The Jets are 2-1 overall and 2-0 in the AFC East, but S Jim Leonhard knows the team isn't passing with flying colors. Fresh off a shootout win in Miami in which Dolphins QB Chad Henne set a career high with 363 yards passing and WR Brandon Marshall caught 10 balls for 166 yards, the defensive quarterback sees plenty of room for secondary improvement.
"I think the biggest thing with this defense is it's not as black and white as a lot of different defenses — there is a lot of gray area where the players have freedom to do certain things," said Leonhard during his first appearance on newyorkjets.com's "Four Quarters" this week. "And you can't do that in this defense unless you have great communication."
Leonhard, in his third season under Rex Ryan and his second here in the New York area, is the man in the defensive backfield who knows the system inside and out. But with CB Darrelle Revis continuing to nurse his tight hamstring, the rest of the DB starters are in the early stages of the learning process.
"I'll look at it and I have Antonio [Cromartie] on one side, Kyle Wilson and Brodney [Pool] — three of the four pieces of the secondary are brand new. This is their first year, so they're kind of on the upswing of that learning curve," Leonhard said. "The better we get communicating, we'll have more big impact plays — interceptions, pass breakups, things like that — and that's what we're trying to get better at. We feel like we're getting better at practice and obviously Darrelle helps with that.
"It doesn't matter who's in the game — we need to get better and improve, and we'll have a lot of success if we do that."
Cromartie has already pitched in with two interceptions and Pool also has a theft as the Jets are currently tied for the NFL lead in turnover margin with a plus-6. Pool made a couple of key plays in the waning minutes Sunday night as he prevented a Marshall touchdown with a tackle and then his deflection of Henne on fourth-and-4 from the Jets 5 wound up in Drew Coleman's hands.
"We're definitely getting there and you saw that in how we closed that game off. It's something that we struggled with last year," Leonhard said. "We gave up way too many touchdowns late in games that ended up costing us victories and Brodney stepped up with a huge play along with Drew Coleman closing that game out."
Just 27th in pass defense (274.7 yards allowed per game) and 31st in third-down conversions (51.1 percent), the Jets have to find a way to get off the field quicker.
"We're struggling with technique right now for some reason and what we're doing in practice isn't always carrying over. We're an aggressive team on third down and we've been just a little bit off and we'll get it. We know we're a much better defense than that," said Leonhard. "We're going to get off the field on third down and that will eliminate a lot of yardage, that will eliminate a lot of different things because our offense will have the ball. Time of possession will flip over."
Leonhard, a Wisconsin product who was signed by the Bills as an undrafted free agent back in 2005, will flip back to Buffalo for the first time as a visitor on Sunday afternoon. He appeared in 38 contests for the Bills, making seven starts, before experiencing his career breakthrough in '08 under Ryan in Baltimore.
"I was in Buffalo for three years and had a great start to my career there. I'm excited to go back and this will be the first time I will play back in Buffalo," Leonhard said. "We played in Toronto last year [19-13 Jets win on Dec. 3], so I'm looking forward to getting back to Ralph Wilson Stadium to see the people that broke me into the NFL and hopefully get a win. Another huge division game, and I'm looking forward to getting to 3-1 and going through Buffalo is going to be a great place to do that."
The Bills, seemingly always in transition of late, are winless and have the NFL's worst-ranked offense (242 yards per game) and 31st-ranked passing game (139.3), but Ryan Fitzpatrick gave them a spark last week against the Patriots as they totaled 30 points in defeat. There are clear deficiencies in B-Lo, but they have some folks who can be special in space when you think about RB C.J. Spiller and WRs Lee Evans and Roscoe Parrish.
"They have three extremely talented running backs and they all could start there or anywhere else in the league, so that provides a big test for this defense. We have to stop the run," Leonhard said. "C.J. Spiller, you saw him last week with the kickoff return [95-yard TD], catching the ball out of the backfield and running the football. He's extremely talented — there is a reason they drafted him in the first round and it's to make impact plays and we really have to take him out of the game.
"Lee Evans is a guy I played at college. He's been a tremendous receiver in this league and he provides a lot of leadership for that locker room and a lot of leadership for those receivers. The quicker we can take him out of the game, the better."
After two huge emotional wins, is it possible for the Jets to overlook the AFCE's basement tenant?
"Division games are never trap games," Leonhard said. "They're all extremely important and the fact that you came off of two just makes the next one bigger. There can't be a letdown. It would be huge for this football team to get to 3-1."
"Four Quarters" Dunk Party
Some people say Leonhard might not look like a football player, but he's a phenomenal athlete nonetheless. The 5'8", 186-pounder, whose 21 interceptions tied the Wisconsin school record and whose 1,347 punt-return yards set the Big Ten career mark, also was a two-time dunk winner at Wisconsin.
"My freshman year, I snuck up on some people," he said of the Badgers' annual contest held by the football team during offseason work. "There were only a handful of people who really knew I could play basketball or jump like that. I snuck up on some people and won it that first year, and then the second year I had to defend the title. I'm 2-for-2 in dunk contests and I think I'm going to leave it there."
We'll have the footage of one of the memorable dunks later this week on both "Four Quarters" and the Jets' Facebook page.