FLORHAM PARK, N.J. - This time, Rex Ryan was careful not to boast or be brash. But when asked the question, he told the truth. As he sees it.
Ryan may not have Darrelle Revis anymore -- or six other defensive starters from a year ago. But the Jets coach still is certain his unit will be top five in the NFL by season's end.
"We will be,'' the ever-confident Ryan said Tuesday. "Right now we're not there. Obviously, we've got to make some improvements, especially from this past week.
"But I'm certainly confident that we'll be where we always are or better.''
The Jets' defense has ranked first, third, fifth and eighth in yards allowed, respectively, over Ryan's four-year tenure. But after undergoing an overhaul this offseason, there were questions about whether the unit would be as good. And Saturday's preseason win over the Jaguars -- in which Blaine Gabbert completed 13 of 16 for 165 yards, a touchdown and 130.5 passer rating -- did little to bolster Ryan's claim.
But the coach said there's a good reason to believe his defense will be in the top five again.
"My history,'' he said, matter- of-factly. "There will be a lot of new faces in there, but I guess you put that decal on the side of your helmets that says New York Jets, you have to be special. You have to understand that there's expectations that come along with it. And I expect our guys to play extremely well.''
Recently, second-year linebacker Demario Davis addressed the unit in a meeting to remind his teammates that they have the potential to be No. 1, Antonio Cromartie said. But it wasn't the first time that message has been delivered.
"We've heard it all offseason,'' the Jets' top cornerback said. "Not just from [Davis], from the coaching staff also. For us, it's just repetitive. It's the way we feel. And that's everybody in the room. We feel like we have a great front seven and we feel we have a secondary that could turn into a great secondary.
"When we're on the field, it's a given for us to have an opportunity to make a play.''
One of the newest members of that secondary, rookie cornerback Dee Milliner, struggled a bit against the Jags, especially in man coverage. Tuesday, he sat out practice because of a sore calf. But Cromartie defended the rookie, saying "it's a given'' that opponents will target rookies.
"You want to step up to the challenge, so that you are the guy on the outside that everyone is expecting you to be,'' Cromartie said. "That's just something that as a rookie corner that you're going to have to fight.''
Ryan said he has faith that Milliner and his entire defense eventually will be the talk of the town. Several defensive players echoed the sentiment.
"Playing for Rex, we know we've got to be a top-five defense,'' outside linebacker Ricky Sapp said. "I think we have all the tools and we're definitely on our way. But, like he said, we've got to put that work in. And that's what we're doing.''
The expectations may be low outside the walls of One Jets Drive, but rookie defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson believes the Jets will have the final word.
"I'm aware of it,'' he said of NFL pundits writing off the Jets. "I just don't care about it. They're not in here, grinding for three hours, sweating. So either they're washed up or don't know what they're talking about anyway. It is what it is. They can write up whatever they want. People have to line up on Sundays and play.''