One storyline will dominate all others tonight when the Jets meet the Cowboys, and that's the somber 10th anniversary of September 11th. Much coverage in the days leading up to the game dealt with the Jets and NFL players who were in uniform a decade ago when terrorism struck America. It will be the focus of the pregame and halftime ceremonies at MetLife Stadium and of NBC's broadcast.
"A lot of people want to make this game out to be about 9/11. And yeah, that's true," Jets linebacker Calvin Pace mused on Friday. "But once that's all gone, once that first hit gets in, we've got to really focus in on what we've got to do."
And when the night turns to football, many other themes will rise and fall. Jets WR Plaxico Burress will be playing in his first NFL game in almost three years, Dallas QB Tony Romo will be playing in his first game since October. It'll be Ryan vs. Ryan, Jets head coach Rex against Cowboys coordinator Rob. It'll be America's Team vs. J-E-T-S.
Yet here again let's turn to Pace and his side of the ball. This game will be the first opportunity for the Jets defense to show it's back and better than ever.
"Our guys are flying to the ball — the defense is to the point where it's almost ridiculous, flying to the ball and then flying back to the huddle," Rex Ryan said Friday as he closed the public portion of the Jets' preparation for the game. "They want to be great. They want to be champions. They want to make it happen this year."
And among the many reasons that the Jets defense feels it can rival the 2009 unit's achievements and surpass the 2010 D is a healthy No. 97 roaring off of the edge, crashing the other team's pocket.
"Calvin's had a good camp," coordinator Mike Pettine said this week. "He's fresh. Mentally he's in the third year of the system. I think he knows it really well. We can do some graduate-level things with him now. I think he's poised to improve on what he's put out there the last two years."
"When you look at this defense," Ryan said, "you have 10 of the 11 starters back, and we have Calvin for the whole season. I expect big things from Calvin. We all do."
As does Calvin. "A big year? I plan on it, I really do," he said.
Just the numbers suggest that Pace can supply a lot of the pass rush that Green & White fans have been clamoring for. Even despite missing the first four games due to suspension in '09 and the first four last year due to a broken bone in his foot, he has 23.5 sacks in his three seasons since coming to the Jets from the Cardinals as an unrestricted free agent for the '08 season. That's the most by a Jet in that three-year span, and in fact the most by any Jets linebacker in any three-year span since sacks became official in 1982.
"I feel good. I feel healthy," he said. "People say everything happens for a reason, and that is true. But I'm really trying my hardest not to live in the past. Last year was last year, last week was last week, yesterday was yesterday. So I'm moving forward."
But can he move forward with more production than any other linebacker in recent Jets history? The Jets' most celebrated sackers were down linemen, Mark Gastineau and Joe Klecko. As for linebackers, Mo Lewis has the most sacks in a season, 10 in 2000. Can Pace match that or exceed that? Does he think about getting to double digits?
"I do, I do," he said thoughtfully. "I think about it, I write it down and look at it. And I think you should do that. Sometimes you make your goals, sometimes you don't make them. But it is something that I do. I'm not going to say I know, but I do think this is the year that I get to those goals."
It's all for the betterment of his defense and his team. If Pace adds major pressure numbers to those generated by the unpredictable blitzing from the other Jets linebackers and the DBs in the Ryan/Pettine scheme, the pressure will go a long way toward helping the Jets realize their most important goal for 2011, challenging for a second Super Bowl trophy that has long eluded them.
One game won't decide if the Jets pass rush is dominant. Especially this game, in which the defense will be trying to chase down the elusive Romo and some will measure Pace's production against the game put together by DeMarcus Ware, the Cowboys' top pass rusher — indeed, the NFL's top sacker for the past two, three and four seasons — when Mark Sanchez and the Jets' retooled offense are on the MetLife turf.
"If you flip it on the other side, DeMarcus vs. me — and I'm not comparing myself to him — but there's a 99 percent chance that he's going to be the one rushing and they're going to probably drop the other guy in coverage. [Miami's] Cameron Wake's the same way," Pace analyzed. "If you break down the film, look at all the stuff I do. And I'm cool with that, I really am.
"But when Rex calls my number, I'm going to try and do everything I can to get there for him, you know?"
And how Pace and the defense fare in their goals will have a lot to say about how the Jets as a team fare in theirs. We'll know a lot more about that once the ceremonies are done and the football begins on the Jets' national stage tonight.