There is a fine line between winning and losing in the NFL. It usually boils down to a handful of plays, which dictate the game’s final score. The New York Jets often fell short last season, in large part to a defense that suffered from inconsistency and a lack of big plays. Credit the Jets for not settling for mediocrity this offseason. The firing of former defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell and a host of seasoned veterans from the secondary has shaken up a defensive unit that ranked 27th in completion percentage (61.8), and 29th in interceptions (11). Joining Cottrell through the exit door were CB Aaron Beasley, S Sam Garnes and S Tyrone Carter. The front office recognized a change was needed. The arrival of new coordinator Donnie Henderson has instilled optimism and a greater sense of urgency for a defense in search of its identity.
The club turned to Henderson hoping that his experience and enthusiasm can turn the defense into a ball-hawking, turnover-causing unit. Since 1999, Henderson served as a defensive backs coach for the Baltimore Ravens, a team that has consistently been ranked among the top defenses in the league. Last season, found great success tutoring a Ravens’ secondary that was fourth in the NFL in interceptions (24). In his first season with the Jets, Henderson has implemented a new, aggressive scheme that utilizes various formations and blitz packages designed to confuse the opposition. After three weeks of training camp, a rash of injuries has clouded the transition.
“We started off slow. It was a concern, let’s be honest,” Henderson said. “What’s happening is guys are (getting injured). When you get guys who go down, somebody’s got to step up real quick.”
Nine-year veteran CB Ray Mickens has been recently sidelined with a knee injury and S Reggie Tongue recently resumed workouts after missing nearly three weeks with a strained calf.
“We have room to improve,” said an exasperated Corwin Brown, the team’s new defensive backs coach. “We’ve done okay, but we have room to improve.”
Growing pains were to be expected for a unit that underwent such a significant overhaul earlier this year. The free agent additions of former Cardinals CB David Barrett and Tongue, formerly of the Seahawks, are expected to bring leadership to an unsettled secondary. The team also invested three draft choices to bolster the unit this year and the young prospects have responded by pushing for playing time.
The rookie who has most benefited from a veteran’s absence has undoubtedly been fifth-round choice S Erik Coleman, who has been replacing Tongue at strong safety. Tongue’s injury has allowed Coleman to seize a golden opportunity to impress the coaching staff. Coleman has been a consistent force in practice each day, displaying the coverage and run support skills to become a full-time starter in his first year. The Washington State product has also exhibited an impeccable work ethic and commitment to succeed.
“Every day in practice or in film afterwards, I try to pick out something that I wasn’t very good at, because there is always something you can improve on,” Coleman said. “If I can just stay consistent, then I’ll be able to make some plays.”
While his starting status could be eroding, the hard-hitting Tongue has become a positive influence on the younger players in camp, offering valuable guidance and support when called upon.
“It’s really my obligation to (tutor) the younger guys,” Tongue said. “(Rookies) Erik (Coleman), Rashad (Washington), (Derrick) Strait – all of them. Anytime they need any help, I’m there to help. Whether they are better than me or not, I’ve got to help them out.”
Mickens has adapted the same attitude this summer, but he vows to maintain his integral role as the team’s nickel back and spot starter this year.
“I want to achieve my goals and I still believe I can,” Mickens said. “I want to be the best in my profession. I still have years left to play; I still feel good.”
Nonetheless, Mickens has pointed his understudy, rookie CB Derrick Strait, in the right direction as the former Oklahoma star is facing the unenviable task of learning both the nickel and cornerback positions.
“I am just trying to learn as much as I can from (Mickens), as far as being in the slot and at corner too,” Strait said. “He has been in the league for a long time, so I am just trying to learn all I can from him.”
Strait is expected to see significant playing time at both positions for the remainder of the preseason.
A new defensive system requires the same learning curve regardless of where a player falls on the depth chart. Starting free safety Jon McGraw is anxious to start from scratch considering his season was cut short by a shoulder injury last year. McGraw has looked solid in camp this summer, showing a reckless abandon in run support and deflecting passes in coverage. McGraw is excited about the new scheme this year, but realizes it will take some time to form a cohesive unit.
“I want to get the defense together, so that we’re all on the same page and the communication is clear between all the guys,” the third-year safety said.
At corner, the team has reliable veteran CB Donnie Abraham, who enters his third season with the Jets. Abraham had a sub par season in 2003, recording just one interception. Yet, Abraham’s down year has not shaken the confidence of coach Herm Edwards, who tabbed Abraham an “interception-machine”.
“(Abraham) has great instincts,” Edwards said. “A normal year for him is when he gets six (interceptions). In a great year, he could get nine. That’s the type of player he is.”
High expectations also accompany newcomer CB David Barrett, who is projected as the starter opposite Abraham this year. Barrett, who has recorded over 80 tackles in each of the past two seasons with Arizona Cardinals, provides the Jets with some toughness at the corner spot.
“He is a physical guy,” Edwards said of Barrett. “He is a mentally tough guy. That is what you want when you bring in a corner- you want mentally tough guys that have played out there a little bit and have been beat at times and you watch how they react. He is that way. He is a competitor and you have to be that way to play that corner.”
The team has an influx of young talent auditioning for reserve roles this year. Rounding out the depth chart at secondary includes S Derek Pagel, a fifth-round draft choice last year that currently lines up with the second team and contributes on the kickoff return unit. Others competing at safety include Omare Lowe and rookies Rashad Washington and Jarrell Weaver. Weaver has emerged as a physical presence in camp, colliding with ball carriers even during non-contact drills. Washington has flashed and appears to be more comfortable each practice.
A sleeper that has emerged in the late stages of training camp this summer has been rookie CB Roderick Bryant, an UDFA from Idaho. Bryant, whose been given the nickname “Gameday” by the teammates after suiting up full gear for practice one day, had an impressive performance against the Indianapolis Colts last Saturday. Bryant was given the start due to injuries hampering Mickens (knee) and Barrett (ankle) and led the team in tackles (5), while also displaying solid man coverage.
“I am a man coverage type guy,” said Bryant, who is the cousin of RB Lamont Jordan. “I can always do zone, I can do almost everything mostly. I just love man coverage. I love to lock the guys up just one-on-one.”
Certainly, the team prefers consistency to flashing play, but the team has to be pleased with the overall progress of a defensive unit that possesses a mixed blend of promising talent with veteran experience.
While the secondary is often held accountable for any shortcomings in pass defense, it is ultimately a team effort. Edwards stressed that the performance of the front seven will be a determining factor in how potent the defense can be in 2004.
“That is the whole key. If you are going to have a great secondary, it starts with the pass rush,” Edwards said. “Sustaining a pass rush and putting pressure on the quarterback makes those guys a lot better.”
As the team irons out their issues this summer, Donnie Henderson’s primary concern is assembling a cohesive unit for a season opener against the Cincinnati Bengals that is less than three weeks away. The man who hired Henderson does not appear to be losing any sleep over it.
“He is very, very competitive,” coach Edwards said of his new coordinator. “He is very demanding and he wants those guys to play well every time they line up on the field. He wants them to make sure that they don't beat themselves and be a disciplined defense.”
The veterans on the team have gotten the message; a positive sign that should trickle down to the younger players this year.
“”We have to find an identity,” Mickens said. “We have to see how good we want to be.”
It’s hard to believe Henderson would have it any other way.