How the Jets Defense Can Return to Prominence in 2014

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How the Jets Defense Can Return to Prominence in 2014
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The New York Jets' offense has struggled for years, but the defense has always left a glimmer of hope for the future.

Not anymore.

This year figures to be the first time the Jets will finish outside the top 10 in total defense under head coach Rex Ryan. Total defense is an overrated measure of a defense, but the Jets have struggled in many other areas as well.

Jets defense under Rex Ryan
Year Pts/gm. (rank) YPA (rank) YPR (rank) Red zone % (rank) 3rd down % (rank)
2009 15.5 (1) 5.2 (1) 3.9 (7) 44.4 (5) 31.9 (1)
2010 19.2 (5) 6.1 (6) 3.6 (4) 58.8 (25) 38.1 (15)
2011 22.7 (19) 6.3 (8) 3.9 (7) 52.3 (16) 32.7 (2)
2012 23.4 (20) 6.1 (7) 4.3 (20) 58.5 (25) 37.2 (11)
2013 26.2 (23) 7.1 (21) 3.2 (1) 45.5 (5) 35.9 (8)

Team Rankings

The biggest improvement has taken place in run defense, where the Jets are the league's best on a per-carry basis. That's thanks in large part to a defensive line that is among the best in football

Other than that, there have been drop-offs aplenty. 

Let's assume, for the sake of simplicity, that Ryan will be retained beyond 2013—that's far from a safe assumption, but we can address the alternative later.

What needs to change for the Jets defense to get back to where it once belonged?

 

Move On From Veterans In Decline

Time to put the dogs down.

Rex Ryan's love of his former players knows no bounds, but in order for the Jets defense to move gracefully into the future, they must let go of the past. That means a potential farewell to guys like Calvin Pace, Ed Reed, Dawan Landry, David Harris and Antonio Cromartie.

New York Jets defensive veterans, cap hits
Player Age 2013 2014 2015
David Harris 29 $13,000,000 $7,000,000 FA
Antonio Cromartie 29 $6,520,000 $14,980,000 FA
Kyle Wilson 26 $2,010,400 $2,262,400 FA
Dawan Landry 30 $1,175,000 $1,825,000 FA
Calvin Pace 33 $620,000 FA --
Ed Reed 35 $387,000 FA --

Spotrac.com

There aren't a whole lot of bad contracts left for the Jets, but between the four cuts listed above, the Jets could potentially save roughly $18 million on the salary cap for next year. 

The Jets have long been known for their base of veteran talent on the defensive side, but there are plenty of young players waiting in the wings at the above positions. Safety Antonio Allen and cornerback Darrin Walls immediately come to mind as players who could get a better shot to prove themselves given more playing time.

Fortunately for those players, it looks like they'll get their opportunity in the final two games of the season.

 

Secondary

The Jets have invested big resources into the secondary time after time, and as of right now, they don't have much to show for it.

That happens when you trade away a cornerback who is regarded as one of the best in the league, but the Jets were supposed to be able to move on from him a bit more smoothly thanks to the presence of Cromartie. As alluded to earlier, though, that hasn't been the case. Cromartie has sharply declined and can no longer be considered a top cornerback in the NFL.

His season got off to a tough start against Buccaneers receiver Vincent Jackson, to whom he gave up five receptions on seven targets, and he's been up and down since then.

It hasn't been all bad for him—he rendered Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones practically useless in the Jets' Week 5 win in Atlanta. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Jones finished with eight receptions on 11 targets but had just one reception on three targets when covered by Cromartie. 

NFL Game Rewind

Cromartie also made this incredible play in coverage, knocking the ball out of Jones' hands just as it arrived. 

The very next week he was lit up by Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, yielding a handful of catches into his coverage and allowing wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders to get right past him for a touchdown.

NFL Game Rewind

The Steelers set up play action on this 3rd-and-2. The Jets' front seven came up to defend the run. On the outside, Cromartie played the coverage far too aggressively, pursuing Sanders to the outside as the receiver broke slightly in that direction off the snap. As a result, Sanders was easily able to "cross him up" and get right behind him. He left Cromartie in his wake, spinning like a top.

Cromartie may have gotten away with playing this aggressively if the Jets had any deep safety help, but Sanders scampered untouched for the touchdown. 

