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Lichtenstein: All Hail Jets’ Defense? We’ll See About That

(credit: Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)

(credit: Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)

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By Steve Lichtenstein
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Luke McCown.  Matt Moore.  Ryan Fitzpatrick.  Rex Grossman.  Tyler Palko.

Talk about a murderer’s row!

Those five were the scatter-armed men who, thanks to their ineptitude while attempting to play quarterback, accounted for six of the eight NFL defeats to the Jets last season (Fitzpatrick lost twice, though, to be fair, he did play much better in the second game).

As we’ve been counting down the days to opening Sunday, there’s been plenty of talk among Gang Green followers about the dreadfulness of the Jets’ offense, and deservedly so.  Even without considering the appalling but still meaningless one-touchdown preseason performance, what Jets fan isn’t concerned about their club’s lack of weapons, quarterback inconsistency, and unreliable offensive line?  Unless they’ve been bitten by the Sparano Spell—you know, the one found in the Hush-Hush Uber-Magical Super-Secret section of the playbook.

Yet somehow I’m supposed to continue to hail the Jets defense as maybe not the second coming of the 70s Steelers, ’85 Bears, or the Ravens of the last decade, but just slightly less dominant.  Upon closer examination, that is as farcical as another Rex Ryan Super Bowl guarantee.

Yes, it is true that the 2011 Jets defense finished fifth in the NFL in total yards allowed and yards allowed per play.  And if you take away the nearly 100 points the Jets offense gifted to the opposition through various returns, their points-allowed stats would also likely be in the top five in the league, instead of 13th.

But now let’s break it down further.  The Fab Five above managed to score a mere 73 points in those six contests, an average of a little over 12 per game.  Those other 10 games?  290 points, for an even 29 per game.

We can give the 2011 Jets defense some props for shutting down Philip Rivers and Tony Romo in second-half comeback victories, but they were just as responsible for allowing Denver’s Tim Tebow-led drive in the final minute that destroyed their season.  You probably can tell I’m still not over that one.

They were culpable for 57 of the 67 points scored in two games by Tom Brady and New England, 31 of the 45 points from Michael Vick and Philadelphia, and 34 points to the Jason Campbell-led Raiders.  Is Jason Campbell still in the League? (Just fact-checked—he’s in Chicago–for now.)

How do you evaluate the Giants game?  On one hand, the Jets D forced Eli Manning into a hideous stat line—9-for-27 with a pick.  But a dominant defense doesn’t surrender the vomit-inducing 99-yard TD completion to Victor Cruz at the end of the first half that turned the momentum in the Giants favor.

And in the finale against the Dolphins, a game they HAD to have, and leading 10-6 in the middle of the third quarter, the defense could not get off the field.  Moore engineered a 21-play, 94-yard TD drive.  It took 12:29.  Read that again.  The defense was on the field for 12 minutes and 29 seconds without forcing a fourth down or turnover, their only break coming during the commercials between the quarters.   That’s too close to infamy for any supposed first-class defense.

This is not to put all or even the majority of the blame for last season’s disappointing result on the defense.  Mark Sanchez’ turnovers put the defense in tough spots all year.  They grounded and pounded their way to the 22nd spot in the NFL in rushing yards, 29th in yards per carry.

But I’m tired of hearing that this is a defense that is capable of saving the day.  Despite all the blitzing in Ryan’s playbook, the Jets were middle-of-the pack in sacks.  Darrelle Revis is headed to the Hall of Fame for his work on one corner and Antonio Cromartie can be solid on the other side, but the good quarterbacks seem to have no problem finding open guys elsewhere.  The Jets haven’t been able to cover the slot receiver since the heyday of Ray Mickens.  Kyle Wilson looks like he needs a change of scenery.

And tight ends have been getting an even wider berth.  The leading receivers in the games against the Jets last year?  Seven wideouts, one slot receiver, one running back…and seven tight ends.  It’s one thing when Antonio Gates or Jason Witten shreds the middle of the field against you, but if you’re giving up 156 yards to Brent Celek, you’ve got issues.

Maybe they’ve been addressed with the additions of LaRon Landry and Yeremiah Bell at safety.  Landry, however, has only been active for about half his team’s games the last two seasons, and we know what happened at that position when Jim Leonhard went down with an injury the last two years.  So fingers better be crossed pretty tightly after every Landry hit.

First-round pick Quinton Coples might be helpful rotating on the line to generate some pass rush.  Along with last year’s number one, Muhammad Wilkerson, they should put some distance from any stink that was left from the long-gone Vernon Gholston, who, as the 6th overall pick in 2008, should have been entering his prime terrorizing quarterbacks instead of reading the classifieds.

Youth is needed instead at linebacker, where, outside of David Harris, the other members of the starting quartet have all logged at least 10 seasons in the NFL.  Aaron Maybin, the Bills’ version of Gholston, was reincarnated on the Jets to become their one feared pass rusher, leading the team with six sacks in his 13 games of situational use.   But the Jets need more production here.  Bryan Thomas’ season ended in Week 4, but he was hardly a tackling machine when healthy.

And if you don’t want to admit that Bart Scott is running on fumes, then it’s fair to say that the fuel tank dashboard light is about to come on.  He may still have value as a leader and he still can put the hurt on ball-carriers but he looks like an anachronism out there.  We’re in an NFL where six-foot seven tight ends have the grace of wide receivers, where quarterbacks the size of linebackers are no longer content to stay in the pocket and throw balls away, and where speed is the most prized commodity on the field.

I’ve been having these nightmares—it’s Sunday versus Buffalo and I’m watching the Jets hanging in down 10-9 late in the fourth quarter but knowing heartache is a few seconds away.  Here comes CJ Spiller taking a seemingly harmless swing pass with Scott chugging toward the sideline in futile pursuit.   Spiller gets a step to the corner and Scott can’t catch up.  There’s no support as Cromartie makes a lame attempt to avoid a block.  It’s good for a first down and Spiller can see the open turf ahead toward the end zone.  Spiller keeps running but I can’t make out the yard markers.  I can’t make it stop.  Spiller, who runs about a 4.4 40, is in full sprint, while the plodders in this all-time defense give up the chase.

Thankfully, I’ve also envisioned a few of Fitzpatrick’s throws landing at Spiller’s feet.  After all, like Sanchez, Fitzpatrick is equally capable of putting up a stinker as he is a 300-yard, 3-TD performance.

But, barring a string of injuries, we are unlikely to witness the same March of the Wooden Quarterbacks as last season.  The schedule is flush with talented young passers—some, like Andrew Luck, Ryan Tannehill and Russell Wilson, will be making their debuts on the big stage this weekend.  We’ll also see if others, like Jake Locker, Blaine Gabbert or Sam Bradford, will make the leap their teams expect this year.

Then there’s also the two matchups with Brady plus visits from preseason contenders Rivers, Matt Schaub and Alex Smith and a trip to Pittsburgh for Ben Roethlisberger.  Arizona looks like the sole opponent on the slate that currently seems to have a mess on its hands at the position.

The true measure of a defense is determined by how it performs when the game is on the line.  That could be in the first half when an opponent is threatening to blow a game open or in the final two minutes of a tight game.

In Ryan’s first two seasons, his defense deserved the accolades.

This one hasn’t yet earned any such regard heading into Week 1.

Do you think this Jets ‘D’ is all smoke and no fire — or will the unit be something special? Be heard in the comments below!