It's on Rex's D, at fault in two title game losses, to walk the walk

For each of the past two seasons Mark Sanchez's inconsistency has been cited as the element that stands between the Jets and their first Super Bowl appearance in more than four decades. Two seasons in a row, New York has reached the doorstep of the NFL title game and tripped, but the fault does not rest with the young quarterback. Sanchez played well in each of his AFC Championship Games, throwing for a combined 490 yards, with four TDs and one interception. Instead, what has ultimately failed the Jets has been the aspect of the team that was supposed to be unassailable and unmatched: coach Rex Ryan's defense.

Specifically, two uncharacteristically poor halves sank the Jets: the second half against Indianapolis two seasons ago (17 points allowed) and the first half against Pittsburgh last January (24 points surrendered, though one TD came on a fumble return). An effective Sanchez couldn't quite hold on in the first game and couldn't quite come back in the second. "Let's face it: We don't get to the AFC Championship Game without our defense," says Ryan. "Are you going to be perfect? No."

Still, the leaders of the Jets' D have spent each of the last two off-seasons contemplating why their unit has been furthest from perfection when it mattered most. "It eats at you, knowing you're so close to going to a Super Bowl," says stalwart fifth-year inside linebacker David Harris, who signed a four-year, $36 million contract extension on Aug. 2. Adds two-time All-Pro cornerback Darrelle Revis, "If you look at the film, there were certain plays where we could have played tighter or gotten to the quarterback a little quicker, and it didn't happen."

Ryan's defensive scheme is brilliant, and usually brilliantly effective. But it is also atypical in how much it relies on the ability of individual players to outrun or outmuscle opponents while the rest of the unit bewilders them. "They do a lot of stuff, and it's really confusing," explains Jets tight end Dustin Keller. "There's nobody harder for us to face than our own defense, in practice."

As with many complicated machines, though, a systemwide breakdown can occur when even one part fails. Against the Colts the defense's unraveling began when one man, and not even an obviously important one—journeyman cornerback Donald Strickland, who's started just 24 games over eight seasons—left with a groin injury. Against the Steelers the problems were continuations of those that had developed over the course of the season, stemming from injuries to linebacker Calvin Pace (broken right foot in the preseason), nosetackle Kris Jenkins (lost for the year with a torn left ACL in Week 1) and safety Jim Leonhard (fractured leg suffered in practice before Week 13). Pace is the only Jet who can be considered an elite pass rusher; he played in the last 12 regular-season games in 2010 and had a sack in each of the Jets' three playoff games, but the foot hampered him until the bitter end. "His foot was 20% healed by the end of the year, and he's out there that way," says an admiring Ryan.

The Jets' defense was still very good despite the injuries—third in yards allowed per game, at 291.5; sixth in points per game, at 19.0—but it paled in comparison with 2009's group, which led the league by comfortable margins in both categories. "We're embarrassed by it," says Ryan of the defense's slight drop in his second season with New York. "We expect to be Number 1 every year." ("If he says it's an embarrassment, then it is," says Revis. "He's the boss.")

Free-agent cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha would have helped to cover for a still-thin pass rush—Pace is back to full health, but Jenkins has retired and veterans Shaun Ellis and Jason Taylor left for the Patriots and the Dolphins, respectively—but he spurned the Jets' advances, and instead they re-signed Antonio Cromartie, who's very good but not in Asomugha's elite category. The failure to upgrade means that any injuries will place more responsibility on unproven players such as rookie linemen Muhammad Wilkerson and Kenrick Ellis and free-agent linebacker Aaron Maybin, the Bills' first-round pick in 2009, who has so far been a bust.

The Jets believe another season's experience with Ryan's complicated scheme will mitigate their lack of depth. "This is our third year going into Rex's system, so we have familiarity with it, and that's a plus," says Harris. Ryan, not surprisingly, expects a return to the top of the charts. "We've got the scheme, we've got the players, we've got the continuity, we've been together, we know each other," says Ryan. "It's on."

It might well be, if Ryan's defense can avoid injury. Of course, injury-free seasons in the NFL are rare.

