By Steve Lichtenstein
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The most optimistic Jets fans always point to the team’s defense as the force that they insist will lift Gang Green this season from the doldrums of a five-year playoff drought.
Let’s get something straight: For all the big names and big money allocated to the unit, the 2016 Jets defense has not established itself as elite.
I know many want to pin Nick Folk’s tail to the wall after the veteran kicker’s botched PAT and blocked chip-shot field goal proved to be the difference in the Jets’ 23-22 season-opening loss to Cincinnati at MetLife Stadium on Sunday. However, the fact remains that the Jets gave this vaunted defense the lead with 3:23 remaining and asked it to do what great defenses are supposed to do.
Close the deal.
Instead, the Bengals, backed up at their own 16-yard line, marched into Jets territory to give kicker Mike Nugent the opportunity to nail a 47-yard field goal with 54 seconds left.
You can’t even say that it was unexpected. The Bengals did the same thing at the end of the first half to cut the Jets’ lead to 16-13 at the intermission.
Bill Parcells used to regale everyone about his teams’ glorious fourth-quarter pass rushes that skewed outcomes in his direction. In today’s NFL where the ball is out of the good quarterbacks’ hands so fast, it takes more — fast linebackers who can make plays sideline-to-sideline, backfield depth to counter four-wide receiver sets, and schemes to at least minimize the damage from the opposition’s most dangerous weapons — for defenses to get stops in end games.
A case in point: as well as the Jets’ defensive line played — the group accounted for six of Gang Green’s seven sacks of Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton and stifled the Bengals’ ground game — the brutal secondary more than offset it.
Dalton diced the Jets to the tune of 366 yards in the air, completing 23 of his 30 attempts. Cincinnati offensive coordinator Ken Zampese negated the Jets’ pressure by spreading the field (often in funky formations) and calling routes that required quick releases by Dalton.
It looked very simple and very easy at the same time.
The Jets’ back end couldn’t cover and often couldn’t tackle. Safety Marcus Gilchrist was especially abysmal, but he wasn’t alone.
Cornerbacks Marcus Williams and Buster Skrine were picked on ruthlessly by Dalton with little challenge after Williams’ first-quarter interception.
Even superstar cornerback Darrelle Revis wasn’t spared, as he was consistently burned by Bengals stud receiver A.J. Green.
The five-time Pro Bowler produced 12 receptions for 180 yards, 54 of them on a touchdown bomb down the middle of the field (where it appeared Revis was expecting help from a frozen Gilchrist) in the second quarter.
Perhaps Green’s most crucial play occurred on the snap before Nugent’s final kick.
The Bengals were facing a third-and-13 from the Jets’ 40 after two consecutive run snuffs by the D-line. Cincinnati called a timeout with 1:11 remaining to get the precise call it needed to pick up the yardage to turn a potential 58-yard field goal attempt into something more makeable for Nugent.
The entire viewing audience knew where the ball was going.
Green was lined up on the right side against Revis, who was in press coverage. Green jabbed towards an inside route and then quickly cut to beat Revis to the sideline. Linebacker Darron Lee wasn’t rushing the passer on the play, so he … I don’t know what the rookie was doing instead of reading Dalton’s obvious eyes and sliding over.
Dalton, who had the fourth-fastest average release time of all quarterbacks last season according to a CBS graphic, got rid of the ball in about two seconds after the shotgun snap.
Green made an easy catch and turned upfield. A shoestring tackle by Revis limited the gain to 11 yards, but it was still more than enough to comfort Nugent, a former Jets second-round draft choice.
A great defense would have come up with a play somewhere along that drive to save the game. Despite all its high-priced free agents and former high draft picks, the Jets defense, unfortunately, is less than the sum of its parts.
Revis is the NFL’s highest-paid ($17 million) cornerback as if his Island were still exclusive. However, we now know that his troubles last season against the top receivers weren’t just related to the wrist injury that hindered his bump-and-run skills.
Gilchrist, who in addition to the previously noted blown coverage committed a key face mask penalty during the final drive and was trucked by Bengals running back Jeremy Hill at the goal line in the third quarter, makes $5 million, the fifth highest base salary in the league for his position. Skrine recently restructured his contract to save the Jets some salary cap room, but he will still put away $5.5 million this year, not too shabby for a corner with a mere seven career interceptions in five seasons.
With the Bengals retooling/hurting at the offensive skill positions, this was a game the Jets needed to win if they had any hope of improving on last season’s 10-6 mark. Unlike last year, the Jets don’t have the luxury of a relatively weak slate of opponents out of the chute. The quarterback gauntlet coming up isn’t as formidable as the one from early 2014 (when they faced, in order, Aaron Rodgers, Jay Cutler, Matthew Stafford, Philip Rivers, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady), but based on what we just witnessed even the meek Bills, Thursday’s foe, will give the Jets fits like they did twice last year. Kansas City, Seattle, Pittsburgh and Arizona follow. If the defense doesn’t step up, the season will be over before Halloween.
I know Sunday’s affair brought out plenty of other areas for concern — quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick’s ineffectiveness throwing the ball more than 10 yards downfield, the curious red zone play-calling by offensive coordinator Chan Gailey, and, of course, the Folk chokes.
But let’s say Folk had converted on both of his misses. The Jets would have been up, 26-20, going into the final drive. Did anyone have faith that the defense would have held the Bengals out of the end zone in the final minute?
Maybe there are still some true believers out there, but too many times over the years I’ve prayed for the Jets to “just make one play” to no avail.
Let’s acknowledge reality — this Jets defense has a long way to go before it can carry this team to the postseason.
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