The New York Jets' defense is not a joke.
Yes, the Jets are everyone's pick to earn the No. 1 pick in next spring's NFL Draft.
But their defense still has a menacing scheme and enough talent to make life difficult for the Buffalo Bills in Sunday's season opener.
"They can put a lot of pressure on you," said Bills offensive coordinator Rick Dennison. "They can test your protections and they can certainly test you as far as stopping the runs, so our work is cut out for us."
The Jets still have one of the best run-stuffing defensive line duos in the NFL in Leonard Williams and Muhammad Wilkerson.
And the Jets' run-stopping strength matches up with Buffalo's best strength – rush offense.
New York has ranked among the top six in the NFL in stopping the run four straight years. Any defense that has the run under control can start dictating terms to the opposing offense.
Coach Todd Bowles' defense ranked first in the NFL in blitzing in 2016 and second in 2015, according to Football Outsiders. The Jets sent five or more men at the quarterback on 40 percent of pass plays last year and 45 percent of pass plays in 2015.
That attack style helped Bowles get his head-coaching gig. When he was defensive chief in Arizona, the Cardinals ranked third in blitz percentage in 2014 and first in 2013.
In Bowles’ 3-4 system, the Jets like to stuff the run by condensing the tackle-to-tackle box and plugging all gaps. They like to blitz in the "A gaps" on either side of the center to get in a quarterback's face and hinder his vision.
The Jets lack speedy, turn-the-corner edge rushers. So look for Bowles and defensive chief Kacy Rodgers to manufacture the rush with scheme again this season.
Bowles' man-coverage tendencies put pressure on the defensive backfield. So New York drafted safeties 1-2 in May, taking LSU's Jamal Adams sixth overall and Florida's Marcus Maye 39th. Adams runs a 4.56-second 40-yard dash, and Maye runs 4.47. The Jets' defense is faster than last year. Will Bowles blitz as much with two rookies on the back line and an average (at best) cornerback cast? His track record says yes.
The expectation is the backs of the Jets defenders eventually are going to break carrying an impotent offense game after game. But they have enough defensive talent to hang with unexplosive opponents (of which the Bills are one).
The 30,000-foot View
Everyone – especially Bills fans – could see a Jets backslide coming in 2016. New York had the oldest team in the NFL in 2015 and fell just shy of the playoffs at 10-6, thanks in part to a career year from Ryan Fitzpatrick. Even the Jets knew Fitz wasn't going to repeat his 31-TD season, as evidenced by their hardball contract-talk tactics with him. But what could they do? Tear it all apart? No. They doubled-down and got even older. Fitz threw for 12 TDs. They went 5-11.
Jets owner Woody Johnson now has taken a page from President Trump's campaign playbook: "What do you have to lose?" The attitude is they have tried everything else; time to go all-out for the top QB in the next draft. The Jets purged their older players, going from 13 players in their 30s to three. They're the favorite to get their choice of the first QB in the 2018 draft.
DL Leonard Williams. The 6-foot-5, 302-pounder emerged as one of the best defensive linemen in the NFL last season. He plays all along the line, effective at 5-technique, 3-technique, or nose tackle. He led the Jets last year with 7.0 sacks, all as an interior rush man.
Bills center Eric Wood discusses the challenge of the Jets' talent.
"A lot of times your backer drops, now here comes a 3-technique at you, and those guys are Muhammad Wilkerson and Leonard Williams," Wood says, referring to a typical zone blitz blocking assignment. "Now you've got to block them. It's not just that I got there to my spot. That's the challenge. They have a lot of talent up front with a pretty complex scheme on third down."
Wide receiver. You thought the Bills' wideout corps was shaky? The Jets' corps looks like the worst in the NFL.
Lost in desert without a QB
The Jets have drafted 10 quarterbacks since 2000 (more than any other team) and also traded for Brett Favre and Tim Tebow and signed Michael Vick and Ryan Fitzpatrick in free agency. Only Chad Pennington got them to the playoffs (three times) in that span. The Bills have drafted five QBs since 2000.
The Jets have 14 playoff seasons in 57 years, one AFL title, one Super Bowl win and a .455 franchise win percentage. The Bills have 17 playoff seasons in 57 years, four conference titles, two AFL titles and a .465 franchise win percentage.
One more stat for the road
The Jets' red zone offense in 2016 was the worst of any NFL team over the past four years. That was a function of an injury-riddled finesse passing game without a good quarterback and no tight end threat. The Jets converted just 35.2 percent of trips inside the 20 into TDs. Don't look for big improvement.