The Jets' defense leads the NFL in fewest points, yards and passing yards allowed, but they won't be called "great" until they learn to finish consistently.
"The great defenses find a way to win. Whatever the situation is, they find a way to win," said safety Jim Leonhard today, 24 hours after the Jets lost a heartbreaker to the Falcons at the Meadowlands. "It doesn't have to be pretty, it can be ugly. You might win, 34-31, some week, but you win and that's what great defenses do.
"That's why I would say we're a good defense right now. We might be ranked No. 1 and our rankings might say we're a great defense, but until we find out how to win games, we won't be great."
Despite holding Matt Ryan and the Falcons to 238 total yards, the Jets failed to make a 7-3 lead hold up late in the fourth quarter. Ryan converted two critical third downs on an 11-play scoring march that culminated on a 6-yard strike to future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez on fourth-and-goal.
The defense lamented opportunities that got away like cornerback Darrelle Revis' near-interception on the play before the deciding score. Leonhard, who plays with a broken thumb and is basically one-handed, placed blame on himself for dropping a second-quarter interception that might have resulted in six.
"There was a lot of frustration just in the fact that we could have played better. You look at a game like Tampa, where everything went well from the first snap to the last snap — we were on top of our game," he said. "For whatever reason, we were off on some things kind of all day."
Over the past four games, the stingy Jets have allowed an average of 183.8 yards per game, a number that paces the NFL by a wide margin during that span. In fact, the next closest team is the Ravens at 274.3 net yards per contest, a difference of more than 90 yards.
"We're definitely playing at a really high level," Leonhard said. "When you look at yesterday, it was the sloppiest we've played out of those four games. But we still played well enough to win. We just didn't make a play at the end."
This has been an impressive start to the Rex Ryan/Mike Pettine defensive era through 14 games. So besides finishing games better, the next steps in the process will be more takeaways and more touchdowns. The Green & White's 26 takeaways are tied for eighth in the league and Revis' pick-six against the Panthers is their only defensive score.
But the future is promising even if the record says just 7-7.
"We're in a great spot. If you were to say at the beginning of the year that we'd be here, everyone would be happy," said the 5'8", 186-pound Leonhard. "But you'd also expect the record to be different since we are here. It's a give-and-take, it's the good and bad about this league. The wins don't necessarily reflect the performance sometimes. That's why we play this game, that's why you love it, that's why you hate it, that's why the fans love it, that's why it's as popular as it is, because things happen. You have to go out there and play every single game because you never know what the results are going to be."
The Jets might be down, but they're not out. If the 14-0 Colts are going to move one game closer to a perfect regular season, they'll have to earn it.
"There is no doubt in my mind that we'll prepare like we've prepared all season and go out there to play the best game we've played," said the defensive quarterback, who said his unit was frustrated this afternoon. "We have a lot of pride in this room. On this team, there are some amazing players but the biggest thing is the heart, the pride that guys play with."
While many members of Jets Nation might be rooting for the Colts to rest their starters in Week 16, Leonhard wants a shot at Peyton Manning, Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark and that gifted offense for four quarters.
"You watch them all year long and it's like, 'They're not that good, they're not that good.' But they are that good. That's why they're 14-0," Leonhard said. "We have a shot now, we have a chance, so you want to play their best. Obviously it benefits us if some of them don't play, but at the same time you want to play them at their best."
"You don't want to play a team that doesn't have all their bullets in the chamber. You want to play a team that's clicking as well as it can. And when you beat them, it just feels that much better."
Tony Gonzalez may have dunked after his tally Sunday, but the Jets are still breathing. And anytime this defense steps on the field, the Jets will have a chance to win. Already elite, great could be just around the corner.
"It will be a tough test," Leonhard said, "but we'll rise up to it."