Frank Franklin II/AP
Frank Franklin II/AP

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

By
Andy Benoit
· More from Andy·

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.

Cornerback Dee Milliner struggled as a rookie, but will be counted on this season in the Jets' depleted secondary. (Alan Diaz/AP)
Cornerback Dee Milliner struggled as a rookie, but will be counted on this season in the Jets’ depleted secondary. (Alan Diaz/AP)

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.

OFFENSE

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.

Neither Michael Vick (1) or Geno Smith has been officially named the starter for the Jets. (Julio Cortez/AP)
Neither Michael Vick (1) or Geno Smith has been officially named the starter for the Jets. (Julio Cortez/AP)

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.

JETS CAMP REPORT: It is Geno’s Job to Lose

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.

SPECIAL TEAMS

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.

BOTTOM LINE

The Jets have significant questions at the worst spots. Expect to hear more Rex Ryan hot seat talk around the holidays.

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15 comments
EdwardKirby
EdwardKirby

The big issue with me as far as the Jets are concerned is the fragile nature of a host of players on their roster and the key to championship teams in the NFL, which is injuries combined with depth on the bench. The GM seems to like bargains, and defines them by how long a player has spent on IR.

If the Jets can stay healthy, they will be formidable. But they've already lost a rookie corner (3rd round pick) for the season, and I expect that by mid-season, they will have lost quite a few more; some of those being key players.

I'm not sure I agree with this philosophy, but with the salary cap considerations, I see no issues with a team trying to be as creative as it can when it comes to building a team. This reminds me of the Oakland A's famous "moneyball", and to that, it is to be lauded.

I just don't have high expectations that this will succeed in the NFL. But I am willing to be proven wrong.

gamerk316
gamerk316

Smith has looked good at QB so far this year; he's been going through his progressions, staying in the pocket, and throws have been on target.  Yes, he lacks top WR's, but with Decker, two decent TE's (Cumberland/Amaro), and three legit RBs (Ivory/Johnson/Powell), the offense should at least be "decent", which is better then any other year under Ryan.


Defense...will be interesting.  Ryan can't afford those Blitz heavy schemes anymore, as we saw Allen couldn't play CB well (though he was covering AJ Green).  In theory, the front 7 should be able to generate pressure on their own, so that may not matter as much.  Pryor looked very good, showing solid instincts, so that should help quite a bit.


The Jets have 8-8 talent.  They have a lot of winnable games on their schedule (Buffalo/Miami twice, Oakland, Pittsburgh, Tennessee, Minnesota come to mind), so they could win about 8 games or so, maybe 9-7 and slip into the playoffs.  That being said, they could also win 4.  It really comes down to: Are the Jets one of the better 8-8 talent teams?  If so, they can slip into the playoffs.  If not, they could have a top 5 pick.


Also: Ryan is a VERY good coach, despite his loudness.  Anyone who says otherwise would apparently be happy with some other teams tired retrend.

BallRush
BallRush

I'm sorry Jets fans... I've read your protestations but I'm not buying it.  I think Benoit will look really really smart midway through this upcoming season.  The Jets were an average team in a below average division, residing in a below average conference.  The opportunity to do something was this off-season, and one of the only teams in the AFC East that did something was your hated rival the Patriots (acquiring two stand-out defensive cornerbacks).  The gap is even bigger when you realize that a gaggle of injured Pats defensive starters that didn't play last year are coming back healthy.  I don't know if the Jets are going to regress or improve on offense - a lot of that is on the QB (whichever one wins the job), but neither of them get me too excited.  I lean to slight improvement because QB play has to be better, right?  But let's not kid ourselves, there is no top notch QB on this roster, and Decker isn't the savoir - the Pats have two Deckers lining up every play.  We do know that Ryan's defenses always come to play, no matter who is slotted in there, and that's why the team won't be bottom of the barrel.  But with little personnel improvement on that side of the ball, it's possible that this unit will be the reason for regression to a 6-10 season.  Sorry, but much more likely than 10-6, which is the playoff Mendoza line, and a pipe-dream for this latest version of the Jets.

