If you can't cover 'em, strip 'em.
That's how the Jets plan to stop the Chargers' high-flying passing game. As Jets defensive backs coach Dennis Thurman pointed out, when the receivers are scraping the clouds at 6-5 and the defensive backs are topping out at 5-11, "there's not a whole lot from a physical standpoint that you can do. The NFL doesn't allow you to wear lifts in your shoes or platform heels to help you out.''
That is where the ancient art of stripping comes into play, meaning "to knock the football out of another player's hands,'' generally by any means legally available.
"The strip is a lost art among defensive backs, but we still teach it around here,'' said Thurman, a Cowboys cornerback for eight seasons (1978-85) who came from the Ravens' coaching staff along with Rex Ryan before the start of the season.
"When the ball's in the air, you gotta get up there and somehow separate the hands from the ball,'' Thurman said. "Doesn't matter how you do it; the main goal is the football winds up on the ground.''
That is what the Jets' defensive backs have been working on this week in preparing to cover Chargers wide receivers Vincent Jackson and Malcom Floyd, both 6-5, and tight end Antonio Gates, a mere 6-4 but 260 wide-bodied pounds.
In a sense, it involves a technique that the Jets' aggressive secondary, led by ball-hawking corner Darrelle Revis, would be loath to acknowledge - conceding the football to the hands of a Chargers receiver before attempting to knock it loose.
"In that case, you just gotta play their hands,'' said safety Kerry Rhodes, at 6-3 the Jolly Green Giant of the unit.
"Even if the receiver jumps and gets his hands on the ball over you, he's still got to bring it down. That's when you got to play through his hands and knock the ball out when he comes down. Use anything you got: hands, helmet, fist, anything.''
For this game more than any other all season, the focus is on the Jets' secondary, because the Chargers possess perhaps the most potent quick-strike air attack in the game. They led the AFC in scoring, Rivers was the conference's highest-rated passer, and Jackson and Gates each amassed more than 1,100 receiving yards.
If you can stop the Chargers through the air, chances are you can stop the Chargers. The running game, led by the once-great LaDainian Tomlinson and Darren Sproles, ended the season mired in 31st place among 32 teams, gaining 1,423 yards, or only 21 more than Thomas Jones.
"This is probably the best corps of receivers we've faced,'' Revis said. "But this is a game right here where you get excited because you know you can make plays. You know the ball is gonna be thrown and you can make some interceptions. For the secondary, we gotta be licking our chops back there.''
Or licking their wounds. Statistically, the 2009 Jets defense was the best in the NFL. It allowed the fewest points of any team in the league, the fewest total yards, the smallest average gain per play and the fewest number of first downs. They were the most difficult team in the league to convert a third down against.
By just about any quantitative yardstick, the Jets' "D'' was the class of the NFL.
But the numbers tell only part of the story. In fact, they may even lie.
Three times during the regular season, the Jets' offense put the game into the hands of the defense, with the team needing just one more stop to lock up a victory.
All three times, the NFL's leading statistical defense allowed the other team to march down the field for the winning score in the final minutes. It happened in Week 5 in Miami, in Week 10 at home against Jacksonville, and only four weeks ago against Atlanta. That was the loss that prompted Rex Ryan to prematurely pronounce his team's playoff chances dead.
Most disturbingly, the Jacksonville and Atlanta losses came at the expense of the secondary, the showcase unit of the Jets' defense.
Arguably the lowest point of their season occurred on the winning play of the Atlanta game, on a fourth-and-goal from the 6. Everyone in the Meadowlands knew the ball was going to Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez and still, no one could stop him.
Usually, the Jets would put Revis man-to-man on the receiver most likely to get the ball, but the proximity to the end zone prompted the Jets to play a zone, which requires the defensive backs to hold their positions and not follow receivers who go in motion. As a result, Revis said, he and Rhodes wound up on the opposite side of the field from Gonzalez and Roddy White, the Falcons' featured wideout.
"We knew the ball was going to Gonzalez,'' Revis said, "but they found a weak spot in our defense and he caught the ball. I was mad.''
After the game, Gonzalez produced an aerial photo taken from the coaches' booth showing five Jets defensive backs surrounding him, but not one close enough to stop him from easily catching the winning TD pass.
"We gotta be held accountable for that,'' Rhodes said. "When you put yourself in the position of being a great defense, you have to get some of the stops we gave up.''
On Sunday, they get a second chance. The game within the game between the Chargers' passing attack and the Jets' secondary is likely to determine whether the Jets move one step closer to the Super Bowl in Miami or fall in San Diego.
Like the deciding play of the Atlanta game, the Jets know the ball is coming and they know to whom it probably is going.
Now all they have to do is go up and get it.