Bucky Brooks
Tuesday November 25th, 2008

If the adage is true that defense wins championships, then the New York Jets' run at the title will be led by Kris Jenkins. The three-time Pro Bowl behemoth has been an immovable force in the middle, spearheading a vastly improved Jets' defense that has the team sitting atop the AFC East.

"He dominated our guys," said an NFC personnel executive. "He is big, strong and athletic. He fights through double and triple teams, and takes up space so that their linebackers can run and hit."

Jenkins, who was acquired from the Carolina Panthers in a trade during the offseason, has smoothly made the transition from playing as a "three-technique" in the Panthers 4-3 to occupying the nose tackle spot in the Jets' 3-4. The differences on the surface don't appear to be major, but moving a player who has spent his entire career as a penetrator to a "two-gap" is typically a difficult one.

The 6-foot-4, 339 pound defender's role with the Panthers was simply to shoot through his assigned gap on the way to the ballcarrier or quarterback. The Jets' 3-4 requires him to "two gap," which means he's required to fill the gaps on both sides of the center.

His ability to create penetration has forced opponents to double and triple team inside, allowing the Jets' linebackers to run freely to ballcarriers in the running game. Consequently, the Jets' run defense ranks third in yards allowed per game (78.0) and has yet to allow a 100-yard rusher this season. That's a dramatic improvement over the 134.8 yards allowed per game in 2007, and the nine 100-yard rushers who destroyed the Jets.

However, Jenkins' impact stretches beyond that. His presence also has enabled the team to field one of the league's top pass rushes. With Jenkins destroying the middle of protection schemes, the Jets have freed up Calvin Pace, Shaun Ellis and Bryan Thomas off the edges. The combination has been spectacular as the team has racked up 35 sacks in 11 games, third-best in the league.

"[Jenkins] has definitely taken their defense to another level," said an AFC scout.

The Jets became relevant when they added Brett Favre to the lineup prior to the season. But the outstanding play of Jenkins has made them a title contender and made him one of the leading candidates for Defensive Player of the Year.

1. Albert Haynesworth, DT, Titans (last week's ranking, 1): The most dominating force on the defensive side of the ball continues to give opponents trouble in the middle. Haynesworth has tallied 8.5 sacks and anchored a defense that is only allowing 15 points a game.

2. James Harrison, LB, Steelers (2): The Steelers' top rusher continues to terrorize opponents off the edge. He's made 12 sacks and four forced fumbles for the league's top-ranked defense.

3. Joey Porter, LB, Dolphins (3): The three-time Pro Bowl linebacker is making a resounding case for recognition as the top defensive player. As the league leader in sacks (14.5), Porter has registered at least a partial sack in nine consecutive games.

4. Kris Jenkins, DT, Jets (NR)

5. Troy Polamalu, S, Steelers (NR): Polamalu has quietly enjoyed one of the best seasons of his career. He is tied for league lead with five interceptions, and his knack for delivering bone-jarring shots to opponents has keyed the Steelers' punishing defense.

1. Kurt Warner, QB, Cardinals (last week's ranking, 1): The two-time league MVP has thrown for over 300 yards in five consecutive games and completed a touchdown pass in 19 straight contests. Although his team suffered a loss at the hands of the defending world champs, the Cards are in position to secure their first division title in 33 years primarily due to the spectacular play of Warner this season.

2. Clinton Portis, RB, Redskins (2): The NFL's leading rusher has run for over 120 yards in six games this season and with 1,206 total yards is on pace to surpass his career high of 1,591 with Denver in 2003.

3. Peyton Manning, QB, Colts (5): The eight-time Pro Bowl QB has found his stride while positioning the Colts for another postseason run. Manning has connected on over 65 percent of his passes and tossed nine touchdowns with only one interception during the Colts' four-game winning streak.

4. Drew Brees, QB, Saints (NR): He set off fireworks with his 323-yard, four-touchdown performance against the Packers. Brees is completing over 67 percent of his passes and has an astonishing eight 300-yard passing game this season. Though his team is hovering around the .500 mark, Brees' ridiculous numbers makes him a rare MVP candidate from a mediocre team.

