If the adage about defense winning championships is true, the league should pencil the Jets in as title contenders. Building on the solid foundation former coach Eric Mangini left behind, new head coach Rex Ryan is assembling a unit that should be formidable in 2009.
Ryan's defenses excel at suffocating opponents and creating turnovers. During his four-year tenure as the Ravens' defensive coordinator, Ryan oversaw a squad that ranked in the top five in total defense three times and led the league in takeaways in 2008. The unit perennially ranked among league leaders in rush defense and didn't allow a 100-yard rusher in its last 35 regular-season games.
While Ryan has been lauded for his innovative game plans, it was his superb use of the Ravens' personnel that truly made Baltimore difficult to attack. From flip-flopping Terrell Suggs' and Jarret Johnson's responsibilities on the edges to interchanging Bart Scott's and Ray Lewis' roles as inside linebackers, Ryan masterfully melded his players into an aggressive unit that befuddled offenses.
With the Jets adding Scott, Lito Sheppard and Jim Leonhard to the fold via free agency, New York's defense now features playmakers at every level. Moreover, the Jets are counting on a wild card to blossom in Ryan's scheme. Last year's first-round pick, Vernon Gholston, could become an X-factor as a situational pass rusher. While some have already labeled Gholston a bust due to his non-productive rookie season (13 tackles with no sacks), Ryan envisions Gholston developing into a Suggs-like difference maker off the edge. Gholston was drafted for his superior athleticism and intriguing rush skills, so expect Ryan to feature him in a package that allows him to consistently play to those strengths. By allowing Gholston to focus on excelling in a limited role, Ryan will not only boost the second year player's confidence and production, but also give the team an additional pass rusher in the lineup.
Scott and David Harris will play pivotal roles as inside linebackers as the defense funnels everything to them. Though Scott will play primarily as the WILL linebacker (run through player), his versatility gives Ryan the option of flip-flopping the duo's roles to disrupt the offense's ability to correctly identify personnel. This is important since the offense sets its blocking schemes based on where the MIKE lines up, and any confusion will result in one or more defenders running free on blitzes. The Ravens' ability to interchange Scott and Lewis frequently resulted in big plays, and the move should have the same effect in New York.
In the back end, the Jets have the pieces in place to produce turnovers at a high rate. Pro Bowl corner Darrelle Revis is one of the best in the game, and his ability to lock down a side of the field allows the team to use combination coverage that features zone on the opposite side. However, the tactic used by the previous regime may not be necessary with the addition of Sheppard. The two-time Pro Bowl defender has 18 career interceptions and can man the corner without consistent safety help over the top. Though he finished his last season in Philadelphia as a sub-defender, he has started 61 games in his career and has performed at a high level when in the lineup.
Furthermore, Kerry Rhodes should become a household name in the Jets' new system as they free him to roam the middle of the field as a ball hawk. The fourth-year pro has 12 career interceptions and displays Ed Reed-like range and awareness as a deep middle player. Though he isn't as accomplished as a playmaker, he will benefit from playing alongside Leonhard as the Jets set traps for the offense with their ever-changing coverage.
Leonhard's experience in the defense means Rhodes won't have the burden of making the checks in the backend, freeing him to concentrate solely on making plays on the ball. In addition, he will have the opportunity to become more involved in the rush scheme on safety blitzes. Rhodes had only one sack last season, but made a career-high five sacks in 2006, when he was used extensively in the Jets' sub-package.
With the personnel and scheme in place to field a stellar defense, the only thing keeping this unit from achieving greatness is the nasty attitude typically associated with dominant defenses. However, if Scott's comments at his introductory press conference are any indication, the Jets aren't too far off from developing that swagger.
"We won't back down from anybody," said Scott. "We won't take a step back from anybody. You guys can expect to see a very physical, violent defense. I don't know if this division has ever seen a violent defense."
They're only two seasons removed from breaking numerous records with a wide-open offense, but the Patriots' recent activity indicates the team may be shifting to a more balanced, two-tight-end attack in 2009.
Though the decision to move away from an offensive system that set a league record for points scored (589) in 2007 is difficult, it is necessary given Tom Brady's return from knee surgery. The extensive use of three-and four-receiver sets exposes him to numerous hits when opponents pressure the spread attack.
Although Brady was only sacked 21 times during the 2007 regular season, the Giants made four sacks in their upset Super Bowl victory of New England, and teams successfully copied that aggressive game plan last season to slow down the Patriots' offense (Matt Cassel was sacked 47 times in 516 pass attempts in 2008).
