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SportsColumnistsBob Glauber

Jets thin at cornerback, but nothing defensive-minded Rex Ryan can't handle

Rex Ryan has a laugh on the sideline

Rex Ryan has a laugh on the sideline before a game against the Miami Dolphins. (Dec. 29, 2013) Credit: AP

What began as a routine Sunday afternoon training camp practice quickly turned into a crisis for the Jets, one they are still attempting to manage as they begin the regular season with Sunday's game against the Raiders at MetLife Stadium.

First it was third-round rookie cornerback Dexter McDougle, who got his cleat caught in the grass at the team's Cortland practice field and suffered a season-ending ACL injury.

Less than 30 minutes later, 2013 first-round cornerback Dee Milliner went down with a sprained ankle that still hasn't recovered enough for him to play.

Not only that, but newly acquired starter Dmitri Patterson also was out with calf, ankle and quadriceps injuries -- an absence that would become permanent after Patterson went AWOL for a preseason game against the Giants and was released after getting suspended.

Three cornerbacks, two of whom won't play another game this season and one who might be out another few weeks.

But if there is a glimmer of hope for the Jets, it rests with the man who is standing outside the team's cafeteria after a midweek practice session.

Coach Rex Ryan, who is one of the brightest defensive minds in the NFL, believes he can navigate the difficult challenge ahead by using the limited resources now at his disposal and turning what looks to be an impossible situation into a unique opportunity.

The Jets may be without three of their top cornerbacks, but Ryan's uncanny ability to put his players in the best position to succeed could go a long way toward helping his team overcome its greatest weakness.

Ryan offers an aw-shucks reaction when it is suggested that his exceptional defensive mind gives him a distinct tactical advantage that could help cover up at least some of his secondary's deficiencies.

"I got a great secondary coach and a great defensive coordinator in Dennis Thurman,'' he said, "so I think that helps.''

But Ryan's influence on the secondary is undeniable. He helped Darrelle Revis become the greatest cover corner of his era by having Revis play almost exclusively man-to-man defense. And Ryan's teams -- whether it be with the Jets or with the Ravens during his run as their defensive coordinator -- routinely were sound in the secondary, in large part because of his imaginative schemes that took advantage of individual skills.

Talent helped, yes, but Ryan didn't always have it. In the 2008 season, when Ryan ran the Ravens' defense, his starting cornerbacks were Frank Walker and Fabian Washington, both middling players. But Baltimore reached the AFC Championship Game that year and Ryan's defense played a huge role.

And in Ryan's first season as the Jets' coach in 2009, his starting cornerback opposite Revis was Lito Sheppard, who once had been one of the NFL's top corners but was a shell of his former self when he got to the Jets. Ryan provided safety help for Sheppard on nearly every passing play and the Jets wound up with the NFL's top-ranked defense.

Ryan now will put his defensive wits to great use with this year's team because of the rash of injuries and Patterson's quick flameout. Instead of Milliner and Patterson starting at corner, Ryan will have Darrin Walls, an undrafted free agent the Jets signed in 2012, and Antonio Allen, a converted safety. The starting safeties will be veteran Dawan Landry and first-round rookie Calvin Pryor.

"For his style of defense, you need corners that can play man-to-man, and I think [Ryan] has the eye for those kinds of guys,'' said Walls, 26. "We've had some great corners here, and we still have some. We're out there playing for him, and we want to keep the tradition going.''

Said Allen, "He's very detailed and he's very smart and he's going to draw up schemes to go up against offenses that can't pick up on what we're doing. The guy can coach.''

For the Jets to fulfill Ryan's lofty expectations for this season, he might need to do some of his greatest coaching yet. His defense looks terrific up front with defensive ends Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson and linebackers David Harris and Demario Davis, but the undermanned secondary will be Ryan's greatest challenge.

He insists he's up to the task. And by the end of our conversation, after he tried to deflect much of the credit to his assistant coaches, Ryan acknowledged that he has an advantage in at least one respect.

"I think [the advantage] is through my experiences,'' he said. "Obviously, growing up the son of Buddy Ryan, I was around football all my life. And then all the years as a coordinator, I've had different scenarios happen. So I've seen a lot of different things through the years. I feel good about being able to take what I have and make it work.''

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