FLORHAM PARK, N.J. (AP) — There are a few buzz words floating around the New York Jets' locker room when it comes to the expectations for the defense. Dominant. Elite. Confident.
FLORHAM PARK, N.J. (AP) — There are a few buzz words floating around the New York Jets' locker room when it comes to the expectations for the defense.
Dominant. Elite. Confident.
Todd Bowles' bunch is striving for all the above. And, to a man, the players think they have the pieces to establish themselves as a force to be reckoned with this season — starting with the opener against the Cleveland Browns on Sunday.
"I believe we can be as good as we want to be," defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson said. "We can be great. We can have the No. 1 defense in the league."
Wilkerson, entering his fifth NFL season, has been around some good ones in the past under Rex Ryan. Statistically, the Jets were ranked in the top eight in overall defense in five of Ryan's six seasons, with the lone exception a No. 11 ranking in 2013.
Even last season, when the Jets had a glaring weakness at cornerback, they finished sixth overall. But that number is based on total yards, and there were lapses in the defense, particularly late in some games, that prevented New York from being a truly feared unit. The lack of forced turnovers — a league-worst 13 takeaways — was also an issue.
An aggressive, penetrating approach by Bowles and defensive coordinator Kacy Rodgers could take the Jets, they believe, to the next level.
"I think it could be one of the greatest defenses, to be honest," rookie defensive end Leonard Williams said. "I feel like our chemistry is getting there."
While Ryan used to puff out his chest about his defense and rave about how good he thought it was, Bowles has taken a low-key approach.
"We don't try to be good," he said. "We try to make plays and we try to stop people. We don't put any tags on ourselves. We're trying to whatever we can do win the ballgame."
There are a few reasons for optimism. The return of cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie as free agents can't be overstated. After the Jets used several players at the position last season, including converted safety Antonio Allen, Bowles has a revamped secondary that can help him not only defend receivers but help create more opportunities for the defensive line to put pressure on quarterbacks.
Revis has been shutting down one side of the field for years, while Cromartie had a resurgence in Arizona last season under Bowles, who was his defensive coordinator.
"You just look at it as we're back, but both of us have grown," Cromartie said of him and Revis. "We just have to make sure that we try to bring that leadership that we can bring in. And with Darrelle coming in from a Super Bowl-winning team with the Patriots last year and just bringing that over here, that can help out a lot of facets here."
The signing of Buster Skrine might have been a bit overshadowed in the winter by the reunion of Revis and Cromartie, but the former Browns cornerback will be counted on quite a bit. With a mix of strength and speed, he'll be a nickel corner as well as be able to spell either of the starters.
Dexter McDougle is back after missing his rookie season with a torn ligament, and so are Marcus Williams and Darrin Walls, both of whom are experienced backups after being forced into starting roles last season. Free agent Marcus Gilchrist takes over at free safety, while Calvin Pryor hopes to have a much-improved second season at strong safety.
"They've come a long way," Bowles said of his secondary. "I think they talk a lot more than when they first got here. They've gotten better by the week with the communication and we're going to keep doing that going forward."
The middle linebackers are still David Harris and Demario Davis, but Bowles might mix-and-match his outside linebackers — with Calvin Pace, Trevor Reilly, Quinton Coples and rookie Lorenzo Mauldin all expected to beef up the Jets' pass rush.
But, as it has in recent years, the Jets' strength starts on the line, with Wilkerson and nose tackle Damon Harrison leading the way. Pro Bowl defensive end Sheldon Richardson is suspended for the first four games of the season for violating the league's substance abuse policy, but New York hopes Williams will be able to fill in without much of a dropoff.
"On paper, we look good, but only time will tell," Cromartie said. "I can't tell you how good we're going to be, but I think, for us, we're not really concerned (with that). We're only concerned with the left column — with the wins and the losses — and that's it."