Defense is More Than a Numbers Game

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The New York Jets play a 3-4 defense and they also run a 4-3.  They line up in a multitude of formations from both their nickel and dime packages, and you might even spot a Bear-look on occasion.  The fact is head coach Eric Mangini and defensive coordinator Bob Sutton explore all options in order to be successful. 

"Coach is a smart coach and he understands us as players; he understands our strengths and weaknesses," says middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma of Mangini.  "Obviously, he came from New England which everyone knows is a 3-4, but he's not solely going to stick to that.   He's going to what's best for us to win and for us to make plays."

Defensively, the Jets haven't been able to match the success the offense has tasted.  The Jets are surrendering 22.8 points per game, a number which ranks 23rd in the NFL.  They have been susceptible on the ground and in the air, yielding 140.5 yards (25th) and 237.8 yards (27th) respectively. 

"We're always looking at - based on this front - where the problems have been," Mangini said on looking for areas to improve. "We're doing a lot of work with how that would play into those fronts against Jacksonville. It's sort of a two-fold situation where you want to look at the front and the problem that you had, but that issue isn't necessarily going to be the same against Jacksonville."

Based on each offense's strengths and weaknesses, the Jets will change their personnel accordingly.  Different packages are installed each week, so it's not accurate when people talk of a perpetual Jets 3-4.

The Green & White's base look last season was a 4-3 and they have played a lot of 3-4 this fall.  How does it affect the players?

"Basically, its two different types of defenses," says co-captain Shaun Ellis. "One type of defense, the 4-3, requires you to get up field, penetrate and play one gap.  This 3-4 requires you to two-gap and be more patient on the line of scrimmage - that's the biggest difference.

"To me, I feel like I could play in either one of them," added Ellis, "It doesn't bother me."

Jonathan Vilma, the NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2004 and an All-Pro last season, is averaging 10 tackles per game and his 40 stops lead the club.  Many of the Jets critics don't think the Jets have a prototypical nose tackle to keep Vilma clean in a 3-4, but the 6'1", 230 pounder says the 4-3 doesn't always protect the middle 'backer either.

"It depends on how you want to run the 4-3.  Some guys like to run the 4-3 where the D-line penetrates and you still have the linemen up there.  Some guys like to run 3-4 the D-line doesn't penetrate and you don't have linemen on you," he says.  "So it just depends on how you run the scheme in the system."

A linebacker's primary responsibility in any defense is the same whether they have an unimpeded path or they are forced to shed a blocker.

"The angles are a little bit different.   The assignments are a little bit different, but the bottom line is to get to the ball," Vilma said. "Every 'backer knows that, how you get there may be different in 3-4 and in 4-3, but the bottom line is always just getting to the ball."

Vilma totaled 187 tackles in '05 including 147 solo stops.  Ever the perfectionist, Vilma is always searching for ways to get better when Sutton lines the Jets up in a 3-4.

"The only thing that's frustrating is that I'm not playing the defense perfectly, the way I want," said the league leader in tackles in 2005. "In the 3-4 there's always something to learn, always a little tweak here or there that I can do or that I can adjust to. It's just going to be a work in progress."

Rewind to last weekend when the Jets coaching staff made halftime adjustments.  They played a lot of 4-3 in the second half against the Colts and Peyton Manning.    

"It was different and it was good for us as a change of pace," Vilma said. "Going against Indianapolis, especially Peyton Manning, you want to show them different looks to make them think a little bit out there."

Unfortunately for the Jets, Manning led the Colts to 17 fourth quarter points in a thrilling victory and his club converted seven of 12 third downs.  Third down is an area where Mangini would like to see improvement as the Jets defense is ranked 27th in the NFL in that department, failing to get off the field 45.1% of the time.

"If there's just the one problem, you'd really be able to zero in on it," Mangini said.  "There are different things that come up. It could be the rush, it could be the linebackers, or it could be the secondary."

It would be wise for fans and critics alike to give the defense some patience before calling for dramatic changes.  Mangini, a defensive coordinator last year for his former employer, made the calls for a banged-up unit early in the season that struggled out of the gate.  But by December, his unit was striking fear into the opposition while limiting teams to just 10 points over one three-game stretch in December. 

The last time Mangini lined up against the Jacksonville team was this past January when his Patriots dismantled a good offense.  In a 28-3 wild card victory, Mangini's defense outscored the Jags 6-3. 

The Patriots were known for mastering the 3-4, but most of their success was because of their flexibility and efficiency in multiple defensive packages.  In time, the Jets will become one of the better units in the league while playing a variety of fronts.  On the positive side of the ledger, the Jets have already racked up eight takeaways and scored a defensive touchdown.

"Defensively, of course, we're still working our way and getting better," Vilma said.  "The biggest thing is that we saw improvement, Eric Mangini saw improvement, and Bob Sutton saw improvement in the game last week."

Friday Injury ReportJets
Doubtful:RB Cedric Houston (knee)*Questionable: CB David Barrett (hip), WR Laveranues Coles (calf), RW Tim Dwight (thigh), OL Pete Kendall (thigh) & OL Trey Teague (ankle) *Probable: *DL Dave Ball (hand), *RB Kevan Barlow (calf), *LB Matt Chatham (foot), *OL Anthony Clement (shin), *DL Bobby Hamilton (knee), *FB James Hodgins (knee), *OL Adrian Jones (thigh), *CB Justin Miller (hip), *QB Chad Pennington (calf), *S Kerry Rhodes (thigh), WR Brad Smith (thigh), *S Eric Smith (knee), & *DL Kimo von Oelhoffen (knee)

Jaguars
Out:WR Matt Jones (hamstring), DT Marcus Stroud (ankle) & DE Marcellus Wiley (groin)

Questionable:RB Derrick Wimbush (knee)
Probable:
S Donovin Darius (knee), *LB Nick Greisen (ankle), *CB Rashean Mathis (knee) & *G Chris Naeole (knee)
* Denotes players who participated in practice

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