The Jets are certainly getting a ton of attention because of their interesting approach to the quarterback position, but this team is still built on playing great defense to win games.
In Rex Ryan’s first season as head coach in 2009, the Jets rode their top-ranked defense all the way to the AFC Championship game, getting to within a half of football away from a Super Bowl, despite starting a rookie quarterback.
Since then, the Jets have steadily declined in defensive statistics, dropping to third in 2010 and fifth in 2011. With Rex Ryan reverting his offense back to its run-first roots, getting his defense back to elite status is vital to the Jets success in 2012, no matter who the quarterback is.
Therefore, when comparing the current depth chart to the 2009 version, how does this team stack up?
2009 Starters: Shaun Ellis, Kris Jenkins, Marques Douglas
2012 Starters: Mike DeVito, Sione Pouha, Muhammad Wilkerson
Since Rex Ryan took over as head coach, this has been one of the most-improved units on the team after the Jets invested plenty of high draft picks in the position.
2009 was one of the last productive years of Ellis’ long career, and it would be the last time Kris Jenkins would play more than six plays in one season. Sione Pouha is now one of the best 3-4 nose tackles in the game, and Mike DeVito has emerged from the bottom of the depth chart to being one of the best run-stuffers on the team. The Jets are also very excited about the development of Muhammad Wilkerson, who has been one of the most dominant players of training camp.
Throw in first-round rookie Quinton Coples, who was dominant in his first preseason appearance, and last year’s third-rounder Kenrick Ellis into the mix, and this is one of the deepest and youngest units on the team, which is a far cry from where this unit was a few years ago.
2009 Starters: Bart Scott, David Harris
2012 Starters: Bart Scott, David Harris
While there may not have been any official changes to the starting lineup over the past three years, the play of Bart Scott has taken a dramatic nosedive. His age is beginning to catch up with him, as he was ahuge liability in pass coverage, and was thus taken out of a significant amount of sub-packages in 2011.
However, while Scott’s status as a starter remains uncertain, they did add much-needed depth with the selection of Demario Davis in the third round.
The athletic Davis figures to take over for Scott in sub-packages, which could help offset Scott’s lack of speed. Still, the 2009 pairing of Harris and Scott was one of the best in football at the time, while the 2012 group has too many question marks to be considered the better unit.
2009 Starters: Calvin Pace, Bryan Thomas
2012 Starters: Calvin Pace, Bryan Thomas
Both Calvin Pace and Bryan Thomas are essentially the same players as they were back in 2009 as solid edge-setters with average pass-rush ability. The biggest difference between these units is the depth and athleticism that exists behind the starters that could provide the Jets’ with the third-down pass-rush they have been craving.
While still a raw and unfinished product, Aaron Maybin was able to make the most out of limited playing time and nab six sacks in 2011 as a situational pass-rusher. Former Eagle Ricky Sapp has also created some buzz in camp.
Even if Pace and Thomas take a step back as age begins to catch up with them, Rex Ryan has more to work with on passing downs than he ever did in 2009.
2009 Starters: Darrelle Revis, Lito Sheppard, Dwight Lowrey/Donald Strickland (slot)
2012 Starters: Darrelle Revis, Antonio Cromartie, Kyle Wilson (slot)
Revis’ greatness has been well-documented and does not appear to be slowing down any time soon. In fact, Revis is so good that he can sometimes make Antonio Cromartie look average.
However, Jet fans are easy to forget just how much more inconsistent the 2009 group was (outside of Revis). Lito Sheppard was benched in the AFC Championship game and dealt with injuries all season long. Donald Strickland, while a good slot corner when healthy, had a tough time staying on the field, as well.
Because of the unreliability of those two players, Dwight Lowrey, who is an ideal zone corner or free safety, was forced into man-coverage situations where he was often picked on.
Now, the Jets have an athletic freak (and part-time wide receiver) in Antonio Cromartie, who, while maddeningly inconsistent at times, has become one of the better man-coverage corners in the game playing opposite Revis.
Kyle Wilson made some strides in his sophomore season after being benched as a rookie, but he still gave up far too many completions and needs to continue to make strides in order to live up to his billing as a first-round pick.
2009 Starters: Jim Leonhard, Kerry Rhodes
2012 Starters: LaRon Landry, Yeremiah Bell
While Kerry Rhodes may have rubbed coaches the wrong way, which resulted in him getting shipped off to Arizona, he could at least cover tight ends and slot receivers with the best of them. Since Rhodes has left, the Jets have struggled mightily in the middle of the field where Rhodes once roamed. Yeremiah Bell is essentially a healthier version of Jim Leonhard as a savvy veteran with quiet leadership skills.
This year, the big questions will surround LaRon Landry, who when healthy is one of the best players at his position. However, not only has health been elusive for Landry throughout his career, but he will be forced into an unnatural position at free safety.
The 2012 group should be an upgrade over the horrendous unit of 2011, but they still don’t have the ideal coverage player that is becoming more and more of a premium in today’s NFL.
Final Verdict: 2012
While there are certainly a ton of questions surrounding the 2012 defense, they are deeper and more athletic at just about every position, especially on the defensive line. Most importantly, with the additions of Coples, Wilkerson, and Maybin, the Jets may have found just the sliver of pass-rush for which they have been starving.
Ryan Alfieri is the lead editor for NFP's partner site NYJetsDraft.com and has covered the Jets and the NFL Draft for numerous publications. He is a Virginia Tech alum, where he played lacrosse.