Friday, December 16, 2011
Updated: December 17, 1:48 PM ET
Pressure's on Jets' defense on Sunday
By Rich Cimini
FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Rex Ryan is concerned about this game, this opponent. You can hear it in his voice and read it between his lines.
Even though the New York Jets' defense has regained its swagger, beating up a couple of tomato cans named Rex Grossman and Tyler Palko, this is a worrisome matchup because the Philadelphia Eagles have the ability to turn a football game into a track meet.
And the Jets don't do track. They proved that Sept. 25 in Oakland, where they suffered a serious case of whiplash. They played the role of Wile E. Coyote as the Roadrunning Raiders amassed 234 yards on the ground.
The Jets' once-great, still-good defense is already looking at some major changes in the offseason and needs to play its best game of the year Sunday at Lincoln Financial Field. The defense still hasn't played an 'A' game against an elite offense, and although we're hesitant to use the 'E' word to describe the up-and-down Eagles, they still present an enormous challenge because of their speed and athleticism.
"You're never comfortable until the game is over and the bus is heading home," Ryan said of Michael Vick & Co.
The Eagles are a schizophrenic team that could come unglued at any moment -- 31 turnovers, 26 dropped passes, both tied for league highs -- but you have to figure they'll bring their best. They still have a remote chance for the playoffs and they'll be up for the Jets because it's New York-Philly.
So get ready for Vick, LeSean McCoy, DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin, four burners who have allowed Philadelphia to make 66 plays of 20 yards or more.
Overall, the Eagles are fourth in total offense, No. 3 in rushing. They average only 23 points per game, mostly because they do a lot of dumb things, but speed kills.
"Vick at quarterback is faster than most of the guys on our defense," linebacker David Harris said. "He can make every cut known to man."
The last mobile quarterback they faced was Tim Tebow, and he nearly ran the Jets out of their season. They're not a particularly fast front seven, so they have to make adjustments for Vick. In practice, they used a rabbit drill, with a "rabbit" -- reserve cornerback Isaiah Trufant -- simulating Vick and trying to elude pass rushers in a boxed-in area.
Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine may tinker with his front, using schemes that allow him to get his fastest players on the field. You will see more of linebackers Aaron Maybin, Jamaal Westerman and Josh Mauga. They have to keep Vick in the pocket, no easy task. He has 544 rushing yards in 10 games.
The Jets plan to swarm Vick because "he can make No. 1 and No. 2 miss ... and 3, 4 and 5," nose tackle Sione Pouha said.
When Vick escapes the pocket and looks to throw downfield, the defensive backs will lean on their "plaster coverage" principles. In other words, plaster yourself to the nearest receiver in your zone.
The task would be hard enough if it was just Vick, but McCoy is perhaps the most dangerous runner in the league. He lives on the edge -- literally. He leads the NFL in rushing yards outside the tackles (466), including a league-high seven runs of 20 yards or more, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
That poses a serious threat to the Jets, whose perimeter run defense has struggled at times. Ryan probably still wakes up in the middle of the night in cold sweats, reliving Darren McFadden's 70-yard sprint in Oakland. McCoy has the same kind of speed and he's actually more elusive than McFadden.
"He's one of those guys that runs like, 'Don't touch me,'" Ryan said of McCoy. "He makes cuts that are ridiculous. He's embarrassed a lot of good football players this year."
In the defensive meeting room, the buzzwords have been "set the edge." That means the Jets need an outside defender to hold his ground, forcing McCoy to turn up to the inside.
If they leave an open edge, it'll be open season on long touchdown runs.
In the passing game, the Jets begin life without safety Jim Leonhard -- for the second straight stretch run. Brodney Pool is a capable replacement, but there's concern about on-the-field communication. That was Leonhard's specialty.
Against a team like the Eagles, a West Coast offense that uses a lot of crossing routes, that could be an issue. To make things easier, the coaches scaled back the play-call sheet for this game. Eric Smith will assume Leonhard's role, making most of the "checks" in the secondary.
It will take a well-coordinated effort, because the Eagles can attack all parts of the field, but matchups like this are why the Jets are paying big bucks for cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie. They should be able to neutralize Maclin and Jackson, who sometimes stops himself because he pouts about his contract.
"This is an unusual group," Ryan said of the Eagles' skill-position players, "but we're fortunate because we have some unusual defensive players. I think that's where we have an advantage over most defenses. I think we can match up better than most teams can."
The stakes are enormous.
The Jets (8-5) know that one slip-up could prove fatal to their playoff chances. Get past the Eagles and they return home to face the New York Giants in what could be a meaningless game for Big Blue. That's followed by a season-ending trip to the Miami Dolphins, who will have their bags packed.
They have to beat the so-called Dream Team. The dark circles under Pettine's eyes suggest he's been working overtime to make it happen.
"It's been one of our most difficult weeks of preparation," he said. "If it looks like I'm lacking a little sleep, you'd be correct in saying that."