NFL Nation: Sione Pouha

It was not a very good year for AFC East defenses in 2012. Three teams in the division finished with rankings in the 20s.

But there have been a lot of changes for the division via free agency and the draft. Let’s take a look at updated defensive rankings for the AFC East entering the regular season.

No. 1: Miami Dolphins

Analysis: The Dolphins ranked 21st in total defense in 2012. But Miami was decent against the run and only allowed 19.8 points per game, good for seventh in the NFL. The Dolphins’ biggest issue was their inconsistent pass defense. Miami gave up too many big passing plays and it cost the Dolphins some games. The Dolphins aggressively attacked their cornerback position by signing former Pro Bowler Brent Grimes and drafting Jamar Taylor and Will Davis in the second and third rounds, respectively. The Dolphins also added another pass-rushing threat with No. 3 overall pick Dion Jordan. If Miami stops allowing big passing plays, the Dolphins’ defense will be tough to beat.

No. 2: New England Patriots

Analysis: The Patriots were 25th in total defense in 2012. But I project New England to make a sizable jump in 2013. The Patriots made solid strides last year in red-zone defense and points allowed. But New England gave up too many chunk passing plays in between the 20s. The Patriots were 29th in pass defense last season. The return of No. 1 cornerback Aqib Talib to the secondary is huge, in addition to starting corner Alfonzo Dennard overcoming his legal issues and the Patriots signing hard-hitting safety Adrian Wilson. New England’s pass rush should also improve, led by a healthy Chandler Jones. There is a lot to like about the Patriots’ defense this season, especially with head coach Bill Belichick calling the shots. I wouldn’t be surprised to see New England move up 10 spots or more from last year’s ranking.

No. 3: New York Jets

Analysis: Here is one thing you can count on with the Jets under head coach Rex Ryan: He will field a very good defense. New York has been in the top 10 in total defense since Ryan took over in 2009. The Jets, despite their ugly 6-10 record, was ranked No. 8 in total defense last season. But look for the unit to take a step back in 2013. New York’s scheme remains strong, but this is the least amount of talent Ryan has had in his five seasons with the Jets. New York traded the best cornerback in the NFL -- Darrelle Revis -- to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and lost Pro Bowl safety LaRon Landry, linebacker Bart Scott and defensive linemen Sione Po'uha and Mike DeVito. The Jets will try to replace these established veterans with younger players, many of whom are rookies or players with just one year of experience. Defense will still be the Jets' strength, but they won’t be as strong on that side of the ball than in previous years.

No. 4: Buffalo Bills

Analysis: I had a hard time ranking the Bills’ defense. This group has talent on paper, but Buffalo never came close to putting it all together last season. The Bills ranked No. 22 in total defense in 2012, 31st against the run. It will be the job of new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine to get the most out of his talent. Buffalo has some quality players on defense. Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd, defensive tackle Kyle Williams, defensive end Mario Williams and former first-round picks Marcell Dareus and Stephon Gilmore are all talented. But collectively, the Bills’ defense grossly underachieved. The linebacker play must improve dramatically. I’m also concerned about two major holes at cornerback and safety.

I'm sure there will be plenty of debate about these rankings -- and really, the AFC East is wide open on defense this year. I wouldn’t be surprised if any of these teams lead the division defensively; all four have a chance to be competitive. It most likely will come down to which team can consistently execute defensively and stay healthy over a 16-game season.
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A look at whether each AFC East team has been a winner or a loser in free agency.

Buffalo Bills: The Bills have been losers in free agency mostly due to inactivity. Buffalo made just one signing: linebacker Manny Lawson. With a new head coach and new schemes on offense and defense, the Bills need a lot more than one linebacker to be competitive next season. Most importantly, they need to find a quarterback after cutting former starter Ryan Fitzpatrick. Buffalo also lost starting guard Andy Levitre, linebacker Nick Barnett, veteran safety George Wilson and receivers Donald Jones and David Nelson. The team has yet to fill those holes. Interestingly, the Bills were major players in free agency a year ago. They signed defensive end Mario Williams to a $100 million contract and made several other signings. However, Buffalo finished 6-10 in 2012 and decided to take a much quieter approach in 2013.

Miami Dolphins: The Dolphins are big winners in free agency. They landed the best wide receiver on the market (Mike Wallace) and the top linebacker (Dannell Ellerbe). Miami also signed a pass-catching tight end (Dustin Keller) and an additional, athletic linebacker (Philip Wheeler). Miami’s roster looks much stronger and more dynamic than it did heading into the 2012 season, when the team went 7-9. Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland said it was his goal to close the gap with the New England Patriots. Ireland deserves a lot of credit for a solid game plan and executing it well. The Dolphins still have holes to fill at cornerback, left tackle and at pass-rusher. But Miami still has cap room to spend and 11 total draft picks next month. The Dolphins are not finished adding talent.

New England Patriots: The Patriots have had mixed results in free agency. But overall I would just barely put them in the winners' category. I do not like what they've done on offense, where they lost two starting receivers: Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd. The pair accounted for 192 receptions, 2,265 yards and 10 touchdowns last season. That's a lot of lost production that Danny Amendola and Donald Jones -- New England's two free-agent signings at receiver – will not be able to match. The Patriots also haven't re-signed starting right tackle Sebastian Vollmer, who remains a free agent. New England must patch these two holes offensively. On the other hand, I like what New England has done defensively. The Patriots solidified their secondary by signing former Pro Bowl safety Adrian Wilson and re-signing No. 1 cornerback Aqib Talib. They also re-signed backup corners Kyle Arrington and Marquice Cole and added exciting kick returner Leon Washington on special teams.

