FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Six games into the season, let's sum up what we've learned about the New York Jets' ballyhooed defense:
It was good enough to dominate a couple of 98-pound weaklings, quarterbacks Matt Moore and Luke McCown, and good enough to capitalize on a couple of Tony Romo gifts. But let's face it, Rex Ryan's pride and joy still hasn't registered a signature performance in 2011.
Sunday could be that day. Sunday needs to be that day.
This is another huge game for the Jets (3-3) -- they're all big when you're trying to recover from a three-game losing streak -- and it's going to take an A-game by the defense against the explosive San Diego Chargers (4-1) at MetLife Stadium.
The Jets need to duplicate Jan. 17, 2010, when they got into Philip Rivers' head and made him do stupid things. Rivers got his yards that day, an AFC divisional playoff, but he made several big mistakes and the Chargers failed to score 20 points for the first time in 23 games -- a 17-14 loss.
No matter what they say, the Jets aren't that kind of defense anymore. Truth be told, the Chargers aren't the same offense. But in both cases, there's still enough there to be formidable. Ryan insisted, "Without question, we're an elite defense," but they still have to prove they can take down a premier quarterback and a top-shelf offensive team.
"Sure, go ahead, throw the questions at us," said safety Jim Leonhard, sounding almost defiant. "We don't care what kind of questions are coming toward us. ... We know we haven't played a complete 60 minutes yet. We've played way too inconsistent, but it's not something we're brushing under the rug."
Take away the games against the Jacksonville Jaguars and Miami Dolphins, both of whom started career backups, and the Jets have allowed points in 15 out of 16 quarters. It didn't figure to happen this way, not with 10 returning starters, the kind of continuity that should've been a big advantage in a post-lockout world.
Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine believes the lockout helped offensive staffs because it allowed them extra prep time to prepare for the first few opponents. But, of course, there was no rule that prohibited defensive coaches from doing the same.
The Jets are a bit of an anomaly because they've blitzed less often than in past years, but they've improved in three key areas -- sacks, interceptions and third down. On the downside, their run defense has slipped dramatically and they've allowed an alarming number of big plays -- 20 plays of at least 20 yards, including six in the 40-plus category.
"The run defense is the one that doesn't fit our profile," Ryan said.
On the first play of Monday night's win over the Dolphins, the Jets let Reggie Bush break free for a 36-yard run. It was a basic front and a basic coverage, but they lined up incorrectly.
"How does that happen?" Pettine asked his players in the defensive meeting.
The Jets have an issue because teams are running at outside linebacker Jamaal Westerman (6-3, 255), who is too small to be an every-down linebacker in their 3-4 scheme. He replaced Bryan Thomas (torn Achilles tendon), a sturdy, blue-collar run defender. Pettine acknowledged that it hurts not to have Thomas setting the edge on running plays. The Chargers' Ryan Mathews has enough slashing ability to pose a problem.
That said, the Jets still have enough talent to beat a team like the Chargers, especially with star cornerback Darrelle Revis playing the best ball of his career. Yes, the Chargers have a lot of firepower -- just ask Ryan, who thinks he'd have two Super Bowl rings in San Diego -- but they've developed some warts.
Rivers' pass protection has been suspect, forcing him into an inordinate number of mistakes -- seven interceptions. He's 6-foot-5, but he has a low release point, resulting in tipped balls. The Jets coached up their defensive linemen to raise their arms, trying to block his passing lanes. They also believe they can force him into bad throws by getting bodies at his feet, preventing him from striding.
"He doesn't have the biggest arm in the world, and most quarterbacks like to step into their throws," Pettine said.
The Chargers employ a vertical passing game, throwing the ball up to their small forward-like receivers, Vincent Jackson and Malcolm Floyd (both 6-foot-5), but their leading receiver is Mike Tolbert.
A running back.
When a running back is your top catcher, it's usually not a healthy passing game.
The Chargers could get Antonio Gates back for this game, and everybody knows that athletic tight ends are a matchup nightmare for the Jets. But forget about that for a second. Let's focus on the big picture.
If the Jets are who they say they are, a potentially dominant defense, this is the time to show it. A win over the Chargers would get them to the bye week at 4-3, setting them up nicely for a second-half run. They'd improve to 4-0 at home, and they haven't won four straight at home since 2008.
It's on the defense, which needs to rediscover its giant-killer mentality.
"The No. 1 thing is, we have to be a dominating defense -- a salivating defense," nose tackle Sione Pouha said.
Just like Jan. 17, 2010.