Jeff Ulbrich and the Jets defense has one very obvious, very big challenge on Sunday: how to stop or, more likely, slow Titans RB Derrick Henry?
But the Jets defensive coordinator has another, less sexy, situation to sort out that will affect how well the Jets stop or slow Henry as well as how well they stop or slow the Ryan Tannehill play-action passing game off of Henry's rushing.
Who will play safety?
Ulbrich, HC Robert Saleh and GM Joe Douglas burned the midnight oil trying to come up with playmakers next to Jets team MVP Marcus Maye when Ashtyn Davis went to IR, and then Sharrod Neasman, and then Lamarcus Joyner. Sheldrick Redwine, Adrian Colbert and Jarrod Wilson were brought in, and the team of Maye and Colbert held up well last Sunday at Denver.
But Maye apparently injured his ankle during the Broncos game and now reports have him missing the next several weeks. And the Jets brain trust is back to square one on the other side of the deep middle.
"We've got a group of guys that have got to step up," Ulbrich said after Thursday's practice at the Atlantic Health Jets Training Center. "It's frustrating, obviously, when guys get hurt. You never want it to happen. The thing about Marcus was I thought he was grasping what we're doing, getting better every single week."
The good thing for the Jets defense is that both Davis and Neasman have returned from IR to practice this week. The bad thing is that Neasman's been out since Sept. 11 while Davis, who started six games as a rookie last year, has been out for all of training camp through Wednesday on Active PUP and then short-term IR. They'll have three practices to get fully reintegrated into the system before either or both are activated for the game.
"By Sunday we'll figure out who's the best back there. Maybe it'll be safety by committee," Ulbrich said, adding that a safety by committee isn't as bizarre as it sounds. "I think each guy kind of has their unique skillset, each guy is getting better every week as we play. ... I've done it at safety. I've never seen it at the corner position. Tony Oden, our corners coach, is doing an exceptional job with those guys."
By corner committee, the coordinator is referring to his other in-flux position at nickel, where Michael Carter II and Javelin Guidry have been passing the baton back and forth. Carter has been averaging 39 defensive snaps a game, Guidry 23 defensive snaps, and Carter got the start in the nickel against the Broncos.
Ulbrich's been impressed with the progress made by "Michael D. Carter."
"You're always careful about having expectations for rookies, especially on the back end because it's such a trial by fire, it's so much different than the college game," he sad. "We were really careful about our expectations for him, but I really feel he's exceeded our expectations. Each week the guy gets better, he's becoming a real NFL corner and a real NFL nickel, and I'm excited about his future, I really am."
With these new rotational issues in the secondary, it's not necessarily a bad thing that the Titans have their own injuries to deal with at wideout. Both of their accomplished, dangerous starters, Julio Jones and A.J. Brown, are dealing with sore hamstrings that kept both out of practice for the second day this week.
One might think that works big-time in the Jets' favor for stopping the Tannehill play-action. But Ulbrich provides this caveat:
"It goes back to being able to handle Derrick Henry. As a runner, he is a problem. Then once he gets going, their play-action becomes a problem, and they don't even get to third down. It all starts with stopping the run."
And to close the circle, how does Ulbrich think the Jets can prevent Henry from turbocharging on them?
Ulbrich has a plan for that, in short "11 hats to the ball." But by Sunday he and Saleh will figure out what's the best way to approach it, and the defense will go from there.