In 2004 the NY Jets defense went from doormats to dominating. (Jets Insider.com Photo)
- In 2003, the NY Jets defense had become more porous than SpongeBob Squarepants and after ending the year with a losing record for the first time, Head Coach Herm Edwards realized drastic changes were needed to resurrect his ailing unit. What followed was an “extreme makeover” that any reality TV show would have been proud of. The rebuilding began with a new defensive coordinator and an infusion of youth and speed which had severely eroded in previous seasons. The results were nothing short of dramatic. The Jets defense in one year went from pushovers to dominating and the future couldn’t be brighter.
The makeover began at the top as Edwards faced the tough task of firing his long-time friend Ted Cottrell as defensive coordinator along with most of his assistants. After an exhaustive search where the Coach interviewed more than a half dozen candidates, Edwards hired Donnie Henderson, who at the time was the secondary coach with the Baltimore Ravens.
Edwards was criticized by many for hiring an unknown and unproven commodity in Henderson but in the end got the last laugh as Jets defense went from 21st to 7th in one season under the new coordinator. Henderson’s main traits during his first season in charge was his aggressiveness, discipline and ability to make players accountable for their mistakes. Henderson talked about the mentality he wanted to instill in his defense.
“I think the mentality I tried to bring in was an aggressive style of defense and making sure we communicated and making sure we play fast,” Henderson said.
Henderson’s fiery personality rubbed off on his players as they forced 33 turnovers and allowed only 16.3 points per game, fourth in the NFL.
Besides hiring Henderson, the Jets almost completely overhauled the defense as there were six new starters this season.
The Jets front four featured three first round draft picks and during training camp, Edwards talked about how good they could be.
“There are enough of them that have played in the League long enough,” Edwards said. “They’re kind of in the stage of their careers where they can become upper echelon players if they choose to be. Their talent level says that they can do that, but they’ve go to go do that.”
The front four of DE John Abraham, NT Jason Ferguson, DT Dewayne Robertson, and DE Shaun Ellis certainly did go do that as they did not allow a 100-yard rusher until week 7 and only allowed three running backs to rush for 100 or more yards this year including the playoffs. Last year, they allowed eight running backs to rush for 100+ yards.
Abraham, who missed most of last season with injuries and personal problems, turned his life around and was a force on the football field. Before spraining his knee on December 5, Abraham had 9.5 sacks and moved into a tie for seventh on the Jets all-time sack list.
After Abraham injured his knee, 2001 first round draft pick Bryan Thomas did a nice job filling in along with rookie Trevor Johnson. Thomas talked about the difference between last year and this year.
“I see the game better,” Thomas said. “I know what is going on. At first, I was out there and I was trying to do what I did in college and just go out there and not watch film and not study a player and not know certain formations of theirs. Now I grasp that and I have gotten a lot better.”
Edwards recognized the difference in Thomas.
“He’s more confident now,” Edwards said. “He’s a more mature guy. He’s a lot stronger than he was his first year. He’s been around it now.”
Ferguson and Robertson were forces inside stopping the run. Ferguson had one of
his best seasons, finishing with 60 tackles and 3.5 sacks. Ferguson talked about the cohesiveness of the d-line.
“Trusting one another is a key to the defense,” Ferguson said.
Robertson was unfairly labeled a bust by some after last season as he had to start in place of Josh Evans who missed most of last season with a suspension and injuries. After Evans suffered a season-ending injury in the pre-season this year, Robertson rose to the challenge.
“This year, I am more confident,” Robertson said. “That’s part of the ropes of learning the NFL. Last year, I didn’t know what to expect.”
Ellis had another outstanding season, finishing with 11 sacks, second in the AFC.
Ellis talked about forming an identity on the d-line.
“Donnie (Henderson) came in, he said ‘we need a line,’” Ellis said. “He’s going to turn us loose up front. He knew that we had the ability to do that. He just let us go, let us play aggressive.”
Last off-season, the Jets released veterans Marvin Jones and Mo Lewis and made a move to get younger at linebacker through free agency and the NFL Draft. The Jets brought in Eric Barton at Jack LB from the Oakland Raiders. While Barton may be remembered by most Jets fans this season as the player who committed a roughing the passer penalty against San Diego that allowed the Chargers to tie up the game in the AFC Wildcard game, Barton was solid, leading the team with 125 tackles and four fumble recoveries.
Sam Cowart started the year at MLB, but after injuring his knee in week two against San Diego, rookie Jonathan Vilma, who the Jets selected in the first round with the 12th overall pick, stepped right in as the starter and never relinquished the spot. Vilma became the first Jets rookie to earn NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year honors since Hugh Douglas in 1995. Vilma finished the regular season second on the team with 118 tackles.
LB Victor Hobson and Mark Brown did a nice job splitting time at OLB. Hobson suffered sprained knee in the Jets win over Cleveland on November 21 and was inactive the following four weeks. Mark Brown got his chance to start in place of Hobson and the Jets never missed a beat with Brown in the game.
In the secondary, three of the four starters were different from last year. CB David Barrett (Arizona) and S Reggie Tongue (Seattle) were both brought in as free agents. Diamond in the rough S Erik Coleman was selected in the fifth round from Washington State.
Coleman was impressive throughout the season. “I think what he’s done, he’s taken the ball and he’s run with it,” Edwards said. “He hasn’t looked back. He really doesn’t care that he’s the fifth-round draft pick.”
While the secondary struggled early in the season, they improved as the season went on and held seven quarterbacks under 200 yards passing during the regular season. They also did a nice job shutting down opposing team’s receivers, as only four receivers had 100-yard games, as opposed to seven receivers last year.
While Henderson’s name came up recently as a candidate for a few head coaching jobs in the NFL and college, the Coach is grateful for the opportunity he was given by the Jets and has publicly said that he isn’t going anywhere. That’s certainly good news for Jets fans. If the team can tweak a few areas, including adding more speed in the secondary, the Jets defense should continue to be one of the best in the NFL again next year.