Rex Ryan never stops thinking about the New England Patriots. He admitted as much Monday, also acknowledging he has made specific personnel moves to counter the Patriots' offensive weaponry.
The New York Jets traded for cornerback Antonio Cromartie in 2010. They drafted cornerback Kyle Wilson the same year. The latest additions to the anti-Patriot missile system were safeties Yeremiah Bell and LaRon Landry, both of whom were acquired last offseason to combat tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.
"We've built our team up on the back end to match up with them," Ryan said.
Under Ryan, the Jets have beaten the Patriots more than any other team -- a 3-4 record -- but the challenge changed in 2010 and 2011. That's when the Patriots turned their offense into a tight end-palooza, with Gronkowski and Hernandez shredding opponents with their power, speed and athleticism.
The Jets got Gronked in the previous meeting, last November at MetLife Stadium, where Gronkowski caught eight passes for 113 yards and two touchdowns -- a 37-16 Patriots victory. The Jets couldn't cover him. Their undersized safeties, Jim Leonhard and Eric Smith, bounced off the 6-foot-7 tight end as if they were trying to tackle a giant redwood.
General manager Mike Tannenbaum didn't make too many splashy moves in the offseason, but two of the more significant ones were Bell and Landry.
The Jets jumped on Landry early in free agency, hoping to reinvent the once-dynamic player who was on the verge of stardom with the Washington Redskins before injuries hit. When Ryan learned that Bell had become a cap casualty of the Miami Dolphins, he made one of his trademark house calls, flying down to South Florida to recruit the tough, savvy veteran.
On Sunday, we'll find out if the Jets done good. They finally have a safety tandem they believe can deal with Gronkowski and Hernandez.
The buzz started in training camp, when Bell and Landry started the fighting words, expressing confidence in their ability to cover the Patriots' duo -- specifically, Gronkowski, who produced 1,327 yards and 17 touchdowns in one of the greatest seasons ever for a tight end.
Bell said they could handle Gronk by getting physical with him, hitting him at the line of scrimmage.
"The big thing in this league is timing," Bell said on a quiet day in August. "If he has to take two extra steps to get around us, that's one extra second the quarterback has to [look] off him. [Tom] Brady can't key on him the whole time. We're going to get our hands on him and rough him up a little bit. We're going to come after them."
It's easy to talk that way in the summer, two months before stepping into the lion's den. But now it's here, and the Jets -- down cornerback Darrelle Revis -- have to figure out a way to use their assets in the secondary to handle Gronkowski, Hernandez, Wes Welker and the rest of the Brady bunch. Gronkowski isn't putting up last year's numbers, but he's still on a 77-catch, 950-yard pace.
How the Jets decide to match up against the Patriots will be one of the strategic keys to the first-place showdown in Foxborough.
"We're one of the -- maybe the only team in the league that can try to play them in man coverage, where most guys will back off and play zone after zone, down after down," Ryan said. "I think we, maybe, present different challenges."
With Revis, yes. But the dynamic changes without their lockdown corner.
The Jets will have to adjust, but there's no question they're better at safety with Bell and Landry, both of whom have started every game, playing almost every snap. Except for one breakdown in the Week 5 loss to the Houston Texans -- Landry blew an assignment, resulting in a 34-yard touchdown for Owen Daniels -- the Jets have improved significantly in tight end coverage.
Of course, they've faced only one stud -- the San Francisco 49ers' Vernon Davis, who was held to two catches for 28 yards. Now the Jets get two on the same field. We'll see if Ryan's "How to Beat the Patriots" blueprint works.