PhilipDutton
PhilipDutton

I read MMQB regularly.

And I regularly come up against journalistic bias-particularly against The NY Jets. We all have our favorite things in life: sports teams, ice cream flavors, cars, etc. I truly find it not just annoying but a very clear case of biased "journalism" which I put in quotes because Benoit's writing could barely be described as journalism. From wiki "Journalism is gathering, processing, and dissemination of news and information related to the news to an audience. The word applies to both the method of inquiring for news and the literary style which is used to disseminate it."

"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." I'm wondering where you found that nugget? According to Advanced NFL stats Cromartie finished 61st, Milliner finished 54th- ahead of Revis who finished 59th ( and ahead of DRC who finished57th..) and during early November Cromartie was ranked 108-2nd worst in the NFL. These are facts, not opinions biased or otherwise.

While on the subject of "facts" let's look at some that are simply not true: re Dee Milliner.." But the Alabama product had arguably the worst season of all first-round rookies". Really Andy? Is that a fact? Hmm let's explore this...Let's just start with the #1 pick Eric Fisher who, at season's end was ranked 70 out of 76 offensive tackles, missed 3 games due to injury and according to Bleacher report was "downright awful". Not bad for THE OVERALL #1 PICK. Moving right along to the 3rd overall pick, Dion Jordan, whose season was "underwhelming enough that there is already trade speculation about him" according to Armando Salguero. How about the 12th pick DJ Hayden? who "underachieved immensely and for the season was beat for a 110.0 passer rating and ended the season on IR." Next we might try Jarvis Jones, the 17th pick in the 2013 draft. Jones picked up 20 tackles and one sack in 11 games and was benched. How about Bjoern Werner picked at #23?-missed a month with a knee injury and was "largely ineffective when he played." Luke Joeckel the #2 overall pick? A safe choice they all said...11 hurries allowed in 4 games then off to IR.

Milliner was the Defensive Rookie of the month and AFC defensive player of the week last season. He didn't start the year very well but he certainly finished strongly. Therefore I simply feel that the statement "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" is fallacious, inaccurate and represents either a real bias or just sloppy homework.

Let's jump to ..." Even though he’ll begin the season on the shelf"...which season are you referring to ? Because if you are talking about the regular NFL season which begins for the Jets on Sunday September 7th at 1:00 PM then I'm curious as to how you are so confidently able to make such a statement. Sept.7th 2014 is in the future, Andy. The. Future. None of us can predict the future. The world might be blown up by Russian Separatists on Sept. 6th in which case we'll all be starting the season "on the shelf."

Just one quick question..How many Super Bowls did the Jets win when they had, arguably, the best cover corner in Football in Darelle Revis? Bingo. None. How did the Jets do in 2014 with a rookie corner who had "arguably the worst season of all first-round rookies" on one side and an injured, ineffective, ranked 108-2nd worst in the NFL corner on the other side? (Not to mention a rookie QB with a horrible receiving corps, no back-up QB, injuries...) That's right. 8-8. And they beat the Pats and also narrowly lost to them 13-10.

Do I think the Jets are World beaters? Not yet. But I do think they deserve a more thorough, accurate and fair analysis than what MMQB put forth.

divirgilio33
divirgilio33

I am not a jets fan, but I think this article was too negative.....The major issue is Smith and if he is ready.....If he is, they should go 9-7, just my opinion.

oldturtle87
oldturtle87

if the Jets suck so bad, how did they go 8-8 last year? The team, especially the offense, definitely looks better on paper this year, and when you have a coach as great as Rex, I'd be surprised if they aren't in the playoff picture. 

gdrut30
gdrut30

Nice hachet job:  Let's see if we can pick out ALL of the inconsistent facts in this article

1)  Who was the "star" cornerback on this team last year?  If you think it was Antonio Cromartie, you didn't watch any Jets games.  He was atrocious (at one point rated the 107th out of 108 CBs by PFF grades), so your question was already answered last year.

