The Wild, Wild ... AFC East?
The Jets are riding high at 3-2 after Monday night’s road upset of the Falcons. A victory on Sunday against the winless Steelers, coupled with a Patriots loss at home to the undefeated Saints, would set up an AFC East showdown at MetLife Stadium between the 4-2 Jets and Patriots on Oct. 20.
Who would have thought that was possible at the beginning of the season?
The Jets’ surprising success isn’t the only reason why Ryan has had accolades (instead of arrows) thrown at him this season. His defensive coaching tree is off to a promising start. Bob Sutton (Chiefs) and Mike Pettine (Bills), both former Ryan lieutenants with the Jets, have unquestionably improved their units. At this point, the Jets ranked second in yards allowed per play, the Chiefs are seventh (20th last season) and the Bills are 15th (22nd in ’12).
“The strength of the system is the ability to make it player-driven, as we’ve done here,” Pettine said before taking on his former mentor in Week 3. “I wouldn’t say we’re significantly different from where we were in New York, but we are different based on the personnel that we have here—just as his personnel has changed slightly in New York and he’s adjusted his system accordingly.”
Sutton, 52, had a long college coaching career before joining the Jets in 2000 under Al Groh; he then worked under Herm Edwards and Eric Mangini. Prior to Mangini’s final season, in ’08, the Jets’ defensive staff was tasked with studying the system Ryan used as defensive coordinator of the Ravens.
“It’s so ironic,” Sutton told The MMQB during training camp. “We broke down every Baltimore game, trying to figure out what the heck this was—not quite understanding it; guessing. And then one year later (after Ryan was hired by the Jets) you’re saying, ‘Oh, this is what that was.’ It has been a great system for a number of years.”
Sutton says two factors stand out about Ryan’s system. It’s certainly complex, especially for opposing quarterbacks, but it’s commutable from player to player.
“When Rex got there, we watched the previous four years of cutups,” Sutton said. “I was thoroughly impressed by the number of players that played in the system and the results didn’t change. And then I said, ‘This is really good.’ ”
And then there is the proven ability to get the best out of the defensive linemen who are needed to key the system, from the Jets (Muhammad Wilkerson, Sheldon Richardson, Damon Harrison) ... to the Chiefs (Dontari Poe, Mike DeVito, Tyson Jackson) ... to the Bills (Kyle Williams, Marcell Dareus, Alan Branch).
“One of (Ryan’s) best traits is his defensive linemen do a great job playing the ball, playing the blocker and getting off the blocks,” Sutton said. “That sounds like a simple thing, but I think that’s one of the things that goes unnoticed in Rex’s system. He’s had all these players go through the system—every year it seems like it’s somebody new—but every one of them does the same thing up front.”
How Ryan and his former understudies do that exactly remains a mystery.
“Can’t tell you,” Sutton said with a laugh.
But the results speak for themselves. Ryan’s coaching tree is growing well—he’d tell you that himself.
“I just think the proof is in the pudding,” Ryan said before facing Pettine and the Bills. “When you look at it from a statistical standpoint, it’ll bear out at some point. We lead the AFC in defense and Kansas City is second and it won’t be long before Buffalo joins those ranks. So the system is good, but the players make it, and you focus on what the players can do—and obviously Mike knows it. But there’s a lot of work involved. It’s a challenge to the players, but any player that plays defense wants to play in this system.
“That my defense, that’s his defense. Certainly we were together a long time. He’s somebody that I’m extremely proud of.”
This week, Mike Petraglia of WEEI-AM in Boston had the most detailed report on the status of Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski. The highlights: the surgery for the forearm he injured on Nov. 18 might not have been needed, but the team and Gronkowski decided to do it anyway, hoping it would give him a chance to play in the postseason; there’s “serious concern” about the integrity of the bone, which is holding up Gronkowski’s return. Dr. James Andrews was brought in, at some point after team doctor Thomas Gill performed the surgery, as an independent party to determine when Gronkowski can be cleared.
ESPN reported that Andrews was brought in by Gronkowski and the team. What happened in the past, and who ultimately brought Andrews in, can be debated because both sides have their versions. (I doubt the Patriots invited another party into a matter regarding one of its players; it’s more likely that it was a final compromise between the two sides.) But what I’m most interested in is that Andrews was even consulted at all. I think it is a brilliant idea to have an independent party determine what medical steps are in a player’s best interest; it should be done more often and earlier in the process. Every procedure should be done this way. Every player on every team—this example just happens to be the Patriots—should know there’s at least one doctor in the equation who is unquestionably looking out for his best interest.
