New York Jets – The Return of Ideal Fits At Safety

Michael O’Connor on how Rex Ryan appears to have the New York Jets priorities at the safety position back on track

Bear with me, New York Jets fans, as I bring up a shameful moment in Jets’ history. Remember Eric Smith?  Ya, I thought so. Smith has quite the negative reputation among the Jets’ fanbase because of what fans think of when they reminisce. There’s just so much to remember: Smith with outstretched arms failing to chase down Tim Tebow in a 2011 loss to the Broncos, the helmet-to-helmet hits that made you think Smith didn’t even have usable arms, and his man coverage you could usually depend on being multiple steps late.

However, Smith didn’t deserve all of the hatred he received from the majority of fans in his time here in New York.  He still provided excellent special teams play and was a quality player when allowed to play the run within the box.  Rex Ryan simply used Smith wrong.  Smith could have made for a nice third safety who would only play to his strengths, but the depth at the overall safety position always seemed to stop this from happening.

The best play we saw from Smith was in the 2009 season. This should come as no surprise, because Kerry Rhodes played Free Safety. While Rhodes wasn’t a player who fit very well with Rex Ryan’s scheme, he still manned down single coverage assignments particularly well, which allowed Smith to play more to his strengths. 2010 marked a stretch of poor judgement by Rex Ryan and company, as they tried to make Smith much more than he actually was. To give the coaching staff the benefit of the doubt, newly acquired safety Brodney Pool was often injured due to his concussions in the 2010 season and Jim Leonhard only managed 11 games before he fractured his tibula, ending his season, so Smith was forced into playing time he didn’t warrant at free safety.

In 2011, however, the coaching staff had this belief that Smith was an emerging player.  In his extended playing time from 2009-2010, the Michigan State product played his role productively, but his play at a primary free safety showed some atrocious play against the pass, and even hindered him versus the run since he rarely could play in the box anymore. Yet, there was Smith, given a shot to compete for a starting job in training camp going into the 2011 season.

Whether Smith actually did prove himself in training camp or was simply looked towards as a last resort option isn’t all that important. Smith ended up starting 14 games, and his inexperience and tightness in man coverage was a blatant flaw in a still-dominant Jets’ defense. Darrelle Revis played a 2011 season that was very, well, Darrelle Revis-like, but not being able to cover tight ends or use safeties in press coverage on the line outweighed consistently dominant cornerback play.  Multiple aspects of the 2011 Jets faltered, but Eric Smith hindering the secondary was surely a notable one.

Some fans, including myself, have picked up on Rex Ryan’s decisions being driven by slight stubbornness at times, and this certainly applies to the handling of the Smith situation. Knowing Rex Ryan, it’s not surprising that he’d take liking to a safety like Smith. He was never rangy, but he made it known he could hit and get his nose dirty around the line of scrimmage. Not only did Rex start a player who clearly couldn’t hold his own in a role that demanded a wider range of skills and intangibles, but he completely abandoned his typical, successful three-safety scheme. Whether he knowingly did so to feature even more of Smith, or did so based or the porous depth at the overall safety position, either chosen path was ill-advised.

The depth was atrocious with Brodney Pool unable to stay healthy and Jim Leonhard coming off of a season ending injury (broke his leg in Week 13 anyway), but things could have been done once this was acknowledged. The team managed to frustrate fans in the 2011 Draft by totally ignoring the waning depth at both safety spots. A rookie wouldn’t be proven, but an early to mid round safety could have easily provided better overall play than Smith. Rex was stubborn with his liking for Smith and change of scheme, and he probably knew it just as well as any of us.

Well, we’ve entered the heat of the 2013 summer and that stubbornness from Coach Ryan is still ever-so-existent. We’ve seen him stick with mediocrity at the safety positions and outside linebacker, which has been annoying to say the least with all of the draft opportunities. Not to mention, he has only loaded up more and more on the defensive line while ignoring these core needs. While it molds what Rex most values in a defense, it’s stubborn to turn down the thought of having a more balanced defense, especially considering the obvious weaknesses the defense has shown in recent years within these ignored areas.

However, there’s still hope. Sophomore players Antonio Allen and Josh Bush have already been scraping the surface of bigger roles, and the emptiness at safety is cluing at the fact that they could be facing as high as ten times the snaps they saw in their rookie years.

Bush was the Jets’ first of their three sixth round selections in the 2012 draft. The Wake Forest redshirt senior was thought to be a sought-after undrafted free agent, but Rex Ryan reportedly loved the particular skillset that he brought to the table when they held a personal workout with the safety. I admittedly didn’t even scout Bush in the pre-draft process, and we haven’t even seen much of him as Jet fans. However, its been known that Bush is a very fluid safety in man coverage, which isn’t a surprise when you consider that he played primarily in the slot as a corner at Wake Forest in his first two years of playing time.

Allen was the Jets’ first seventh round selection out of two in the 2012 draft, and even saw more snaps than Josh Bush due to his particular skillset. The South Carolina grad was a beefy safety-build in his early years with the team, as they played him in their “Spur” role, which emulated that of a rangy strong-side linebacker. In his senior year, he played his first season as an actual strong safety, and flourished. While he still showed some stiffness in deeper coverage assignments, he was an intimidating force over the middle and had the instincts to make plays versus the pass in the flat. Of course, Allen’s linebacker-like shedding ability in the run game still exists, too. We saw Allen torn apart by Tom Brady in the 2012 season with the Pats’ overtime win against the Jets in Week 12, but it was his first major role in a predictable passing situation.

The 2009 season’s working blend of Kerry Rhodes, a healthy Jim Leonhard, and an Eric Smith with an assigned role will be hard to match, but it could be said that it’s what Rex is striving for once again. His three-safety scheme was his bread and butter, and I stand behind this year’s group of safeties simply because of the success of this blend that we’ve seen in the past.

This poor man’s safety core features Dawan Landry at strong safety, and that shouldn’t change or come as a surprise to anybody. Landry is a totally different player than his brother and former Jet Laron, but he is a well-built, experienced safety who makes great contributions against the run and in coverage versus tight ends. Josh Bush will man the majority of reps at free safety, unless something unorthodox occurs in training camp. In fact, Brian Costello of the NY Post told us on our second TOJ podcast that Bush actually looked very impressive at OTA’s, and took the starting position that was likely his anyways and ran with it. So who does that leave for the equally essential   “Eric Smith” role? Look no further than Antonio Allen. He will likely be able to enhance his overall play while the team benefits from his in-the-box work against the run and blitzing ability.

Even though I really do like what Rex is shaping up here at safety (or should I say “re-shaping”), of course I’m not expecting it to be a strength of the team. Dawan Landry likely won’t be in New York for more than two years, and the pair of sophomore safeties could underwhelm all of us hopefuls.  However, you have to like the direction that the position is moving towards. On a talent-deprived 2013 Jets’ team, the focus at safety, like many of the team’s current positions; is staring into the unpredictable eyes of the future.