Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie (31) during pregame of the Jets...

Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie (31) during pregame of the Jets at Giants game at MetLife Stadium. (Aug. 24, 2013) Credit: Lee S. Weissman

The Jets' defense expects to finish the season in the top five. But first the entire unit has to get healthy.

The Jets began Saturday night's MetLife Bowl without three of their defensive starters: cornerback Dee Milliner (calf), defensive lineman/outside linebacker Quinton Coples (ankle) and nose tackle Kenrick Ellis (back). But before the first half was over, No. 1 cornerback Antonio Cromartie and defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson were on the sideline. And neither player returned after that.

Cromartie -- who sat out team drills Thursday because of cramping in his leg -- was spotted talking to members of the Jets' medical staff in the first half. Rex Ryan said Cromartie was dealing with a hip issue, which is why he didn't play most of the game.

Milliner's absence also was noticeable, mainly because of his replacement. Kyle Wilson started in place of the Jets' ninth overall pick and was flagged three times for pass interference -- including twice on one second-quarter drive by the Giants.

Richardson, who came out of the game during the second quarter, got his left ankle/foot wrapped on the sideline. He soon walked off the field.

Up to that point, the rookie defensive tackle was having a good game, including a 7-yard sack of Eli Manning in the first quarter.

Stephen Hill (four catches for 56 yards, including a 32-yarder) sprained a wrist and underwent an X-ray after the game, according to a source.

Cornerback Ellis Lankster (Achilles) and linebacker Josh Mauga (back) also were inactive against the Giants, in addition to wide receivers Braylon Edwards (leg) and Santonio Holmes (Lisfranc) and center Dalton Freeman (ankle).

Ducasse has early exit

Offensive lineman Vladimir Ducasse finally got a chance to start a preseason game, but his test against the Giants was short-lived. Ducasse, who started at left guard, was taken to the locker room and did not return. Brian Winters replaced him.

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