FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- On a carefree day in August, Rex Ryan made the prediction he makes every August, forecasting a top-five finish in the defensive rankings. It didn't sound crazy, certainly not as outlandish as his Super Bowl guarantees. After all, his defenses always place among the best. Look it up.
Ryan, the self-proclaimed best defensive coach in the NFL, was so confident that he called the top five "a given. I don't care who's out there." He joked that secondary coach Dennis Thurman could suit up at safety, and they'd still be elite.
That was a big swing and a miss.
On Sunday, the New York Jets will be the second-best defense on the field at MetLife Stadium, where two 4-7 teams meet for pride. The Arizona Cardinals are superior in every statistical category, as the Jets have slipped to mediocrity -- 19th in total defense.
When the autopsy of the season is performed, one of the key questions will be determining how it got to this point, how the Jets' once-formidable defense -- ranked first, third and fifth in Ryan's first three seasons -- could fall this far in one year.
"We set a high standard around here," defensive tackle Mike DeVito said, "and it's definitely not up to our standard."
Ryan and right-hand man Mike Pettine didn't forget how to coach overnight, although they have to take some blame for a unit that has underachieved. Mostly, they've been undermined by a variety of factors -- injuries, bad decisions and age.
The Revis Factor. The Jets lost cornerback Darrelle Revis, their best player, to a season-ending knee injury in Week 3. Statistically, the pass defense has held its own, but the Jets definitely miss Revis' ability to lock down an opponent's top receiver. That luxury afforded them the flexibility to deploy an extra player in their blitz packages.
As a result, the Jets have lost their trademark aggressiveness. They've used five or more rushers only 32 percent of the time, the lowest mark of the Ryan era, according to ESPN Stats & Information. When they send extra pressure, it doesn't work -- 10 touchdown passes allowed, only one interception, the worst differential in the league.
The Maybin Goof. They went into the season counting on Aaron Maybin as their top outside rusher, basing the evaluation on his team-leading six sacks in limited action last season. This was an epic miscalculation. He lucked into a few sacks because of terrific coverage on the back end, but the Jets bought into the Maybin myth.
Now he's gone. He did nothing in eight games and they cut him. Because the Jets didn't add any edge rushers in the offseason, they're left with a pedestrian cast of rushers who can't get to the quarterback. They have only 17 sacks, and "that's like, wow, stunning to me," Ryan said.
Their leading sacker is linebacker Bryan Thomas, 33, who has all of 2½. In fact, the Jets are one of only two teams without a player with at least three sacks. Thomas had no idea he was leading the team. Informed by a reporter, he replied, "Oh, gosh. With 2½?"
No Nose. Essentially, the Jets have played most of the season without a nose tackle. Sione Po'uha has battled a painful back injury, limiting his ability to tie up blockers at the point of attack. Backup Kenrick Ellis missed four games because of a knee injury, but he was struggling before he got hurt.
You can't play a 3-4 defense without a stout nose tackle; it's one of the primary reasons why the Jets are allowing 143 rushing yards per game, 30th in the league. An aging, slow linebacking corps also has contributed to the problem. The inability to stop the run has hurt other areas, especially the third-down defense.
It used to be Ryan's hallmark: Stop them on first and second down, force them into third-and-long and hit 'em with the kitchen sink. That formula isn't working; the Jets are getting torched on third down.
Mixed draft results. The Jets should have one of the biggest, most athletic lines in the league, considering they used first-round drafts picks on Muhammad Wilkerson and Quinton Coples and a third-round choice on Ellis. But it hasn't materialized, as Coples and Ellis have been slow to develop. Wilkerson is starting to become an impact player, but he'll never have flashy stats.
This is where Ryan has to bear some culpability. Even though general manager Mike Tannenbaum has the final say on personnel, he listens to Ryan when it comes to the defense. Is it a coincidence the last three first-round picks have been on defense? Some close to the organization believe Ryan wields too much influence in the draft process.
In the four drafts of the Ryan era, the Jets have yet to select a pass-rushing outside linebacker, almost incomprehensible for a team that plays the 3-4. That oversight, league sources believe, has Ryan's fingerprints on it -- his belief in his ability to scheme up a pass rush without an elite rusher.
All the warts were exposed last week by the New England Patriots, who racked up 475 total yards -- the highest total in 65 games under Ryan. Now the Jets get two of the worst offenses in the league, the Cardinals and the Jacksonville Jaguars. If they can't dominate these next two games, something is wrong.
The Cards' quarterback probably will be Ryan Lindley, a rookie with only one career start. The old Jets' defense would be frothing, predicting doom for the kid QB. The current Jets?
"Hopefully," linebacker David Harris said, "we bring our A game."