2)  "A barely palpable late season surge" by Dee Millner was actually earning the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Month and the AFC Defensive Player of the Week.  But yeah, barely palpable seems appropriate, right? 

3)  Unless Millner's injury is more serious that has been reported, he will be facing team's #1 receivers, not Dmitri Patterson.  So why imply otherwise?  

4)  Nice work misrepresenting Geno's Smith 2014 total compensation to just his base.  I guess the signing bonus he got last year doesn't pro-rate.  And Vick is making comparable $ to any one of a number of #2 QBs, but it makes it sound so much more like a controversy if you say "the league's highest paid back-up".  Kyle Orton is essentially being paid $5M/yr, who would you rather have?  Sanchez is making $4M/yr with incentives, as it Matt Moore in Miami and Matt Hasselbeck in Indy.  

5)  Eric Decker is "just a guy".  OK, so the best free agent WR in last year's class is average because the Broncos chose to spend their money on the defensive side of the football.  Got it...  

I don't have enough time to keep going, but this is really disappointing "journalism" from SI.

PeterGosule
PeterGosule

Andy Benoit learned from Peter King I guess in dumping on the Jets. Harrison is "Snacks", not "Big Snacks". Cumberland is not unreliable, he is under utilized and has been for years. I anticipate Peter King giving them a record of 4-12 and last place in the AFC East in his SI Preseason Report, as he usually does, with the Patriots going 13-3 and going to the Super Bowl once again, as Peter can never say a bad thing about Belichek and Brady. If they had 4 first round draft picks this year then they could have chosen 3 CB's and Pryor, and am sure SI would have destroyed them as well.

GO22JETS
GO22JETS

Unlike previous "optimistic" years, having John Idzik Jr. instead of Mike Tannenbaum  will make the big difference both short and long term. Idzik Jr. will come up with a plan for the 2 corners.  Tammenbaum would instead go after an old, splashy, expensive, free agent

JoseA.Jimenez
JoseA.Jimenez

@oldturtle87 you give them more than they are... they will be lucky to get to 500 i see them at 6-10. Smith like Sanchez is being caudle though he may be there future QB just not now.. needs experience REX needs to go back as a DEFENSE  coach... Jets fans youre getting scewed again this yeay....

JayGuthy
JayGuthy

@gdrut30 All great points.  The author chose to write from the "glass half-empty" point of view.  That said, the Jets do have question marks (so do a lot of teams) and if they had a top 8 QB, a lot of those questions go away.  Pats have just as many questions on their roster but nobody talks about them because of Brady.  


I also think a lot of the questions go away, at least for now, had Idzik the Idiot signed some appropriate talent in the off-season.  I love the Chris Johnson move and admire the Decker and Vick signings.  All very strong signings, but he absolutely and mysteriously whiffed on secondary help (Byrd and Revis or other would have been a home run, could have used their 18th pick on Dennard or those speedy receivers) and could have had say DeMarcus Ware and/or some depth at guard.  Or, how about a left guard to replace Winters?  He was terrible, and the Jets line is not getting any younger.  


Again, good 3 signings, however could have signed Byrd, Cro (the other Cro!), a nice O-lineman and Ware, and the Jets may fly this year.  Let's not forget about DeSean Jackson, for both WR and return excitement.  On Sunday's at 1, I don't care what gang he's affiliated with, I want EXCITEMENT! 

JohnnyBuckeye
JohnnyBuckeye

@gdrut30 This really is a poor article. Great points by you pointing out his biases (which are untrue). Not only that but the article is humming along and then all of the sudden it is like he saw his word count coming to the end and tails off. Look at his special team and bottom line notes. Laughable. "Offense" section is pointed out but not defense. We could go on...

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