New York Jets: The Jets are huge losers so far in free agency. They lost talented players much faster than they can replace them. Former New York starters Shonn Greene, Keller, LaRon Landry, Yeremiah Bell, Sione Pouha, Bart Scott and Calvin Pace were either recently released or signed with other teams. The Jets are hamstrung by a tight salary cap. Therefore, first-year Jets general manager John Idzik has been forced to bargain shop. New York made several low-cost signings, such as tailback Mike Goodson and guard Willie Colon. But overall, the Jets have more holes than they can fill in one offseason.
During his introductory news conference as general manager of the New York Jets, John Idzik promised he would put together a competitive team. Then, Idzik swiftly released veteran talents Calvin Pace, Bart Scott, Eric Smith and now defensive tackle Sione Po'uha. Star cornerback Darrelle Revis also could be on the move from New York via a trade.

What gives?

The harsh truth is it will be an extreme long shot for the Jets to field a title contending team in 2013. New York must first go through a long and painful rebuild. Idzik is simply doing his job by putting a good face on the situation, but the reality is there's not much to look forward to with this year's version of the Jets.

Po'uha is a good player and a solid leader in New York's locker room, but he was overpaid by Jets' standards. Po'uha was reportedly due $4.9 million next season. The Jets needed the cap room more considering all the bad contracts they agreed to in the past.

New York must hit the bottom first before it gets back to the top, and that process will take at least two years. Po'uha was simply a victim of circumstance.
Jake LockerDon McPeak/USA TODAY SportsJake Locker capped a seven-play, 64-yard drive with the winning 13-yard touchdown run.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Minimizing mistakes and letting Mark Sanchez do his thing wound up a sufficient recipe for the Tennessee Titans to end a three-game losing streak and eke out a 14-10 win over the New York Jets on "Monday Night Football."

The Titans weren’t trying for a work of art and don’t particularly care that people who watched it may have wound up with headaches.

With five takeaways by the defense (call them giveaways by Sanchez, who threw four picks and lost a fumble, if you prefer), the offense could have and should have done far more.

Instead, the game came down to Sanchez’s finale gaffe, a low shotgun snap he failed to scoop that running back Bilal Powell kicked and linebacker Zach Brown recovered to end it with 43 seconds left.

“So many times in this game we could have took advantage and put a drive together and put it away and not made it so hard for us to get the victory,” running back Chris Johnson said. “Out of all the turnovers they got for us, we never really put a drive together and made it easy on our defense.”

Said coach Mike Munchak: “You should win it by more points.”

Let’s break the Titans’ fifth win of the season into three sections:

C.J.’s record run: Second-and-9 from the Tennessee 6-yard line, 9:06 on the clock in the second quarter. Johnson took the handoff, brushed past center Kyle DeVan, who had turned nose guard Sione Po’uha to the left, and was gone, easily outracing Yeremiah Bell.

The Jets' eight-man box and pursuit at the snap left the defense too flat, and once Johnson got through the line, there was no hope of stopping him from setting a franchise record for longest run from scrimmage. Previously he shared the record of 91 yards with Sid Blanks (1964).

In the locker room, on his way to the shower, DeVan detoured to Johnson’s locker. He’d learned the run was a record and wanted to offer his congratulations.

DeVan was cut by the Titans on Aug. 31 after training camp. They brought him back on Halloween and he’s been off the roster and back on three times since.

“It was fun to get in there and block for C.J,” DeVan said. “With how they play defense, we just had to get C.J. out to the next level and we were able to do that on that play.”

Johnson’s season average per carry jumped from 4.55 to 4.93 with the play. His other 20 carries on the night got him 28 yards.

He now has six touchdown runs of 80 or more yards. No other player in NFL history has more than three.

Johnson paid his small tribute to the victims of the elementary school shootings in Newtown, Conn., by playing in shoes that had every victim's name written on them.

Locker’s defining drive: This marked Jake Locker's ninth NFL start, and he’s yet to really produce a defining moment.

The go-ahead drive that produced the winning margin in this game will hold that title for the time being.

The Jets had just taken a 10-7 lead late in the third quarter, and the Titans got a 35-yard kickoff return from Darius Reynaud. Locker took Tennessee 64 yards in seven plays over two minutes and 59 seconds. He had passes of 21, 12 and 13 yards before taking a shotgun snap and heading left behind a convoy that helped him get into the end zone on a quarterback sweep.

The Titans didn’t even face a third down on the drive.

“I thought it was crisp, there was a lot of tempo, there weren’t any mental mistakes,” Locker said. “We executed really well. When you do those things, that’s what you’re capable of doing. We need to find ways to multiply that throughout a game.”

Tennessee converted just two of 13 third downs and were flagged for 14 penalties for 111 yards. Multiplying good drives can start with major changes in those two departments.

Plenty of picks: Two defensive backs who got big contract extensions in the recent past had big nights.

Cornerback Jason McCourty and safety Michael Griffin each tracked Sanchez for two picks.

“We knew coming into the game they were going to pound the ball and we knew when they put the ball in the air we were going to have opportunities to make plays,” McCourty said. "... The last few games it just seemed like they were pounding the ball, pounding the ball on the ground. They came out and threw the ball a few more times than we expected. We were able to make some plays on the ball in the air, and that gave us a chance.”

The takeaways were a lot more about point prevention than point production. Griffin’s second pick came on a ball throw from the Titans’ 23-yard line, and Brown’s fumble recovery was at the Titans’ 32.

The Titans' offense followed the four interceptions up with a grand total of 14 plays, 26 yards, 7:50 with the ball and four punts.

“We managed not to give them momentum with turnovers,” Locker said, finding the positive.

 

Dolphins are at a crossroads

October, 26, 2012
10/26/12
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Ryan TannehillRonald C. Modra/Sports Imagery/Getty ImagesSince struggling Sept. 23 against the Jets, Ryan Tannehill has put together three solid games.

DAVIE, Fla. -- Miami Dolphins running back Reggie Bush walked into the media room with a smirk on his face Wednesday.

“Packed house,” Bush said with a grin. “I wonder why.”

Miami rookie head coach Joe Philbin entered minutes later and also noticed a larger-than-usual media corps. It was quiet confirmation that the Dolphins finally are doing something right.

It’s been four years since the Dolphins have been this interesting. That was 2008, when former coach Tony Sparano led Miami to an unexpected 11-5 season and an AFC East title.

