While the Jets' offense has had some well-documented struggles this preseason, the Green & White defense has had some almost-as-well-documented success. And within that unit, the run defense has been among the NFL's summer best.
Not a surprise, linebacker David Harris told newyorkjets.com this week.
"As a unit, I think we're a little bit more hungry, I guess," Harris said. "We know we weren't as stout probably as we wanted to be last year. I think it made everybody come into this season a little bit more focused on the details.
"We're still trying to get a couple of things corrected, but we're heading in the right direction."
The details, as the Jets prepared themselves for a stern ground test from the Carolina Panthers on NBC tonight (8 p.m. ET kickoff) to finish the third full week of the NFL preseason, are impressive. After two weeks, the Jets are the NFL's fourth-ranked team in rushing yards allowed per game. And they are No. 1 in the league in rushing yards allowed per carry.
Cincinnati managed 86 yards on the ground at 2.8 yards per carry. The Giants were contained even better, gaining 58 yards at 1.8 per tote. In its three quarters of game work, the Jets' first defense gave up 43 yards on 23 carries, 1.9 per carry.
"I think the guys are paying attention to the technical part of the game," said NT Sione Po'uha, the only one of the D-linemen expected to contribute to a killer rotation who hasn't played yet, sidelined until the Sept. 9 season opener against the Bills with back issues. "That's the foundation of everything. You always have a sense of renewal. Whether it's a year or a week or a game or a practice, you always renew yourself. But I think as long as you renew yourself with your foundation, with your basics, you can build upon that."
"We Want to Stop the Run Every Time"
It also doesn't hurt mortaring some new bricks into the foundation, DT Mike DeVito observed.
"With adding Coach [Karl] Dunbar, adding Quinton [Coples] into the mix, and with Kenrick [Ellis] and Mo [Wilkerson] in their second year, I think you've got guys that are more comfortable in the defense now, that don't have to think, they can just react," DeVito said. "With the emphasis on the running game, it's making a big difference, and that's huge for us. We want to be able to go out there and stop the run every time."
And the Jets have been stopping quite a few runs by the Bengals and Giants dead in their tracks. A big reason for the low averages are the high number of times opposing ballcarriers have been tumbled at or behind the line of scrimmage. The defense has had 10 tackles for losses, a.k.a. stuffs, and another 10 on runs for no gain.
"I'm just trying to contribute, just doing my job, keep on working, and try to get better every day," said Ellis, who's gotten extended reps with Big Bo on the sidelines and against the Giants dropped Ahmad Bradshaw for a 2-yard loss and pitched in with Bart Scott on a no-gain stop of D.J. Ware. "The defense is trying to get better and I'm just trying to get better within that so we can be great."
The way DeVito and Harris see it, run defense isn't what it used to be in the current pass-happy NFL, but it still is important. Good run stopping fattens the defense's playbook while thinning the offense's options.
"I think it's still just as important," DeVito said, "because the second they can run the ball on you, that opens everything else up. Your deal when you go into a game, you want to make a team one-dimensional, and the second you can shut that run down, then you can tee off on them."
"Now it'd be more impressive if we have the No. 1 pass defense," Harris added. "Last year that was probably the most yards ever thrown for in one season. We had, what, three 5,000-yard passers and three other guys who were really close to breaking 5,000. That's the way the league is going now, so we've got to be able to be good at both. But run defense is still a good indicator of where we're at as a defense."
Panthers Can Run It with the Best
There's a long way to go before the Big Green Wall and the entire defense can be considered great, but the Panthers should give the Jets their best test yet. After all, they have DeAngelo Williams (836 yards in 2011), Jonathan Stewart (761) and QB wunderkind Cam Newton (706) — who came together on the only team in NFL history to have three 700-yard-plus rushers in one season as the Panthers came in as the league's third-ranked rushing offense.
This preseason none of the three has been turned loose yet and Carolina is at No. 15 in the rushing rankings, but the first three quarters of tonight's game will give an indication if the Panthers still have it and if the Jets can take it away.
The Green & White will have many other storylines operating in this national game. They want to get their touchdown-less offense up and operating closer to what they'll need in the regular season. Mark Sanchez will play those first three quarters, protected in part by a new RT starter in Austin Howard and with injured WRs Santonio Holmes and Jeremy Kerley getting onto the MetLife turf for perhaps 15 plays each.
Then Tim Tebow will take over the offense in Quarter No. 4. As head coach Rex Ryan indicated this week, don't expect to see Tebow running any Wildcat plays tonight, and enjoy him while you see him because as usual in the final preseason game against Philadelphia, Ryan will rest his frontliners and that means Greg McElroy and Matt Simms are expected to take all the offensive snaps vs. the Eagles. And the next chapter of the Nick Folk vs. Josh Brown kicking competition will unfold when the special teams take the field.
But make no mistake, this is a major challenge — the last dress rehearsal for the regular season, in fact — for the Jets' front seven.
"They have a good system over there," Harris said. "Cam Newton, two great backs, they just brought over [Mike] Tolbert from San Diego, which gives them another dimension at fullback as pass receiver out of the backfield, and they have Steve Smith. Everyone knows what he can do. He's one of the premier receivers in the league.
"It presents a good test for us as a unit. We're just trying to put all the pieces to the puzzle together right now and get the season started off right."