Commentary

Ryan the key for Jets pass-rush success

After failing to land a big name, Gang Green will rely on Ryan's coaching prowess

Updated: August 13, 2011, 7:27 PM ET
By Rich Cimini | ESPNNewYork.com

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- It seems to be the biggest concern among fans: How in the name of Mark Gastineau are the New York Jets going to generate a pass rush that instills fear in opposing quarterbacks?

With about $8 million in salary-cap room, the populace wants GM Mike Tannenbaum to morph into "Trader Mike" and swing a blockbuster deal for a stud pass-rusher -- perhaps the final piece in the Jets' Super Bowl puzzle.

But here's the thing: The answer to the perceived pass-rushing problem already is on campus. He's 250-plus pounds, brings his A game every day and sports a new tattoo on his right calf.

Yeah, Rex Ryan.

Ryan isn't going to sack any quarterbacks -- he might tweak a few -- but he and right-hand man Mike Pettine are going to design game plans that lead to sacks. Without a Pro Bowl edge rusher, the Jets are relying on coaching brainpower -- and a team-oriented concept -- to apply pressure to quarterbacks.

The motto on defense is simple: "In Rex We Trust."

The Jets spent the bulk of their free-agent dollars on the speed positions -- wide receiver and cornerback -- ignoring the front seven. It might have been different if there was a Nnamdi Asomugha-caliber pass-rusher on the market, but those guys don't shake free often.

Given the choice between overpriced second-tier free agents and Ryan's ability to coach up the current cast, the front office put its faith in Ryan.

For the record, Ryan doesn't think their pass rush is all that bad, insisting, "I don't think we're as desperate as some people think."

In fact, the Jets recorded 40 sacks last season, good enough for eighth in the league. But they lost 17 sacks in roster turnover, having parted ways with Jason Taylor (5), Shaun Ellis (4 ), Drew Coleman (4), James Ihedigbo (3) and Trevor Pryce (1).

That's 44 percent of their sack production, gone. The only notable newcomers are a couple of rookie linemen, Muhammad Wilkerson and Kenrick Ellis. It means the Jets are counting heavily on improvement from within.

The key man is Calvin Pace, an underrated pass-rusher. Fans are down on him, but he has the ability to be a consistent pain in the rear for opposing quarterbacks. All he needs to do is stay on the field. Because of a suspension and foot surgery, he missed eight games over the last two seasons, still managing a total of 13 sacks. He added three in the 2010 playoffs.

If he were the featured pass-rusher, Pace would be a double-digit sacker, but he plays in an equal-opportunity system. Ryan and Pettine employ clever blitz packages, creating mismatches. In their scheme, a 180-pound nickelback is as much of a threat as a 260-pound outside linebacker.

"We generate pressure differently than most people," Pace said Thursday. "We're not the Giants, not a typical team that uses a four-man rush. We generate it in different ways. We spread the wealth."

The coaches have talked about designing more chances for Pace, but they're probably not going to stray too far from their team philosophy. That's fine by Pace, who is willing to sacrifice personal production for the good of the team.

The other key player is Jamaal Westerman, who already has the title "DPR" -- designated pass-rusher. The coaches say he has the quickest first step of any of their pass-rushers, but he's unproven, having spent the last two seasons on the bench.

With Taylor gone, back home in South Beach, Westerman must develop quickly as a bookend to Pace. He needs to show something in the preseason. If Westerman fizzles, the front office might be compelled to make a move, but no one is trading or cutting top-shelf pass-rushers.

This is where the Vernon Gholston mistake hurts. But that's a story for another day. In training camp, the coaches have placed an emphasis on rushing the passer. They talk about it, they practice it. Even the big fellas, Sione Pouha and Mike DeVito, are trying to develop new techniques.

"Each man within the room is conscious of trying to generate their fair share of the pass rush," Pouha said.

The coaching staff will have to make adjustments, too. Even though they finished eighth in sacks and 10th in third-down efficiency, the Jets surrendered far too many big plays  22 plays of 20 yards or more, most in the league on third down.

Opponents started to figure out Ryan's Xs and Os, and now it's up to him to react. Ryan is a man-to-man coach, but don't be surprised if you see a little more zone coverage than in the past, confusing looks that could make quarterbacks hold the ball a second longer. Mr. Brady could give a lecture on that; he learned the hard way last January in Foxborough.

So, no, the Jets aren't stacked with All-Star pass-rushers. They are what they are, counting on a coach to push the right buttons.

Rich Cimini

ESPN New York Jets reporter

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