... and 10
1. The Packers’ 22-9 victory over the Lions last Sunday can be viewed a little skeptically because receiver Calvin Johnson didn’t play, but what can’t be discounted is the work of Green Bay’s offensive line and its coach, James Campen. Detroit entered 10th in our Pressure Points Rate (29.4%) but the Packers held them to 18.1%— a No. 30 ranking for the week. The performance was keyed by how well left guard Josh Sitton blocked Lions tackle Nick Fairley, mostly one-on-one. The Packers’ pass protection apparatus (it really includes the line, backs, tight ends and quarterback Aaron Rodgers) is now our sixth-ranked unit after years of struggling. The Packers shouldn’t slap themselves on their backs too much. The Ravens, this Sunday’s opponent, are our fifth-ranked pass-rush unit and have been much better than the Lions.
2. Not to take anything away from the job that Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib did against A.J. Green last Sunday, but the Bengals receiver has now been shutdown in consecutive weeks by Sam Shields (Packers), Joe Haden (Browns) and Talib. They are talented players, but if Green can’t get back on track against the Bills, it may be time to worry. There doesn’t seem to be a physical issue with Green, but the Bengals may have to invent ways to free him up.
3. The Patriots’ rushing attack will determine whether or not they can knock off the unbeaten Saints at Gillette Stadium this weekend. New Orleans uses almost all nickel and dime defensively—with rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro playing as a pseudo linebacker. If the Patriots can’t force the Saints to commit to stopping the run, it will be a very long day for Tom Brady in the pocket. Surprisingly, the Saints don’t do a whole lot of scheming in Rob Ryan’s defense, probably because of the newness of the scheme. They do, however, get creative on third down. Expect the Saints to have a tough time fooling the Patriots. Brady and his line are the best combination New Orleans will have faced through six weeks—even if center Ryan Wendell can’t go because of a concussion. (His backup, Dan Connolly, won that job in 2011, after Dan Koppen had been cut, so Connolly can get it done). Also working against the Saints: the Patriots’ line is coming off its worst performance in quite some time. In their 13-6 loss to Cincy last Sunday, the Pats finished with just 248 total yards (a mere 82 on the ground). This was likely a long week of practice under the glare of veteran line coach Dante Scarnecchia.
4. Speaking of the Saints’ pass rush, it was puzzling to watch the Bears struggle so much last Sunday. It wasn’t as much physical as it was setting the protection. Does Jay Cutler not have much responsibility in that area? Was center Roberto Garza off his game getting the line set? Whatever the reason, it wasn’t good and it needs to be cleaned up for the Bears to be successful this season.
5. Stat of the week from Pro Football Focus: The Bears defense has averaged 79 missed tackles in each of the previous five seasons. After beating the Giants on Thursday night, they have 55 through six games.
6. The Chiefs will win a lot of games with their current formula: good defense that takes the ball away (15 times so far) and an offense that doesn’t turn it over (just five) for an NFL-leading plus-10 in giveaways/takeaways. But to beat the good teams, they’re going to have to start stretching the field. Defenses know QB Alex Smith is overly conservative, so they’re dropping a safety down and playing a lot of man. The Chiefs have a big problem with receiver Dwayne Bowe. Not sure what has happened to him, but he lacks explosion and can’t beat man coverage anymore. Defenses don’t fear him at all.
7. Add this to Newton’s laws: The Panthers struggle, and quarterback Cam Newton takes the heat. It always happens. He is certainly limited in his read progressions and has a tendency of locking onto one receiver, but his teammates have to help him out. Carolina’s pass protection has bordered on awful—the Panthers are fifth-worst in our ratings—and dropped passes by receivers have been huge. Steve Smith (two) and Brandon LaFell had drops that would have been big plays or touchdowns against the Cardinals last weekend.
8. The job that Bengals defensive end Wallace Gilberry did against the Patriots in place of injured starter Michael Johnson last Sunday can’t be overstated. After 1.5 sacks on Sunday, he now has nine in 19 games since joining the Bengals as a free agent prior to Week 3 in 2012.
9. The Raiders likely won’t have center Stefan Wisniewski (knee)—one of the better players in the league at his position—for the second straight game when they go to Arrowhead Stadium this Sunday. You can get away with Andre Gurode starting against the Chargers, as Oakland did in a 27-17 win last week, but the center position is very important when playing the Chiefs. Kansas City nosetackle Dontari Poe has been terrific this season, and he keys everything the Chiefs do up front. If you don’t neutralize Poe, your offense is going to have a tough time moving the ball. He’s been that good.
10. If you had any doubt that money and promotion rules the NFL more than actual football—we really hope you didn’t—then the league’s decision to mandate a team do HBO’s Hard Knocks every year should end that debate.