Since then, the Dolphins have pretty much been a bad punchline. This summer alone, Miami had to slog through a winless preseason and handle the Chad Johnson fiasco on national television during HBO’s “Hard Knocks.” A 1-3 start to the regular season also didn’t help things.

But the Dolphins are suddenly interesting again. They have won two straight with a talented rookie quarterback (Ryan Tannehill) and a physical defense. Many now are wondering whether Miami is just a flash in the pan or potentially a surprise team in the second half of the season.

The Dolphins (3-3) are at a crossroads, and Sunday they travel to MetLife Stadium to face the rival New York Jets (3-4). This matchup will greatly affect the direction of both AFC East teams.

“It’s a big game,” the usually calm Philbin said. “No question about it.”

Added Jets coach Rex Ryan, “It’s a huge game for both teams. If it’s said otherwise, it’s not true, because nobody believes it. Everybody knows how huge this game is.”

Is Miami a contender or pretender?

This rebuilt Miami team wasn’t expected to compete for a playoff spot in 2012. But the division is mediocre and so is the AFC, and suddenly the wild-card spots are wide open for any teams that can get hot.

[+] EnlargeJoe Philbin
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US Presswire"It's a big game," Dolphins coach Joe Philbin said of Sunday's matchup with the Jets. "No question about it."
The veteran Jets have been there before. They went to back-to-back AFC title games in 2009 and 2010. It’s the younger, less experience Dolphins who have to prove they are legit.

This is a golden opportunity for Miami to bury the Jets and send them packing for the season at 3-5. That is a record New York most likely cannot recover from, especially with its best player (Darrelle Revis) and No. 1 receiver (Santonio Holmes) lost for the season.

If the Dolphins are legit, they won’t let New York “ground and pound” their defense. Miami’s run defense is fifth in the NFL, and another good performance would force the New York to go to its air attack and quarterback Mark Sanchez.

If the Dolphins are legit, they will establish Bush and their ground game on the road against a Jets defense ranked 30th against the run. The combination of running well and stopping the run has kept Miami in nearly every game this season.

If the Dolphins are legit, Tannehill will continue to show improvement after the bye. He struggled against New York’s defense in the first meeting, throwing for just 196 yards and a costly pick-six. But Tannehill’s quarterback ratings in three games since have been 86.5, 92.3 and 112.0.

“I think he’s steadily improved each and every week,” Dolphins guard Richie Incognito said. “He’s done a really good job knowing what the defense is trying to do to us and putting us in the right protections and the right run calls.”

There are no excuses for the Dolphins, who have had two weeks to rest and prepare for their biggest rival. Miami nearly beat the Jets in overtime in the first meeting, and the Dolphins have seen enough tape to adjust to what went wrong.

Unlike the Jets, the Dolphins have been very fortunate with injuries and will enter this game virtually at full strength. Cornerback Richard Marshall (back) is the only player not expected to be available on Sunday. The Jets have injuries at linebacker (Bart Scott), defensive line (Sione Pouha, Kenrick Ellis) and running back (Bilal Powell and Joe McKnight).

A caveat might be the trash talking and emotion. These rivals simply don’t like each other. The back and forth between Dolphins players such as Bush and center Mike Pouncey and Jets players such as LaRon Landry and Aaron Maybin have made for a fun week. Landry has gone as far as to guarantee a win for the Jets.

Whether the trash talking leads to rough play remains to be seen.

“I go back to the game I saw on September 23 (and) it was a hard fought game by both teams,” Philbin said. “I didn’t think it was a dirty game. Players played hard and I suspect that will be what happens this time around.”

The Dolphins have another thing going for them: Miami has never been swept by the Jets under Ryan. The Dolphins will be motivated not to let their biggest rival accomplish that feat.

“We know who we’re playing. This is a good football team,” Ryan said. “The fact that we’ve never beat them twice, that kind of gives us energy. The fact that we can go 3-1 in our division with two wins over Miami, that would be huge. So we see it as a real possibility.”

If the Dolphins are truly a contender, they will win this game and position themselves to make a push in the second half of the season. On the other hand, a loss by the Dolphins would throw them back in the pack of mediocre, sub-.500 teams.

It’s time for Miami to make its choice.

Jets re-sign NT Sione Pouha

March, 12, 2012
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The New York Jets have agreed to a three-year contract with pending free-agent nose tackle Sione Pouha, the team announced. Pouha played in all 16 games last season and had 58 tackles and one sack.

This was a move the Jets had to make. Pouha is one of the Jets' biggest cogs in the middle of their 3-4 defense, which ranked fifth in the NFL last season. He faces a lot of double teams and allows other players to fly to the football and make plays.

There aren't many natural 3-4 nose tackles in free agency. If New York couldn't re-sign Pouha, perhaps former Miami Dolphins nose tackle Paul Soliai would have been an option.

Also, credit an assist to Jets starting quarterback Mark Sanchez. New York signed its quarterback to a five-year contract extension Friday night to provide the Jets with the necessary cap room to re-sign Pouha and still have room for free agency, which begins Tuesday.

2011 All-AFC East Team

January, 5, 2012
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Darrelle Revis/Rob Gronkowski/Brandon MarshallGetty ImagesDarrelle Revis, left, Rob Gronkowski, middle, and Brandon Marshall shined in 2011.
The 2011 season was an interesting one filled with ups and mostly downs for the AFC East. Only one team finished with a winning record.

But that doesn't mean the AFC East lacked great individual performances. For example, the division produced an MVP candidate at quarterback who threw for more than 5,000 yards and another stellar season from the best cornerback in football.

Here is our All-AFC East Team for 2011:

Quarterback: Tom Brady, New England Patriots

Analysis: There is no question about this one. Brady set a new career-high with 5,235 passing yards, which surpassed Dan Marino's old record. New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (5,476) finished with more yards and has the new record. Brady is the single biggest reason the Patriots are 13-3 and have home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. His performance carried New England through injuries and inconsistencies in other areas. Brady will be chasing his fourth Super Bowl title in the playoffs.

