Commentary

Rex Ryan more than just a sound bite

The Jets' leader talks the talk, but when it comes to defensive tactics, he backs it up

Updated: December 6, 2010, 10:03 AM ET
By Rich Cimini | ESPNNewYork.com

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- If Rex Ryan's brain can match his mouth, the New York Jets will be in terrific shape Monday night against the New England Patriots.

From the moment the Thanksgiving night game ended, Ryan has been a non-stop sound bite, turning the NFL's game of the year into a personal war against Bill (Rings) Belichick. Ryan has qualified every statement, praising Belichick's track record, but let's call it for what it is:

Ryan picked a fight with the dude who has ruled the neighborhood for a decade -- a battle against arguably the smartest coach in the sport.

Because of the extra prep time, and because the Patriots are a different beast without Randy Moss, Ryan faces perhaps his toughest X's and O's challenge in nearly two years as the Jets' coach. The knee-jerk reaction to that is, "Advantage, Belichick," but this is where Ryan doesn't get enough respect.

Everybody knows about his mouth. What people don't realize -- or appreciate -- is the man's acumen as a tactician. He knows defense like Spielberg knows movies.

"Don't let the fun he has on TV and the way he jokes around fool you," ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski said. "The guy is brilliant when it comes to designing the X's and O's in the game."

In five seasons as a defensive boss, the first four with the Baltimore Ravens, Ryan's teams have finished no lower than sixth in total defense. That doesn't happen by accident. His current unit has ranged from good to very good, but hardly dominant. It will need to be dominant to slow the league's highest-scoring team, a tougher task without injured safety Jim Leonhard.

This is where Ryan earns his money. Give him a seemingly impossible task -- beat Tom Brady on his home turf, where he was won 25 straight regular-season games -- and let's see what happens. All the bluster in the world isn't going to stop Wes Welker in the slot; it's going to take a clever game plan.

"These are the kind of games you live for," said defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, Ryan's right-hand man. "They're all big, all important, but some carry a little extra -- division game, hated rival and the whole chess-match thing against two of the brightest minds in football, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick."

Those close to Ryan believe he relishes the underdog role in a chess match, especially against Belichick, who doesn't seem to mind the "genius" label. Ryan is a master of self-deprecation, mocking his educational background and poking fun at his spelling ability.

"I've always told him, 'People think you're a country bumpkin,'" Pettine said. "They have no idea the football intelligence that's behind him."

In his three previous games against the Patriots, Ryan's game plan was predicated on Darrelle Revis covering Moss. Now Moss is long gone, and the Patriots have reverted to their pre-Moss, equal-opportunity passing attack. In some ways, that makes them tougher to defend.

Brady has Welker and old friend Deion Branch, and rookie tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski. And let's not forget that wet bar of soap out of the backfield, ex-Jet Danny Woodhead. They're all factors in the passing game, presenting myriad matchup issues.

The Jets have enough capable bodies to get the job done, but it's a matter of putting the right bodies on the right players in the right situations. The ultimate goal, of course, is to make Brady uncomfortable in the pocket, either with pressure or by disrupting his timing with the receivers.

In three games against the Ryan-coached Jets, Brady's passer rating is a meager 73.8. The Jets have rattled him at times with pressure and, in Week 2, simulated pressure. In the second half, they often showed blitz but dropped seven or eight into coverage. Even the great Brady was befuddled.

"He did a great job in the first game of mixing in three-man rushes when you thought pressure was coming," said former Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi, an ESPN analyst. "He drew the Patriot offense off at times with that max-coverage principle instead of the max blitzes. Rex Ryan may have to do another great job of calling a good game."

If this is a chess match, Ryan's queen is Revis, a piece he can move anywhere on the board. Without Moss, whom he always covered, Revis is free to move around the formation. The Jets aren't saying how they will deploy him, but you could see him in man-to-man coverage on Branch or Hernandez. It will depend on down-and-distance and formation.

Ryan's twin brother, Rob, the Cleveland Browns' defensive coordinator, used a cornerback on Hernandez and doubled Welker in the slot. The Browns also employed a lot of pre-snap movement, 10 players milling about the line of scrimmage -- the so-called Amoeba defense. It confused Brady, and the Browns pulled a stunner last month, 34-14.

Yes, Ryan called his brother to pick his brain on the Patriots. He solicits input from a variety of sources, relying mainly on his assistant coaches. For this game, the staff had extra time to research the Patriots.

Pettine started his film study last Friday on a train to Baltimore, where he spent the weekend with his family. That's what you call fast-track preparation. When he returned Monday to the Jets' facility, he compared notes with Ryan. By Monday night, they had formulated about 75 percent of the game plan.

The Patriots aren't easy because they're a "flavor-of-the-week team," according to Pettine. In other words, they're like chameleons, changing their approach based on the opponent. They could use an empty-backfield approach one week, a heavy dose of two tight ends the next.

That meant a lot of tape study -- all 11 games this season, the two Jets-Patriots games last season, the Ravens-Patriots game in 2007 and the Ravens-Patriots playoff game from last January. Pettine said they culled more information from the '07 contest (a memorable game from New England's undefeated regular season) than the Patriots-Detroit Lions blowout on Thanksgiving. They also leaned on defensive line coach Mark Carrier, a member of the Ravens' staff last season. The Ravens embarrassed the Patriots in the wild-card round, 33-14.

All the information was meticulously molded into a game plan, but that plan had to change Friday with the news that Leonhard -- quarterback of the secondary -- had fractured a leg in practice. The coaches had to simplify the plan, but not too much.

"If you're too simple against New England," Pettine said, "it'll take them about a quarter to figure it out and turn it into a track meet."

Pettine makes a lot of the defensive calls, but it's still Ryan's show. He's the tone setter. He's the risk taker. He can draw up a play in the dirt and make it work. He trusts his players. That, according to defensive tackle Trevor Pryce, separates Ryan from other so-called defensive masterminds.

"He can dial up stuff that 95 percent of the teams would never run because they don't trust their players," Pryce said.

More than anything, Ryan trusts himself. He called out Belichick, verbally slapping him across the cheek with a white glove.

Game on.

Rich Cimini covers the Jets for ESPNNewYork.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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Rich Cimini

ESPN New York Jets reporter

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