Sheldon Richardson isn't afraid of the Patriots -- or the Jets' critics.

The rookie defensive tackle may be young, but he's picked up right where his coach left off, exhibiting bold confidence and unwavering optimism inside the Jets' locker room.

"We won last week, they said it was because of what the Tampa Bay Buccaneers did wrong, not what we did right," Richardson told Newsday Tuesday. "Things like that, we just don't pay attention to.

"You guys don't want to give us credit for nothing, so we've got to go out there and take it. It's just that simple."

Four days after having its way with Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman, the Jets' young defense will face a far bigger challenge: rattling future Hall of Famer Tom Brady. It can be done, Rex Ryan's players said. Even on Brady's home turf.

The game plan is simple. "As long as we get to Brady, we'll be fine," defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson said of the AFC East rivalry game tonight in Foxborough.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

Ryan's defense could hold the key to victory as rookie quarterback Geno Smith looks to be 2-0.

The youth movement is underway inside the defensive meeting rooms at One Jets Drive. Including 2012 first-round pick Quinton Coples, five of the Jets' six defensive linemen (on the active roster) are 25 or younger. So are half of their defensive backs. But inexperience hasn't slowed the unit -- especially up front.

And that's a good thing, considering Dennis Thurman's occasional lack of patience.

"There are times where my expectations may exceed where someone is," the defensive coordinator said. "It's not about waiting. If you're a starter and/or a backup, everybody has to be prepared to go out and do their job."

With so many young players and first-time starters, the coaching staff is aware of each player's limitations. But the goal for the defense remains the same: top 5 or bust. Ryan has no doubt it can make good on his great expectations.

"Absolutely not worried. I am not," Ryan said in a phone interview with Newsday last week before the Jets beat the Bucs, 18-17, sacking Freeman three times in the process.

"There's pride. And I sense it. So being rated 32nd in the league [by ESPN], or something like that, by so-called experts means nothing to us. Because we get to go out and prove that we know different."

The Jets did just that against the Bucs. And now, they'll need to prove it against a much better opponent.

The only limitations versatile players such as Wilkerson, Richardson and Coples have "is the creativity of the coach," Ryan said. Thursday night, Ryan -- "the mad scientist in the lab," according to Thurman -- will have to outthink the master himself, Bill Belichick.

But while the new, tight-lipped Rex isn't boasting and guaranteeing championships publicly, the old Rex still lives behind closed doors. And, more importantly, within his players.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

The last time Ryan was his old, brash self was back in June, during an interview with Newsday when he said: "I'm a hell of a lot better football coach than I'm given credit for . . . I don't have to brag, even though statistically, I can brag about anything I've ever done defensively."

Well, the next test begins Thursday night -- for Ryan and his young but talented defensive line.

And it starts with Brady.