Running back: Fred Jackson, Buffalo Bills

Analysis: This might be a controversial pick, because two other running backs -- Reggie Bush and Shonn Greene -- had 1,000-yard seasons. But Jackson was the best running back I watched this season. He simply had some bad luck, suffering a season-ending leg injury. He was on his way to making his first Pro Bowl. Jackson rushed for 934 yards and six touchdowns in 10 games. He had an additional 442 yards receiving. His numbers would be off the charts if he'd played the final six games.

Fullback: Charles Clay, Dolphins

Analysis: Clay was one of the surprise rookies from Miami's draft class. He was a good blocker for Bush, has great hands and knows what to do with the football. Clay caught 16 passes for 233 yards. He averaged 14.6 yards per reception, which is astounding for a fullback. John Conner of the Jets is the best blocking fullback. But Conner is not a receiving threat.

Receivers: Wes Welker, Patriots; Brandon Marshall, Dolphins

Analysis: The best receivers in the AFC East this season are a pair of Pro Bowlers. Welker had an unbelievable year. He set a new career high with 1,569 yards. He also caught 122 passes and was one of the league's most sure-handed receivers. Marshall, in contrast, wasn't sure-handed. He had plenty of big drops, but still had a good season. Marshall caught 81 passes for 1,214 yards and six touchdowns. What's even more impressive is that Marshall put up big numbers despite Miami's in-season quarterback switch from Chad Henne to Matt Moore.

Tight end: Rob Gronkowski, Patriots

Analysis: Gronkowski showed flashes as a rookie. But no one knew he would explode the way he did in his second season. "Gronk" set an NFL record for tight ends with 17 touchdowns. He averaged more than one per game, despite many teams' focus on stopping him late in the season. Gronkowski finished with 90 receptions for 1,327 yards and made his first Pro Bowl. Considering he's only 22, it will most likely be the first of many Pro Bowls.

Center: Nick Mangold, Jets

Analysis: Jets head coach Rex Ryan says a lot of things. But we believe him when he says Mangold is the best center in the NFL. Mangold fought through an ankle injury but had another solid season. He was named to his fourth consecutive Pro Bowl. The Jets' offensive line was up and down but completely fell apart when Mangold missed two games. New York's entire running game and blocking scheme is built around its center -- and for good reason.

Guards: Logan Mankins, Patriots; Andy Levitre, Bills

Analysis: Mankins, who made his fourth Pro Bowl, stayed healthy right up until the end and played 15 of 16 games. He should be ready for the playoffs. Levitre was one of my favorite players to watch because of his versatility. He's a very good guard, a solid offensive tackle and struggled at center. Levitre was forced to play all three positions in Buffalo this season because of injuries.

Offensive tackles: Jake Long, Dolphins; Matt Light, Patriots

Analysis: Long played through injuries all season. His back bothered him, and he ended up on injured reserve after tearing his biceps. But Long at 80 percent is still better than most left tackles, and he was good enough to make his fourth Pro Bowl in four years. Light gets our last tackle spot over New York's D’Brickashaw Ferguson. The Pro Bowl nod went to Ferguson. But Ferguson struggled at times this season and didn't play up to his usual standards. I think Ferguson got in on reputation and name recognition.

Defensive ends: Andre Carter, Patriots; Mark Anderson, Patriots

Analysis: No one flinched when the Patriots quietly signed a pair of veteran defensive ends in free agency to bolster their pass rush. Most of the focus was on big-name acquisitions such as receiver Chad Ochocinco and defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth. But two of New England's best signings were Carter and Anderson. Each finished with 10 sacks, and Carter made the Pro Bowl despite a late, season-ending quad injury. For all of New England's issues on defense, arguably its biggest strength was rushing the passer. The Patriots registered 40 sacks, and Carter and Anderson combined for half of that total.

Defensive tackles: Vince Wilfork, Patriots; Sione Pouha, Jets

Analysis: Wilfork, 30, continues to improve with age. He combines strength and smarts to play defensive tackle/nose tackle. Wilfork finished with 52 tackles and 3.5 sacks. But it was his two interceptions this season that were most memorable. Wilfork rumbled for 28 and 19 yards, respectively, on his two picks. The second defensive tackle was one of the most difficult selections. But we went with Pouha over Miami's Paul Soliai. Pouha's numbers were more impressive for a nose tackle. He recorded 58 tackles, one sack and one forced fumble. Soliai played well for Miami but registered only 27 tackles.

Outside linebackers: Cameron Wake, Dolphins; Calvin Pace, Jets

Analysis: It was a down year for outside linebackers in the AFC East. Wake and Pace were the best of a thin crop. Wake's sack numbers dipped from 14 to 8.5 this season. Teams put more focus on Wake, and he faced more double teams. Pace stayed healthy this season but recorded his lowest sack total (4.5) since 2006. Pace's backup, Aaron Maybin, led the Jets with six sacks.

Inside linebackers: David Harris, Jets; Karlos Dansby, Dolphins

Analysis: Harris continues to be one of the most underrated players in the NFL. Harris was the Jets' most consistent defensive player outside of Darrelle Revis. He was always around the football and recorded 86 tackles, five sacks and four interceptions. The second inside linebacker was another tough call. But we think Dansby had a slightly better season than New England's Jerod Mayo. A tailback getting 100 yards against the Dolphins' defense was rare, in large part due to Dansby. He established a physical presence in the middle for Miami and recorded 103 tackles and two sacks.

Cornerbacks: Darrelle Revis, Jets; Kyle Arrington, Patriots

Analysis: What more can you say about Revis? He had another great season for the Jets. He led New York with 21 passes defended, and tied for the team lead with four interceptions. One pick was returned 100 yards for a touchdown. Teams opted to attack Revis more this season, which allowed more chances for him to make big plays. Arrington was this year's version of Devin McCourty. New England gave up a lot of passing yards, but Arrington made the most of his interception opportunities. He led the Patriots with seven picks and had 88 tackles.

