Against the Buccaneers, the Jets' safeties came up with the right formula to hold tight end Kellen Winslow to four catches for 26 yards. As the Green & White prepare to face the Falcons this weekend at the Meadowlands, they'll look to duplicate that result against one of the best TEs in the game — 13th-year veteran Tony Gonzalez.
"We have to approach it the same way we did Winslow," said safety Eric Smith. "He's such a big part of their passing offense, you have to be aware of him at all times."
Safety Kerry Rhodes played a big part in making Winslow look average. "When Kerry was on him I don't think he caught any balls," said Smith. Head coach Rex Ryan said Rhodes, who punctuated the victory with a fourth-quarter interception, "played his best game yet" against the Buccaneers.
"He really accepted that challenge last week and you could just see it in his eyes," said safety Jim Leonhard, whose 80 tackles is third on the team. "He's ready to go this week. He's a guy that wants to play every down. He feels like he's a huge impact player and he is."
This week Rhodes will likely be tasked with honing in on Gonzalez. The 10-time Pro Bowler, in his first season on the Falcons, leads the team with 75 receptions and is second with 788 receiving yards. His vertical game may have slowed down a bit, but his ability to catch the ball may be as good as it's ever been.
"He knows how to get open so it doesn't really affect his game," said Leonhard. "Whether he has a guy in his face or you're playing off, he knows all the little tricks to get open."
"Gonzalez has hands where if the ball is in his vicinity he is going to catch it," said Smith. "That's more of a challenge because you basically have to get between him and the ball. If the ball touches his hands he's probably going to catch it."
The Falcons TE also has 24 third-down receptions, tied for fifth in the NFL and tied for first among tight ends, for 283 yards. But the Jets excel on third down — during their three-game winning streak, they've allowed a league-low 12.2 percent conversion rate (5-of-41) and have stopped opponents' last 24 third-down tries.
The 6'5", 243-pounder figures the Jets defense will try to defend him the same way teams have all season.
"I would expect on third down maybe some sort of bracket coverage. Then in the red zone, I'm sure I'll get bracket coverage once again," he said. "It's one of those things I've dealt with my whole career. When teams do that, then it's up to other players to step up and make plays. Hopefully, our guys can go out and get it done."
Atlanta's top pass-catcher is Roddy White, with 67 catches for 915 yards. It's a good bet Darrelle Revis will be manned up with the big-play WR.
"Having a guy like Darrelle to be able to lock down their No. 1 guy every week allows us to do a lot," said Leonhard. "It's definitely been a lot of fun for us and when we've communicated we've had a lot of success."
Leonhard has been a big part of bringing Ryan's defense from Baltimore and allow talented players to get on the field and make plays.
Against the Bucs, the Green & White opened with a three-safety nickel alignment — Leonhard, Rhodes, Smith, Revis and Lito Sheppard. Eight members of the secondary have started at least one game this season.
Leonhard said that players such as James Ihedigbo, who had a sack last week, are "rewarded" with extra playing time because of the way they've performed on special teams.
"There are so many things that are interchangeable with our responsibilities," said Ihedigbo. "Different guys are versatile and can do different things. Coach Ryan allows us to do that. He allows us the freedom on the field and he'll put together packages for certain guys on the field to make that happen."
The No. 1 defensive ranking is a level that Leonhard felt they should have been at much earlier in the season, but it's taken them some time to learn the intricacies of the system.
"All those little details about this defense, guys are starting to get and apply on gameday," said No. 36. "There's a lot of moving parts so sometimes it's hard to take it from the practice field to game situations because everything is moving quicker.
"We're starting to do that more and more and I think you see guys making big impact plays and less mistakes."