Jets Preview: Rex Ryan’s Last Stand
There are so many questions in New York: Who will be the quarterback? Which Chris Johnson will show up? Can the defense survive without a star cornerback? The answers will determine the temperature of Rex Ryan's seat come January
When looking at the Jets, shield your eyes. They have the most glaring weakness in the entire NFL: their defensive backfield. It’s a weakness not in terms of overall efficacy but in terms of ability to deliver on a specific assignment. That assignment: reinforcing Rex Ryan’s multifaceted scheme.
In his first two years on the job, Ryan took the Jets to AFC title games despite an anemic offense because he had a secondary that thrived in his hybrid man and zone coverages. The “man” part was handled by Darrelle Revis; the zone part was handled by everyone else.
When Revis left, Ryan continued the scheme, only with Antonio Cromartie handling the heavy “man” duties. Contrary to his own belief, Cromartie was not in Revis’s class, but he was better than three out of every four starting NFL corners. Now he’s in Arizona; poised to assume his role is on the Jets … nobody.
In free agency the Jets pursued Cromartie’s cousin, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, but he wound up signing with their MetLife Stadium co-tenants. Ryan was reportedly angry about this—understandably so. Without a lockdown man corner, he can’t do everything he wants with his pressure packages. And given that he has no veritable edge rusher, Ryan needs those pressure packages.
In his debut as general manger last year, John Idzik drafted Dee Milliner ninth overall to avoid being in this very position. But the Alabama product had arguably the worst season of all first-round rookies. Mistakes piled up, and Milliner was at times unable to even get a hand on the receivers who torched him outside. His confidence plummeted after his first benching and, until a barely palpable late-season surge, stayed in the basement.
Even though he’ll begin the season on the shelf with a high-ankle sprain, it’s far too early to write off Milliner, though at this point he can be considered the Jets’ second disappointing first-round corner. Kyle Wilson was drafted in the first in 2010 to shore up cornerbacking depth. Four years later, that’s exactly what he’s doing … shoring up depth … even though the starters ahead of him are iffy at best. Wilson is strictly a slot player—not a bad one, but not a great one either.
Starting ahead of Wilson is Dimitri Patterson, who is actually coming off a decent year in Miami where he showed hints of playmaking prowess in man coverage. Here, however, he’ll be tasked with defending more No. 1 receivers, which could prove a tall order. To avert any depth issues behind Wilson, Idzik spent a third-round pick on Dexter McDougle. Sadly, the former Maryland Terp tore his ACL and is out for the season, leaving No. 4 corner Darrin Walls to possibly see starter reps at some point, and safety Antonio Allen has also been taking reps there. (Ouch.)
Really, it wasn’t a matter of if the Jets would have a weakness in the secondary, just a matter of where that weakness would be. If it wasn’t cornerback, it was going to be safety. Heading into the draft, the Jets’ safety position consisted of Antonio Allen, Dawan Landry and Jaiquawn Jarrett. Allen was decent covering tight ends at times last year, but he was also inconsistent enough to immediately lose his starting job upon Ed Reed’s debut in Week 11.
Allen ultimately fell into a time split with Jarrett, a casted-off draft bust from Philadelphia. This season he will compete with ninth-year veteran Landry for the No. 2 starting safety job. The No. 1 job will go to rookie Calvin Pryor, who the Jets chose at 18 instead of corners Darqueze Dennard, Jason Verrett and Bradley Roby.
One would think a corner would be of greater priority than a safety, especially in a scheme dependent on having a quality man defender. But Ryan’s system is set up to really highlight a dynamic player in the middle of the field. (Plus, it’s likely the Jets’ brass was particularly high on Pryor.)
What makes the safety so important is, as Greg Bedard expertly explained in his piece on Mike Pettine, Ryan’s system is built on something called “cross training,” in which the same tactics are repeated, just out of different looks and with different players. Safeties, with an athletic concoction that’s generally two-thirds speed, one-third strength, make the most natural cross-trainers. Because of this, Ryan was regularly employing three safeties, not just on passing downs but in some of his base concepts long before three safeties started trending towards pro football’s norm. The more safeties he has, the more diverse and multiple he can be with disguises and rotational exchange concepts.
The safeties are big in the pass rush designs, and that will be the case more than ever given that New York still doesn’t have great edge players. At 33, Calvin Pace remains a respectable all-around front side defender thanks to his aptitude for taking on blocks. But players like this are good for no more than four or five individually created sacks a year. Starting one player like this is fine; starting two is dubious. That’s what the Jets are doing with Quinton Coples manning the weak side. For any other team, the methodical third-year pro would be a strong side end or linebacker.
There is some speed off the bench behind Pace and Coples in the form of Garrett McIntyre and, if he ever gets healthy, Antwan Barnes. But both players have had opportunities to garner significant roles throughout their careers and neither has done so.
