The Jets’ defense was good enough Sunday afternoon to win by three touchdowns — if not for Rex Ryan’s ill-advised coach's challenges, the team's 20 penalties and a pair of Geno Smith interceptions.
The D dominated the Bills, allowing only field goals until Ryan’s challenge mishaps – and some poor officiating – cost the Jets a sure turnover. Of the Bills’ 328 total yards, 59 came on a play that was stopped behind the line of scrimmage and another 80 on a series that should’ve been over before it began.
This defense, led by the “Truck Series” front of Muhammad Wilkerson, Sheldon Richardson, Damon Harrison and Quinton Coples, might even be good enough to carry the Jets to the playoffs if they dominate the line of scrimmage as well as they did Sunday.
This task will be far more difficult in future weeks, of course. The Bengals, Falcons, Saints and Titans will be tougher tests than the Jets have faced in Weeks 1 through 3. The Patriots will be better and healthier when they visit MetLife and the Dolphins are much improved and have seen Rex Ryan’s defense twice before.
But this defense looks and plays better than anything Ryan has fielded during his time in New York, perhaps even that vaunted 2009 unit. It’s only been three games, but the Jets have never had a front seven like the one that took the field Sunday – a testament to Ryan’s ability to foresee the coming change in the way NFL defenses would be built and his keen eye for identifying special talents on the defensive line.
Rex came to the Jets with a professed love for cornerbacks and he quickly fell in love with their top defender. Darrelle Revis became an immediate star in Ryan’s defense, posting the finest individual single-season defensive performance most had ever seen. The next year, Ryan added Antonio Cromartie and Kyle Wilson. “Rex can never have enough cornerbacks,” was the familiar mantra.
But in 2011, the direction changed. The Jets drafted Wilkerson out of Temple in the first round, followed in consecutive years by Coples (UNC) and Richardson (Missouri). Harrison came as an undrafted free agent from William Penn in 2012 and Kenrick Ellis as a third-round choice out of Hampton the same year as Wilkerson.
A defense which had been reliant on its back end was suddenly buoyed by 6-foot-4-plus behemoths who moved far better than their size suggested.
On Sunday, those behemoths owned the line of scrimmage. No matter the amount of down linemen, the Jets pierced the Bills’ backfield on nearly every play. At worst, they stood their ground, as they did the two weeks prior. While the Giants use their NASCAR package to create an unstoppable pass rush, the Jets’ “Truck Series” was as effective rushing the passer as it was stopping the run. Outside of Fred Jackson’s 59-yard run, the Bills averaged just 2.5 yards per carry. A Bills offensive line that allowed one total sack over the first two weeks gave up eight to the Jets on Sunday.
Wilkerson and Co. hassled E.J. Manuel to no end, but they can be better.
Coples, their primary pass-rusher, was rusty in his first game this season and Ellis has been clearly limited by a back injury. Yet the defense shows no signs of slowing down. Through one preseason and three regular-season games, Harrison has fulfilled many of our hopes for Ellis. Without Coples, the Jets have managed to “manufacture” a rush by augmenting Wilkerson and Harrison with Richardson, Antwan Barnes, a rejuvenated David Harris the lightning-fast Demario Davis.
Davis’ speed is a nightmare when blitzing and the rookie Richardson has been unblockable since the moment he stepped on an NFL field this summer. Richardson’s is an impressive bull-rusher, but it is his quickness that allows him to knife through offensive lines and some of his pass-rush moves are already good enough to beat most veteran guards and centers.
In a strange twist of fate, it’s been the front seven covering for an average secondary so far this season. In 2009 and ’10, Revis and Cromartie allowed Rex to dial up his exotic blitzes and mask the Jets’ pass-rush deficiencies. Now, Wilkerson and Harrison have quarterbacks running for their lives two seconds after the ball is snapped. The dominance up front gives the Jets the chance to develop Dee Milliner, Antonio Allen and Darrin Walls without making the secondary a total liability.
But the NFL is not a one-unit or one-sided game. Even with the defense playing at an elite level, it won’t always be enough to counteract an offense that remains a work in progress.
As he did Sunday, Geno will show his talent on throws to Stephen Hill, Jeremy Kerley and Santonio Holmes before flashing his inexperience just as impressively on boneheaded interceptions. Ryan will mismanage the game sometimes and the Jets’ aggressive nature will cost them with the refs. The Jets will make mistakes against opponents that can capitalize and it will cost them games. The “we had that one” feeling will not be a one-time thing this season.
But maybe this defense is good enough to overcome some of those self-inflicted mistakes and win a game or two the Jets have no business winning along the way. And if this really is the best defense Rex has ever had in New York, then we’re in for one entertaining and competitive season.
Corey works for NBCSports.com as an editor and can be reached at @cgriffin415 on Twitter.