RCA Dome, Indianapolis, Saturday, Aug. 21: Jets defensive coordinator Donnie Henderson was getting bored with the vanilla defenses he'd given his young defenders for a preseason game against the Colts, so on this play he positioned rookie cornerback Derrick Strait, a third-round draft pick, up close to the line to play wideout Reggie Wayne straight up. And he moved rookie safety Erik Coleman, a fifth-rounder, into a blitz look, with the intention of blitzing him. Finally, Henderson stationed his prize rookie, linebacker Jonathan Vilma, a first-round choice, next to Strait and Coleman, directly across from tight end Marcus Pollard.
Quarterback Peyton Manning surveyed this alignment, licked his chops and audibled to one of the nastier items in the Indianapolis playbook. It was a pick play in which Pollard angled out, taking Vilma with him and knocking Strait flat on his back, leaving the uncovered Wayne to run a slant underneath. The play went for 44 yards and set up the Colts' only touchdown of the night. Naturally, the officials never called the illegal pick. (This is the year they help the offense, remember?)
Looking at films of the play in his office a day later, Henderson let out a sigh as he realized the huge task ahead of him. "My fault," he said. "I've got to get them to do a better job of recognition. And I shouldn't have put them in such a situation."
The wondrous crop of defensive rookies has been the talk of Jets camp. Vilma, a tackling machine at Miami, flies to the ball with amazing speed. Henderson is trying him all over the place--in the middle, on the weak side--but he isn't quite sure where Vilma will be the most effective. Strait, out of Oklahoma, has shown he has the instincts to handle the slot receiver, making him a perfect candidate for nickelback. Coleman, from Washington State, seemed perfect for the strong safety job the first day he reported for practice. But they are rookies. Kids. And quarterbacks around the NFL feast off players such as these. "Don't I know it," Henderson said. "It'll be an exciting season, but it won't be an easy one."
For the last five years, including the Ravens' 2000 Super Bowl season, Henderson coached the Baltimore secondary. What a joy, being able to work with that crushing defense. He'd love to turn Vilma into another Ray Lewis. The kid's smart, and he's got the personality to assume that role someday. But Lewis had two monster tackles, Sam Adams and Tony Siragusa, to keep the blockers off him in the championship season, and at 230 pounds Vilma is too light to take on guards and centers by himself. He needs a bodyguard, someone to tie up blockers.
Stationed in front of Vilma, playing the nose when the Jets go with an odd front, is 317-pound Dewayne Robertson, the fourth pick in the draft last year, the guy New York traded up to get. No matter how high they're drafted, interior defensive linemen seldom become stars their first year, and Robertson was no exception. The Jets wanted him to penetrate, shoot the gaps, collapse the pocket, and yes, he did show a burst at times, but he displayed little ball awareness.
Now coaches are asking him to add a two-gap to his repertoire, to impose his will on a pair of blockers. Oh, Robertson has seen plenty of double teams, but generally the blockers have been the ones imposing their will. He remains a work in progress. But give the Jets credit. They saw a slow and aging defense last season, and they overhauled the back seven. Having rookies and second-year men flying all over the field isn't a bad way to start.
The offense certainly is capable of big things, with Chad Pennington healthy and throwing to such talented wideouts as Santana Moss and Justin McCareins, who was acquired in a trade with the Titans. "It's kind of interesting, the shelf life you have in the NFL," says Pennington, who broke his wrist during the preseason last year, an injury that all but doomed the Jets' hopes. "It seems to last around four years or so, then it's time to reload. It seems that just yesterday I was the young guy being groomed to take over. Now I'm in my fifth year and I'm a veteran leader."
The sooner the young guys start feeling the same way, the better for the Jets. --P.Z.