The New York Jets defense struggled heavily when it came to covering the tight end last season. Basically, if a team had a good receiving tight end, they exploited the hell out of Rex Ryan’s defense. Jason Witten finished with 110 yards, including a 64 yarder. Fred Davis grabbed 6 passes for 99 yards. Brent Celek went off for 156 yards and a touchdown. Rob Gronkowski pulled in 113 yards and 2 touchdowns in primetime and in the Jets/Patriots other meeting, it was Aaron Hernandez who racked up 56 yards. Antonio Gates had 54 yards and a touchdown. Hell, even Ed Dickson was able to get 45 receiving yards on them.
Their coverage of running backs out of the backfield also left something to be desired. The lack of speed at linebacker position allowed the Jets to be taken advantage of on checkdowns and screen passes.
The Jets solution to the problem this off-season was to completely re-tool their safety position (signing Yeremiah Bell and Laron Landry, and drafting Josh Bush and Antonio Allen) and adding linebacker Demario Davis in the third round.
Yeremiah Bell and LaRon Landry will be a more athletic starting duo than Jim Leonhard and Eric Smith, with substantially more size. However, both players are strong safeties, not free safeties. It will be on Bell to spend more time at the free safety position than he is accustomed to. Landry has the ability to be a highly productive player inside the box but can he stay on the field? As defensive backs coach Dennis Thurman said, Eric Smith is good at 300 reps but not necessarily 900 reps and he might be at the number if Landry isn’t healthy.
The Jets did add two rookie safeties in the late rounds with Josh Bush and Antonio Allen. Bush will get the chance for immediate playing time because he is the only natural free safety who will make the active roster but how much can the Jets really expect from a rookie sixth round pick? Allen is built to play inside the box and for now just provides depth behind Landry and Smith.
The 2012 schedule is going to provide plenty of challenges from the tight end position, including Vernon Davis in week 4, Owen Daniels in week 5, Gronkowski/Hernandez in weeks 7 and 12 and Antonio Gates in week 15.
It is going to be on Bell to handle free safety responsibilities when they are handed to him and on Bush to grow up faster than most 6th round picks. Landry and Demario Davis should be able to help slow down the releases tight ends are getting but you don’t want them running with them past 5-7 yards. Their presence should also help contain running backs shaking loose for big gains on checkdowns or screen passes.
Kerry Rhodes certainly couldn’t tackle but the Jets haven’t found a free safety since he was traded. Bell could be a stopgap and maybe Bush is the future. If not, the Jets will once again be looking to retool a position they haven’t seemed able to get right since Rex Ryan has taken over.