Safeties: Yeremiah Bell, Dolphins; George Wilson, Bills

Analysis: The safeties struggled in the AFC East this season. But Bell was probably the most consistent in the division. He led Miami with 107 tackles. He also had two sacks and one interception. Wilson played lights out at times, particularly early in the season. He set a career high with 106 tackles and tied a career mark with four interceptions. Wilson did all of this despite missing three games with injuries.

Punter: Brandon Fields, Dolphins

Analysis: Fields was spectacular this season. He averaged 48.8 yards per punt and had 32 punts inside the 20. Fields was the only Dolphins player exciting to watch during Miami's ugly 0-7 start. Fields had a Pro Bowl season. But Oakland Raiders punter and Pro Bowler Shane Lechler is probably the best punter in the NFL.

Kicker: Stephen Gostkowski, Patriots

Analysis: Fantasy football players fell in love with Gostkowski this season. New England's high-scoring offense constantly put Gostkowski in position to rack up points, and he usually came through. Gostkowski led New England in scoring with 143 points. He made 28 of 33 field goals and all 59 extra points. The pressure of the playoffs always is different for kickers. But Gostkowski has shown no signs that he will be bothered by it.

Return specialist: Joe McKnight, Jets

Analysis: McKnight was a must-see because something exciting could happen every time he touched the ball. McKnight was fun to watch in the open field. He averaged 31.6 yards per kick return and is a Pro Bowl alternate on special teams. His longest of the season was a 107-yard touchdown return. The next step for McKnight is to develop as a running back. With LaDainian Tomlinson a free agent, McKnight could get a chance to backup Greene next season.

Jets' defense has its swagger back

November, 6, 2011
11/06/11
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Ryan FitzpatrickKevin Hoffman/US PresswireAn aggressive Jets defense limited Ryan Fitzpatrick to just 191 yards passing on Sunday.
ORCHARD, PARK, N.Y. -- In a rare occurrence this season, New York Jets head coach Rex Ryan stepped to the podium Sunday with very little to complain about with his defense.

"We gave up an 80-yard drive at the end of the game there when we were up a bunch of scores," Ryan scoffed. "So that was disappointing."

Ryan pointed out the only blemish in an otherwise stellar day for New York's talented but, at times, underachieving defense. The Jets' strongest unit turned back the clock -- circa 2009 and 2010 -- to cruise to a 27-11 victory over the Buffalo Bills.

More than 70,000 Bills fans came to Ralph Wilson Stadium expecting a "whiteout." They nearly witnessed a shutout, as New York battered and confused Buffalo's offense for four quarters. The Bills turned over the football three times and gained only 287 total yards.

New York's defense officially has its swagger back. That could only mean trouble for the rest of the NFL.

Jets defensive tackle Sione Pouha even has a nickname for the defense regaining its identity.

"It's totally attitude -- it's 'Jetstitude' the way we look at it," Pouha said. "It's playing like a Jet, aggressiveness, going out there in attack mode. I think today kind of displayed just what Jet football is all about."

Although they don't always put it together, the Jets have the NFL's most talented collection of defensive players.

The cornerback tandem of Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie is tops in the league. The linebackers, led by David Harris, Bart Scott and Calvin Pace, are physical playmakers. The safeties and defensive line play good, complementary roles when the Jets are at their best. All of those things came together in a big game.

"When everybody is rolling, this team is very hard to beat," Jets defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson said.

It marked the first time Buffalo was held to fewer than 20 points this season. Afterward, the Bills sounded perplexed about how the game went downhill so quickly.

"If it was one thing, we could have solved that," Bills coach Chan Gailey said. "You can always solve one thing in a game. They would bring pressure, they would play coverage. ... They would give us something we hadn’t seen or they would bring an extra guy. It was a combination. They kept us off balance and that’s what we can’t allow to happen."

The Jets' defense took apart Buffalo's offense systematically. It started with punishing Bills tailback Fred Jackson.

Jackson has bullied defenders all season. But New York matched and exceeded Jackson's physicality. The Jets even knocked Jackson (82 rushing yards) out of the game temporarily in the second half with big hit that caused a fumble and shoulder stinger. Buffalo's offense never recovered from that blow.

With Jackson not his usually dominant self, the Bills couldn't get anything going offensively.

Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick had his worst game of the season. He threw for 191 yards, two interceptions and a late touchdown in garbage time. Most of the game the receivers were blanketed, and Fitzpatrick dangerously threw into tight coverage.

"For us, we were on our heels trying to figure out what they were doing and trying to figure out what was going on," Bills receiver David Nelson said. "It wasn't because of play calling or anything like that. We only had the ball twice in the first quarter and going three-and-out. We couldn’t get in rhythm."

It didn’t take long for several Jets players to turn toward the New England Patriots. The reigning AFC East champions are up next for the Jets with first place in the division on the line. The Patriots -- currently in a three-way tie for first place in the AFC East with the Jets and Buffalo -- beat New York 30-21 in the first meeting at Gillette Stadium.

Pardon me, but the Jets "can't wait" for next week's rematch at home.

“If you can’t get fired up and ready to play for this game, you shouldn't be playing," Jets tailback LaDainian Tomlinson said. "That's plain and simple."

Last month, New York was a team close to imploding during its three-game losing streak. This month, the Jets have their sights set on first place in the AFC East after a three-game winning streak.

It's a stunning turnaround for the Jets, who have found the winning formula with an aggressive defense and a ground-and-pound style on offense.

New York showed on Sunday it has as good a shot as anyone in the second half of the season.

"We know what we're capable of doing. We know we're not a team that's going to fold in the tank," Wilkerson said of the midseason turnaround. "We lost three in a row, but it's a long season. We kept preparing like we’ve always been doing, knowing that we'd get things turned around."

Camp Confidential: New York Jets

August, 20, 2011
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FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Rex Ryan said it his first day on the job, and he’ll keep saying it until it actually happens -- the New York Jets are going to the Super Bowl.

Early on, Ryan’s bravado was a breath of fresh air. Now, after two consecutive losses in the AFC Championship Game, the brash coach will be perceived as a windbag if the Jets don’t get it done in 2011.

