Jets defense stepped it up with Pennington out

Saturday, December 4th 2004, 11:26 am
By: News On 6

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (AP) _ When Chad Pennington injured his right shoulder last month, Jets coach Herman Edwards decided to have a talk with his defense.

Edwards usually does not barge in on separate position meetings, but he had to make an exception. He knew his defense would have to step up its play while Pennington sat out.

``I said, `This is what the deal is. We got to pick it up now,''' Edwards recalled. ``It was the offense's turn to pick it up earlier in the season. It's the defense's turn when the quarterback went down. They responded.''

The Jets went 2-1 without Pennington thanks to their tenacious defense. Now they prepare to welcome back their leader Sunday against the Houston Texans (5-6).

There was no collapse this year without the franchise quarterback. Instead the Jets (8-3) stayed in the thick of the playoff race. Though they dropped their game against Baltimore because of an ill-timed halfback option play and clock management issues, the defense played relatively well.

The Jets held Jamal Lewis to 71 yards and gave up 20 points in the overtime defeat. While the offense struggled under Quincy Carter the last two weeks, the defense has given up a combined 10 points in victories over Cleveland and Arizona.

The Jets rank seventh in total defense and are tied for third in scoring defense, giving up an average of 15.3 points a game. Edwards is starting to feel as if he is back in Tampa Bay, when as an assistant he watched the Bucs play ugly games marked with stout defense.

Tackle Jason Ferguson recalled the meeting when Edwards spoke to the defense. Before Edwards even opened his mouth, Ferguson knew the task he and his teammates faced.

``Herm said keep it up, whatever you are doing, keep doing it,'' Ferguson said. ``Where he's from, he's used to that. I think he's feeling back at home now. Now he can say, `Yeah it's a good defense.' It can be eight ugly wins, I'm happy. The worst wins I've ever seen in my life, but I'm glad we have the W on our side.''

The maturation of the defense has come somewhat as a surprise, considering all the new personnel and first-year coordinator Donnie Henderson, who installed a more aggressive scheme. The secondary was once the weak link, but in recent weeks has picked up its play, limiting deep pass plays while the front seven applies pressure.

``Eight weeks ago, I would have said, `Wow we're struggling,''' Henderson said. ``Eight weeks later, I think we're jelling to the point where I don't think anybody panics out there anymore. They talk and communicate a lot better. You always get better with time.''

Henderson's group faces a big challenge this weekend against a pretty good offense, featuring David Carr, Domanick Davis and Andre Johnson.

Of the Jets' opponents this season, only San Diego and New England rank higher than Houston in total offense. Last week, the Texans overcame an 18-point deficit for a 31-21 win over the Titans, the largest comeback in franchise history. It was their first sweep of a division opponent in team history and helped them tie the team record for wins _ in just 11 games.

The Texans have shown they're never out of any game. In addition to the rally against Tennessee, they came back from eight points down against Kansas City and 21 against Minnesota, though they lost to the Vikings in overtime.

``This is one of the most important games where we can't get into an obvious passing situation,'' Carr said. ``Their front four can disrupt the entire game if you let them.''

Pennington hopes the offense gets back in gear, though he will see a few familiar faces staring at him: former Jets Aaron Glenn and Marcus Coleman.

``I broke Chad in,'' Glenn said. ``I used to pick him off all the time. They used to tell Chad when he could complete a ball against me, that's when they knew he was ready to be a starting quarterback.''

If Houston wins, it would be its first win in December since a 24-6 victory over the Steelers on Dec. 8, 2002. But the Jets need a victory here as they start a difficult stretch of games to close the season.

After Houston, they go to Pittsburgh, then host Seattle and New England before closing at St. Louis.

``We are in an exciting time as far as playoff time,'' Pennington said. ``We control our own destiny. It is not like we are trying to move mountains and swim oceans as far as getting into the playoffs. We have a great chance to get in.''