Conor Orr: Jets defense determined to correct deficiencies against the run
There was a moment of silence, but this was only the beginning. Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine had just flashed quotes around the room from the 49ers’ Carlos Rogers that suggested the Jets defense had given up last Sunday. Heads hung as the PowerPoint slides glared back at them. The coaches had decided to begin the meeting with another kick in the teeth.
But then came the game film, which seemed worse for some than the first time they’d watched it on their own. Seventeen missed tackles, 245 rushing yards, a 5.6 yards-per-play average against, 16 rushing first downs and a 36:56 time of possession for the 49ers in the 34-0 Jets loss.
No one spoke as the 49ers ran all over them again. No one had anything to say.
“It’s been atrocious,” outside linebacker Bryan Thomas said at his locker on Friday. “That’s the word I can use. … But we need to get this rectified.”
There were eight starters in the room who have played the same scheme for three years now and 12 total players who have had at least two years in the system. They have always stopped the run: No. 8 in the league in 2009 (98.6 ypg), No. 3 in the league in 2010 (90.9) and No. 13 in the league (111.1) last season.
One quarter into the 2012 season, they are ranked 31st (172.8) in rushing defense. Their inside linebackers, Bart Scott (who is playing through a toe injury) and David Harris, are Nos. 1 and 2 in the league in missed tackles for their position, according to Pro Football Focus. None of their defensive tackles are in the top 35 in run stop percentage, a defensive metric that measures a lineman’s success rate at defending running plays, and just two are in the top 100.
“It’s a big part of our trademark, our personality,” Pettine said. “That’s what we’re going to do, we’re going to stop the run. And we’re in heavier calls to stop the run and we’re not stopping it. That’s frustrating.”
Monday night, the Houston Texans come to town with one of the best-designed run schemes in football — a zone look created to string defenses along until someone makes a mistake. Arian Foster, the fourth-leading rusher in the NFL and a two-time Pro Bowler, is among the best at making defenses look foolish.
The Jets, though, are determined not to feel like they did in that quiet room again.
“You will at some point have ups and downs,” coach Rex Ryan said. “It’s not always a smooth road, but again it’s where you end the race and not necessarily where you started. Even though I’m accustomed to starting fast, we haven’t started, numbers wise, very well defensively. We know we need to get better, but I’m confident we will.”
A more simple approach
This was meant to be the year when everyone was one step faster, though the true meaning behind the motto may have been scrambled.
Bob Sutton, the Jets linebackers coach, said adding faster personnel was an obvious move, but that he integrated the increase in speed with a more simple approach schematically.
“I think the real gist of that whole thought process was, let’s get this thing dialed in as best we can,” he said.
Sutton said Ryan’s defense can begin to “take on a life of its own” after a few years. More seasoned players who have a firm grasp on the base concepts and can follow along when things get more complicated. Faster, in his mind, meant a situation where everyone approaches the calls with the same mind-set.
“You can say hey, ‘this is just like this,’ ” Sutton said. “But when you have new people, they don’t know what ‘this’ was. We need to make sure it’s tight and player-friendly from the standpoint of making sense. It makes the learning easier.”
Where there are still hiccups in the initiative, there come “outlaw” moments where players pursue the ball more aggressively in lieu of sticking to an assignment.
As an example, Pettine brought up defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson on the first drive against the Dolphins back in Week 3. During a long run that bounced off the left end, Wilkerson had already bulled his way toward the middle of the offensive line.
Aside from missed tackles, there has been a heightened focus on making sure these errors are eliminated. Thomas said that meetings have had a more open feel this week, especially their joint sessions with the linebackers and defensive tackles.
“One of our mantras is ‘do your job and good things will happen,’ ” Pettine said. “You get some guys that think they can do more, they think they see something, but they have to trust the structure of the defense, trust the system and trust the guys around them.”
Ryan knew how his father, Buddy, felt when the 1993 Houston Oilers gave up 142 rushing yards during their season opener.
Buddy was a defensive mind and he was humbled. Ryan remembers his dad being lampooned in the media for allowing Lorenzo Neal and Derek Brown to thrash his proud unit.
“My point is, that team came back and led the NFL on almost every category defensively,” Ryan said.
He is preaching perspective, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be change.
To combat the problems from a physical standpoint, he implemented an eight-minute, full-contact period at the end of Thursday’s practice that will now be a weekly fixture. The starting offense will only run base power plays against the starting defense.
The Jets went through tackling circuits, with drill block shedding and form-fitting technique.
The coaches and players know well who they’re playing Monday and why it seems like the worst possible time for a turnaround. But they’re fixated more on the silence in the meeting room that day, and never again feeling like putting their heads down.
“I think you’re going to get all sorts of insults hurled at you in sports, ‘You’re too slow, you’re dumb, you’re this, you’re that,’ ” Pettine said. “But one of the worst ones that can be put on you is that you quit.”