FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- One week after befuddling Tom Brady, the New York Jets face a less daunting challenge at quarterback -- Buffalo Bills rookie EJ Manuel, who has 45,000 fewer passing yards than the New England Patriots star.
Jets coach Rex Ryan revealed a confident smile Wednesday when asked if his eyes light up when facing a rookie quarterback.
Ryan's complex and aggressive defensive scheme has caused a lot of problems for rookies. In four-plus seasons under Ryan, the Jets are 5-2 against rookie starters (see chart at right). The Jets have intercepted them seven times and held them to three touchdown passes.
What makes Sunday's game unusual is that Ryan, too, has a rookie at quarterback, Geno Smith. Save for a strike game in 1987, this will mark the first game in Jets history with two rookies starting at quarterback. That it's Manuel and Smith, the two highest-drafted quarterbacks in April, adds another layer to the story.
Smith was expected to be the first quarterback off the board, but his draft day turned into two draft days, as he slipped to the second round. The Bills selected Manuel with the 16th overall pick and named him their starter the week before the opener. Smith still is on a week-to-week audition, if you believe Jets officials.
"I'm way past that now," said Smith, insisting that falling behind Manuel in the draft doesn't fuel his motivation. "I'm a ways away from that. I'm not going to be selfish and go out there with that on my mind. I think that's a distraction."
So far, the edge goes to Manuel, who has completed 68 percent of his passes with only one interception and one sack. Smith has a 53 percent completion rate with four interceptions and nine sacks. Ryan likes the way Manuel uses his check-down receivers, and he'd like Smith to do the same.
The coach acknowledged that Smith has a tendency to hold the ball too long. Ryan wants him to run or throw a dump-off if no one is open, but he doesn't want him to rush into decisions. There's a fine line, obviously.
"Know where the escape points are," Ryan said.
Smith will face a familiar defensive scheme Sunday because a former Ryan protégé, Bills defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, has installed a system with many similarities. Pettine was at Ryan's side for the previous four seasons, absorbing knowledge he will undoubtedly use in an attempt to confuse Smith. Both defenses like to blitz, so it could be tough on both rookies.
"It's always important to get the ball out and get it out on time," said Smith, who imploded last week with a three-interception fourth quarter against the Patriots. "You never want to sit back there and pat it and babysit the ball."
Ironically, the Jets did that to Brady, who, with a depleted supporting cast, suffered one of the worst statistical games of his career. The Patriots still won, 13-10. It was a crushing loss for the Jets, but it did wonders for the confidence of the defense.
The Jets will rely on their defense to stabilize the team as it endures the growing pains of a rookie quarterback. Asked if he learned anything from 2009, when he started a rookie (Mark Sanchez) from Day 1, Ryan smiled.
"Yeah," he said. "Play great defense."