New York Jets' return to disaster scene highlights drastic reversal on defense

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- A look at what's happening around the New York Jets:

1. They flipped it: The Jets return Sunday to the scene of their worst game under coach Robert Saleh -- a 54-13 thrashing by the New England Patriots last Oct. 24. This is a good time for a quick look at how much the defense has improved since then. We're talking about a near-historic leap, a subject that has come up among players.

"We were talking about that in meetings," defensive end John Franklin-Myers said. "It's crazy to see how far we've come ... and how far we've got left to go."

Check this out: The Jets have allowed 10.1 points per game fewer than last season, the NFL's third-biggest drop from the previous season since 2000, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. They've allowed 85.7 yards per game fewer than last season, also the third-biggest drop since 2000.

The marshmallow days are over. The Jets haven't allowed more than 30 points in a game; that was their average per game in 2021.

The best illustration of the turnaround is the starting lineup. On their previous trip to Gillette Stadium, the Jets started five players now in backup roles -- cornerbacks Bryce Hall and Brandin Echols, safety Ashtyn Davis, defensive end Bryce Huff and linebacker Jamien Sherwood (replaced the injured C.J. Mosley that day).

Basically, they upgraded nearly half the lineup through the draft and free agency.

Only three starters haven't changed -- Franklin-Myers, defensive tackle Quinnen Williams and linebacker Quincy Williams. It's amazing what better personnel, scheme familiarity and good coaching can do.

2. No longer the 'butt' of jokes: Tuesday marks the 10-year anniversary of The Butt Fumble, one of the low points in Jets history. Fans hate to be reminded of the play, which happened against the Patriots, but there could be some cool symmetry. If they win Sunday, the Jets can "celebrate" the anniversary by being in first place. The last time they led the AFC East this late in the season was 2010, Week 12 -- their last playoff season.

3. A nod from Belichick: Mosley received a long-distance compliment last week from Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who praised the middle linebacker for anticipating plays so well in the Oct. 30 meeting that he was calling them out to the rest of the defense. With Belichick, you always have to wonder if there's an ulterior motive. Mosley took it at face value.

"It's definitely an honor, coming from a coach of his stature," he said.

Mosley prides himself on knowing the opponent through film study, but he also picks up "tells" during the game. He can be tipped off by a certain formation, an offensive lineman's stance or even an audible. Teammates said Mosley nails the right play several times a game.

While he appreciated Belichick's praise, Mosley wasn't about to let it stay in his head.

"In one ear, out the other," he said, smiling.

If Mosley is a cap casualty after the season (his '23 cap number is $21.5 million), he could have a suitor in Belichick.

4. GM's never-ending quest: The re-signing of veteran guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif (to the practice squad) is yet another example of Joe Douglas' commitment to maintaining offensive line depth. Saleh joked that the general manager would fill the 53-man roster with offensive linemen if he had his druthers. Douglas, a former offensive lineman, puts a premium on the position. That emphasis may have saved the season.

The line has been crushed by injuries, but there hasn't been a noticeable drop-off. That's impressive, considering they've had to patch it together. Consider:

Four current starters joined the team this season, including two cut by other teams in 2022 -- right guard Nate Herbig and right tackle Cedric Ogbuehi. Left tackle Duane Brown was in free-agent limbo until August, with some around the league thinking he'd retire. Left guard Laken Tomlinson is the only one of the four new starters who was locked into a position from last offseason.

Douglas, with help from the pro-personnel department, was able to replenish on the fly, which isn't easy. Competent linemen are hard to find. Duvernay-Tardif is insurance if Herbig, dealing with a shin injury, can’t make it through the season.

5. Memo to Zach Wilson: When he drops back to pass Sunday, he might want to stay clear of No. 32 -- safety Devin McCourty. He has been a tormentor of young quarterbacks. He made two interceptions in the Oct. 30 meeting, giving him three against Wilson. Previously, he picked off two against Sam Darnold. All told, McCourty has seven interceptions against the Jets. Oh, yes, he also scored on a kickoff return in 2012.

6. Justin's time? Sunday's game features two premier special-teamers, the Jets' Justin Hardee and the Patriots' Matthew Slater, one of the best in history. Slater has made the Pro Bowl in 10 of the last 12 seasons, but Hardee believes it's time for a change. It's a tough situation because only one special-teamer per conference is selected, not counting a kicker and punter.

"They take one guy and I'm the guy. I'm the guy!" Hardee said. "I don't think anybody is better than me."

Hardee acknowledged his respect for Slater, but added, "I'm chasing my own legacy." Hardee has recorded a team-high nine tackles, fifth-most in the NFL; Slater has three tackles, tied for fifth on the Patriots. To unseat Slater, Hardee probably needs to make an exceptional, eye-catching play.

7. Did you know? The Jets like to bill themselves as a young team -- and they are -- but that's not the entire story of their roster makeup. It's a roster loaded with draft pedigree.

They have a league-high 14 first-round picks (current and former), ranging from young (cornerback Sauce Gardner, 22) to old (quarterback Joe Flacco, 37). All told, the 14 players have combined for 5,160 snaps -- also a league high.

Of the 14, six were top-10 picks.

8. The anti-Rams? Franklin-Myers offered an interesting take on team chemistry, comparing these Jets to his previous team, the Los Angeles Rams. He was a member of the 2018 NFC champions.

"It's completely different," he said. "At the Rams, everybody was paid and there was no team camaraderie. It was kind of like you buy a team and win a Super Bowl. This is completely the opposite. This is building a team from the ground up. It's great to see it from both sides, how that works out. It worked out for (the Rams) and it's panning out for us now."

9. Tough schedule: The road to the playoffs won't be easy for the Jets. They have the 10th toughest remaining schedule, according to Tankathon.com. That includes road games against each team in the division.

10. The last word: "I get it’s the Patriots, and I get it’s big for the fans and some of the people upstairs in the business department, our ownership and all that stuff. But for us as coaches and players, you’ve got to keep the main thing the main thing." -- Saleh on Sunday's matchup