I spent the weekend in Cortland, New York covering Jets training camp. So what should we expect from the Jets this year? As the team enters its fourth season under Rex Ryan, it’s impossible to look at the 2012 season without putting it in the context of the Ryan’s other Jets teams. And while the Sanchez/Tebow stories will dominate the media’s attention, in reality, the defense and the running game will be the key elements of the 2012 Jets.
The table below lists the 15 major contributors for the Jets for each year since 2009. Ryan’s defenses are some of the most exotic in the league, and the Jets often have placed six or seven defensive backs on the field at one time. In addition to nickel corner and the third safety, I’m including a fourth defensive lineman slot and a “Designated Pass Rusher” position, a third down specialist and staple of the Ryan defense.
In 2009, the Jets finished #1 in yards allowed, points allowed, first downs allowed and yards per play allowed. The pass defense was the strength, finishing first in completion percentage, touchdown percentage, passing yards, yards per attempt, net yards per attempt, adjusted net yards per attempt, and quarterback rating. While it was a dominant performance, the Jets were far from the most talented defense in the league, and it was Ryan’s schemes that confused offenses. The Jets improved on paper in the following off-season, adding Jason Taylor and Antonio Cromartie, and replacing Kerry Rhodes with Brodney Pool. And while the defense took a step back in 2010, it had a magnificent post-season run, limiting Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger to just 657 passing yards and 3 touchdowns, while forcing 3 interceptions and recording 8 sacks (5.3 ANY/A). Last season, the Jets added key contributors in Muhammad Wilkerson and Aaron Maybin, but also lost Bryan Thomas and Jim Leonhard to season-ending injuries. The middle of the defense — Bart Scott, David Harris, Eric Smith, Jim Leonhard and Brodney Pool — struggled significantly in their coverage responsibilities. Still, while the Jets did not post great defensive statistics last season, much of that is thanks to a large number of touchdowns scored when the defense was not on the field and the fact that New York faced the most drives in the league. According to Football Outsiders, the Jets ranked second in Drive Success Rate, which measures the percentage of down series that result in a first down or touchdown, and ranked in the top five in first downs allowed, total yards allowed, and adjusted net yards per attempt allowed.
So what can we expect out of the 2012 Jets? The defensive line is more talented and deep than it’s been in ages. Ryan, a defensive line coach for six years in Baltimore, has done an excellent job upgrading the quality of that unit. Wilkerson played well as a rookie in 2011, and Ryan expects a Richard Seymour-like season out of him this year. Pouha and DeVito have been mainstays for years, but the addition of the athletic Quinton Coples means New York will play more 4-3 (or 4-2-5) this season. Pouha was ranked as the top nose tackle in the league by Pro Football Focus, while DeVito has been a top-ten 3-4 defensive end in their system each of the past two years. Even with that talent already on the line, it’s hard to imagine Ryan not trying to get Coples on the field as much as he can, and Ryan has been effusive in his praise for the rookie out of North Carolina. In addition to those four, Marcus Dixon, Kenrick Ellis, and Martin Tevaseu round out a deep rotation for the Jets, which had already ranked second in Adjusted Line Yards in 2011.
It’s a good thing the Jets have a deep line, because the linebackers form the weakest level of the defense. Bryan Thomas is recovering from multiple injuries that ended his 2011 season after just four games, but neither Thomas nor Calvin Pace have ever been effective edge rushers for the Jets. Bart Scott has shed some weight in the hopes of being faster and better in pass coverage this year; the Jets also drafted Demario Davis to add speed to the group. While Harris is strong against the run, expect the Jets to use their linebackers less than ever under Ryan this season. One “linebacker” who should get more work this year is Aaron Maybin, who exceeded expectations as a pass rushing specialist in 2010. After struggling to find a pure edge rusher, New York finally looks to have found the man Ryan’s defense needs. Maybin had six sacks in just 185 pass rushing snaps in 2011, and should be more productive after spending an entire off-season with the team.
If the defensive line is strongest unit on the defense, the cornerbacks are the stongest position. Revis is the game’s best cornerback, and Cromartie is one of the most athletic #2 cornerbacks in the league. Kyle Wilson struggled as a rookie in 2010, but now looks to be developing into one of the game’s better nickel backs. The biggest weakness on defense — a glaring hole for years — is at safety. It’s hard to imagine the Jets defense not ranking in the top quarter of the league in 2012 — they’ve ranked in the top six in points per drive allowed each year under Ryan — but whether they’re in competition for the #1 slot depends on the health of LaRon Landry and Yeremiah Bell. After seeing Jim Leonhard miss the end of the 2010 and 2011 seasons with injuries, New York attempted to address the position through free agency. According to Pro Football Focus, Eric Smith ranked 81st out of 86 safeties last season, and the hope is that Landry and Bell relegate Smith to the role of third safety. Landry has been excellent when healthy — his size and speed are rare qualities — but he’s missed half of the each of the last two years due to injuries. Bell was a Pro Bowler in 2009 and a top-ten safety in 2010 according to Pro Football Focus, but he regressed significantly last year (ranking 77th).
Rex Ryan’s fingerprints are all over this defense. The infusion of youth with Wilkerson and Coples on the defensive line, and the maturation of Aaron Maybin, should help the Jets improve on the 35 sacks they recorded in 2011. Revis will continue to make everyone else’s job easier, but the key will be what Ryan can get out of Landry and Bell. The defense is arguably more talented now than in any other season under Ryan, and will continue to be the strength of the team.
