This hasn't been the best of weeks for New York Jets coach Rex Ryan. His defense was embarrassed this past Sunday in a 40-point loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, and now he has to regroup for the explosive New Orleans Saints. And, oh yeah, he has to face his twin brother, Rob, the Saints' defensive coordinator.
Forget the Ryan Bowl. This is the Desperation Bowl for the Jets (4-4), who face the Saints (6-1) Sunday at MetLife Stadium. ESPN.com Jets team reporter Rich Cimini and Saints team reporter Mike Triplett break down the matchup:
Cimini: Let's start with the family ties, Mike. How do you think Rob is approaching this game? He and Rex are fiery competitors, and I'm sure Rob wants this game badly, especially since he's 0-2 against Rex and the Jets. I can tell you this much about Rex: He will try to downplay the whole brother thing, trying to keep the focus on the game. A few years back, when Rob was the Cleveland Browns' defensive coordinator, Rex showed up to his midweek news conference wearing a wig and pillow stuffed under his shirt, impersonating Rob. That won't happen again.
Triplett: I don't expect those theatrics this week, either, since the Saints don't promote that kind of stuff. But clearly Rob is a guy who is not afraid to wear his emotions on his sleeve -- with the media or his players. So I'm sure they'll know how much it means to him.
He's 0-4 overall against Rex in their NFL careers, dating back to Rex's days with the Baltimore Ravens. Clearly, this is Rob's best shot yet, not only because of the Saints' dynamic offense, but because Rob has his defense playing great. They've really responded to his versatile schemes. Young pass-rushers Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette, in particular, are having a breakout season.
They'll obviously try to rattle rookie quarterback Geno Smith by mixing up looks and pressures. Rich, what do you expect out of him after one of his roughest performances?
Cimini: The early trend on Smith is that he responds well to bad games, but this will be a tough assignment because the Saints are playing so well. He can get rattled when he sees a different look for the first time. It happened Sunday against the Bengals, who recorded two early sacks on safety blitzes from the slot. He didn't react well. He also has to do a better job with his eyes, looking off receivers. He has a tendency to stare down receivers, telegraphing his passes. It's one of the reasons he has three pick-sixes in the past two games. All things considered, he's showing gradual signs of improvement, especially in the area of ball security. He's not fumbling as much as he did early in the year.
What can you tell me about Drew Brees other than he's terrific and throwing for a lot of yards and touchdowns?
Triplett: I see you've been studying up on Brees. He's coming into New York in a really good groove right now. He just threw for 332 yards and five touchdown passes Sunday against the Bills. And even when he hasn't had his best days, he has come up with big fourth-quarter rallies. He and coach Sean Payton are back in sync. Together they're so good at exploiting mismatches. This past Sunday, Brees completed passes to 10 different receivers. The fact that the Saints' defense is playing so well has really benefited Brees, too. He's not pressing as much as he did last year and trying to do everything by himself.
Cimini: No, Mike, I don't think they can. Without Darrelle Revis, the Jets' pass defense is struggling. Funny thing is, they're getting a better pass rush than previous years and the run defense is No. 1 in the league. In theory, those factors should help them against the pass, but they're not. They have too many vulnerable areas, especially in the secondary, and I don't see how they can cover Brees' many weapons. If it were just one or two threats, yeah, I think they'd be fine, but Brees distributes the ball so well.
Antonio Cromartie, the Jets' No. 1 corner, is having an off year. Rookie Dee Milliner, benched against the Bengals in the second quarter, has been a disaster. Safety Antonio Allen had a nice game two weeks ago against Rob Gronkowski, but Graham might be a tougher assignment because of his athleticism.
To win the game, the Jets' young, talented defensive line needs to dominate. And I noticed the Saints had some pass-protection issues on Sunday. Are they vulnerable up front?
Triplett: The Saints' offensive line hasn't been as good as years' past, but they're still pretty solid for a team that passes the ball so much. The game against Buffalo was probably a good approximation of this matchup. The Saints gave up four sacks and were flagged for three holding penalties. But Brees still had great time to throw on four of his five TD passes and escaped the pocket to throw the fifth one on the run.
The Jets' best bet against the Saints' offense will be to control the clock and keep them off the field. New Orleans' run defense is pretty middle-of-the-pack. Will their old friend Chris Ivory make them pay for trading him to the Jets?
Cimini: It's an interesting possibility. Now that he's healthy, Ivory is becoming a bigger factor. He was huge two weeks ago against the Patriots, rushing 34 times for 104 yards. He didn't get many chances this past Sunday because they fell behind so early and had to abandon the running game, but I could definitely see him being a big part of the game plan. It's hard to ignore the fact that the Saints are allowing a league-high 4.8 yards per rush.
I had to laugh the other day when Ivory said this game has no special meaning to him. Of course it does. I remember having a chat with him in the preseason about his time with the Saints. He felt he never got a fair shake because of politics, the organization preferring drafted players over him. Now he gets a chance for a little payback. You already know this, Mike, but Ivory runs like he's trying to hurt people. Tough dude.
The one thing the Jets can't do is give up on the running game and start throwing, because it sounds like Jordan & Co. can really get after the passer.
Triplett: It sounds like Ivory's tenure in New York has been a microcosm of his time in New Orleans. He had trouble staying healthy, but when he turned it on he was a force. He was very popular with the fan base here. So that will be a fascinating subplot. Interestingly enough, the Saints used the draft pick they acquired from the Jets to trade up for big nose tackle John Jenkins, who has been a key addition. Those two will get to meet head-to-head.
You're right about the Jets playing right into the Saints' hands if they're forced to abandon the run. Jordan and Galette are two bona fide playmakers. And the Saints aren't afraid to throw in some safety blitzes. They have 24 sacks this season, one fewer than the Jets.
Speaking of which, I just had a conversation with someone putting together a midseason All-Pro team. They had the Jets' Muhammad Wilkerson written in pen and were debating between Jordan and J.J. Watt for another D-line spot. What's made Wilkerson so special?
Cimini: He's a three-down player who can play anywhere on the defensive line. He's listed as an end, but the Jets play multiple fronts and he lines up over the guard at times, even over the center in certain packages. Ryan has compared him to Richard Seymour and Trevor Pryce; Wilkerson is a 300-pound man who moves like a 275-pounder. He's very good against the run and he has improved as a pass-rusher, evidenced by his seven sacks, already a career high. He's the best player on the team and I'm sure the Jets will try to lock him up long term after the season.
We've talked a lot about the strengths of these teams. In closing, can you touch on a couple of weaknesses? Jets fans aren't too optimistic this week, Mike, so they need a little something to rally around. What have you got?
Triplett: The Saints' biggest weakness has been running the ball. They've been better in recent weeks, but they're still inconsistent. So they might be pretty one-dimensional on offense against this Jets defense that's so good at stopping the run. Of course, the Jets will still have to slow down the Saints' passing attack. The defenses that have had the most success against New Orleans' passing game this year have been the ones that could get physical with receivers in man-to-man coverage and chip and jam at the line of scrimmage. And as we said, Brees has taken more hits than usual this year.
Also, the Saints' run defense hasn't been great this year. So if the Jets can keep the game close and stay patient with the run game, that's something they might be able to exploit. And if anyone knows Rob Ryan's weaknesses, it's gotta be Rex, right?