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Tim McDonald knows his Jets secondary is being talked about

Jets defensive backs coach Tim McDonald looks on

Jets defensive backs coach Tim McDonald looks on during training camp. (July 28, 2013) Credit: Hans Pennink

Tim McDonald can hear you.

In between the countless hours spent breaking down video and game-planning for the Jets' upcoming opponents, the secondary coach knows his players are being talked about.

And not in a good way.

Between the subpar performances of rookie cornerback Dee Milliner and the injury-plagued struggles of veteran Antonio Cromartie, his secondary has been labeled "the Achilles' heel" of the Jets' ninth-ranked defense.

When McDonald accepted the coaching position in January, Cromartie was basking in his Pro Bowl nod and Darrelle Revis still was in green and white. But even with the trade of Revis and the subsequent selection of Milliner ninth overall in the draft, no one anticipated this type of inconsistency from their relatively young secondary.

"As a coach, it weighs on you all day long," McDonald, 48, said during an interview in the team's indoor fieldhouse Friday. "It's with you. All the time.

"There's a fire burning right now," added the coach, a six-time Pro Bowl safety and Super Bowl champion with the 49ers. "People are taking their shots on us. When you see balls going over a secondary guy's head -- yeah, there's pressure."

The Jets are 22nd in the league in pass defense, surrendering 250.3 yards a game. They're also tied with the Falcons with 12 passes of at least 40 yards allowed, fourth most in the NFL. And McDonald is holding himself just as accountable as he is his players.

"I'm the secondary coach," he said, "so of course you don't want to read about secondary guys in the paper all the time or see them being considered the weak links of the defense. So that's something we work on and talk about daily. And we've got to get better at it."

Though Cromartie, 29, said he is "very" optimistic that he'll face the AFC East rival Dolphins on Sunday, the coaching staff is taking a wait-and-see approach with the cornerback, who's been hampered by a hip injury. But even if Cromartie is active, there's no guarantee he won't be a liability -- especially against the deep ball.

"It just restricts me from being explosive," he said of the injury. "I can't open up my stride as much as I've wanted to. But it's just something that I try to deal with."

And while Cromartie has been playing through his injury, Milliner has been trying to adjust to the steep learning curve of the NFL. His miscues have been well documented, but his teammates and coaches are quick to point out that he's improved his level of play in practice and on game day.

"He's got work to do," defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman said, adding that Milliner has improved during the past "three, four weeks."

" . . . He's making plays, he's covering his guys,'' Thurman added, "But it seems that there's one play or two plays in the game that may have gotten away from him, and that's all everybody wants to talk about.

" . . . When those big plays get away from you, people tend to think that you're not doing your job."

Last week in Baltimore, Milliner and safety Ed Reed were beaten on Jacoby Jones' 66-yard touchdown pass with five seconds left in the third quarter -- a score that essentially put the game out of reach for the Jets.

There's no worse feeling for a defensive back than seeing a ball sail over his head, McDonald said.

"There's guys up front that slip and fall, get knocked on their tail, and the [running back] gets an extra six or seven yards," he said. "But with us, that pressure is always there.

"There's two types of defensive backs: those who've been beaten and those who are going to get beat. If you're back there, it's going to happen. But we have to respond a little bit better than we've been responding. And that's the issue right now."

After playing 13 years in the league, McDonald has grown accustomed to the ever-present spotlight on the back end. And that's why the deep ball continues to be a point of emphasis in the meeting room.

"We're the last line of defense," he said. "So when you see guys running in the end zone, it's [on] the secondary."

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