Take a look at the first words uttered by Rex Ryan after the Jets first practice of training camp:
On defense we have kind of the mentality that we can stop anybody running the football. And on offense we had the exact opposite mentality, that we could run the ball on anybody. That’s set through Tony (Sparano) and Guge (Dave DeGuglielmo), that’s kind of the mindset we are trying to develop on offense and defense.
After three years of coexisting with Brian Schottenheimer, a holdover from the prior regime, Ryan finally got to hire an offensive coordinator. Ryan clashed with Schottenheimer, whose offenses were more complex and pass-heavy than Ryan wanted. Enter Tony Sparano, made from the same ‘ground and pound’ cookie cutter as Ryan himself. The Jets are going to run a lot in 2012, certainly more than they did in 2011. The Jets pass/run ratio increased from 41.5% in 2009 to 51.0% in 2010 to 57.2% last season, and the additions of Sparano and Tim Tebow signal a return to the 2009 formula. But let’s examine how the personnel has changed since Ryan arrived:
The offensive line was the game’s best in 2009, but the Jets have had holes at LG and RT ever since Faneca and Woody retired. Slauson has been serviceable at left guard, but Hunter was a disaster in 2011, prompting the Jets to trade for Carolina’s Jeff Otah (who will be sent back to Carolina if he can’t pass his physical with the team). Despite a down 2011 year, Ferguson remains one of the game’s better left tackles, even if he’s not in the elite upper tier. Mangold is an All-Pro center, and Moore is a strong but aging presence on the right side. Switching coordinators and line coaches may help the Jets some, but there’s only so much they can do to protect the hole at right tackle. Of course, one of those things is simply “not passing”, which would cut down on the 22 hits Hunter allowed on the quarterback last season, the most of any tackle in the league. Vlad Ducasse has been a bust so far, although he impressed enough in the off-season to earn a chance to win the left guard spot. If that happens, it’s possible New York will move Slauson to right tackle, if the Hunter/Otah experiment fails.The wide receiver group is among the league’s least proven, although the Jets hope the sum is more than the individual parts. Santonio Holmes was a disaster on and off the field last season, and can’t contribute any less this year. If nothing else, Ryan is willing to acknowledge the fact that Holmes is perhaps the least likeable Jet since Mark Gastineau. When asked about Tim Tebow, Rex commented: “I want all of the players to be as popular as Tebow. I don’t think that’s going to happen, especially with Santonio Holmes, obviously.”
Expecting Holmes to return to his 2010 form may be too much, but they will need one of the other receivers to outperform expectations. Stephen Hill is a talented but raw wide receiver, who should be a strong deep threat and red zone target. If nothing else, his presence — and Sparano’s desire to stretch the field vertically — should help the Jets running game and their underneath receivers. Jeremy Kerley played well as a slot receiver as a rookie in 2010, but Ryan admitted that he’s currently disappointed in Kerley. On paper, Hill, Kerley and Holmes complement each other well, but all of them have a lot to prove. If either Hill or Kerley struggle to pick up the offense, expect Raiders castoff Chaz Schilens to step in, for the two games he’s healthy. Dustin Keller will continue to be a capable blocker and above average receiver, and could see a bigger portion of the pie if the receivers fail to develop.
Shonn Greene is the running back version of Dustin Keller: he’s unexciting but solid, and will likely shoulder a large load this season with LaDainian Tomlinson gone. After an ugly start, Greene averaged 74 yards per game on 4.6 yards per carry in the final ten games, although that may just be a ‘splits happen’ situation. Joe McKnight, Bilal Powell and Terrance Ganaway will battle for the #2 role, or perhaps the third rushing spot behind Tebow.
And that gets us to the quarterback position. In the Jets ideal world, the defense and running game dominate, thanks to excellent offensive and defensive lines. In that case, Mark Sanchez won’t be asked to do too much, and could lead his team to the playoffs much like Alex Smith or Andy Dalton last season — or Sanchez in 2009 and 2010. While we shouldn’t expect significant improvement out of Sanchez, I do expect him to play better this year. He never seemed to be on the same page with Schottenheimer, and the switch to Sparano’s offense should help. If nothing else, Sanchez is certain to cut down on his 26 turnovers last year, second most in the league behind Josh Freeman (27).
Tebow should help the Jets in short-yardage situations, and yes, could help the Jets on a fake punt or two. I expect him to see the field for about ten offensive snaps in most games, and perhaps more frequently when Sanchez struggles. But I doubt he steals the job outright, and Ryan will be hesitant to make such a switch. But Tebow will be a part of the offense — remember, the hiring of Sparano and the addition of Tebow were not coincidences — and I suspect will simply make the Jets become a more physical, run-heavy team.
The Jets were better than your average 8-8 team last year — Football Outsiders had them at #10 — and enter 2012 with lower expectations, an easier schedule, and a better defense. Much will come down to the quarterback play, as tends to happen in the NFL. But the biggest wildcards in my view are the health of the safeties and Sparano’s impact on the offense. No one is expecting great — or even above average — quarterback play from the Jets, but they won’t need that to make the playoffs if the other pieces meet expectations.
Previous “Random Perspective On” Articles:
AFC East: Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins, New England Patriots, New York Jets
AFC North: Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh Steelers
AFC South: Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars, Tennessee Titans
AFC West: Denver Broncos, Kansas City Chiefs, Oakland Raiders, San Diego Chargers
NFC East: Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants, Philadelphia Eagles, Washington Redskins
NFC North: Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions, Minnesota Vikings, Atlanta Falcons
NFC South: Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers, New Orleans Saints, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
NFC West: Arizona Cardinals, San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks, St. Louis Rams