Thus, the Patriots' decision to incorporate more two tight end sets makes perfect sense. First, using their "12" personnel package (one back, two tight ends and two receivers) allows the Patriots to protect Brady in the pocket by incorporating more max protection schemes. Second, double tight ends allows the Patriots to put their most dangerous weapons on the field at the same time. A lineup with Randy Moss and Wes Welker on the outside, with tight ends Chris Baker and Benjamin Watson manning the "Y" (tight end) and "H" (move tight end/H-Back) positions, causes matchup problems all over the field.
Throw in the fact that Fred Taylor, Laurence Maroney and Sammy Morris are capable runners in the team's zone-based scheme, and you see the dilemma facing defensive coordinators. If an opponent uses a base defense against the grouping, the Patriots can spread the field and attack through the air. If a defense attempts to defend the package with its nickel package, then it is vulnerable to the Patriots pounding the ball with their running game.
Furthermore, the use of the package gives the Patriots the flexibility to attack defenses in a variety of ways from the same personnel grouping. The team is able to show a two-back look by using Baker or Watson as a quasi-fullback in a formation. The Patriots could also use Watson, an athletic tight end with outstanding speed, as a slot receiver in a three-receiver set. This formation would put the defense in a predicament as most linebackers are unable to match Watson's speed or athleticism in space. Thus, the Patriots would still have the ability to incorporate their favorite spread passing plays into their game plan without using a true three- or four-receiver set.
Count me as one who believes the Cowboys made a major mistake by releasing Terrell Owens. While reports from Dallas have alluded to the move being fueled by his declining production and disruptive nature in the locker room, the decision to cut the future Hall of Famer is puzzling for several reasons.
In spite of his antics, Owens was clearly the team's best offensive player the past three seasons. The six-time Pro Bowl receiver caught 235 passes for 3,587 yards with 38 touchdowns during his tenure with the Cowboys. His 38 touchdown receptions were the most of any receiver during that span, and his 139 touchdown receptions rank only behind Jerry Rice on the all-time list. Though his numbers dipped in 2008, he is still one of the league's top playmakers, and was the only player on the Cowboys' roster who commanded a double team in coverage.
While some have suggested Owens is a player on the decline, the numbers don't justify that sentiment. Owens' 2008 yards per catch average (15.2) was higher than his career average (14.8), and his 10 touchdowns ranked fifth in the league overall.
Some would point to Owens' high number of drops as an indication of his skills deteriorating, but it should be noted that he has always ranked among league leaders in drops since entering the league in 1996. Therefore, the move makes little sense from a performance or production standpoint.
Maybe the Cowboys are of the opinion that Roy Williams can replace Owens' production on the field, but Williams didn't consistently play at an all-star level as the top target in Detroit, and has yet to establish himself as a player who warrants double coverage in the passing game. Of course, Jason Garrett and Tony Romo will make sure that Williams puts up big numbers as the Cowboys' top option, but the offense will miss Owens.
He created opportunities for Jason Witten and Patrick Crayton in the passing game, and his presence prevented defensive coordinators from loading up against Marion Barber III. With Owens out of the lineup, their production will decline.
In regard to the locker-room effect, I think Owens has shouldered far more blame for the Cowboys' woes than he deserves. While he is clearly a divisive and polarizing force, he is not the reason the team underperformed in the playoffs two of the past three seasons. A leaky defense and an overhyped quarterback who shrinks in big games contributed more to the Cowboys' playoff failures than the loudmouth receiver.
Sure, Owens' demonstrative sideline antics exacerbated the situation, but his heated exchanges were no different than the countless sideline debates that occur between other players and/or coaches throughout the season. Though I don't condone players handling disagreements in a public forum, the highly competitive nature of pro sports often brings out that ugliness in the midst of games. However, most teams eventually squash those debates and patch up the chemistry between the involved parties with the guidance of strong leadership.
Maybe that's what's at the heart of this perplexing decision. The Cowboys simply lack the leadership inside and outside of the locker room to handle a complex personality like Owens. For as talented as the Cowboys' roster appears, there is not an accomplished winner on the team or a strong leader capable of getting the petulant playmaker to fall in line. Typically, the quarterback would command that kind of respect, but Romo's reluctance or inability to be a forceful leader has resulted in the owner having to establish order in the locker room.
Jerry Jones made the difficult decision to jettison the team's most productive offensive player in an effort to improve chemistry, but time will tell if the move ultimately makes the Cowboys a better team.