Commentary

Time for Rex to take charge of defense

As chief playcaller, Jets coach can provide what struggling unit needs

Updated: November 25, 2010, 3:25 AM ET
By Johnette Howard | ESPNNewYork.com

The way Rex Ryan talks about his pride-and-joy defense, you'd think he spends his free time buffing it with a chamois cloth like some beautiful classic car. Rex loves his defense, all right. He hugs it tight, and brags on it like a man who carries a picture of it in his wallet.

But Rex has also spent far too much time this season talking like a disappointed parent. With 10 games gone, the New York Jets' defense still isn't as dominant as it was last season and it's admittedly left him "embarrassed," "concerned" and "unsure what's going on."

Ryan said all that again Sunday after some fourth-quarter communication breakdowns led to blown coverages that nearly cost the Jets a win over the Houston Texans.

Now it's a time for Ryan to do a personal intervention. Yank back the reins. Leave no doubt that he's in charge now, and not just his staff. No more splitting the defensive calls with his assistants like he has been. The Jets have allowed 20 or more points in five of their past six games. Four of those required near-miracle Jets' comeback wins.

Ryan is a force of personality, not just a football coach. It's one of the best things he brings to the Jets. But near the end of training camp, he was talking about the miscommunications and missed assignments that were plaguing the defense, and nearly three months later, he's still admitting the same problems remain.

It's time that Ryan turns his formidable mind and charisma and boss' authority on the defense's troubling tendency to break down -- maybe even get flustered -- when the heat gets cranked up in games like it did on Sunday. The Texans were ripping off huge chunks of yardage in the final minutes against the Jets and shredded them for 20 points in the fourth quarter. The pass rush wasn't getting there. The Jets' back seven looked occasionally confused.

It was so frustrating, normally talkative linebacker Bart Scott left the locker room Sunday and again Monday without speaking to reporters. Safety Jim Leonhard was downbeat right after the game. Linebacker Calvin Pace said, "The stats say we're still a top-five ranked defense or whatever, but there isn't that 'dominating defense' thing that we had going on last year. You can't stand here and say we are. Because we're not."

That's the hard truth right now. The defense's inconsistency is the only thing that's preventing the 8-2 Jets, who play the Cincinnati Bengals on short rest on Thanksgiving night, from being the complete team and Super Bowl front-runner they could be.

[+] EnlargeRex Ryan
Rich Kane/Icon SMIIt was surprising when Rex Ryan announced he'd given up most of the defensive play-calling duties earlier in the season. Now, it's time for him to take them back.

Something both Pace and veteran lineman Shaun Ellis mention is the unit being occasionally surprised by different looks that teams are giving them. Not good. Pace said the Jets weren't expecting some plays that teams are running at them out of certain formations or personnel groups. Ellis told the New York Daily News on Monday, "They kind of outscheme you a little bit."

Cornerback Darrelle Revis said the defense needs to prepare better and smarter.

"Sometimes [the problem] is just focus, attention to detail, knowing what they're trying to do and how they want to attack us," Revis said Sunday.

Who's responsibility is that?

"I'm not going to get into specifics, but we've had conversations," Revis answered. "We're not going to point fingers at anyone. We just need to get back to work and clean up what we're doing wrong."

But again, it's Week 11. The Jets have only two starters, veterans Jason Taylor and safety Brodney Pool, who are new to the team this season. The coaches gave the secondary wristbands with written-down info in Week 3 to help them in the two-minute offense. It didn't help much on Sunday.

"It doesn't make any sense to me," Ryan said. "We have to make teams beat us physically, not mentally."

Ryan has been supportive of Mike Pettine, a longtime friend who now does Ryan's old job as defensive coordinator. It's understandable as head coach, Ryan wants to delegate. But it was a bit of a surprise some weeks back when he happened to mention in one of his news conferences that Pettine is handling a greater chunk of the in-game calls this season. That was new.

Dialing up the right plays on defense is every bit the art form that it is on offense. It requires all the same things -- intuition, daring, the ability to stay calm and discern things clearly, even under pressure. It also requires being able to communicate concepts and each week's game plan to the players. And if you can fire them up while you're at it, all the better.

But even Ryan admits something is broken right now. Thinking out loud on Sunday at his postgame news conference, Ryan wondered, "Is it that we have too much in [the game plan or defensive playbook]?" By Monday, he was still chewing over what should be done. When the media trundled into the locker room minutes after talking with him, the defensive players said Ryan had chewed them out earlier in the day.

That's a good start.

"We have to get this tightened up, and we will," Ryan keeps promising.

Time's up. Ryan needs to personally take charge.

When it comes to fixing this defense, nobody's better qualified than him.

Johnette Howard is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

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