- Jane McManus, Reporter & Columnist, espnW.com
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FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- When the New York Jets lost to the Indianapolis Colts in last season's AFC title game, they relentlessly blitzed Peyton Manning. The problem was that the defensive strategy didn't knock the veteran quarterback off his game, and the Colts went on to the Super Bowl.
This year, when these teams met again, Jets coach Rex Ryan didn't forget. Yes, there were still a few blitzes thrown in, but Ryan's game plan changed to include fewer high-risk defensive plays, in which a completion might mean a chunk of yards gained after the catch.
As much as Mark Sanchez has evolved in the second year, Ryan is doing the same, learning on the job as much as his marquee quarterback. It is apparent to analysts like ESPN's Ron Jaworski and Ryan's players alike that he has stepped up his own game in recent weeks.
The Jets may have advanced to their second straight AFC title game, but not in the same way.
"He didn't put the big itinerary up this year," right guard Brandon Moore said, referring to the postseason schedule Ryan had on the first day of last year's playoffs that included a Super Bowl parade.
This season, Ryan brought in inspirational former Jet Dennis Byrd to give a speech the night before the divisional playoff game with the Patriots that set fire to the players in the Jets locker room. Sure, calling out Patriots coach Bill Belichick last week is the kind of strategy that gets the headlines, but there have been more concrete changes as well.
"His maturity level as far as game plan continues," Moore said. "Kind of pulling back, not blitzing, not doing things that he really, really itches to do. [He's] showing maturity and growth as a coach, to be patient and trusting his guys to make plays is one of the bigger things."
In recent weeks, Ryan has taken direct responsibility for the defense. As a result, there have been fewer penalties and better communication on the field. The episode in Chicago, in which the Bears scored with 10 Jets defensive players on the field, hasn't been repeated, in part because the communication has been streamlined.
After going through tape of Sunday's win over the Patriots with a fine-toothed comb, Jaworski said Ryan still blitzes, but he makes sure that there is a safety in coverage in case the quarterback can get off the throw despite the pressure. He has also gotten craftier with his blitzes to one side.
"He can bring four to one side and you have a guard and a tackle blocking air," Jaworski said.
In the Jets' 45-3 loss to the Patriots on Dec. 6, Ryan made some calls that had onlookers shaking their heads. The team started with a hurry-up offense, Ryan threw the red flag on a fourth down, lost the call and went for it anyway, and then later brought kicker Nick Folk in to attempt a field goal that was outside of his natural range.
And that was just the first series. Certainly, offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer calls the plays on the offense, but in the end, it's Ryan's team.
"He's learned just as much as the rest of us have learned coming in, especially having to deal with a rookie quarterback coming in and doing some good things," said center Nick Mangold. "It's always going to be a learning process and Rex has done a good job of understanding what may have gone bad, what may have gone well, and building off that."
In effect, Ryan has been able to scheme his way into beating the Colts and the Patriots, two teams that got the better of him last season.
"I think Rex has done a great job of really [figuring] out how to beat these great quarterbacks in Peyton and Tom [Brady]," cornerback Darrelle Revis said.
Next up, Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh Steelers in Sunday's AFC Championship Game. It's a team the Jets have beaten already this season, but it will be less about scheme and more about physicality and matchups. Mangold, who will be in the trenches against Pittsburgh nose tackle Casey Hampton, said the defensive-minded Ryan has even shown a passing interest in the offense.
"Philosophy-wise he puts his fingerprint on it," Mangold said. "The ground and pound and then being able to use the weapons on the outside, but other than that, he stays on the defensive side as far as I know."
There's a lot that goes along with having the brash Ryan as a coach, and smart schemes might not be the first thing that come to mind. But if Ryan's game plan continues to evolve, it could become a bigger part of his résumé.
"Coach Ryan, he doesn't get a lot of credit for how great of a coach he is," Jerricho Cotchery said. "He is a great football mind."
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