If there's one thing the New York Jets do well, it's play defense. Since 2001, only the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens have allowed fewer yards than the Jets, a top-10 defense in six of the past seven seasons.
It's not Steel Curtain-esque, but the Jets have a tradition and they hope to enhance it this season. Inspired by their talent-rich defensive line, the internal optimism is surging.
"We've got guys in here that match up with some of the best guys in football," defensive end Jarvis Jenkins said. "If we put it together with all 11, it'll be scary to see what we're going to be at the end of the season. I think we're going to do it. We've got the makings to be one of the best defensive teams that the Jets have had."
It's a defense in transition. Four starters from last season are gone -- Damon Harrison, Demario Davis, Calvin Pace and Antonio Cromartie -- but there's more than enough remaining talent to crack the top-5 in yards allowed for the second straight year. There will be some early growing pains, as Muhammad Wilkerson works his way back to 100 percent and the kid linebackers learn on the job. There's also the matter of Sheldon Richardson's one-game suspension to start the season.
This group should be starting to peak by early October, the beginning of their rock 'em-sock 'em stretch on the schedule. The Jets meet four imposing defensive teams in successive weeks -- the Seattle Seahawks, Steelers, Arizona Cardinals and Ravens. If the Jets fail to match up defensively, their season could be unraveling by Halloween.
"You can't predict the future, but I know we have a lot of guys up front who can get after it," Leonard Williams, one of those guys, told ESPN New York radio. "It'll be a scary sight when we're all there and healthy and full-go. We have so many people up front, you can't [focus] on one person on the line. It's going to make us great."
Coach Todd Bowles and defensive coordinator Kacy Rodgers haven't revealed any schematic changes, but you will notice some new wrinkles if you pay close attention. Such as:
Without Harrison, the prototypical widebody, the Jets could play without a traditional nose tackle in their base 3-4 front. Many assumed Steve McLendon, formerly of the Steelers, would step into Harrison's role, playing head-up on the center, but don't bet on it. As McLendon said, "I'm a defensive tackle, not a nose tackle."
The Jets have options. They can tweak their 3-4 front, use more 4-3 fronts than usual or rotate on the nose. They're toying with different ideas instead of trying to fit round pegs into square holes. That's called good coaching.
One of the nose-tackle possibilities is Williams, who started the preseason opener on the nose and recorded a sack. Line coach Pepper Johnson said Williams actually played more nose tackle than any other spot in the offseason. So, yes, they're serious about it. At 6-foot-5, 302 pounds, Williams isn't your classic nose, but he'd bring an element of athleticism to the position. It also would allow their three best linemen -- Williams, Wilkerson and Richardson -- to play at the same time.
Richardson, for one, believes McLendon is perfectly capable of replacing the popular Harrison, whom they will see Saturday night when they play the New York Giants.
"[He was] a great addition. We didn't lose a step at all," Richardson said of McLendon. "That's all you can ask for. We're more efficient in the pass rush now from the middle; that's me included."
Rookie linebacker Darron Lee is the X factor. So far, we've only seen him as a traditional inside linebacker, but that figures to change in the regular season. Bowles and Rodgers are cooking up ways to unleash Lee, a unique talent because of his speed. He's a hybrid player who can blitz from the edge or cover a running back or tight end. For now, his role is vanilla because it wouldn't make sense to show anything in the preseason.
"Yes, certain things have come up that we've discussed, trying to use him as and doing certain things with him," Bowles said. "During the season, we’ll try to make certain things come to life."
Imagine the possibilities: With Wilkerson, Richardson and Williams drawing most of the attention and tying up blockers, they can send Lee on stunts and delayed blitzes. His rookie season will be dictated by the creativity of the coaches.
This Jets defense will be something to watch. They have talent and flexibility.
"Pretty serious," cornerback Buster Skrine said of the unit's potential. "This D-line, we have a lot of people that the NFL would want. On the back end, we have to take advantage of it because we know they're going to get to the quarterback."