Commentary

Secondary is primary concern for Jets

Dennis Thurman's unit has six points of emphasis as it tries to reverse 45-3 curse

Updated: January 27, 2011, 7:24 PM ET
By Rich Cimini | ESPNNewYork.com

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Of all the units under the spotlight Sunday, the one facing the most intense glare is the New York Jets' secondary.

Quite frankly, it stunk in the previous meeting against the New England Patriots. It was so bad that secondary coach Dennis Thurman, in a moment of retrospective gallows humor, said maybe they were served contaminated food and water before the game.

The defensive backs made mental mistakes, missed tackles and blew coverages, allowing Tom Brady to pass for 326 yards and four touchdowns in a 45-3 Patriots victory.

"I can't explain it," Thurman said this week. "Hopefully, we won't drink the same water and eat the same food."

[+] EnlargeDeion Branch and Antonio Cromartie
AP Photo/David DrapkinDeion Branch's 25-yard TD catch gave the Pats a 17-0 lead and marked the beginning of the end for Antonio Cromartie's Jets.

If the secondary doesn't play better, the only food it will be eating is humble pie. Here's an inside look at the secondary and how it plans to change things in Jets-Patriots III, the divisional playoffs -- the Jets' biggest game since Super Bowl III, according to Rex Ryan.

Don't peek. When in man-to-man coverage -- and the Jets are in it most of the time -- defenders must resist the urge to glance at the quarterback, especially this quarterback. Brady is a master at using his eyes to draw opponents out of position. Example: Look left, throw right.

The Jets did a lot of peeking in the last game, allowing the receivers to gain separation. To teach the no-peek technique, Thurman simplifies it for his players by telling them to pretend they're playing tag on the playground. If you look away, and the guy you're chasing makes a move, you lose him.

"We've got to play better with our eyes," Thurman said.

The Jets used single-man coverage on 67 percent of Brady's 63 pass attempts against them this season, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Be physical. In Week 15, the Green Bay Packers' cornerbacks did an excellent job of jamming the Patriots' smallish receivers at the line, throwing them off their routes and disrupting Brady's timing. They held him to 163 yards, with none of his receivers accumulating more than 42 yards.

The Jets would like to copycat that approach, but they will need a big effort from cornerback Antonio Cromartie, who tends to be too passive at the line. Because of his long arms, he should be able to dominate in bump-and-run.

"We'd like him to be more physical," Thurman said. "We talk to him about it; he's more than capable. They have smaller receivers, and we'd prefer our guys be more physical with them."

Despite his lack of aggressiveness, Cromartie has fared well against the Patriots. Brady has targeted Cromartie more than any other Jet (17 times), according to ESPN Stats, but his passer rating on those throws (77.5) is lower than on throws against any other Jets defender.

Recognition. ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer, the former quarterback, said he spent more time breaking down the last Jets-Patriots game than any other game he has studied. At one point, in a span of 33 plays, he charted 26 different formations by the Patriots.

Imagine trying to prepare for that much material -- plus, the Patriots are known for adding new wrinkles every week. Therein lies the greatest mental challenge for the Jets: seeing, digesting and adjusting. Unlike the Indianapolis Colts, who employ a vanilla offense, the Patriots use different formations to run their core plays.

"It's like gifts under a Christmas tree: No package is wrapped in the same paper," Thurman said. "They do the same things, conceptually, but they wrap it in different paper and put a different bow on it. When you open them up, they're pretty much the same."

The trick is knowing what's inside before it's too late.

Pick plays. The Jets spent a good part of the week preparing for the Patriots' patented pick plays. Thurman's rule of thumb: Anytime two receivers are within 5 yards of each other, watch for a pick. In the last meeting, Cromartie got picked on a short pass to Deion Branch and didn't receive over-the-top help from safety Eric Smith, resulting in a 25-yard touchdown.

Tackle. The Patriots use a horizontal passing game, which means they rely heavily on yards after the catch, especially from the foot expert, Wes Welker. The Jets' tackling must be on-point. Usually their defensive backs tackle well, but Cromartie is a liability. In the last meeting, his missed two huge tackles, allowing long gainers.

Mr. Smith. Smith was thrust into the starting lineup three days before the last meeting, replacing Jim Leonhard, who suffered a season-ending injury in practice. Leonhard's absence rattled the secondary, which lost its "quarterback." Things are more settled now, even though Smith believes he never felt any pressure in the role.

"No, that was the media blowing it out of proportion," Smith said. "They have these crazy ideas in their head. They still talk about this defense without Jim Leonhard. We would love to have Jim, but everybody we have can play. It's not like we've taken a step back without Jim."

In a way, Leonhard's injury may have helped free safety Brodney Pool, who played his best game last week. Without Leonhard to lean on, Pool has sharpened his mental focus and seems more comfortable in the system.

Though not as significant, the possible loss of nickelback Drew Coleman, who hurt his knee Thursday, could prompt some late revisions to the game plan -- shades of the Leonhard situation. It's another challenge for Thurman. Asked if he's taking it personally, a la Ryan, Thurman said yes.

"I'm not going to shout it from the mountain top," he said. "But, yeah, it's personal."

Rich Cimini

ESPN New York Jets reporter

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