush can perform consistently enough to take the pressure off of the rest of the unit.
Pressuring the quarterback in unique ways has always been one of the calling cards of Rex Ryan's defense. Ryan will rush the quarterback, blitz three defensive backs and drop a defense end into coverage, you name it. But every defense benefits from the ability to generate a pass rush from its base packages, and the Jets' pass rushers have not gotten the job done in recent years.
Since Calvin Pace's breakout season in 2009, when he recorded eight sacks in 12 games played, the Jets have not had a reliable lead pass rushing threat. Pace has remained a reliable all-around player, but he has not been the same pass rusher since breaking his right foot prior to the 2010 season. Aaron Maybin showed signs in 2011, but he has not yet proven he can be an every-down pass rusher.
The Jets do have some hope in their youth. Gang Green's last two first-round draft picks, Muhammad Wilkerson and Quinton Coples, are both capable of getting to the quarterback. The untested Garrett McIntyre acquitted himself well in Pittsburgh, recording the Jets' only two true sacks of the day (the third was credited to Sione Pouha after Ben Roethlisberger lost half a yard after falling down while attempting to scramble).
New York's current alignment does not benefit its pass rushers, and it would not be a huge surprise to see the Jets play more 4-3 with Wilkerson and Coples at the end positions, Pouha and Mike DeVito playing tackle, and a linebacking trio of Pace, McIntyre, and middle linebacker David Harris. This unit would remain solid against the run while also putting the Jets' pass rushers in a position to succeed.
The Jet defense would remain well above-average without any modifications, but the unit is going to have to make big plays frequently this season if New York is going to make another run to the AFC Championship Game. The Jets go as their defense goes, and stepping up their pass rush can make the New York Jet defense elite.