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WHILE THE headlines in New York this summer focused on the battle between fourth-year quarterback Kellen Clemens and rookie Mark Sanchez, the Jets' identity will have little to do with their passing game. "When I picture the team I want, it's tough and physical, it can stop the run and it can run the ball," new coach Rex Ryan says. "If it turns out the strength of our team is defense and we're not throwing the ball all over the place, that's great. That means we'll be in every game."
The formula worked well for the 10 years that Ryan was a defensive coach in Baltimore, and it's well-suited to the personnel in New York. While the Jets have little experience at quarterback or wide receiver, the running game is solid, with Pro Bowl pick Thomas Jones and third-down back Leon Washington working behind an experienced offensive line. The defense also has proven talent, but to kick it up to Ravens level, the team brought in three of Ryan's former players: inside linebacker Bart Scott, strong safety Jim Leonhard and defensive end Marques Douglas.
Ryan made the acquisition of the 29-year-old Scott a top priority because his skill set—fast to the quarterback, hard-hitting, good in coverage—fits Ryan's multiple-look defense. Scott also brings a familiarity with Ryan's system and plenty of attitude. "A lot of times players from Baltimore go to other teams and know just as much about defense as the coordinators," he says. "I didn't want to have that. I didn't want to go to a Tampa Two, bend-don't-break defense and be bored to death. I know what good defense looks like, and we're developing it here."
While less outspoken than Scott, the 5'8", 186-pound Leonhard is also being counted on to relate the principles of Baltimore's scheme. An undrafted free agent out of Wisconsin in 2005, Leonhard is a classic Ryan player, a guy who might not have looked to be NFL-caliber but who produces because of his intelligence and aggressiveness. Leonhard credits Ravens All-Pro safety Ed Reed with teaching him how to use deception to confuse quarterbacks, and he hopes to duplicate Reed's penchant for big plays. "We're going to attack," Leonhard says. "We're not going to put everything on our offense to set the tempo and take control of the game. We're going to be disappointed if we don't come up with points on a regular basis."
Jets defenders spent significant time working on their blocking patterns during camp to make sure they take advantage of turnovers. If the defensive front can apply sufficient pressure, the backfield of Leonhard, former All-Pro safety Kerry Rhodes, Pro Bowl cornerback Darrelle Revis and rejuvenated onetime Eagles corner Lito Sheppard expects easy pickings. "The ball is going to get out quick or the quarterback is going down," Rhodes says. "We expect to get a lot of interceptions this year. That's why we practice that silly wall-blocking drill."
Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, formerly Baltimore's linebackers coach, is focused on creating a ferocious pass rush. A Philadelphia-area native, Pettine grew up admiring Ryan's father, Buddy, for his singleness of purpose when it came to harassing QBs. "If you want to kill something, you gotta cut off the head," Pettine says. "There are instances where we're willing to give up some yards to get a hit on the quarterback. That's a body punch. Maybe that'll pay dividends later in the game."
The defense outplayed the offense steadily throughout training camp, but to re-create a Ravens-like intensity in one season won't be easy. "The Jets have similar talent," Scott says. "A little bit younger, a little more raw. The thing Baltimore had was tradition. We're going to need to lean on each other to create that. If we do, watch out."
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP
COACH: REX RYAN