Rex Ryan and the Jets defense chasing the ghosts of 2009

Calvin Pace sacks Matt Moore. (nfl.com)
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Calvin Pace said that the Jets are “getting back to square one” on defense this year.

“As if it’s the first day Rex is here so we just reinstalled the defense from the ground up,” he said.

Normally, declarations about starting from scratch follow on the heels of a spectacular bottoming out. But despite the overwrought, sky-is-falling narrative surrounding it, the Jets’ 8-8 season last year doesn’t qualify.  

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Regarding the team’s defense, 2011 was perfectly good, and the 2012 Jets could do a lot worse than repeating last year’s performance.

According to Football Outsiders’ DVOA ratings, the Jets defense was the 2nd best in the league last year, an improvement from 5th in 2010.

And while it’s true that the defense wasn’t as dominant as it was in 2009, that says more about how good the 2009 unit was than about deficiencies with the Jets’ current group.

It’s likely that every Jets defense of the Rex Ryan era will be measured against that 2009 version, and specifically, the version that peaked late in the season and in the first two-and-a half games of the playoffs before Peyton Manning made a dent in it. It was Ryan’s first defense, and his best, and will therefore be held as the lost ideal of something the Jets constantly must strive to “get back” to.

But there’s a reason that it was the eighth-best defense of the decade: Because defenses such as that one don’t come around very often, representing, as they do, the confluence of many factors not likely to be repeated at such a high percentage. Going forward, the Jets might have to settle for an excellent defense and not a historic one.

SO ARE THE JETS GOING BACK TO THE BASICS OF WHAT they did in 2009, or are they reinventing the wheel?

Manish Mehta reports that per Mike Pettine, the Jets will feature more of a 4-3 look than a 3-4 look this year. This will especially be true in their games against A.F.C. East competition: “We might not play a snap of base [3-4] defense in a division game this year,” Pettine told Mehta. “It it’s five snaps a game, that’s probably a lot.”

The idea behind this is to generate more pressure on the quarterback after three seasons that have seen the Jets rank 18th, 7th, and 17th in the league in sacks.

Still, it seems drastic. As mentioned above, the Jets defense has been excellent for the past three years. Not only that, but their personnel seems much better suited for the 3-4.

Pettine told Mehta that he envisions a line comprised of Pace and Coples on the outside, Wilkerson and a rotation of Pouha, Mike Devito, and Kenrick Ellis on the inside.

But Pouha is the prototypical double-team occupying, 3-4 nose tackle; Muhammad Wilkerson was drafted as a 3-4 end, not a 4-3 tackle. Even Quinton Coples, who Pettine envisions playing on the outside in the 4-3, was a much more effective pass rusher from the inside in college, a skill the Jets said after the draft would translate to the pass rushing responsibilities of a 3-4 end. As for Pace, he’s hardly a dominant edge rusher, but he’s one hell of an all-around 3-4 outside linebacker.

One never knows with these Jets …

SINCE PACE SIGNED BEFORE THE 2008 season, there’s been a tinge of disappointment surrounding him. Jets fans thought they were paying for a potentially elite pass rusher, and Pace hasn’t lived up to expectations in that phase of the game. But he has surpassed expectations as an all-around player, as I wrote about last year.

Pro Football Focus, which charts every player on every play, has a stat called Pass Rushing Productivity, which counts sacks, hits, and quarterback hurries and divides by the total number of quarterback rushes (hits and hurries count as three-quarters of a sack). Last year, of the 20 outside linebackers in 3-4 schemes who received more than half their teams’ snaps, Pace ranked 20th in PRP. It won’t come as a surprise that his production as a pass rusher was around half that of guys like Aldon Smith, James Harrison, and DeMarcus Ware.

There are mitigating circumstances for this, though. As Pace himself pointed out, the Jets often rush just three players, putting each of their pass rushers in the doomed position of fighting off double teams. Still, suffice it to say that Pace isn’t cut from the same cloth as the outside linebackers mentioned above when it comes to getting to the quarterback.

In every other phase, however, he’s as good as there is. Last year, he ranked first in PFF’s pass coverage rankings for 3-4 outside linebackers, and third in playing the run. Basically, he’s been a failure in the sexy phase of the game everyone thought he was acquired for, but a smashing success in the subtle phases nobody had thought about or much notices.

LaRON LANDRY IS BACK TO RUNNING AND CUTTINGraising hopes that he’ll be completely ready for training camp.

There’s understandable skepticism about the Jets’ decision to rebuild their safety tandem with Landry and Yeremiah Bell, two safeties known for being excellent in run support but decidedly less so against the pass. Last year, according to Pro Football Focus’s rankings against the pass, Bell ranked 49th out of 61 safeties who received more than half their team’s snaps. For his part, Landry hasn’t ranked above average against the pass since 2008.

Having safeties who can cover is critically important for a Jets team that ranked 27th in the league in covering tight ends, according to Football Outsiders’ DVOA rankings. If they ever hope to overtake the New England Patriots, they have to figure out how to guard their athletic tight ends, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, who combined for 241 total yards against the Jets last year.

Reason for optimism might reside in the fact that Landry’s brother, Dawan Landry, enjoyed his best seasons in Baltimore under Rex Ryan. Unlike LaRon, once the sixth pick in the draft, Dawan Landry was a mere fifth rounder who nonetheless emerged as a key starter in his rookie year in 2006. That defense, incidentally, was one of seven since 2000 that have been better than that of the 2009 Jets, according to DVOA.

SOME GUYS MAKE A FEW MISTAKES AND SPEND the rest of their careers getting a bad rap from the media. Some guys never get it, and spend their whole careers inviting the bad rap.

Santonio Holmes, evidently upset by the media’s portrayal of what might or might not have been a “mini-meltdown” at practice last week about the number of reps he received, didn’t make himself available for the media during OTAs this week, thus violating the league’s access policy.

Holmes now has a hamstring injury, likely caused by the excessive reps, and this little self-inflicted silliness to deal with. Not a good start to the season.