For each of the past two seasons Mark Sanchez's inconsistency has been cited as the element that stands between the Jets and their first Super Bowl appearance in more than four decades. Two seasons in a row, New York has reached the doorstep of the NFL title game and tripped, but the fault does not rest with the young quarterback. Sanchez played well in each of his AFC Championship Games, throwing for a combined 490 yards, with four TDs and one interception. Instead, what has ultimately failed the Jets has been the aspect of the team that was supposed to be unassailable and unmatched: coach Rex Ryan's defense.
Specifically, two uncharacteristically poor halves sank the Jets: the second half against Indianapolis two seasons ago (17 points allowed) and the first half against Pittsburgh last January (24 points surrendered, though one TD came on a fumble return). An effective Sanchez couldn't quite hold on in the first game and couldn't quite come back in the second. "Let's face it: We don't get to the AFC Championship Game without our defense," says Ryan. "Are you going to be perfect? No."
Still, the leaders of the Jets' D have spent each of the last two off-seasons contemplating why their unit has been furthest from perfection when it mattered most. "It eats at you, knowing you're so close to going to a Super Bowl," says stalwart fifth-year inside linebacker David Harris, who signed a four-year, $36 million contract extension on Aug. 2. Adds two-time All-Pro cornerback Darrelle Revis, "If you look at the film, there were certain plays where we could have played tighter or gotten to the quarterback a little quicker, and it didn't happen."
Ryan's defensive scheme is brilliant, and usually brilliantly effective. But it is also atypical in how much it relies on the ability of individual players to outrun or outmuscle opponents while the rest of the unit bewilders them. "They do a lot of stuff, and it's really confusing," explains Jets tight end Dustin Keller. "There's nobody harder for us to face than our own defense, in practice."
As with many complicated machines, though, a systemwide breakdown can occur when even one part fails. Against the Colts the defense's unraveling began when one man, and not even an obviously important one—journeyman cornerback Donald Strickland, who's started just 24 games over eight seasons—left with a groin injury. Against the Steelers the problems were continuations of those that had developed over the course of the season, stemming from injuries to linebacker Calvin Pace (broken right foot in the preseason), nosetackle Kris Jenkins (lost for the year with a torn left ACL in Week 1) and safety Jim Leonhard (fractured leg suffered in practice before Week 13). Pace is the only Jet who can be considered an elite pass rusher; he played in the last 12 regular-season games in 2010 and had a sack in each of the Jets' three playoff games, but the foot hampered him until the bitter end. "His foot was 20% healed by the end of the year, and he's out there that way," says an admiring Ryan.
The Jets' defense was still very good despite the injuries—third in yards allowed per game, at 291.5; sixth in points per game, at 19.0—but it paled in comparison with 2009's group, which led the league by comfortable margins in both categories. "We're embarrassed by it," says Ryan of the defense's slight drop in his second season with New York. "We expect to be Number 1 every year." ("If he says it's an embarrassment, then it is," says Revis. "He's the boss.")
Free-agent cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha would have helped to cover for a still-thin pass rush—Pace is back to full health, but Jenkins has retired and veterans Shaun Ellis and Jason Taylor left for the Patriots and the Dolphins, respectively—but he spurned the Jets' advances, and instead they re-signed Antonio Cromartie, who's very good but not in Asomugha's elite category. The failure to upgrade means that any injuries will place more responsibility on unproven players such as rookie linemen Muhammad Wilkerson and Kenrick Ellis and free-agent linebacker Aaron Maybin, the Bills' first-round pick in 2009, who has so far been a bust.
The Jets believe another season's experience with Ryan's complicated scheme will mitigate their lack of depth. "This is our third year going into Rex's system, so we have familiarity with it, and that's a plus," says Harris. Ryan, not surprisingly, expects a return to the top of the charts. "We've got the scheme, we've got the players, we've got the continuity, we've been together, we know each other," says Ryan. "It's on."
It might well be, if Ryan's defense can avoid injury. Of course, injury-free seasons in the NFL are rare.