In the heat of training camp this August, Rex Ryan was asked how his defense would stack up against the rest of the NFL's defenses in the season ahead.
"Numbers-wise, we think we'll be in the top five because that's what you go on," the Jets head coach said. "Will we have the best defense in the league? I don't know. There are a lot of good defenses out there. I certainly think putting out that kind of defense is a goal of ours every year. We'll see. I feel good."
In the cool of this past week, Ryan was asked about his top-five feeling of 3½ months earlier.
"I'm not willing to concede anything," he said with his smile, "because you know what? I don't know any different." But he did allow that "We've got five games left and they'd better be some doozies to get there."
Ryan was dealing with the realities of this year's underperforming unit. Heading into Game 12 against the Cardinals at MetLife Stadium this afternoon, the Jets' primary defensive rankings were 19th overall, 30th against the run, seventh against the pass and 26th in scoring defense. Their 17 sacks put them on pace for 25 this season, which would be the fewest for the Jets in a 16-game season since the '78 and '79 teams each had 22 sacks.
Could Arizona provide the opportunity for the Jets to put on a doozy of a defensive performance today? One that could jump-start them toward whatever positive they can achieve in these last five weeks of this season?
"It's All About Communication"
On the surface, they could. The Cardinals' corresponding offensive rankings entering this weekend suggest this. They're 31st in total yards, 30th in rushing, 24th in passing and 31st in scoring.
Their three quarterbacks — still injured Kevin Kolb, John Skelton and today's starter, rookie Ryan Lindley — have performed similarly, which is to say they've all struggled to move the Cardinals offense during its seven-game losing streak. The Cards are the only NFL team with three QBs in the bottom 10 among the league's 40 most active QBs in both touchdown drive rate, punt drive rate and three-and-out drive rate.
The Jets have harassed young signalcallers this season — Ryan Tannehill at Miami, the Colts' Andrew Luck, Sam Bradford at St. Louis, even the Seahawks' Russell Wilson for more than a half. But they have to rebound from their most recent outing, when they were done in by old nemesis Tom Brady. Ryan knows some of the problems that had to be addressed during the "long week" since Thanksgiving night, that have to be gone today.
"It's all about communication," he said. "Are there better calls than some others? Absolutely. You can have a bad call and players can make up for it. That happens, absolutely.
"I know guys are tired of hearing it, but that's the case — I believe in the players we have," he said. "I really felt we were getting better, up until that abysmal performance we had against New England. You could see this defense getting better. Unfortunately that wasn't the case Thursday. You've got to give a ton of credit to New England. They do it not just to us but to everybody in the league. But they certainly don't need our help."
And the Jets helped out the Patriots in a few ways. One was in communication errors that contributed to Tom Brady's big pass plays to Shane Vereen and Julian Edelman.
"It's the communication, the mental part of it that's the frustrating thing," Ryan repeated. "But it's also the easiest to fix. I have to get it from our guys and make sure they understand this."
Alarming Sack Figures
Contributing to the back-end communication was the front-end inability to move Brady around much after the opening defensive play of the game, when Muhammad Wilkerson rushed TB into an IG. Intentional grounding doesn't count as a sack, so once again the defense had no sacks.
"I think the numbers indicate we're not blitzing near as much as we did in the past," Ryan said. He reminded all reporters of the several reasons for depressed QB takedowns. He reminded of the 16-9 home win over the Patriots, when Brady went unsacked but was hit 20-plus times by the Jets' rush. He credited opponents "for keeping you off the passer."
"Yeah, the sack number is alarming," Ryan agreed. "That's not anywhere close to what we want to be."
Yet the Jets defense will not send up the white flag, today or the next two weeks on the AFC South road at Jacksonville and Tennessee, or for their last regular-season home game against San Diego, or for their RS finale at Buffalo.
Fans and media could say Ryan won't give up for various reasons, but one very good one is because he has every right to say he doesn't "know any different." In his previous 13 seasons as an NFL coach — six as Baltimore's defensive line coach, four as the Raven's D-coordinator and three as the Jets' head coach — Ryan's defenses averaged a top-5 overall defense every year, top-6 vs. the run and top-8 vs. the pass and in scoring defense.
"I think we will, down these last five games," he said, "play much better on defense."
What This Business Is All About
It's about more than defense, of course. The Jets offense must find rhythm generated from Mark Sanchez's leadership and is not punctuated with turnovers — in his 35 career wins, Sanchez has led 96 touchdown drives while turning it over himself 24 times, while in 29 losses it's 41 TD drives and 58 giveaways, two per loss. And the roller-coaster special teams must not again, in coach Mike Westhoff's colorful phrase, allows "opponents to get a Thanksgiving celebration and we get a weekend in Palookaville."
All easier said than done, but one of these teams today, either the 4-7 Jets who have lost six of eight or the 4-7 Cards who have lost seven straight, will come away from MetLife this afternoon with the feeling that they have righted their ship. Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt (who coincidentally played for the Jets from 1991-93 and coached for them in 2000 and has known Ryan over the years), on Wednesday described the situation facing both sides:
"We're playing a team that is a lot like us. They've had moments where they've looked very good and other moments where they haven't. They've had their mistakes. Regardless of what's going on with the other team, you have to make sure that you're preparing your team and you're trying to get ready. The guys want to get a win. That's what this business is all about. Our message is how we prepare and getting ready for this New York Jets team."
And Ryan said his defense and his team are ready for the Cardinals. "We're going to go out and we're going to compete to win every single game," he said, "and that's just the way it is."