Rex Ryan has generally held his fire when it comes to criticizing the Jets, in part because he remains friendly with team owner Woody Johnson and because of an affinity he still feels for the team he led to two AFC Championship Games in his first go-round as an NFL head coach.
But this time he couldn’t help himself.
After yet another putrid performance from Robert Saleh’s defense in Sunday’s 45-17 home loss to the Bills, Ryan unloaded on his old team, specifically the woeful state of the defense he once presided over.
"This is a horrendous defense," Ryan, now an ESPN analyst, said on ESPN Radio’s "DiPietro & Rothenberg Show" Monday morning. "This guy [Saleh] is supposed to be a defensive guru. I heard everything, and I take it personal on this one. Everything I heard was about, ‘Well, this guy is a lot like myself but without the bad part.’ Yeah? Well, some of the bad part you need, because this team doesn’t play with any damn heart. That’s the disappointing thing to me."
After watching the Jets’ defense the last month, it’s hard to argue the point. Saleh’s group hasn’t just been bad, it has been historically bad. The Jets have surrendered 175 points in their last four games, the second most by any team since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger. According to ESPN, they are the first team since the 1966 Giants to allow at least 45 points in three out of four games.
Saleh can point to injuries as one factor in the dismal play. The Jets lost pass rusher Carl Lawson to an Achilles injury in the preseason, and starting safeties Marcus Maye and Lamarcus Joyner are out for the year. The Jets also are going with young cornerbacks, including Brandin Echols, who suffered a quadriceps injury on Sunday.
But every team has injury issues, so this wretched series of performances isn’t simply a result of manpower shortages.
This is a scheme-based problem. And an emotional one, too.
"Every man should be embarrassed," defensive lineman Sheldon Rankins said after Sunday’s loss. "Every man should be angry."
It was a pitiful performance by the defense, even with Mike White’s four interceptions and wide receiver Corey Davis’ late first-half fumble repeatedly handing the Bills the ball. A week earlier, the Jaguars held the Bills to two field goals in a 9-6 upset. No excuses for the Jets.
"Obviously, it’s not good enough," Saleh said. "It always starts with me."
Saleh said one of the hallmarks of his defenses with the 49ers, whom he helped to a Super Bowl run after the 2019 season, was that they improved over the course of the season. The opposite is happening in his first year as the Jets’ coach. This defense has regressed badly.
"Don’t ever compare this guy to me, this Robert Saleh to me," Ryan said.
Ryan doesn’t buy the injury issue.
"Now they’re going to use it, ‘Well, we never had our safety,’ " he said. "So what? Everybody else has a million injuries, let alone an above-average safety you’re missing. I remember playing without five corners. It never looked this bad."
Ryan’s defenses were mostly superb during his time with the Jets, particularly in 2009 and 2010, his first two seasons, when he led the team to back-to-back AFC Championship Games with his "ground-and-pound" approach of running the football and playing good defense. Before coming to the Jets, Ryan was a terrific defensive coordinator for the Ravens.
"To me, I’m a little [upset] when I hear this guy’s background is a lot like [mine]," Ryan said of Saleh. "No, it isn’t. No, it isn’t."
Asked about Ryan’s criticism during his appearance on ESPN Radio’s "The Michael Kay Show," Saleh said he doesn’t know Ryan and has never met him. He added: "Obviously, if it’s that personal for him, he knows where to find me."
Was he surprised by Ryan’s remarks? "Nah, I’m not surprised by him,’’ Saleh said. "He’s always got something to say."
While the quarterback question has dominated the conversation about the Jets in recent weeks, the Zach Wilson-White situation shouldn’t mask an equally glaring problem for Saleh. He needs to find answers for the other side of the ball just as much as he does on offense, where White likely played his way out of the job as long as Wilson is ready to return from a knee injury.
You can’t put out a defense this woeful week after week, regardless of injuries or your opponents. You have to at least be competitive, and that simply hasn’t happened during the last month, starting with the 54-point shellacking Bill Belichick put on the Jets in Foxborough.
If Saleh is going to win over this town, he’s going to have to put out a much better product than the one we’ve seen. Young team or not, the Jets shouldn’t be this bad.
Saleh has eight games left to fix it. His victory-starved fans deserve something to be proud of, not embarrassed about.
These defensive numbers are indefensible for Robert Saleh and the Jets (NFL rank in parentheses):
Points per game 32.9 (32)
Yards per game 417.1 (32)
Pass yards per game 283.2 (31)
Rushing yards per game 133.9 (29)
Total first downs 220 (30)
Takeaways 7 (30, tie)