Those who wonder how the 2008 Jets went from being on the inside track for home-field advantage in the playoffs to watching postseason games on TV should look at the pass defense.
The Jets finished next to last in the AFC in pass defense last year, averaging 250 yards a game through the air.
Getting more pressure on opposing quarterbacks, and introducing them to the turf on a consistent basis, will be a priority for new Jets head coach Rex Ryan.
In Ryan’s 10-year stint as a Ravens defensive assistant, including the past four as defensive coordinator, he devised intricate blitz packages that robbed quarterbacks of time and space.
Not knowing when the rush is coming, or where it’s coming from, can be more disruptive to a quarterback than having to face a sack master. Consistently double-teaming a sack master at the line, or using a tight end to chip him, can limit his effectiveness.
But who does an offense focus on when it doesn’t know who will be applying pressure on which play?
A well-disguised pass rush also makes a quarterback jittery in the pocket, increasing the potential for takeaways. Ryan’s Baltimore teams excelled in this area.
The Ravens allowed an NFL-low 261 yards a game in total offense in 2008 and had a league-best 34 takeaways and 26 interceptions. Baltimore also yielded just four rushing touchdowns, the fewest in the league.
The Ravens ranked second overall in defense, behind the Super Bowl-champion Steelers. The Jets’ D ranked ninth in the AFC.
Former Raven Bart Scott should shine in the Jets defense, and get long overdue recognition as a top-flight linebacker now that he’s no longer in Ray Lewis’s shadow.
Scott seems the logical choice to call the signals on the field and mentor his teammates on the search-and-destroy aspects of Ryan’s 3-4 defense.
Linebacker David Harris was the Jets’ surest tackler last season. But injuries limited him to 75 takedowns in just 11 games. Linebacker Eric Barton led the team with 119 tackles in 2008, though he struggled in pass coverage.
Yet Barton’s Achilles heel could be camouflaged if the Jets generate a consistent pass rush. That could also make Pro-Bowl cornerback Darrelle Revis more effective since he won’t be in coverage as long.
“Shut down corners” are sometimes just the beneficiaries of their teammates’ ability to bring pressure up front.
Defensive end Marques Douglas and safety Jim Leonhard, two other ex-Ravens, will act as on-field leaders and playmakers for the Jets in a defense spawned from the 4-6 scheme devised by Rex Ryan’s father Buddy for the Super Bowl-winning Bears in the mid-1980's.
An opposing quarterback is forced into quick reads, and often inaccurate ones, based on the coverage he’s seeing, and the accumulation of hits can wear him down by the fourth quarter.
Combine that with hulking defensive linemen—like Jets nose tackle Kris Jenkins—tying up blockers, allowing linebackers to swarm to the ball carrier, and you’ve got a defense that becomes difficult to penetrate.
Ryan also plans to build a defense that takes the ball away often enough to give a young quarterback like Mark Sanchez a short field on which to work.
When Rex's Ravens, or Buddy’s Bears, were at their best, the quarterback was essentially a game-manager who took advantage of consistently good field position provided by the defense.
Sanchez appears to have a skill set vastly superior to those of Trent Dilfer and Jim McMahon, both of whom won Super Bowls on defensive-oriented teams.
In Ryan’s grand scheme, the Jets defense won’t be a Broadway version of the Ravens, but rather a manifestation of what he has always built: a unit that pressures quarterbacks, unleashes linebackers to stuff the run, and severely limits big plays.
In short, we will see the flip side of last year’s Jets.