Defense Can't Rest for Playoff-Minded Jets

Cecil HarrisCorrespondent IAugust 14, 2009

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - DECEMBER 28:  Kerry Rhodes #25 of The New York Jets intercepts the ball against The Miami Dolphins during their game on December 28, 2008 at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey.  (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

New York Jets fans will be looking for different things during tonight's preseason opener against the Rams.

Many fans will be eager to see how first-round pick Mark Sanchez looks at quarterback when he takes over for tonight's starter Kellen Clemens.

Others will focus on the performance of the running backs, even though three-fifths of the starting offensive line will sit out the game because of injuries.

But in defensive guru Rex Ryan's debut as head coach, there should be more anticipation on how the defense performs. After all, if the Jets are to become a legitimate playoff contender this season, the defense will have to lead the way. 

It's usually true during training camp that the defense is far ahead of the offense in terms of execution and cohesiveness, and the Jets have been no exception since camp opened at SUNY-Cortland last Friday.

The Jets on paper lack the offensive firepower to win high-scoring games. So their defense will have to stuff the run, limit big pass plays, harass the quarterback and force enough turnovers to win low-scoring games.

In short, the Jets will have to become the Ravens, albeit without Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs and Ed Reed.

Darrelle Revis has the potential to become a shut-down corner back, and a consistently strong pass rush would greatly increase his chances of achieving that status.

Lito Sheppard, a former All-Pro with the Eagles, could shine again as a corner back and playmaker in Ryan's 4-6 defensive scheme.

And Kerry Rhodes, no fan of departed head coach Eric Mangini, could also flourish as a playmaking safety.

In the first week of practices, the Jets have shown more eagerness to try to make big plays on defense.

Safety Jim Leonhard, who along with linebacker Bart Scott followed Ryan from the Ravens to New York, picked off a pass and tossed a lateral on the return.

Laterals were a no-no under the ultraconservative Mangini, according to Rhodes.

"He thought [laterals] were too risky," Rhodes told the New York Daily News.

But Ryan won't stifle the aggressiveness or creative impulses of his defensive players, as long as they operate within the team's system.

Many times in this decade the Ravens have turned an interception or fumble recovery into a momentum-shifting touchdown because a player had the presence of mind—and the freedom—to lateral the football to a teammate who took it to the house.

The Jets will need to make big plays on defense to become playoff contenders this season, because it's going to take a while for their offense to catch up.