As with any Rex Ryan defense, the Jets use the 3-4 as their base defense. They will likely take a page from Denver's playbook and deploy either a 4-2-5 look or possibly a 3-3-5 look in order to prevent the Colts from running the ball at will.
Up front, New York misses the massive presence of Kris Jenkins, a space-eating nose tackle that made life easier for inside linebackers David Harris and Bart Scott. Sione Pouha has done an admirable job filling in for Jenkins since he was placed on injured reserve, but he is not a player of Jenkins' caliber.
End Shaun Ellis — who was once a nose tackle — fills in the gaps in order to help out and the Jets are currently the 11th-ranked run defense in the NFL. Fellow end Marques Douglas is a talented two-way player, holding stout at the point of attack in the running game and pitching in with 1.5 sacks so far this season with a forced fumble.
The big pass rushing plays are generally made with outside linebackers Bryan Thomas and Calvin Pace, who both formerly played defensive end in the 4-3 scheme. If Ryan does decide to go with a 4-2-5 look — and he will surely vary personnel and formations throughout the game — he will probably slide Thomas onto the line with his hand on the ground, since Pace is the more talented pass defender and Scott is a very accomplished blitzer as well.
The key is for Peyton Manning to identify where the fourth, and often fifth, rusher is coming from. After struggling against 3-4 defenses for most of his career, Manning has made considerable strides — due partly to the fact that he has had more exposure to the 3-4, as a number of teams have adopted it — and is equally comfortable setting protections with Jeff Saturday against the 3-4 as he is against the 4-3.
Charlie Johnson and Ryan Diem need to stay on their toes, though, and make sure that the Jets are not able to pull any inside-outside maneuvers, having the defensive end crash inside and take them away from the action while the outside linebacker rushes unblocked towards the quarterback.
Ryan Lilja and Kyle DeVan need to stay cognizant of the stunts and crosses that the Jets — and Ryan — like to run with their linebackers and defensive tackles. It is a tall order and the Colts offensive line will need to remain vigilant — with a running back kept in the formation — to slow down the ferocious pace that New York brings on defense, as they like to blitz more than any other team in the league.
It is a high-risk, high-reward defense that the Jets deploy, so hopefully Manning has learned enough the past few seasons to identify the oncoming rushers and make them pay for overcommitting.
In a 4-2-5 formation, Ellis will shift to tackle and Thomas to end, with Harris staying on the field for first and second downs. Harris is a tackling machine and an excellent run defender, so New York will want to keep him in the thick of the action should the Colts decide to run the ball against a soft formation.
On passing downs, Pace and Scott will stay in the game, as they play the best among the Jets linebackers with their backs to the line of scrimmage. Passing the ball will not be easy against this formation, but even defenders as skilled as Scott and Pace are still linebackers, so they will not be able to handle Dallas Clark one on one.
Scott is a versatile player that can play any position in this defense and New York takes full advantage of his interchangeability. He will line up all over the formation and should play the "quarterback" position that Ryan delegated to Ray Lewis when he was the defensive coordinator for the Ravens. Scott will make calls, change the formation, and adjust to suit the defense to what he believes Manning is thinking. This will be a battle of wits to watch, but Scott is not the player that Lewis is in terms of knowledge of the game and offensive and defensive formations and Manning bested Lewis on a number of occasions, so it should be relatively one-sided.
This matchup will essentially come down to the Colts receivers against the very talented secondary for the New York Jets.
Cornerback Darrelle Revis has made a lot of headlines this season and for good reasons. He has emerged as the premiere shutdown corner of the league and has successfully taken star receivers Randy Moss (twice), Andre Johnson, and Terrell Owens out of the game. His ability to take away the other team's best receiver has given Rex Ryan the confidence to aggressively blitz the opposing quarterback and force him into a bad decision.
Revis has been dominant both in the short area of the field and deep, allowing 4.89 yards per attempt on short passes and an astonishing 3.26 yards per attempt on deep passes, while having faced the fourth-most deep passing attempts in the NFL this season. He is in the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year and he should be. He is a tremendous weapon for this defense and Ryan uses him very effectively.
The hoopla surrounding Revis has taken attention away from Lito Sheppard on the opposite side of the field. Since Revis is his counterpart, Sheppard has been the cornerback that opposing teams "pick on" throughout the 2009 season. Sheppard has responded by becoming a fairly good shutdown corner in his own right, allowing only 5.28 yards per attempt on short passes and 4.44 yards per attempt on deep balls. Pierre Garcon and Anthony Gonzalez were held out of practice on Wednesday, so they may not play on Sunday. That would put Austin Collie head-to-head with Sheppard and Wayne head-to-head with Revis. Those are not matchups that favor the Colts.
One area where the Jets have been vulnerable is in the middle of the field. They have allowed 6.83 yards per attempt on short passes up the middle and an astonishing 12.53 yards per attempt to the deep middle. Indianapolis is averaging 7.08 and 13.81 yards per attempt to those areas of the field, respectively. Jets safeties Jim Leonhard and Eric Smith have struggled in coverage this season, especially over the top. If ever there were a game for Dallas Clark, Jacob Tamme, and Gijon Robinson to shine, this is it.
New York has been successful on defense this season — they are the number one unit in the league in terms of passing yards allowed, total yards allowed, and points against — by stymieing the passing game, doing well enough against the run, and waiting for the other team to make a mistake. Manning has proven in the past that he is not easily broken down, including many times this season.
If the Colts can get the running game going early, Manning can work the ball to Clark and Robinson to the short, intermediate, and deep middle of the field, and take what Revis and Sheppard give him on the perimeter, Indianapolis can outlast a very talented and cohesive defense that does not have a great deal of offensive support.
But, this matchup will ultimately come down to who wants it more. The Jets are fighting for their playoff lives and the Colts have nothing left to prove. It's going to be interesting.
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