THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Respect is a top priority

Jets defense ready to show it’s a first-rate unit

In his first year coaching the Jets, Rex Ryan has transformed his defense into the NFL’s stingiest in points and yards allowed. In his first year coaching the Jets, Rex Ryan has transformed his defense into the NFL’s stingiest in points and yards allowed. (Bill Kostroun/Associated Press)
By Dennis Waszak Jr.
Associated Press / January 8, 2010

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FLORHAM PARK, N.J. - The New York Jets have the NFL’s top-ranked defense, yet they keep hearing about what they haven’t done this season.

They can’t close out opponents in close games. They can’t put points on the board off turnovers. They can’t get to the quarterback consistently enough.

“We understand people still doubt our capabilities, but, hey, they also said we weren’t going to make the playoffs,’’ cornerback Lito Sheppard said yesterday. “Look where we’re at now. We love it. It definitely keeps us motivated, not that we need it, but it definitely adds to it.’’

If the Jets (9-7) can shut down Carson Palmer, Chad Ochocinco, and the Bengals (10-6) for the second straight week - this time in a first-round playoff game tomorrow at Cincinnati - Rex Ryan’s defense might start getting the respect it says it deserves.

“We’ve obviously played well and, statistically, we’re at the top, and you can’t take that away from us,’’ safety Jim Leonhard said. “Now we’re in the playoffs and this is when that defense should shine.’’

From a numbers standpoint, the Jets would appear to have a monstrous, dominant defense that should strike fear into any opponent, and that’s even without having injured big nose tackle Kris Jenkins. They finished the regular season allowing the fewest yards with 252.3 per game - more than 30 less than No. 2 Green Bay (284.4).

New York gave up a league-low 187 offensive points, finished first in pass defense, held opposing quarterbacks to an NFL-low 58.8 passer rating, and created the highest percentage of three-and-outs. The gaudy stats go on and on, and it’s clear the Jets have an excellent defense.

But, is it great?

“We’re the No. 1 defense and I think we’ve been playing good all year,’’ Pro Bowl cornerback Darrelle Revis said. “When people see us on the film, they know that we bring it. I think we’ve just got to keep on being consistent, keep on making plays, and be confident. That’s the only thing that we can do.’’

Still, when people talk about great defenses, the 2009 Jets won’t appear on that list - not yet, anyway.

“It’s important because we’re sending a statement,’’ linebacker Bart Scott said. “Before I got here, when you said the New York Jets, you really didn’t have an identity. They were kind of like nomads.’’

When Ryan came to New York from Baltimore, he brought an aggressive approach with him, along with Scott, Leonhard, and defensive lineman Marques Douglas. He leaned on them a lot as he installed his system, hoping the trio would help the others adjust. So far, so good.

“We’re trying to start a tradition, something that people can expect,’’ Scott said. “It’s not a surprise when I stand up here and we talk about the Jets defense and everyone is surprised that we’re No. 1. We want them to be surprised that we’re not No. 1. Set that expectation, that standard really high.’’

The next step in meeting that goal is making sure there are no late-game slip-ups, as there were earlier this season. The Jets allowed Miami, Jacksonville, and Atlanta to score with the game on the line, all resulting in narrow defeats. The critics say, and rightfully so, that great defenses don’t blow games like that.

“We’ve given up a couple of leads, but I think every team in the league has done that,’’ Ryan said. “When you look at it statistically and even on the field, this defense has outperformed every defense in the league.’’

In perhaps the clearest indicator that the Jets’ defense is still trying to earn respect is the fact that only one player, Revis, made the Pro Bowl.

“There are definitely other deserving guys that didn’t get in,’’ safety Kerry Rhodes said. “We just have to go out and prove it. We are capable of having those guys there and we should have those guys there. We definitely have a chip on our shoulder right now.’’

And that’s the approach the Jets need to have when they go into Cincinnati and face a Bengals team that was shut down and embarrassed by them just six days earlier.

“You’re in the playoffs, national stage, and now every team is talented, and every team has a shot to go to the Super Bowl,’’ Leonhard said. “If you go out there and play well, you know you did it against a good team. It obviously can shut the critics up a little bit if you go out there and play really well.’’

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