Let’s not compare this Jets defense with the 1985 Bears — always the standard by which great single-season defenses are measured. The Jets are nowhere close to that or any other legendary defense.
But considering the limited resources that defensive coordinator Gregg Williams has at his disposal, this may be one of the league’s most resourceful defenses.
He no longer has the services of linebacker C.J. Mosley, who hasn’t recovered from a groin injury he suffered in Week 1. He’s without his best cornerback, Trumaine Johnson, who’s out for the year with an ankle injury.
His cornerbacks include Brian Poole, Arthur Maulet and Nate Hairston, who was acquired in a trade with the Colts during training camp. Starting inside linebacker Avery Williamson was lost to a knee injury in the preseason. The Jets are down to Neville Hewitt and James Burgess on the inside. Gone, too, is Leonard Williams, traded to the Giants last month.
The only big-name talent in Williams’ current lineup: strong safety Jamal Adams, who is having a career year.
While most of the attention paid to the Jets has revolved around coach Adam Gase, whose team got off to a 1-7 start, and Sam Darnold, who had mononucleosis early in the season and is only now coming into his own, Williams has quietly managed to construct a highly respectable defense.
Actually, “quietly’’ might not be the right word. Not with Williams, who is one of the most boisterous assistant coaches you’ll ever come across. He’ll yell at a player for not hitting the tackling dummy hard enough, let alone missing an assignment during 11-on-11 work.
Of course, Williams’ aggressive style has gotten him into trouble before, most notably during his time with the Saints. He was suspended for the 2012 season after admitting to running a bounty program that rewarded players who injured opponents.
Since his reinstatement, Williams has mostly steered clear of controversy, although he was implicated by former Giants receiver Odell Beckham Jr., who said in training camp that Browns players told him Williams had his players target Beckham during a Browns-Giants preseason game in 2017. Williams denied the accusation.
Williams has long been known as one of the most imaginative play-callers, and his schemes have been essential to the Jets’ current three-game winning streak.
The Jets have been particularly effective against the run, and they lead the league with the fewest rushing yards allowed per game (78.1) and lowest average of yards per carry (3.0) allowed. In Sunday’s 34-3 win over the Raiders, they held renowned rookie tailback Josh Jacobs to 34 yards on 10 carries. Two weeks earlier, they held Giants running back Saquon Barkley to one yard on 13 carries.
Overall, the Jets are eighth in yards allowed (321.1).
“In order to play very strong run defense, you’ve got to play 11 guys together,” Williams said. “The hardest thing for me to do anymore is to watch high school and college football with people not understanding how to play run defense and how you have to go about restricting the field and playing knock-back. We don’t catch and react. We’re an attacking defense and you’ve got to do a really, really, really good job on not letting them get outside.”
There’s certainly room for improvement. The Jets are allowing an average of 23.5 points per game, more than twice what the league-leading Patriots have allowed (10.6). They’re 19th overall with 26 sacks, and their 43 percent third-down conversion rate is 24th.
Considering the injuries to key players, Williams has done a bang-up job in his first year with the Jets. His work with Adams has been splendid. The Jets’ third-year safety has 6 1⁄2 sacks, 1 ½ away from the NFL record for most sacks by a defensive back in a single season. Williams has positioned Adams brilliantly, and the former first-round pick has responded with the best play of his career.
“He’s just scratched the surface on what he can do,” Williams said. “If you want to be the all-[around] type of leader, you have to be at the top of our profession. You have to set the example first through doing it, before you say it. People pay attention to you when you do those types of things and you do your job. Now they’re going to listen.”
And the Jets are listening to Williams.
It’s impossible for them not to.