One more miss and the honeymoon is over.

“This is the best roster we’ve had since we’ve been here,” Ryan said.

That’s debatable. The Jets are older and slower at wide receiver, depth is a concern at some key spots and they have middle-of-the-field issues in pass coverage. That said, they have a young quarterback on the ascent -- Mark Sanchez -- and improvement in his play could compensate for other deficiencies.

Win or lose, the Jets are a marquee team. HBO’s “Hard Knocks” show isn’t around this summer to record every word and action, but the team still is generating national news -- Sanchez’s GQ cover, Plaxico Burress' return to football, Ryan’s brash quotes, etc.

You’re just not hearing the R-rated language.

THREE HOT ISSUES

1. Can Mark Sanchez become a four-quarter quarterback? He already has won four playoff games in two seasons -- impressive stuff -- so you know he can win big games. His problem is consistency, playing well from week to week and quarter to quarter in the regular season.

Yes, quarter to quarter. The Jets didn’t score an offensive touchdown in the first quarter over their final 15 games (counting playoffs), and a lot of that falls on Sanchez. Part of that could be attributed to inexperience, needing time to adjust to defensive wrinkles, but a lot of it stemmed from his inaccuracy. He completed only 55 percent of his pass attempts, about six or seven points below where the Jets want him to be.

[+] EnlargeMark Sanchez
Bob Levey/Getty ImagesThe Jets need to see more consistency from quarterback Mark Sanchez.
If Sanchez can eliminate the inconsistencies and settle down -- he led the league in dropped interceptions -- the Jets will have a real chance to do something special. We already know he can make plays in the fourth quarter, but now he has to play the first like the fourth. Problem is, he lost 75 percent of his receiving corps before camp opened, putting the onus on him to familiarize himself with a new group. That takes time.

2. Can the Three Amigos (Egos?) co-exist? On paper, the Jets have one of the best receiving corps in the league: Santonio Holmes, Plaxico Burress and Derrick Mason. They’ve combined for more than 1,700 receptions and 24,000 yards, not to mention two Super Bowl-winning catches (Holmes and Burress). But now there will be a transition period, especially for Burress and Mason.

Not only are they learning a new system, they’re adjusting to life as secondary options. That’s not always easy for a receiver accustomed to being No. 1. Naturally, they’re all saying the right things, insisting they’re in it for the team, not themselves. We’ll see. Holmes is the No. 1 guy in these parts, and his new teammates will have to deal with that. If not, it will put a lot of pressure on Sanchez, who realizes he has a lot of mouths to feed.

That Burress missed two weeks with a sprained ankle really slowed the process.

3. Do the Jets have a pass rush? This question really bugs Ryan because, as he likes to point out, the Jets finished eighth in sacks (40). Not bad, right? But sacks don’t mean everything, as coaches like to point out when it benefits their agenda. For instance: The Jets led the league in most big plays allowed on third down, and the primary reason was the lack of a consistent pass rush.

The Jets didn’t acquire anyone to help the pass rush, unless you count first-round defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson, but he’s really not an edge rusher. He’ll be more of a first- and second-down run defender than a pass-rusher in the sub packages. If anything, the Jets lost some pass rush because they released Jason Taylor and didn’t replace his five sacks.

What to do? Ryan and defensive coordinator Mike Pettine are masters of the blitz, designing clever pressure packages that confuse quarterbacks. They manufacture pressure, and sometimes simulate pressure, to rattle quarterbacks. For the most part, it works, but it’s a dangerous way to live, as the Jets discovered last season. They have fantastic cover corners in Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie, which makes it possible to employ that kind of scheme, but sooner or later the lack of a big-time rusher will catch up to them.

The Jets took a flyer on former Bills No. 1 pick Aaron Maybin, signing him to a minimum contract, but let’s be honest: He’s not the answer. It’ll be an upset if he makes the team.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

The Jets parted ways with two of their longest-tenured players, defensive end Shaun Ellis (Patriots) and wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery (Steelers). They were two of the most respected players in the locker room, players you always figured would retire as Jets.

Cotchery, unhappy in his role as the No. 3 receiver, requested his release. The Jets didn’t handle it well, cutting Cotchery before securing Mason, but it worked out in the end. They offered Ellis a one-year deal for the minimum salary, which he found insulting. He wound up signing with the rival Patriots, a PR hit for the Jets.

[+] EnlargePlaxico Burress
AP Photo/Julio CortezA sprained ankle has slowed Plaxico Burress since the start of training camp.
It makes them look cold, but the Jets evidently felt it was time to move on. The Cotchery decision could come back to bite them because he’s 29 and still can be an effective player.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

After a 20-month prison sentence that cost him two seasons, Burress needs practice more than anyone. But he missed the first two weeks of camp and the first preseason game with a sprained ankle, a significant setback as he attempts to regain his form and learn the Jets’ offense.