5. Eli Manning, QB, Giants (NR): The Super Bowl MVP is quietly making a case for the league's top honor. Not only has he led his team to one of the league's best record (10-1), but also he's enjoying career highs in completion percentage (62.0), passer rating (91.6) and yards per attempt (6.8).

1. Drew Brees, QB, Saints (1)

2. Kurt Warner, QB, Cardinals (2)

3. Philip Rivers, QB, Chargers (3): The Chargers' young gunslinger has joined the ranks of the elite with his stellar play this season. Rivers is the league leader in passer rating (103.1) and passing touchdowns (23).

4. Clinton Portis, RB, Redskins (4)

5. Michael Turner, RB, Falcons (NR): "The Burner" has been an awesome addition to the Falcons' lineup. The league's third-leading rusher has surpassed the 100-yard mark in five games while tallying a league-high 13 rushing touchdowns.

1. Tom Coughlin, Giants (2): The team's remarkable ability to win without key players has to be attributed to its coach's steady hand. The team has reeled off six consecutive wins, and holds a two-game lead over the nearest challenger in the NFC.

2. Jeff Fisher, Titans (1): The team's surprising unbeaten streak is over, and the NFL's longest tenured coach faces a huge challenge with LenDale White's comments threatening to break up a harmonious locker room. How well Fisher handles this delicate situation could go a long ways toward deciding how strong the Titans finish.

3. Mike Smith, Falcons (NR): The remarkable turnaround engineered by the first-year coach has surprised even the most optimistic of Falcons' followers. With a favorable schedule down the stretch, the Falcons may be the latest NFC South champ to go from worst to first.

4. John Harbaugh, Ravens (NR): The Ravens have won four of their last five games and are in position to make a legitimate run at a postseason berth. With rookie quarterback Joe Flacco playing well, the Ravens' offense is perfectly complementing Baltimore's ferocious defense.

5. Eric Mangini, Jets (NR): "Man-Genius" has molded his team into a tough, blue-collar squad. Though it has a Hall of Famer at quarterback, the Jets are relying on a smash-mouth running game and physical defense to win games.

1. Matt Ryan, QB, Falcons (1): "Matty Ice" will go down as one of the best rookie quarterback ever. He ranks in the top half of the league in every major passing category, and has guided a lightly regarded squad to a surprising 7-4 record.

2. Matt Forte, RB, Bears (3): The Bears' star topped the century mark for the third time with his 132-yard rushing day against the Rams. His 909 rushing yards lead all rookies, and ranks as the league's fifth-leading total.

3. Chris Johnson, RB, Titans (2): The dazzling playmaker is beginning to struggle getting untracked in the running game. His 46-yard day against the Jets was his fifth straight game with less than 100 yards rushing. Though he still ranks as the AFC's second-leading rusher, he has been a relative non-factor for the Titans in recent weeks.

4. Joe Flacco, QB, Ravens (NR): His numbers have not been outstanding, but he deserves credit for guiding the Ravens to five wins in their past six games. Flacco has thrown nine touchdowns and only two interceptions during the hot streak.

5. Steve Slaton, RB, Texans (NR): The diminutive runner has quietly fortified the Texans' running game while emerging as one of the AFC's top backs. He ranks as the AFC's third-leading rusher (774) and is 11th among all rushers.

1. Jerod Mayo, LB, Patriots (1): The rookie stalwart continues to gobble up runners at a stunning rate. Mayo leads all rookies in tackles (89) and ranks as the league's seventh-leading tackler.

2. Curtis Lofton, LB, Falcons (2): The Falcons' standout is spearheading a defense that is coming up with timely stops at key moments.

3. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (NR): The Cards may have discovered their "shut down" corner in Rodgers-Cromartie. He has 15 passes defensed and two interceptions in only six starts.

4. Chris Horton, S, Redskins (3): He has been supplanted in the starting lineup but remains a key contributor on the 'Skins' third-ranked defense. His three interceptions lead the team and are the most by any rookie defender.

5. Leodis McKelvin, CB, Bills (NR): The dynamite dual threat made quite a statement with two interceptions in his second start, including a dazzling 64-yard "pick six" in the second quarter. He also returned a kickoff 46 yards, leading to another score. He's made six returns over 40 yards, pushing his league-leading average to 29.1 yards a return (the most of any returner with over 20 attempts).

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