After dominant opener, Jets’ defense aims to ‘step it up’
FLORHAM PARK, N.J. (AP) — The New York Jets were dominant on defense in their season opener, with one player after another coming up with highlight-reel plays.
Five interceptions, big tackles and lots of pressure on the quarterback marked the 48-17 victory in Detroit last Monday night .
“I couldn’t stop smiling, man,” linebacker Avery Williamson said, “for like the whole night.”
Despite all that, though, the Jets see plenty of room for improvement.
“Our mission this week is to step it up,” cornerback Morris Claiborne said. “Our feeling is we’re not taking this game as something we’re going to be stuck on. No, we’re trying to be better than that game. So, this week, we’re coming out and trying to be better than last week. We’re not playing like we’re stuck in the past or anything like that.
“We’re going to go win this game, just like last week.”
The Miami Dolphins certainly know what’s coming Sunday at MetLife Stadium, and that’s a Jets unit noticeably faster than it was last season — and even in previous years, for that matter.
Improving the overall speed on defense was a focus for coach Todd Bowles and general manager Mike Maccagnan, and that was on full display against the Lions .
“That was fun,” said Williamson, in his first season with New York after four with Tennessee. “You see everybody making plays, it’s just a great time.”
Linebacker Darron Lee had two interceptions, while Claiborne, cornerback Trumaine Johnson and safety Jamal Adams also had picks. It was the most by the Jets in a game since Oct. 3, 1999, when they also had five against Denver.
Lee returned the first of his INTs 36 yards for a touchdown that gave New York a 31-17 lead in the third quarter. It was the Jets’ first defensive score since 2013 — a span of 73 games, which had been the longest drought in NFL history.
“It’s definitely a good stepping stone in the right direction,” Lee said, “and we definitely want to throw some consistency with that.”
It was also the first INT of the third-year linebacker’s career. He was just getting started. About 2 1/2 minutes later, Lee picked off another pass by Matthew Stafford.
“I feel like he played a phenomenal game,” Williamson said of Lee. “He was everywhere, flying around and making tackles and two interceptions.”
Lee might be the biggest wild-card on the Jets’ defense. The 2016 first-round pick out of Ohio State had two solid but unspectacular seasons to start his NFL career. While he finished second in tackles both seasons, his lack of big plays has been a major knock.
Even former Jets linebacker and current sports radio host Bart Scott called for the athletic Lee to be more physical and come up with game-changing plays.
Well, one game into this season and Lee is looking much-improved in both areas.
“I’m never satisfied,” he said. “I’m just going to keep pushing and trying to get better every single day. ... I feel pretty comfortable with what we’re doing, so I guess that enabled me to play fast.”
Both Lee and Adams spoke after the game about how they were able to predict the play calls by the Lions, and the players credited the coaching staff for thoroughly preparing them.
“They’re going to come to us if we’re in the right spots,” Claiborne said. “Our coaches put together a great game plan to have us in those spots to be able to make those plays. So, you’re in those spots, but ultimately, it’s up to you make the play.”
While Williamson and Johnson are new to the Jets’ defense this season, many of the key pieces are back and have experience working in the system. That includes Adams and fellow safety Marcus Maye, who are both in their second seasons — although Maye missed the opener and likely will sit out against the Dolphins with a foot injury.
“We definitely can play faster, and I think it helped with communication,” Lee said. “We’re communicating across the board a lot better. It wasn’t really necessarily like that last year because there were a lot of people new to some stuff and having two rookies, but now, we definitely are communicating from the D-line to the linebackers to the safeties and the corners.”
Five interceptions might be a lot to reasonably expect on a weekly basis, of course, but the Jets saw what they can do when they’re clicking in all areas on defense.
And that’s without even having any sacks, an area that has been widely criticized in recent seasons. But, the Jets generated lots of pressure and had four quarterback hits, including two by defensive end Leonard Williams.
“I think we can be really good, man,” Williamson said of the defense. “I’m still learning the little intricate details of it all, but I feel as a unit, we could be great. I feel like the talent is there. We have great coaches. We just have to continue to come out there and work hard every day and continue to do what we’ve been doing during camp.
“The sky’s the limit for what this unit can be.”