REX RYAN LOST 40 POUNDS THIS OFF-SEASON AFTER LAP-BAND SURGERY (HE ALSO LOST $50,000 AFTER FLIPPING OFF A DOLPHINS FAN), BUT HIS APPETITE FOR a good boast remains happily intact. The 2009 season proved that the Jets are bullies who can back it up. They like to tell you they will knock you out, ask you to choose the round and then dance all over your crumpled body when they do. "We know we have an outstanding team, and I think the rest of the league is realizing that as well," Ryan said this spring after adding pass rusher Jason Taylor to a stacked defense. "We're not hiding. We never hide. It's on."
The Jets' defense finished No. 1 in the NFL last season, and it could be even better in 2010. The unit thrives by causing mayhem and mistakes, ideal for fantasy production, and will be especially feisty after falling a game shy of the Super Bowl. Last season the Jets caused 39 turnovers (25 interceptions, 14 fumble recoveries) while allowing the fewest yards per game (252.3), fewest passing yards (153.7) and fewest points (14.8). Against the run the Jets' defense gave up an average of just 98.6 yards, eighth best in the league and a ranking that might have been higher if not for the left-knee ACL injury sustained by run stopper Kris Jenkins in Week 6.
With Jenkins now back, it's hard to find soft spots in a fast, boisterous group that last season had two shutouts, the gold standard for a fantasy defense. To a secondary with the NFL's best cornerback in Darrelle Revis and underrated safety Jim Leonhard, the Jets added former Browns safety Brodney Pool (a candidate to replace Kerry Rhodes, who was demoted mid-season and later traded to Arizona), former Chargers cornerback Antonio Cromartie and cornerback Kyle Wilson, the team's first-round pick out of Boise State.
The tinkering continued on the front seven, where the Jets moved outside linebacker Vernon Gholston to defensive end and hope that Taylor, at 36, can cause havoc coming off the edge. Gang Green struggled with sacks last year, ranking 18th, with 32. "You've got to be able to rush the passer in the fourth quarter, and that's something we really wanted to get better at," Ryan said. "We lost a lot of games late. We've got to be able to get people off the field in critical situations, and I think adding Jason Taylor to what we have is really going to be something for us." Said Taylor, "People say I'm old and washed up and can't get to the quarterback anymore. The fire's still burning, trust me."
If Taylor can add his 2009 production (33 tackles, seven sacks) to a defense that pressures from different angles with different people (10 players had sacks last year), opponents will have to load up with an extra tight end or fullback, further hampering their ability to put up points. The only concern about this year's Jets is the loss of return man Leon Washington, who was always a threat to score. With Washington traded, the Jets will look to the rookie Wilson to return punts, with Leonhard and receiver Jerricho Cotchery also in the mix. Running back Joe McKnight, a fourth-round selection from USC, may return kickoffs.
The core of the defense remains, along with its brash talk and its belief. "We're the New York Jets," said Ryan. For so long that statement meant ridicule and chaos; now it means a defense without peer.