Only days before the Jets' 45-3 loss to the Patriots in Week 13, their defensive leader went down with a season-ending injury. Safety Jim Leonhard, the "quarterback" of coordinator Mike Pettine's defense and one of head coach Rex Ryan's guys from his days with the Ravens, was one of the Green & White's most important defenders. His loss was felt in that December skirmish in Foxboro and it has been up to safeties Brodney Pool, Eric Smith and Dwight Lowery to fill in since then.
"It was tough, no question," Ryan said. "But one thing it did was it made Brodney learn the defense. Brodney has played exceptionally well ever since that injury. Sometimes you lean so much on a guy who knows the system that you wait for him to tell you what to do. After the injury Brodney said, 'I have to learn this.' He's done an outstanding job of late."
Pool, the sixth-year veteran who came over from Rob Ryan's Browns defense this offseason, was outstanding against Indianapolis, registering seven tackles and serving as the key to why the Colts were stuffed on four different third-and-1 plays. In the regular season he had 53 tackles, a sack, a forced fumble and an interception — against the Patriots, whom the Jets face again this week in the divisional round of the playoffs.
"I'm very comfortable compared to where I was at the beginning of the season and five weeks ago," Pool said. "Every week the comfort level goes up and once the comfort level goes up, it's just meeting with the coaches and talking with the players, everything gets easier and you start to settle down a little bit in the system."
Pool and Smith often watch video together and hang out at the Atlantic Health Jets Training Center together, and are both humble, low-key characters. Pool, the former Oklahoma Sooner, has started 13 of the last 14 games on defense. Smith is known as one of special teams coordinator Mike Westhoff's favorite players and has started six of the 13 games he played in the regular season.
"I would say that we are more comfortable," Smith said. "The longer you play with somebody, the more reps you get with somebody. I'd say we're more comfortable and it's easier for us to get on the same page. We can kind of look at each other and give each other hand signals."
Ryan said Pool is "as athletic as any safety out there," and he'll need every ounce of athleticism against the fast, physical rookie tight ends that the Patriots employ. Ever since New England traded wide receiver Randy Moss early in the season, quarterback Tom Brady has utilized Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez to stretch the field, as opposed to most teams, which try to extend defenses with wide receivers.
"Both of them bring something different to the table," Pool said. "One is a fast guy. The other is a big guy that catches the ball in traffic. Basically it boils down to they are both good players. It's going to be a big challenge for everybody in the secondary to take those two guys away. We know they're Brady's big targets and he wants to go to those guys, so we have to do a good job of taking those guys away."
When the Patriots aren't throwing it downfield, they often are finding their fleet-footed wideouts and running backs on short and intermediate routes. In Week 13, the Green & White admittedly didn't do a good job of wrapping up and making solid hits immediately after the catch. While the Jets displayed elite tackling in Indianapolis, it will be even more crucial this week in a possibly frigid Gillette Stadium.
"It's going to be huge," Lowery said. "For sure, we have to be able to tackle in the open field and minimize yards after catch because their skill guys are smaller and when they get in the open field they're more elusive. So it's imperative that we're able to get them on the ground."
Backs BenJarvus Green-Ellis and former Jet Danny Woodhead have been extremely effective for Brady out of the backfield as they've combined for 46 catches for 464 yards. In the running game, they've amassed over 1,500 yards and 19 touchdowns combined. To effectively stop the Patriots offense, the Jets have to clamp down on Brady's safety valves as they did against the Colts' Peyton Manning.
"I just think everybody is going to have to take the same intensity from that game into this game," Pool said. "It's just doing the little things to get off the field and communicating right and just playing football."