Rex Ryan's rebuilt Jets defense a hit
Take away the bombast and the bulletin- board quotes, remove the swagger and the in-your-face demeanor, and here's what's left with Rex Ryan.
"I just love to teach," the Jets' coach said. "I love the classroom. I just like getting in front and installing defenses."
Ryan is a lot of things to a lot of people -- not all of them good -- but at his core, he's a football junkie and a guy who loves all there is with coaching: designing a game plan, breaking down tape, teaching technique in practice, concocting all sorts of schemes to deal with the upcoming opponent.
So if Ryan is going to save his job in what is by all measures a make-or-break season, it could come down to how well he does at what he knows best: Run the defense. And if Ryan builds that defense into a unit that turns out to be as good as it's looked the first two weeks of the season, he will give himself a realistic chance of coaching the Jets next season.
That's still a long way off, and there are plenty of the usual twists and turns that every NFL team goes through every season. And we're not minimizing the reality that the Jets' offense needs to show plenty of progress in its own right.
But with Ryan now calling the shots on defense after parting ways with his longtime lieutenant, Mike Pettine, after last season, the coach now will have a much more direct influence on what happens to him going forward.
Ryan will match wits with Pettine on Sunday when the Bills visit the Jets in a key early-season matchup at MetLife Stadium. The two men face similar circumstances on the field, as each goes up against a rookie quarterback and each is coming off a promising start to the season with his defense.
They both earned a home win over an NFC South opponent -- the Jets over Tampa Bay in Week 1 and the Bills over Carolina last week -- and both gave Patriots quarterback Tom Brady fits before suffering narrow losses.
Ryan boasted before the season that he thought the Jets would be a top five defense, although he tempered those remarks after realizing he might be putting too much pressure on his players. But through the early going, the Jets are in the NFL's upper echelon of defenses. The numbers, please:
They're second overall in yards allowed, averaging only 241 per game.
Their 3.9 yards per play is the best in the NFL through two games.
They've allowed only 29 percent of third-down conversions, the fourth-best mark in the league.
And their 15 points allowed per game is second to Seattle, which has allowed only five points per game.
Again, it's early. But Ryan clearly has retained his touch as a defensive play-caller, and he's making a young defense look terrific. Oh, and he's doing it without All-Pro cornerback Darrelle Revis, who was traded in the offseason for the 13th overall pick.
The player the Jets got in that deal -- Missouri defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson -- has been excellent so far, especially against the run. Mo Wilkerson has developed into one of the better defensive linemen and second-year linebacker DeMario Davis has become a reliable complement to David Harris.
It's a good group that believes in the man calling the shots.
"We're a young team, and we come with it, simple as that," Richardson said. "We all believe in Rex. He's a great coach, a great leader."
Ryan can make himself indispensable with more great work on his side of the ball, although his fate ultimately will rest in how well the team does overall. And that means managing a tricky quarterback situation that became even more troublesome with the injury to Mark Sanchez -- an injury that Ryan unwittingly contributed to by putting the quarterback out there with second- and third-stringers against the Giants during the preseason.
But if Ryan's defense remains stout and if the running game can develop to the point that all Geno Smith has to do is be a solid game manager and not turn the ball over -- yes, a big "if," especially considering his four interceptions -- the Jets will have a chance to compete.
And maybe Ryan will have a chance to save his own skin when the decision comes about his future.
The coach who calls himself a teacher at heart still has the confidence of his students.
"Rex is a great guy, a great leader," Wilkerson said. "I'm glad to be here with him. I hope he's here for a long time."