The Jets hope Burress, who's 6-foot-5, can cure their red zone issues, but he and Sanchez are having trouble connecting in practice. This is going to take time. Don’t be surprised if Burress is a part-time player in the first month of the season.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • Revis is having the best camp of his career. Yes, it’s true, this is only his third, holdout-free training camp. But know this: He’s locking down receivers with the same determination he did in 2009, when he shut down No. 1 receivers on a weekly basis. This bodes well for the 10 players around him.
  • Burress is making most of the headlines -- Plax this, Plax that -- but the real prize of the offseason shopping spree is Mason. Ryan gets excited about reclamation projects, but let’s be honest: Burress hasn’t played in two seasons because he was in prison, and now he expects to come back to the pre-prison Plaxico. Whoa, let’s hold everything. Burress might turn out to be a good pickup, but it’s going to take time. Give him a few games into the season. In the meantime, they’ll ride Holmes and Mason.
  • You may not know this name -- Rob Turner -- but the Jets will miss him. He backs up at center and guard, plays tight end in the “jumbo” package, lines up on defense in goal line and blocks from the wedge on kickoff returns. In short, he does everything but mop the floors. Unfortunately for the Jets, Turner broke his leg in the preseason opener and will be lost for at least two months. It’s a big loss, even though the average fan might not think so.
  • The Jets are going to be vulnerable in the middle of the field in pass coverage. The safeties have suspect speed and the front seven also is short on the quicks. Opponents with athletic tight ends and crafty slot receivers are going to cause major issues for the Jets.
  • The run defense could be vulnerable up the middle. Dependable nose tackle Sione Pouha is hobbled by a sprained knee (not serious, but a nuisance) and inside linebacker Bart Scott is taking some time off with what’s believed to be a high-ankle sprain. Again, it’s not serious, but when two of your inside guys are hurting, it’s never a good thing.
  • Aside from Sanchez, the key player is running back Shonn Greene, the new feature back. No doubt, Greene has the talent to be the No. 1 tailback -- and he is -- but what about his durability? That always has been a question that dogs Greene. He’ll have to bring his A game every week -- assuming he recovers soon from a skin infection on his right foot. When you’re a ground-and-pound team, you need a workhorse -- and LaDainian Tomlinson, 32, probably is too old to be that guy.
  • Remember this name: Jeremy Kerley. He’s a diminutive receiver/kick returner from TCU, and he will bring a lot of electricity. He’s only 5-foot-9, if that, but he has tremendous acceleration and change of direction. He’ll be an immediate factor on punt returns and, if needed at receiver, he has the ability to make plays from the slot.

Three things: Jets at Texans

August, 15, 2011
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Three things to watch for when the New York Jets face the Houston Texans in the preseason opener for both teams (8 p.m. ET, ESPN).

1. The Jets’ passing game: The Texans were historically poor defending the pass last season, but they are attempting an overhaul in that department with Wade Phillips implementing his attacking 3-4 scheme in 2011. Houston certainly looks improved on paper, but there will surely be growing pains as the Texans attempt to integrate new faces into a new scheme, and then translate it all to the field very quickly. Can Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez and his group of pass-catchers take advantage of the miscues likely to present themselves?

2. Decipher the Blitz: Given the changes in Houston, I’m interested to see how well Sanchez reads the Texans’ blitz package prior to the snap, and how well he adjusts to what he sees. Even though Houston’s 3-4 is in its infancy, Phillips will still bring pressure from all over. Making the proper calls to pick up extra rushers will be crucial. Specifically, accounting for Mario Williams, who will be playing his first game at outside linebacker, should be the top priority in terms of keeping Sanchez protected.

3. Strength vs. Strength: The Texans’ offensive line is rarely mentioned as one of the best in the NFL, but Houston is superb up front. There is not one particular lineman who stands out, but it is a cohesive unit that is especially strong in the running game. With the exception of fullback Vonta Leach, who is now in Baltimore, Houston’s run blocking returns intact from last season. The Jets led by Sione Pouha, Mike DeVito and their exceptional inside linebackers, are a very difficult team to run on. It will be interesting to see how this matchup plays out.

Rex Ryan fortifies D-line in third round

April, 29, 2011
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The New York Jets didn't have a second-round draft choice, giving them a looooong wait between their first-round announcement Thursday night and their next selection Friday night. With the 94th pick in the draft, they took Hampton defensive tackle Kenrick Ellis.

Why the Jets took him: Jets head coach Rex Ryan sees a potential gem in Ellis, a 6-foot-5, 346-pound lineman with a checkered history. Ellis ended up at Hampton after South Carolina suspended him three games and then kicked him off the team for reported drug usage. The Jets need depth up front, especially if they don't re-sign nose tackle Kris Jenkins.

How it affects the roster: Last year's starters at defensive tackle, Sione Pouha and Mike DeVito, will be back. Ellis will push them for snaps.

Scouts Inc. says: Plays a little too high but rarely gives ground in one-on-one situations and can clog up the middle by occupying multiple blockers when plays with sound technique. Also shows ability to hold ground working against double team if maintaining proper pad level. Thick, powerful arms. Can reach out and latch onto ball carrier with one hand when teams run at him. Plays with too narrow of a base and lacks adequate balance redirecting. Does not possess elite instincts and can be a quarter-count finding and reacting to the ball. Also can bite on misdirection.

Rex: Patriots benched Welker out of respect

March, 22, 2011
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NEW ORLEANS -- On multiple levels, New York Jets coach Rex Ryan was pleased to see Wes Welker standing on the sideline when the New England Patriots' offense took the field in their second-round playoff game.

Welker
Ryan
Patriots coach Bill Belichick punished Welker for making 11 foot-related comments in a nine-minute news conference. The remarks were thinly veiled references to fetish videos, purportedly starring Ryan's wife, that surfaced during the season.

The Jets shocked the Patriots with a 28-21 victory in Gillette Stadium. Welker had seven catches for 57 yards. Welker had seven receptions for 80 yards and a touchdown six weeks earlier to help the Patriots beat the Jets by 42 points.

"First off, I was happy," Ryan said, laughing, Tuesday morning at the NFL coaches breakfast, which is part of the annual owners meeting. "I was, like, 'Cool! Welker's not there!' Yeah, I would bench him, too. I would bench him for the whole game. Bench him next year."

In seriousness, Ryan viewed the gesture as a sign of respect from Belichick.

"It never surprised me," Ryan said. "It's not the Patriot way of doing things. So [Belichick] was upset about that. At the time, I was, like, that's pretty cool. It was kind of neat."

Ryan explained he and Welker have gotten grittier with each other -- just not in public. Welker's roommate at Texas Tech was Jets volunteer assistant coach Mike Smith. All of them -- plus Jets defensive coordinator Mike Pettine -- have trash texted each other "for years," Ryan said. Smith briefly played for the Baltimore Ravens when Ryan and Pettine were on the staff and then got into coaching after a nasty shoulder injury.

"We text back and forth and rip each other back and forth before we ever play," Ryan said. "That's what we do. 'Who's going to be on me?' 'We're going to put [Jets nose tackle] Sione Pouha on you.'

