A team that was twice one step away from the Super Bowl has a new mantra: One step faster.
One of the many reasons the Jets tumbled to 8-8 last season was a defense that lacked the ferociousness it displayed during Rex Ryan's first two seasons, each of which ended with a loss in the AFC Championship Game. But Ryan and general manager Mike Tannenbaum have focused on the defensive side of the ball this winter, most recently by selecting North Carolina defensive end Quinton Coples in the first round and Arkansas State linebacker DeMario Davis in the third round.
Coples is expected to immediately upgrade a pass rush that was meager at best last season, when situational linebacker Aaron Maybin led the Jets with six sacks, while Davis should help the Jets as they try to contain the Patriots' all-world tight end combination of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez twice a season.
The rookies should also provide an infusion of youth to a unit that wore down during the second half of last season, when it was exposed badly in losses to the high-powered Patriots, Eagles and Giants. The Jets were outscored 111-49 in those three defeats-all of which happened after mid-November-and surrendered a total of 11 offensive touchdowns.
"You need to be fast and athletic," defensive coordinator Mike Pettine told reporters at the same event. "The league is evolving that way. It's a pass-first league and we felt we became, for lack of a better word, a little dinosaur-ish inside. We needed to improve the athleticism and team speed."
Tight ends, in particular, have benefited from the NFL's aerial approach, especially Gronkowski and Hernandez. The duo combined for more than 2,237 yards receiving and 24 touchdowns last season and Gronkowski shredded the Jets for eight catches, 113 yards and two touchdowns in the Patriots' 37-16 win Nov. 13.
"You saw the tight ends drafted," Pettine said. "New England, I think, has set the trend for it and we have to respond to it."
The Jets also believe they improved their secondary by signing free-agent safety LaRon Landry to a one-year deal and selecting safeties Josh Bush (sixth round) and Antonio Allen (seventh round) late in the draft.
"We've been a really good defense here for three years, but we want to be a great defense," Ryan told reporters at a charity event. "So we're going to push each other that way."
The Jets' veteran returnees on defense are pushing themselves this spring to get in shape to play the sleeker style. Nose tackle Sione Pouha said he is hoping to lose about 15 pounds this offseason to get down to 330 while Bart Scott is also planning on shedding some weight. Maybin, meanwhile, hopes to gain about 20 pounds in order to handle a starting role at outside linebacker. He is currently 241 pounds, up from 233 at the end of last year.
Players are also embracing the new approach-especially Maybin, the one-time Buffalo Bills bust who was perhaps the Jets' most pleasant surprise last season.
"I love that," Maybin told reporters. "If you were looking at a player that marries up exactly with that kind of mentality, you're looking at him. That's my style of football."