Heading into the 2013 NFL draft, the discussion surrounding the New York Jets focused on the degree to which they'd be able to upgrade a suspect offense that struggled to move the football and score points last season. So it almost looked like a gaffe to many when the Jets invested in two defensive prospects in the first round, including one defensive tackle who isn't seen as an ideal fit for New York's scheme. Couldn't they have traded down? Did they panic? Everybody asked questions.
But the real answer lies in what the Jets should realize is their greatest strength: Coach Rex Ryan's ability to game plan. The offense isn't going to be special, and one draft pick won't change that. But if the Jets are going to compete in 2013, the defense needs to be, and Ryan needs the tools to build a solid defense.
Let's examine why the Jets can lead with defense this season despite the loss of All-Pro cornerback Darrelle Revis.
1. Replacing Revis?
Let's get this point out of the way: You don't replace the league's best corner. When healthy, Revis is in a class of his own when we look at his skill set, coverage ability and talent outside of the numbers. The Jets did well in their trade with Tampa Bay for him, given that it's still unknown if he can return to his pre-injury form. But remember that after Revis went down with an ACL injury in Week 3 of the 2012 season, this unit still managed to finish second in total passing defense (189.8 yards per game). And with rookies Dee Milliner and Sheldon Richardson, the Jets should be able to improve their defense in 2013 from both a coverage and pressure perspective.
Milliner's fit in Ryan's scheme
Milliner brings size and speed to the Jets on the outside, can close on the ball, takes the proper angles and is a physical player when asked to replace on the edge in the run game.
Is he better aligned in a press position compared to playing off-man? Sure he is. And Milliner will need to be coached hard in camp to improve his technique for a team that will show some Cover 4 (quarters). But the Jets do align their corners in press when they play Cover 1 (man-free) and in their blitz schemes (both zone and man). That caters to the rookie's skill set.
Most importantly, Milliner can pair with Antonio Cromartie while sliding Kyle Wilson inside to the nickel role where he can play the "two-way-go" (inside or outside release). This gives Ryan the freedom to run his game plan without restrictions.
Richardson's role on the defensive line
I understand the questions (or concerns) of picking Richardson at No. 13, regarding how he fits in the Jets' 3-4 scheme. However, let's look at the situation from this perspective: The Jets drafted a defensive lineman who has an explosive first step and a burst to get vertical up the field.
That is critical for the Jets because they aren't married to the 3-4. They're going to play both the 3-4 and 4-3, while aligning in multiple fronts in their sub-packages (nickel, dime) where Richardson can slide inside to the defensive tackle position. He will be able to get that inside push and collapse the pocket.
The Jets have some serious young talent on the defensive line in their sub packages when we add Muhammad Wilkerson and Quinton Coples to the mix. And I view Richardson as another tool for Ryan to create a three- or four-man rush that gives this defense the opportunity to play some coverage (Cover 4, Cover 2) in third-and-7-plus situations.
2. Pressure schemes
Ryan has a unique ability to maximize and create pressure situations that expose protection schemes up front. We've talked a lot about the lack of a pure, 3-4 edge rusher in this system for a while now, but he does so much to create pressure not merely from individuals, but from looks. Let's look at an example of how the Jets can generate pressure while taking away throwing lanes (or "hot reads") utilizing zone pressure. Here's one example:
Overload zone pressure
Overload zone pressure scheme
With Ruby personnel (three defensive linemen, two linebackers, six defensive backs) on the field, the Jets are showing open (weak) side pressure. Walk the free safety (FS) down and insert the dime back (D) into the front. This forces the offense to count the dime in the protection scheme and allows the Jets to roll their pressure to the closed (strong) side of the formation with the strong safety (SS), Sam (S) and Mike (M) adding to the blitz front.
This creates a five-man pressure scheme and a three-deep, three-under zone with the nickel (N) and open side defensive end playing the "seam-flat" (match to No. 2), the dime dropping to the "middle hook" (match to No. 3) and the free safety moving to the middle third.
The Jets want to force the quarterback to throw the slant, quick seam or smash with the underneath zone defenders playing through the throwing lanes. Yes, the Jets are looking to get a hit on the quarterback, but the scheme also leads to opportunities to make a play on the ball.
Remember, this is just one example (of many) that the Jets put on tape in 2012, but the principles remain the same: Disguise the front and set a trap for opposing quarterbacks by restricting -- or jumping -- potential blitz (hot) reads. Add in some man pressure and the Jets can work to dictate the flow of the game from a defensive perspective based on game/down-and-distance situations.
It's important to remember, particularly after they took a player like Richardson, that Ryan isn't all about individual matchups as much as he is about overall defensive talent and the combined problems the scheme can create.
3. Ryan's game-plan ability
Ryan's is a demanding defensive scheme, one that requires eye discipline, formation recognition and the ability to adjust (quickly) to offensive movement. But it is also a scheme that puts defenders in a position to make plays because of Ryan's ability to mesh both coverage and pressure.
Unlike a core Cover 2 defense that leans on landmark drops (where you're looking for a spot to work from) and scheme-based techniques, Ryan's defense will adjust the game plan to take away specific concepts or personnel groupings based on the opponent.
There is no doubt that the Jets will miss Revis. And the offense clearly needs to take some steps forward. But with Ryan in charge, plus the addition of Milliner and Richardson, the defense unit still can be the strength of the team, and the greatest reason they'll be in position to win games, despite trading the NFL's No. 1 cornerback.