PROJECTED LINEUP

WITH 2010 STATS

OFFENSE

2010 Rank: 11

QB MARK SANCHEZ

ATT 507

COMP 278

PCT 54.8

YARDS 3,291

YD/ATT 6.49

TD 17

INT 13

RATING 75.3

RB SHONN GREENE

ATT 185

YARDS 766

REC 16

TTD 2

FB JOHN CONNER

ATT 8

YARDS 44

REC 2

TTD 1

WR SANTONIO HOLMES

REC 52

YARDS 746

AVG 14.3

TTD 6

WR PLAXICO BURRESS*

REC 35

YARDS 454

AVG 13.0

TTD 4

TE DUSTIN KELLER

REC 55

YARDS 687

AVG 12.5

TTD 5

LT D'BRICKASHAW FERGUSON

G 16

SACKS 2

HOLD 2

FALSE 3

LG MATT SLAUSON

G 16

SACKS 5½

HOLD 4

FALSE 3

C NICK MANGOLD

G 16

SACKS 1

HOLD 2

FALSE 1

RG BRANDON MOORE

G 16

SACKS 1

HOLD 2

FALSE 2

RT WAYNE HUNTER

G 14

SACKS 4

HOLD 1

FALSE 1

RB LADAINIAN TOMLINSON

ATT 219

YARDS 914

REC 52

TTD 6

WR DERRICK MASON

REC 61

YARDS 802

AVG 13.1

TTD 7

DEFENSE

2010 Rank: 3

DE MUHAMMAD WILKERSON (R)

TACKLES 70

SACKS 9½

INT 0

NT SIONE POUHA

TACKLES 59

SACKS 2

INT 0

DE MIKE DEVITO

TACKLES 59

SACKS 0

INT 0

LB BRYAN THOMAS

TACKLES 39

SACKS 6

INT 0

LB BART SCOTT

TACKLES 81

SACKS 1

INT 0

LB DAVID HARRIS

TACKLES 99

SACKS 3

INT 0

LB CALVIN PACE

TACKLES 51

SACKS 5½

INT 1

CB DARRELLE REVIS

TACKLES 32

SACKS 0

INT 0

SS JIM LEONHARD

TACKLES 56

SACKS 0

INT 1

FS ERIC SMITH

TACKLES 44

SACKS 1

INT 0

CB ANTONIO CROMARTIE

TACKLES 42

SACKS 0

INT 3

DB DWIGHT LOWERY

TACKLES 18

SACKS 2

INT 3

SPECIALISTS

K NICK FOLK

FG 30

FGA 39

XP 37

PTS 127

P T.J. CONLEY (R)†

PUNTS 58

GROSS 47.4

*2008 stats

†2008 college stats

BOLD: Projected starter

Italics: New acquisition

(R) Rookie: College stats

TTD: Total touchdowns

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN

SACKS: Sacks allowed

HOLD: Holding penalties

FALSE: False starts

2011 SCHEDULE

2010 RECORD: 11--5

September

11 Dallas

18 Jacksonville

25 at Oakland

October

2 at Baltimore

9 at New England

17 Miami (Mon)

23 San Diego

30 BYE

November

6 at Buffalo

13 New England

17 at Denver (Thu)

27 Buffalo

December

4 at Washington

11 Kansas City

18 at Philadelphia

24 N.Y. Giants (Sat)

January

1 at Miami

COACH: REX RYAN

AGE 48

THIRD SEASON WITH THE JETS (20--12)

The brash, endearing, Bill Belichick--baiting Ryan did plenty to distinguish himself from his peers during his first two years in New York. Then he arrived in camp with a tattoo, a swirling design that covers the outside of his right calf from ankle to knee. "They think it's cool," he said of his players' reaction. Even cooler would be for him to deliver on the one promise on which he has yet to make good: a Super Bowl win.

SPOTLIGHT

DUSTIN KELLER, Tight End

The Jets grabbed their annual off-season headlines by signing former Giants wideout Plaxico Burress fresh off his release from almost 21 months in prison. But Burress thinks his own impact on New York's offense will be matched by that of Keller, to whom he found himself paying special attention during the few prime-time Jets games he was able to catch at the Oneida Correctional Facility. "Didn't get a chance to watch any during the daytime," says Burress. "But I could tell he's quick, he has great hands, he's smart, he gets in and out of his breaks. Now, being able to see him work and practice every day, I'm predicting he'll make the Pro Bowl this season."

The 6'2", 250-pound Keller, 26, seemed headed there after the first four games last year, during which he caught 19 balls for 254 yards and five touchdowns, but his production waned after No. 1 receiver Santonio Holmes returned to action following a season-opening suspension. Holmes is still a member of the team, but wideouts Jerricho Cotchery and Braylon Edwards are gone, meaning quarterback Mark Sanchez will be looking more consistently to Keller. The 2008 first-round pick out of Purdue is now New York's longest-tenured skill-position player. "If you leave Dustin matched up on a safety or a linebacker, that's a huge mismatch for us," says coach Rex Ryan. "I think he'll have a big year."

PHOTOTOM DIPACE (RYAN) PHOTODAVID BERGMAN (REVIS)SECONDARY MATTERS Revis is considered the game's top cover corner, but is there enough talent elsewhere in the defensive backfield to execute Ryan's chaotic schemes? PHOTOJOHN IACONO (KELLER)
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)