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Wednesday, March 4, 2009
Refurbished Jets secondary critical to Ryan's plan


 
  US Presswire/Icon SMI
  The New York Jets signed free agent safety Jim Leonhard and traded for two-time Pro Bowl cornerback Lito Sheppard.

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham

Bart Scott told an entertaining tale about how the New York Jets arrived in his driveway shortly after midnight Friday morning.

Scott's two German shepherds were barking their heads off at the impromptu visit, but it was their master who delivered the rabid comments upon signing with the Jets. The linebacker spoke about how vicious the defense would be. You could almost see the saliva dripping from his fangs.

Less dramatic were a pair of other Jets defensive acquisitions. They might, however, turn out to be the most impactful.

The Jets, anxious to revamp a pass defense that was among the most awful in the NFL last season, have added a pair of newcomers to a secondary that already featured two terrific defenders.

"I love what I see at every position," said ESPN analyst Darren Woodson, a five-time Pro Bowler at strong safety for the Dallas Cowboys. "You got four guys that can match up with anybody across the league."

New head coach Rex Ryan is implementing radical change to the defense's philosophy, and improving the secondary was critical to the process.

The Jets traded for two-time Pro Bowl cornerback Lito Sheppard and signed free agent safety Jim Leonhard to bolster a pass defense that should have performed much better than it did last year.

Left cornerback Darrelle Revis went to his first Pro Bowl last season, and safety Kerry Rhodes is wildly talented.

The rest of the Jets' secondary was sloppy and inconsistent. As a result, the Jets ranked 29th in pass defense despite a pass rush that produced the seventh-most sacks.

The Jets allowed 234.5 passing yards per game. They also gave up 23 touchdown strikes. Only seven teams gave up more.

But the entire defensive paradigm has changed since the Jets fired Eric Mangini and hired Ryan, mastermind of the Baltimore Ravens' formidable defense.

"I know their sack numbers weren't bad last year, but they weren't a consistent pass-rushing team," Scouts Inc. analyst Matt Williamson said. "If you're a 3-4 defense and not bringing those edge guys consistently, you're not doing what that defense is designed to do.

"As the season went on, they were predictable. Everyone knew where the pressure was coming from. They played a lot more coverage instead of coming after quarterbacks. That was crucial mistake. It won't be now.

"The last coaching staff put too much stress on a bad secondary, whereas this coaching staff is going to play to the secondary's strength, and the secondary's stronger."

Woodson foresees a secondary that should be exhilarating to watch.

The Jets recorded 13 interceptions last year. The Ravens came up with a league-leading 26 and returned five of them for touchdowns.

Lito Sheppard
#26 CB
New York Jets

2008 STATS
TOT SOLO AST FF SACK INT
21 18 3 1 0 1

Sheppard has 18 career interceptions. Leonhard, in his first season as a starter, had one interception, which he returned for a touchdown. He added another one -- and two fumble recoveries -- in the playoffs.

"Rex Ryan wants that certain type of attitude from his guys where they're not afraid to take chances," Woodson said. "When you bring in a guy like a Leonhard and a Sheppard, he's telling you 'I want my guys to be ball hawks.'

"He's got the right guys now at every position. Guys are going to be aggressive and go after the ball. He'll tell them 'Get loose and make a play for me.'"

Before we start floating comparisons to the 1989 Kansas City Chiefs, the Jets' secondary does come with several questions.

Sheppard's coverage skills have been knocked. Some consider Leonhard a byproduct of his supporting cast in Baltimore. Rhodes is coming off a year that wasn't as good as 2007.

Sheppard has struggled in recent years to remain in the Philadelphia Eagles' starting lineup. He was their fourth cornerback at times.

KC Joyner, known as The Football Scientist for his unique statistical computations, was appalled when reviewing Sheppard's numbers.

Joyner's data shows opponents threw at Sheppard, who played limited snaps, 32 times last year, and 24 of those attempts resulted in a completion or defensive pass interference. Joyner noted a per-attempt average of higher than 10 yards is poor. Sheppard's average was 13.0 yards.

Joyner predicted Sheppard will face
40 passes by the end of Week 3.

By comparison, the intimidating Revis was thrown at only 65 times last year. Only 30 were completed or flagged, giving him a per-attempt average of 5.2 yards. That's lockdown quality.

Both Williamson and Woodson see four parts that will mesh together well and compensate for any shortcomings.

"Sheppard has been a hard guy to count on like he used to be, and he's not creating the big plays he once did," Williamson said. "But the nice situation here is, because Revis is so strong, they're going to be able to consistently roll coverage to help out Sheppard."

Jim Leonhard
S
New York Jets

2008 STATS
TOT SOLO AST FF SACK INT
69 55 14 0 1 1

That's where Leonhard comes in. Williamson called him "Ed Reed Light" to describe how Ryan likely will use him.

"Leonhard deferred to Reed," Williamson said. "But Leonhard's skill set is more of a free safety. He runs well. He isn't real, real big. You don't want him in the box, but that's what Kerry Rhodes does well.

"So the secondary now pans out pretty well, where guys' weaknesses can be covered by their counter-position's strength."

Rhodes could have a monster season under Ryan's aggressive guidance. Woodson was dismayed by the way Mangini restrained Rhodes from getting involved.

Rhodes recorded seven sacks, nine interceptions and five forced fumbles in 2006 and 2007. He had one sack, two interceptions and zero forced fumbles last season.

"I guarantee you, Rex Ryan is going to free him up so he can showcase his talent," Woodson said. "It's fun watching Kerry Rhodes play because he has so much talent, but the guy should be making a lot more plays than he has been making."

Second-year cornerback Dwight Lowery also could be a significant contributor. Lowery, a fourth-round draft choice out of San Jose State, started the first 10 games before falling out of favor with Mangini.

The Jets were so desperate when they gave up on Lowery that they signed veteran Ty Law in November. Law didn't attend training camp with anyone and had been unattached. As soon as the season was over, he returned to unemployment.

Joyner noted Lowery's stats were respectable. With Revis on the other side, teams threw at the rookie 82 times. Among all NFL cornerbacks, that was tied for the 17th-most passes faced. Lowery allowed 51 completions or penalties for a 7.1-yard average per attempt.

"It is about the unit, not just about the secondary," Ryan said on a recent conference call before the Sheppard trade and Leonhard signings were official. "It's how they play collectively, all 11 guys.

"I'm excited about this group. I think this group here has some special talent when you talk about a Revis, when you talk about a Kerry Rhodes and young corner in Lowery. I think it has a chance to be special group.

"You can't get an interception without a pass rush. You can't get a sack without great coverage. But I think the whole unit will complement each other with the strengths of every guy that we have, and I think we are going to be pretty special back there."