WHILE THE headlines in New York this summer focused on the battle between fourth-year quarterback Kellen Clemens and rookie Mark Sanchez, the Jets' identity will have little to do with their passing game. "When I picture the team I want, it's tough and physical, it can stop the run and it can run the ball," new coach Rex Ryan says. "If it turns out the strength of our team is defense and we're not throwing the ball all over the place, that's great. That means we'll be in every game."
The formula worked well for the 10 years that Ryan was a defensive coach in Baltimore, and it's well-suited to the personnel in New York. While the Jets have little experience at quarterback or wide receiver, the running game is solid, with Pro Bowl pick Thomas Jones and third-down back Leon Washington working behind an experienced offensive line. The defense also has proven talent, but to kick it up to Ravens level, the team brought in three of Ryan's former players: inside linebacker Bart Scott, strong safety Jim Leonhard and defensive end Marques Douglas.
Ryan made the acquisition of the 29-year-old Scott a top priority because his skill set—fast to the quarterback, hard-hitting, good in coverage—fits Ryan's multiple-look defense. Scott also brings a familiarity with Ryan's system and plenty of attitude. "A lot of times players from Baltimore go to other teams and know just as much about defense as the coordinators," he says. "I didn't want to have that. I didn't want to go to a Tampa Two, bend-don't-break defense and be bored to death. I know what good defense looks like, and we're developing it here."
While less outspoken than Scott, the 5'8", 186-pound Leonhard is also being counted on to relate the principles of Baltimore's scheme. An undrafted free agent out of Wisconsin in 2005, Leonhard is a classic Ryan player, a guy who might not have looked to be NFL-caliber but who produces because of his intelligence and aggressiveness. Leonhard credits Ravens All-Pro safety Ed Reed with teaching him how to use deception to confuse quarterbacks, and he hopes to duplicate Reed's penchant for big plays. "We're going to attack," Leonhard says. "We're not going to put everything on our offense to set the tempo and take control of the game. We're going to be disappointed if we don't come up with points on a regular basis."
Jets defenders spent significant time working on their blocking patterns during camp to make sure they take advantage of turnovers. If the defensive front can apply sufficient pressure, the backfield of Leonhard, former All-Pro safety Kerry Rhodes, Pro Bowl cornerback Darrelle Revis and rejuvenated onetime Eagles corner Lito Sheppard expects easy pickings. "The ball is going to get out quick or the quarterback is going down," Rhodes says. "We expect to get a lot of interceptions this year. That's why we practice that silly wall-blocking drill."
Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, formerly Baltimore's linebackers coach, is focused on creating a ferocious pass rush. A Philadelphia-area native, Pettine grew up admiring Ryan's father, Buddy, for his singleness of purpose when it came to harassing QBs. "If you want to kill something, you gotta cut off the head," Pettine says. "There are instances where we're willing to give up some yards to get a hit on the quarterback. That's a body punch. Maybe that'll pay dividends later in the game."
The defense outplayed the offense steadily throughout training camp, but to re-create a Ravens-like intensity in one season won't be easy. "The Jets have similar talent," Scott says. "A little bit younger, a little more raw. The thing Baltimore had was tradition. We're going to need to lean on each other to create that. If we do, watch out."
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP
WITH 2008 STATISTICS
COACH: REX RYAN
0--0 in NFL, first season with Jets
Mark SANCHEZ (R)
Expect added contributions from deep-threat WR David Clowney, who had just one catch in '08 because of a broken collarbone.
Ellis won't play the first game and Pace will miss the first four, both with league-mandated suspensions.
(R) Rookie: College statistics
TTD: Total touchdowns
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2008 RECORD 9--7
NFL RANK (Rush > Pass > Total)
OFFENSE 9 > 16 > 16
DEFENSE 7 > 29 > 16
13 at Houston
20 NEW ENGLAND
4 at New Orleans
12 at Miami (M)
25 at Oakland
22 at New England
3 at Buffalo (T)*
13 at Tampa Bay
27 at Indianapolis
* in Toronto
NFL Rank: 7
Opponents' 2008 winning percentage: .568
Games against playoff teams: 6
The seventh-toughest schedule in the league is nevertheless the easiest in the AFC East. Still, don't expect a fast start for Rex Ryan. With a challenging first month, the outspoken coach won't have to wait long to find out, for instance, the Patriots' response to his off-season trash talk. The Jets catch a break playing Buffalo in front of a less partisan Toronto crowd in Week 13.
Leon Washington, Running back
DESPITE HIS displeasure with a contract that would pay him $535,000 this season, the Jets' fourth-year all-purpose back showed up on time for training camp and immediately began dazzling the new staff with his diverse skills. "He's Mr. Excitement," says coach Rex Ryan of the 5'8", 195-pound Washington. "Every time I look over at him, he's doing something impressive. He can run. He's great catching the ball out of the backfield or lined up as a receiver. He's about as good a kick returner as there is in this league."
Washington's ability to turn screens into a big plays and score on kickoffs (he was All-Pro as a return man last year) will help an offense that might not have much of a vertical passing game. But some question his durability as an every-down back. He had 151 carries as a rookie in 2006 but only 147 over the last two seasons combined. "I'd love to touch the ball more from scrimmage," Washington says. "I can help this team in so many ways. I truly believe once I'm in the open field, there's no one in this league that can tackle me."
Washington and the Jets were still haggling over a contract extension in late August, but he said he wouldn't let the issue affect his performance. In any event, he has clearly earned his new coach's respect. "He's a tough little dude," Ryan says. "There are very few Leon Washingtons out there."
RAVENOUS Scott (57), Ryan's free-agent priority, brings the style and 'tude of Baltimore's D.