A pair of ballhawking defenses will take the field in South Florida this evening as the Jets and the Dolphins match up at Sun Life Stadium. You'll see similar concepts on both defensive sides because the architects — Jets head coach Rex Ryan and Dolphins defensive coordinator Mike Nolan — served on the same defensive staff in Baltimore from 2002–04.
"I think Mike is a terrific coach," said Ryan, who was Nolan's defensive line coach with the Ravens when the latter was coordinator. "He's a guy that I'm proud to have been under that taught me a lot of football."
During those memorable three years, the Ravens tied for the NFL lead in takeaways (106). Now in his first season in Miami, Nolan has helped the Dolphins get out to a quick start as his defense has totaled four takeaways and their 10-point scoring average is tied for best in the NFL.
"Defensively it's a scheme we'll recognize a lot because Mike Nolan was the first person to put in the 3-4 in Baltimore," said WLB Bart Scott. "So we understand the principles in how he plays his 3-4 as well, which is tough, and he's an aggressive coordinator as well as Rex."
The Jets, who led the NFL in defense last year, have six takeaways and that mark ties for second in the NFL after two weeks. They've also been stout against the run, holding the opposition to just 1.8 yards on 55 carries. And what makes the defense's accomplishments all the more impressive is that OLB Calvin Pace (foot) has yet to play a regular-season game, NT Kris Jenkins (torn ACL) was lost for the season in the first half of Week 1, and CB Darrelle Revis (hamstring) did not play in last week's second half — and will be out of action this evening.
Two Jets defenders who will have the spotlight on them all night are OLB Jason Taylor and CB Antonio Cromartie. The 36-year-old Taylor is no stranger to the rivalry as he played 12 years for the Dolphins, appearing in 24 regular-season games against the Jets and racking up 16.5 sacks. When the Dolphins didn't move to re-sign the free agent this spring, the Jets swooped in and added an all-time great pass rusher.
"At the end of the day, they're not going to take it easy on me and I'm going to try and make as many plays as I can. There's no bitterness," said Taylor this week. "I get a chance to play the greatest game on the planet and I have the best job in the world. To be picked up here, wanted here and sought after by Rex and Mike [Tannenbaum] was such an honor. It's another great day in the NFL. What can you complain about?"
"Knowing him, he'll get over the emotions of it quickly and settle down and play football," added Jets defensive coordinator Mike Pettine. "I know any type of homecoming like that, especially where you've had the amount of time that he did and did the amount of quality work that he did down there for that franchise, I think it will be a special night."
Cromartie's confidence should be sky-high considering he's had interceptions in each of the Jets' two games and he shut out Randy Moss last week after Revis exited for the locker room. He'll be matched up with Brandon Marshall, a new Dolphin who's coming off three consecutive 100-catch seasons in Denver.
"I see two great athletes going against each other and two huge guys for their positions. I mean, they are giants for their positions," said Ryan. "I saw Marshall at the Pro Bowl and I couldn't believe how big [6'4", 230] he was. He's one of those guys that when you look at him you're like, 'Man, how do you cover this dude?'
"Then you look at Cromartie [6'2", 210] and it's the same thing. Corners aren't supposed to look like that. He's got great lean, great speed, great everything. It ought to be a great matchup."
The Jets, in the middle of a three-game swing through the AFC East, already own a win over New England and they would not only move into first place with a victory over the 'Fins but would be heavily favored to push their AFCE mark to 3-0 next week in Buffalo. The undefeated Dolphins, making their first appearance at home in 2010, swept the Jets in 2009.
"We go down 2½ games in the division or we go up by a half a game," said Scott. "It's plain and simple. Clear cut."
But the defensive game plans won't be clear cut. Neither Mark Sanchez nor Chad Henne — both 61 percent passers — have been intercepted and both clubs average an identical 126 yards a game on the ground. After combining for 113 points in two tight games last year, it's hard to imagine this one being another high-scoring shootout.