FLORHAM PARK, N.J.
This all looked so easy five games into the season. The Jets were 4-1, they were creating turnovers at a record-setting pace, and almost overnight, their rebuilt defense seemingly had turned into one of the league's best.
But here they are a month later, after three losses in four games, and that same defense has been one of the most underperforming groups in football.
What in the name of Jekyll & Hyde is going on here, Todd Bowles?
"Spotty" is the word the Jets' first-year coach came up with to describe his defense's recent struggles. If that's coachspeak for lousy, then Bowles is spot-on about the state of the defense he presides over.
The numbers are staggeringly different from the start of the season. After five games, the Jets had produced a whopping 15 turnovers -- two more than all of last season -- in a nearly flawless start. But they're 1-3 in the last four games, partly because they haven't come up with a turnover in the three losses.
The points differential from then to now is equally jarring. The Jets allowed an average of 12.5 points in the first five games, but that has ballooned to 27.3 in their 1-3 skid.
Sorry, but when you spend all that free-agent cash on defensive backs Darrelle Revis, Antonio Cromartie, Buster Skrine and Marcus Gilchrist, and you've got seven former first-round picks on the defensive side of the ball, that isn't good enough. If the Jets want to make good on Bowles' goal of getting to the playoffs in Year 1, then a defense that's big on salary and talent has to start playing up to expectations.
With a remaining schedule that features only two teams that have winning records, the 9-0 Patriots and 5-4 Bills, there's no excuse for this defense not to resume its dominating ways from earlier in the season.
"I feel like we've had our 'stumble' games," said Skrine, the Jets' nickel corner who signed a $25-million free-agent deal. "The Raiders game [34-20 loss], we had a 'stumble' game and then the Jaguars game [28-23 win] we gave up some yards at the end of the game, but we had [four] turnovers. I still feel like we're pretty strong defensively, but we need to get more turnovers. Most times we get turnovers, we win. We have to keep doing what we were doing at the beginning of the year. Just keep getting the turnovers, being that type of dominant defense."
The Jets need to play their way back to dominance, but there is little evidence they're ready for an immediate turnaround. They did a decent job against Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor but allowed 148 rushing yards when they needed to shut down LeSean McCoy and rookie Karlos Williams. Three turnovers by the Jets' offense and another on a kickoff return were the biggest impediments to winning, and Bowles' decision not to go for a field goal late in the game and thereby set up a chance for what could have been a game-winning field goal was a legitimate second-guess.
But if this defense is as good as the players on it think it is, then the effort -- and results -- should have been better.
The Jets face a Texans team coming off a solid road win over the previously unbeaten Bengals, but they managed only 10 points and one touchdown from backup quarterback T.J. Yates, who is likely to start on Sunday in Houston. If the Jets can't handle that offense, then the problems may be even more serious than anyone could have imagined. The tackling needs to get better. The pass coverage, particularly from Cromartie, who by his own admission said his play is not up to his or the team's standards, needs to get better. As does the run defense, which has given up a combined 364 yards the last three games.
"We haven't given our offense good field position," said Cromartie, who signed a $32-million contract. "We haven't created turnovers. We have to get off the field on third downs and don't let them score in the red zone. We've just to pick up from the last one, learn from our mistakes and continue to move on and press on. Let your play continue to improve."
Sounds easy, but the Jets have shown all too often that it's not. They've got far too much talent on this roster to let teams impose their will, and there's no reason they can't play up to the level expected of them. If the turnaround doesn't come soon -- as soon as Sunday, in fact -- then this will be one slow burn for a team all too used to seeing someone else play for a championship.
This team and this roster is all about defense. It's about time said defense starts to play like it.