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FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- When Rex Ryan addressed his team at the start of the week, he talked about redemption, the opportunity to show America the New York Jets aren't the butt-fumbling fools who embarrassed themselves Thanksgiving night.
The Jets are back in prime time Monday night against the Tennessee Titans, still trying to live down their last appearance -- a 30-point blowout loss to the New England Patriots. It was so bad that Fireman Ed left at halftime and so rife with theatrical blunders that comedian Adam Sandler -- a Jets fan, for crying out loud -- poked fun of Mark Sanchez's infamous fumble in a song at the 12-12-12 Concert for Sandy Relief.
|The last time the Jets were in prime time, they were humiliated by the Patriots. Mark Sanchez will look to redeem himself against the Titans on Monday night.|
No one felt worse that night than defensive coordinator Mike Pettine. No, really. He was racked with the flu, received two bags of IV fluid on the morning of the game and struggled to make it to the stadium.
"I rallied for the game, but I felt like crap," he said. "Of course, to make it worse, we got our brains beat in."
Pettine said he was "in a fog," and so were the Jets, who allowed 475 total yards -- the most in the Ryan era. Imagine if the Patriots had Rob Gronkowski.
Pettine slept it off the next day -- the game and the flu -- and returned to work determined to fix a once-vaunted defense that had slipped to 19th in yards allowed. Three weeks later, look who's up to eighth in the rankings.
Some will say the resurgence is due to smoke and mirrors (code words for Arizona Cardinals and Jacksonville Jaguars), but the Jets get another chance to prove they're no fluke. The Titans are nowhere close to the Patriots, but they're better than the Cards and Jags, with legitimate playmakers in running back Chris Johnson and wide receiver Kenny Britt.
For the Jets (6-7), winners of two straight, this game is about two things: saving their season (they would be mathematically eliminated with a loss) and saving face. The humiliation of the Thanksgiving debacle lasted a lot longer than Pettine's flu, and they're eager to make it right.
That Ryan chose to mention it to the team shows how much the Jets care about perception. They've lost four of their past five games in prime time, including a season-altering blowout (Baltimore, 2011) and a crushing last-minute defeat (Tim Tebow, 2011).
"We were so embarrassed in our last nationally televised game," safety Yeremiah Bell said. "We put a product on the field that wasn't us. It's nice we have another chance to make it right and show people the true Jets.
"As a team, you won't see anything like you saw on Thanksgiving, I can guarantee that."
The Jets were historically bad, committing five turnovers and allowing three touchdowns in 52 seconds. Mention that game to a player or coach, and you get the impression he'd rather discuss how to bake Christmas cookies than relive that night.
"I don't want to go through that again," linebacker Bryan Thomas said. "That was awful, just awful."
The Jets allowed three touchdowns on pre-snap communication breakdowns, mostly between linebackers and defensive backs, prompting a greater emphasis on communication in meetings and on the practice field.
When the defense is watching video of the opponent, Pettine will hit the pause button before the snap, the room will go quiet and he'll wait until he hears the correct check from the players.
For example: A player will call out the formation -- "closed right, trey left" -- and another will shout back the appropriate check.
Loudly and clearly.
Pettine also has tweaked the daily walk-through routine, installing what he calls "forced communication." Instead of simply focusing on alignment and assignment, the players call out signals and use exaggerated hand signals to make sure everyone is on the same page.
"When we communicate, I can close my eyes and point to the call sheet and run anything," Pettine said. "We always use the bike analogy: It's not about the bike, it's about the guy riding it."
You've definitely seen a more cohesive unit over the past two games, as the Jets have held the Cards and Jaguars to a combined 16 points and a staggering 2-for-31 on third down.
But don't dare call the Jets an elite defense. Some perspective, please. They've defeated two rookie quarterbacks and two backup quarterbacks, and five of their six wins have come against teams ranked 20th or lower in total offense. In case you're wondering, the Titans (4-7) are 23rd.
"I've been proud of what we've done, considering how bad we got beat against New England," linebacker Calvin Pace said. "The way our season has gone, we need all the positives we can get."
There have been subtle improvements, the kind of stuff that fans don't see. One of those moments occurred last week on the biggest defensive play in the Jets' win over the Jaguars -- Bart Scott's red zone interception.
Before the snap, safety LaRon Landry made a key defensive call. As he ran across the formation with the tight end, who was in motion, Landry yelled to Thomas, "Lock! Lock! Lock!" He was telling Thomas he was planning to blitz and needed somebody to cover the tight end.
To appreciate the call, you need to go back to the previous week. In virtually the same situation against the Cards, Landry executed an ad-lib blitz, except there was no call to cover the tight end. The Jets got away with it. For Jacksonville, Pettine implemented an "insurance policy" into the game plan -- the audible check with Thomas.
Jaguars quarterback Chad Henne did his homework, recognized the Landry blitz and figured he'd have an easy throw to the tight end -- except he was covered by Thomas. That forced him to hold the ball, allowing linebacker Garrett McIntyre to come on a delayed blitz. He drilled Henne, whose flutter ball landed in Scott's hands.
Up in the coaches' booth, Pettine enjoyed a moment of satisfaction.
"When we're on the same page, defensively," he said, "we're hard to beat."
Now they have to prove it to a skeptical country.