Jets' dominant defense looking to repeat success

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FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- When New York Jets defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich met the media recently, the first question he fielded was about expectations. His unit had the third-fewest yards allowed in 2023, fourth the previous year and now he was being asked about an encore.

Let's pause right here to insert some perspective.

Encore? There was a time not long ago -- 2021 -- when people were questioning whether Ulbrich deserved a second chance to coach the unit, let alone the opportunity to try for a rare trifecta -- a top-five defense for three straight years. The Jets have accomplished that only once since the 1970 merger -- 2009 to 2011 under coach Rex Ryan.

They were awful in 2021, the first year under Ulbrich and defensive-minded head coach Robert Saleh. We're talking last in yards and last in points, the kind of bad that sometimes gets coaches fired. Saleh stuck with Ulbrich, and together they have overhauled the defense to match their vision. They have created a high standard, something that seemed like pure folly only a few years ago.

"Yeah, statistically, we've ended in the top five, but, ultimately, winning is how we create a legacy in this league," Ulbrich said. "So until that happens and we win -- substantial wins and we hold that trophy together -- we're not going to be done."

No, the Jets haven't won in a long time -- 13 straight seasons out of the playoffs, the league's longest active drought -- but their still-loaded defense certainly can lead them out of the abyss. The unit boasts continuity -- eight returning starters, each of whom has at least two years in the system. That's unusual in today's NFL.

The defense also has balance -- a balance of firepower, that is. Each level features a Pro Bowl or All-Pro selection. On the line, there's Pro Bowl tackle Quinnen Williams, and Jermaine Johnson made the Pro Bowl as an injury replacement, as well. At linebacker, there's Quinnen's older brother, All-Pro Quincy Williams, and in the secondary, there's All-Pro cornerback Sauce Gardner.

The Jets are stacked with talent, but there are some legitimate questions as they approach the season. After all, they did lose their sack leader (Bryce Huff) and interception leader (Jordan Whitehead) in free agency. Replacing them will be among the biggest keys.

Overall, they don't have many new faces on defense, but the ones they do have will be asked to shoulder important roles. And some returning stars may have to adjust their games.

Here are some questions they will have to face:

Can Haason Reddick be a combination of Huff and John Franklin-Myers' production?

Reddick, the biggest acquisition on defense, will replace former stalwart Franklin-Myers (traded to the Denver Broncos) as a starting end in the base defense. But that won't be enough. Reddick, who spent the last two seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles, also needs to replace some of Huff's production as a third-down rusher.

Reddick has averaged 12.7 sacks over the last four seasons -- nearly three sacks more than Huff's career high in 2023 -- so there's every reason to believe he can do the job from a pass-rushing standpoint. Will McDonald IV, a 2023 first-round pick, also is slated to have an expanded role as a situational rusher.

A Reddick-Johnson tandem on the edge looks formidable on paper. As Johnson said, "Oh, man. We're all on the same page about going to dominate one-on-ones and be what the team needs us to be." Reddick, angling for a new contract, skipped the three weeks of voluntary practices.

The question with Reddick, nearly 50 pounds lighter than Franklin-Myers, is how he holds up against the run on first and second down. At 240 pounds, he is more accustomed to being an outside linebacker than a defensive end. The plan is to rotate the sturdy Micheal Clemons (263) into the position.

Is Quinnen Williams doomed to a season of constant double teams?

He was double-teamed on 67% of his pass rushes in 2023, fifth most among interior players, per ESPN Stats & Information -- one of the reasons why his sack total dropped from 12 to 5.5. The double-team rate will increase unless another reliable interior rusher emerges.

Franklin-Myers and Quinton Jefferson did a solid job in the DT2 role last season. Jefferson, who bolted in free agency, worked first and second down. Franklin-Myers slid inside on third down. Now the Jets are counting on former San Francisco 49ers first-round pick Javon Kinlaw, who has only five sacks in four seasons. It raised a lot of eyebrows when the Jets gave a one-year, $7.25 million contract to a player who hasn't come close to reaching expectations.

For his part, Williams said he's trying to his expand his repertoire of pass-rushing moves -- a "bigger bag" of tricks, he called it -- while learning to play in different spots. Eight times out of 10, he lined up at right defensive tackle. It would create some unpredictability if they can move him around.

Imagine Williams and Reddick lining up next to each other. Who gets the double team? Williams said his new teammate will help him become a better rusher.

"Having him in the room, a guy that can help me achieve that goal, is phenomenal," Williams said.

Did the Jets err by not adding a proven safety to replace Whitehead?

If you ask them, they do have a proven player to replace him in Chuck Clark -- who missed the entire 2023 season after a serious knee injury last spring.

There are some interesting names in the free-agent market, most notably Justin Simmons and Quandre Diggs, but the Jets are rolling with Clark, Tony Adams and Ashtyn Davis. Clark, 29, a longtime starter with the Baltimore Ravens, is a heady and sure-tackling, but he has only five interceptions in six years.

"People are like, 'Oh, he missed a year, he lost a step,'" Clark said. "Yeah, all right. Watch."

Is there a hidden reason for concern about the defense?

Middle linebacker C.J. Mosley is one of the most respected players in the locker room, a captain and tone setter, but his pass coverage showed signs of slippage. As the nearest defender, his Targeted EPA (Extra Points Added) ranked 24th out of 24 linebackers with a minimum of 400 coverage snaps, per Next Gen Stats.

Mosley, who took a pay cut in the offseason, turns 32 on June 19. He's bound to slow down at some point. They'd better hope it's not this year, because he's their heart and soul on defense.