This unit’s saving grace is that it might be that it’s the hardest in the league to run against. Besides having solid speed and recognition in inside linebackers David Harris and Demario Davis, it has football’s most destructive three-man front. Willowy fourth-year pro Muhammad Wilkerson is not quite J.J. Watt, but a mix of raw power and athletic burst puts him in that class. Not far behind Wilkerson is Sheldon Richardson, last year’s Defensive Rookie of the Year. It’s no accident that both former first-round defensive ends wound up in green and white. In addition to being multiple with their alignments, the Jets are unique up front in that they teach their players not to worry about gaps but instead to just go out and kick the crap out of whoever’s in front of them. It takes first-round talent to do that.
Lining up between Wilkerson and Richardson is Damon Harrison (aka “Big Snacks”), an undrafted third-year pro who has played like a first-rounder. Harrison operates low to the ground and has good lateral movement for shedding blocks. In this scheme, that makes him superior to Kenrick Ellis, a respectable but more traditional nose tackle.
Unfortunately, none of these defensive linemen are capable of stifling a No. 1 wide receiver in man-to-man.
Unless that magically changes, this defense won’t be of its usual caliber under Ryan.
The Jets may or may not be having a quarterback competition, depending on who in the organization you talk to. The very fact that it’s a discussion at all tells you there is indeed some sort of competition.
Michael Vick was given $4 million to come to New York, nearly $3.4 million more than Geno Smith’s second-round rookie base salary pays. Vick is familiar with offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg’s scheme from his days in Philly. He is still mobile enough to concern—though maybe not always scare—a defense. He’s not, however, a very polished pocket passer, which means Mornhinweg may have to call fewer of the vertical designs that he so often dialed up last season.
Smith is also mobile, though he’s not primarily thought of in this regard. Like Vick, he can run the read-options that figure to remain part of the offense, and he’s capable of moving the chains when scrambling outside. But in the pocket is where Smith’s career will be decided. He has an admirable willingness to stand in there and make crowded throws staring down the gun barrel. What’s lacking is the know-how. Smith must shore up his footwork and understanding of how his dropbacks sync to routes. (No surprise; that’s something he wasn’t often asked to deal with at West Virginia.)
Even more primitive is Smith’s decision-making from the pocket. His willingness to throw from a crowd is often topped only by his willingness to throw into one. Last season, coverage disguises and rotations regularly fooled the 6-2, 215-pounder. It’s on Mornhinweg (and Vick, if he indeed becomes the league’s highest-paid backup) to help Smith better understand how route combinations build off each other.
To help their quarterback, the Jets made changes at receiver, though most of them underwhelming. Eric Decker is being paid like a No. 1, but if he were anything other than “just a guy,” the Broncos would have used some of their meaty cap space to re-sign him. Stephen Hill’s position coach, Sanjay Lal, has said it’s “too early” to call the third-year pro a “bust.” But the fact that Lal even has to even say this suggests Hill is indeed on that track. Hill’s route running remains painfully stiff, and he doesn’t read coverages well. With Jeremy Kerley and fourth-rounder Jalen Saunders cut out almost strictly for the slot, and with fourth-rounder Shaquelle Evans dealing with a shoulder injury, it’s likely that David Nelson, another inconsistent route runner, will capture the No. 2 job.
At tight end, it was just a matter of time before the subtly pliable but obviously unreliable Jeff Cumberland got supplanted by Jace Amaro. The only thing that complicates this process is Amaro’s lack of blocking experience; the second-round rookie was basically a slot receiver at Texas Tech.
Though the execution often wasn’t there, Mornhinweg did a good job designing route combinations last season. Hey may want to incorporate his running backs more this year. That could be where Chris Johnson’s value comes, considering that it’d get him the ball in space—something Johnson can no longer do himself. Johnson lacks power and, at this point, lateral explosiveness, which is why he only gains the yards that are blocked. The explosive Chris Ivory is actually a much better runner, he just can’t do it more than 10 times a game week in and week out. That’s why steady Bilal Powell will also get reps.
A resoundingly mediocre collection of weapons can be made to look better by a domineering offensive line, but that’s not what New York has. Center Nick Mangold and left tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson have shown Pro Bowl ability over the years, but they’ve been less scintillating as of late. At guard, Brian Winters struggled mightily with lateral movement as a 2013 third-round rookie. He’ll be a liability in pass protection if that doesn’t change. On the right side, Willie Colon can still pile drive, though the team spent a fourth-round pick on his eventual replacement, Dakota Dozier. At tackle, ex-Seahawk Breno Giacomini is a plodder with attitude.
Kicker Nick Folk is very good from long distance and under pressure. Ryan Quigley ranked in the lower-middle of most punting statistical categories last year. With Josh Cribbs gone, return duties must be reassigned.
The Jets have significant questions at the worst spots. Expect to hear more Rex Ryan hot seat talk around the holidays.