Pace suspension major setback for Jets

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham
The New York Jets' dynamic defense just became less vibrant.

The NFL has suspended outside linebacker Calvin Pace the first four games of 2009 for violating the league's performance-enhancing substance policy.

Pace can take part in training camp and preseason games, but he will be persona non grata at the Jets' facility beginning Sept. 5. He will miss games at the Houston Texans, against the New England Patriots, against the Tennessee Titans and at the New Orleans Saints.

He will be eligible to return to the active roster Oct. 5 and be able to play in Week 5 against the Miami Dolphins on "Monday Night Football."

Pace responded to the suspension through a statement released by the Jets:

"This is a situation that resulted from an over-the-counter dietary supplement that contained a substance that I did not know violated the league's policy. I am responsible for what I put into my body, and I should have paid closer attention to the league's guidelines.

"I regret that this has happened and apologize to my teammates, the entire Jets organization, as well as the fans. Hopefully, this does not distract from our ultimate goal of winning the Super Bowl."

Pace's absence will be a blow to Rex Ryan's defense. The big-ticket free agent led the Jets last year with 12 tackles for losses, tied for fifth in the NFL with five forced fumbles and recovered a team-high four. He finished with seven sacks, second to Shaun Ellis' eight.

But Pace's suspension at least should give Vernon Gholston an early opportunity to prove himself. Gholston, the sixth overall draft pick last year, made zero impact at outside linebacker.

Another possibility to step up is Marques Murrell, who was listed as Pace's backup on last year's depth chart and is said to have had a fine offseason.

The Jets better hope somebody steps up because a fast start could prove necessary to winning the AFC East, a division that might send only one team to the playoffs. The Patriots won 11 games last year and didn't get in, losing a tiebreaker to the Miami Dolphins, while the AFC North and AFC South sent two teams apiece.

The AFC East faces a far more difficult schedule this year. Their cross-divisional games are against the AFC South and NFC South.

That gives AFC East clubs four of the seven toughest schedules in the leagues based on last year's records.