"But we have fun with each other. Trust me, we've said a lot worse to each other than what was reported. But I think he just went public with those comments, and that's probably what upset Belichick."

While Ryan has refused to take a submissive role when it comes to his AFC East rival, he once again expressed his utmost admiration for Belichick.

"I have more respect for Belichick than any coach in this league, as you guys know," Ryan said. "But I still want to beat him, and the fact he's in our division, I'm paid to beat him. I've got to go beat him.

"I can't just go 'Hey, Bill, don't kick my butt too bad.' No way in hell. We're not conceding one iota. At times, I feel like we're the only team that can beat him for whatever reason. They lost three games last year, two to us and one to my brother."

The Jets beat the Patriots 28-14 in Week 2 at the Meadowlands and again in the playoffs at Gillette Stadium. The Patriots' other regular-season loss was to the Cleveland Browns, where Ryan's twin brother, Rob Ryan, was the defensive coordinator who flummoxed league MVP Tom Brady.

Making millions in the AFC East

March, 4, 2011
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Mark SanchezRichard A. Brightly/Icon SMIMark Sanchez is set to earn $14.75 million in base salary next season, the most in the AFC East.
Sports labor squabbles often are described as billionaires arguing with millionaires over money.

While that's a catchy rhyme that sums up fan frustration, the phrase is not entirely true.

Inspired by a blog entry from the minister of all things AFC South, Paul Kuharsky, I looked at NFL Players Association files to count up the number of AFC East players scheduled for $1 million base salaries in 2011.

Granted, up-front bonuses and incentives can make base salaries misleading. But base salaries are the only figures that create a common ground, player for player.

You'll see a vast majority of NFL players make much less than $1 million a year. Although many will make seven figures before they walk away from the game, careers are short and treacherous. They'll never see that kind of cash again for the rest of their lives.

That's why they're fighting for every dollar now.

Of the 226 players under contract in the AFC East, only 62 of them (27.4 percent) will make base salaries of $1 million or more.

The NFLPA hasn't acknowledged any franchise tags that have been signed. Those players are marked with an asterisk and not factored into the totals.

Buffalo Bills
Base salaries of $1 million or more: 19

Players under contract: 54

Percentage of roster making $1 million or more: 35.2

Miami Dolphins
Base salaries of $1 million or more: 15

Players under contract: 55

Percentage of roster making $1 million or more: 27.3

New England Patriots
Base salaries of $1 million or more: 14

Players under contract: 60

Percentage of roster making $1 million or more: 23.3

New York Jets
Base salaries of $1 million or more: 14

Players under contract: 57

Percentage of roster making $1 million or more: 24.6

Troy Probable-malu against the Jets

January, 21, 2011
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FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- New York Jets fans shouldn't be concerned with all the names on the AFC Championship Game injury report. Jets head coach Rex Ryan announced Friday everybody will play Sunday night against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The Steelers list four names on their report. The two biggest are safety Troy Polamalu (probable, Achilles) and defensive end Aaron Smith (doubtful, triceps). Polamalu missed practice Wednesday and Thursday, but participated fully Friday.

Cornerback Bryant McFadden (abdomen) and safety Will Allen (knee) are questionable.

For the Jets, receiver Brad Smith (groin), defensive end Shaun Ellis (knee), cornerback Drew Coleman (knee) and safety James Ihedigbo (knee, ankle) are questionable.

"They're questionable. They're playing. OK," Ryan said after rattling off the injury report at the start of Friday's news conference. "That's pretty much it."

Listed as probable are quarterback Mark Sanchez (shoulder), receiver Santonio Holmes (quadriceps), center Nick Mangold (shoulder), defensive tackle Mike DeVito (neck), defensive tackle Sione Pouha (back), outside linebacker Jason Taylor (concussion), cornerback Darrelle Revis (hamstring) and cornerback Antonio Cromartie (groin).

Is Tom Brady making Rex Ryan see things?

January, 12, 2011
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Rex Ryan is Don Quixote.

Tom Brady is his windmill.

Ryan has gotten worked up over perceived Brady transgressions other people haven't noticed.

The New York Jets' quixotic head coach most recently has chided Brady for gesturing at opposing sidelines after the New England Patriots score a touchdown.

"Just being Brady being Brady," Ryan groused at his Monday news conference. "I don't like seeing that. Nobody does. No Jet fan likes to see that. I know he can’t wait to do it."

Brady has no idea what Ryan's talking about.

"I don't remember ever pointing," Brady said Wednesday on a conference call with Jets reporters. "I'm sure there are 50,000 cameras on the game. I'm sure if there was a problem doing that then they would show that."

New York Post reporter Mark Hale spoke with several Jets on Tuesday about Brady's so-called "antics," to use Ryan's word. Star cornerback Darrelle Revis, safety Eric Smith, linebacker David Harris, defensive tackle Sione Pouha and fullback Tony Richardson couldn't come up with an example.

Only defensive end Shaun Ellis said he has seen something, but added "It wasn't too much."

This wouldn't be the first time Ryan invented a reason to be angry with Brady and the Patriots.

Right after the Patriots defeated his club 45-3 in Week 13, Ryan suggested the Patriots ran up the score on them.

"Probably," Ryan said. "I mean, I don't think he was necessarily trying to rub it in, but this is the same team that took a bunch of shots on us and they had paybacks. I mean, let's face it: We kicked their butt at our place. So you know they're trying to come back.

"So trust me. We will remember this. There is no question about that."

The problem with Ryan's theory is the Patriots didn't run up the score. Although Brady didn't come out of the game, he threw only four passes, one on the first play of the quarter for a touchdown to Aaron Hernandez to make the score 38-3.

Brady's second throw came with 12:46 to play, and then the Patriots shut it down while milking the play clock. His other two fourth-quarter passes were on third-and-4 and third-and-7 deep in their own territory. Both throws were incomplete, although one was erased when the Jets were flagged for 12 men on the field.

So Brady's two fourth-quarter completions -- for a grand total of 8 yards and a touchdown -- came with more than 12 minutes to play.

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