HIS UNIT had just surrendered a pair of early touchdowns to the San Francisco 49ers, and Donnie Henderson, the New York Jets' fiery new defensive coordinator, was boiling over in the coaches' box. So he ripped off his headset, rushed to the elevator and headed down to the field, soon making a surprise appearance on the sideline.
"We didn't see him coming--we heard him," cornerback Donnie Abraham recalls of that Oct. 17 game.
After a profanity-laced tirade from Henderson, the defense responded by shutting out the Niners the rest of the way in a 22--14 win. As important as the healthy return of quarterback Chad Pennington has been to New York's rebound from a 6--10 season in 2003, the defensive resurgence sparked by Henderson is another huge factor. Entering Sunday's game against the Buffalo Bills, the Jets had the AFC's No. 2 scoring defense (16.6 points per game) and the sixth-rated defense (313.7 yards). But a poor showing by the offense, including two Pennington turnovers that set up 10 points for Buffalo, led to a 22--17 loss that cost the Jets (6--2) a share of the AFC East lead.
Last year's coordinator, Ted Cottrell, employed read-and-react schemes. Henderson, a Baltimore Ravens' secondary coach the last five seasons, has turned loose his defenders. "Donnie brings a different energy," says Jets coach Herm Edwards. "When the Ravens had their salary-cap purge [before the 2002 season], he helped bring along some young players very quickly, and I wanted that here. He sort of does for me what I did for Tony Dungy in Tampa--he's the energy provider, the henchman, the cop."
Defensive tackle Dewayne Robertson, the No. 4 pick in the 2003 draft, who struggled as a rookie, has emerged as a disruptive beast, while ends John Abraham and Shaun Ellis have 81/2 and 31/2 sacks, respectively. This year's first-round pick, linebacker Jonathan Vilma, is already an impact player; his interception sealed the win over the 49ers, and he had 15 tackles against the Bills.
Robertson says there's not much mystery to the turnaround. "You don't want Coach Henderson screaming at you," he says, "so you try to do things right the first time. --M.S.
TWO COLOR PHOTOS
SIMON BRUTY (2)
RARIN' TO GO
Vilma (51) and his defensive mates have been turned loose by Henderson (inset).