The Jets’ 26th-ranked pass defense was probably the biggest mystery of the 2008 season. There is no reasonable cause and effect for the failures, which makes it even more confusing.
Why was New York so bad against the pass?
The off-season spending spree focused on making improvements all along the front-seven of the 3-4 defensive alignment. These new players—strong against the run and able to rush the quarterback—should have allowed the secondary to play better.
A defensive backfield which boasts the likes of Ty Law, Pro Bowl cornerback Darrelle Revis, and safety standout Kerry Rhodes should have made the opponent’s passing game a non-factor.
An emerging rookie in Dwight Lowery and a solid veteran in Hank Poteat should have combined to make New York—at the very least—a Top 10 pass defense.
But within that secondary, there was one glaring liability who should have never been on the field as a starter. Praising him for his intelligence, Eric Mangini allowed Eric Smith to start opposite Kerry Rhodes for the first half of the season.
While Smith isn’t directly to blame for the Jets’ miserable pass defense, he’s definitely not free from criticism for all the things he did wrong.
Intelligence did not equate to athleticism. And when Abram Elam was given his chance, it became obvious that athleticism is exactly what the Jets were missing.
Eric Mangini: Stubborn, Stupid, or Surprised?
If Eric Smith hadn’t laid out Anquan Boldin in the final seconds of the Arizona Cardinals game, there’s a good chance Mangini would’ve kept him as the starter. A concussion and a one-game suspension for an unfortunate hit removed Smith from the rotation.
And so began Abram Elam’s reign as starter, immediately followed by a new nickname—”Big Play Abe.” Game-changing turnovers became a force of habit as soon as Elam was allowed to roam the field.
His interception and 92-yard touchdown return in Buffalo opened eyes. Remember: this was before the Bills’ season spiraled out of control and they still sat atop the AFC East.
After Elam’s interception, Buffalo never found a rhythm again, and New York was on their way to starting an impressive winning streak.
The week after that, the Jets’ hosted the St. Louis Rams. The game was a televised practice session for New York, but it was another opportunity for Elam to completely cripple another offense.
An early blitz and strip-sack sent the ball tumbling to the ground for a Calvin Pace recovery and touchdown run.
And again late in the season, when the Jets still had a glimmer of playoff hopes, the Buffalo Bills looked ready to crush them.
With a little over two minutes left to play, Elam blitzed J.P. Losman, recorded another strip-sack, and set the ball up for a Shaun Ellis recovery and touchdown run to win the game.
It’s that kind of play the Jets lacked. Fans were forced to watch Eric Smith stumble over his feet in San Diego as he allowed an easy touchdown pass from the goal line.
Elam’s quickness, athleticism, and aggressive nature would have been a welcomed dynamic to the defense much earlier in the season.
Regardless of Mangini’s reasons, it became clear that he was no longer following the “best man for the job will start” mantra he came to New York with.
The Chicken or the Egg
Would Abram Elam have been as effective had he been starting from Week One, or was being benched the catalyst for his emergence as a big-play threat?
Elam started in 2007 after the Jets acquired him from the Dallas Cowboys, and that job should have never been lost. He wasn’t the answer to the Jets’ defensive woes against the pass, but he wasn’t a liability.
Maybe Mangini didn’t think Elam was smart enough to be a starter. Maybe Mangini was right about that.
But there’s a reason football players play football, and smart guys end up out of the league in five years to coordinate somewhere.
Too often Jets’ fans watched Smith give chase, while Elam was there to deliver vicious hits in similar scenarios.
Make no mistakes about it, Abram Elam is a football player. Hopefully the next coach realizes it, too.
Angel Navedo is the Examiner for the New York Jets, and the Head Writer at NYJetsFan.com. Some of his work can also be found on MyGridironSpace.com—a premier social networking site built exclusively for NFL fans.
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