Make no mistake: Cromartie is far from the only Jets cornerback who's struggling. Rookie first-round pick Dee Milliner has been benched in-game three times for his woes in coverage, and although Kyle Wilson has not been entirely the weak link he once was, he also has played less than half as many snaps this year (440) compared to last year (966).

If the Jets move on from Cromartie, they'd be thrusting Wilson and Milliner into big roles—and that's if they elect to keep Wilson, too. 

The Jets may have to invest big at the cornerback spot yet again in 2014.

 

Pass Rush

The Jets defensive line, as mentioned before, is one of the best in the league. Their pass rush, however, has not consistently made life difficult for opposing quarterbacks. 

For years, the Jets have focused on beefing up the middle of the line with players like Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson.

"I think if you would ask any coach, really, if you were going to build a defense, you would want to build it from inside out," Ryan said. "There's no reason why they shouldn't be one of the top groups in the league."

Now it's time they finally add the capstone piece to that defense with an edge defender who can wreak havoc on offensive tackles.

Bleacher Report's resident draft expert Matt Miller has predicted that the Jets will draft an outside linebacker for the past three years. The numbers indicate this year should be the year they finally do it. 

According to numbers obtained from PFF, the Jets have blitzed the quarterback just 28.9 percent of the time in 2013. That's a significant drop-off from just last year, when they sent extra defenders 39.1 percent of the time. If the Jets aren't blitzing as frequently anymore, perhaps it's time they put a little more stock in the outside linebacker position.

Calvin Pace has been solid this season with a career-high nine sacks, but he'll be 34 years old next season. The Jets can't go back to that well forever. They had to cut him before bringing him back on a veteran's minimum contract in 2013. They could do the same again in 2014, but the Jets need to have an eye on the future.

On that note, Year 2 of the Quinton Coples project was not a ringing success, as the hybrid edge defender logged just four sacks on the year. He made a big impact at times (four hurries, one hit, one sack, two stuffed runs vs. Dolphins; four hits, three hurries, one stuffed run, one batted pass vs. Saints), but has been invisible at other times (no stats vs. Falcons, just two stuffed runs vs. Bengals).

Other than that, the only notable outside linebacker on the Jets roster is Garrett McIntyre. The Jets are scary thin at the position and need to get younger there, anyway. 

 

How Would Coaching Change Affect the Defense?

Whether you believe Ryan should be retained or released, the possibility is very real that the Jets could be searching for a new coach this offseason. It is my view that Ryan will be a victim of his own early-season success. The Jets were not expected to make any noise this season, so they lifted hope (and to a degree, expectations) when they were continually pulling themselves over .500, only to watch that chatter die the moment they'd fall back to .500.

Rex's fate will likely depend on how the Jets wish to view him. In the short view, Ryan has overachieved with this 2013 Jets team. In the long view, the Jets are 20-26 in the past three years and are set to miss the playoffs for the third straight year.

Now the million-dollar question: What would the departure of Ryan mean for the Jets defense?

Interestingly enough, as observed earlier, the Jets have already begun to migrate away from a blitz-happy tendency. One of Ryan's signature stamps on the defense is starting to wear off, even with Ryan still in the fold. 

The Jets should target a coach who is familiar with the 3-4 defense, since the Jets' personnel are already built in that mold. It's not impossible to configure a four-man defensive line with the pieces that are in place, but with players like Damon Harrison, Sheldon Richardson and Muhammad Wilkerson who are all so good at what they do, it seems counterproductive to have them all do something they're unfamiliar or uncomfortable with.

Still, it's possible that the Jets could bring in a 4-3 coach and try to teach that scheme; after all, Rex's one-gap 3-4 scheme shares a lot of the principles of a 4-3 defense.

Should Rex Ryan be brought back in 2014?

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One area that may change more significantly is the secondary. Ryan has also been known for a secondary that plays man-to-man coverage for the most part. If a new coach would come in, looking to execute a zone scheme, the Jets may be looking for new personnel on the back end. They wouldn't want to end up like the Cowboys, switching from a 3-4 man defense to a 4-3 zone defense in one offseason with almost the exact same personnel.

With such a strong foundation on the defensive line, it seems obvious for the Jets to target a coach who would execute a similar scheme up front. With a lot of turnover already expected in the secondary, they might be able to afford a scheme change back there.

Either way, it's clear big changes are coming for the Jets defense this offseason. 

 

 

Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand or via team news releases.

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