Since everything in Jetsland is seen through the prism of Sam Darnold these days, the story will be that Darnold threw two interceptions in practice Tuesday and was nearly picked off on two other passes.
But the flip side of that and, I would argue, the more important aspect of that is the Jets defense looked opportunistic and aggressive, something that has been lacking in these parts for the last few years.
As critical as Darnold’s development is to the future of this franchise, the performance of the defense may be the bigger key to the 2018 season. On paper, this defense has potential. They have Jamal Adams and Marcus Maye back for their second seasons at safety. They signed Trumaine Johnson to be their No. 1 cornerback, allowing Morris Claiborne to move to No. 2 and Buster Skrine to No. 3, where they are better suited. Leonard Williams has looked like a beast in training camp.
Yes, they still don’t have an outside pass rusher. Yes, Darron Lee still needs to prove he can be the long-term answer in the middle of the defense. But overall, this defense could be a good one.“I feel like it can be as good as we allow ourselves to be,” Claiborne said.
Todd Bowles said the group is just getting to know each other right now.
“When they jell, they have great potential,” Bowles said. “Right now, it’s just a work in progress.”
The Jets defense has been living off reputation over the past few years. In Bowles’ first season in 2015, the defense performed well and was fourth in total defense. But it fell to 11th in 2016 and 25th last year.
If the Jets are going to start Darnold for a decent chunk of the season, the defense’s role becomes even greater. There is no better friend for a young quarterback than a dominant defense. The 2009 Jets were a perfect example of that. That unit was the best in football that year and helped cover up the warts of rookie Mark Sanchez all the way to the AFC Championship game.
One area the 2018 Jets have to improve over the past two seasons under Bowles is takeaways. The Jets finished 28th in takeaways with 14 in 2016 and 20th last year with 20. They had 18 interceptions in Bowles’ first season, when they went 10-6 and a combined 19 since.
On Tuesday, they showed some promise in the turnover department. Backup safety J.J. Wilcox picked off Darnold twice on deep passes. Safety Terrence Brooks intercepted Teddy Bridgewater. Adams, Claiborne and Avery Williamson all got their hands on near interceptions.
“When you get turnovers, you win ballgames,” Claiborne said. “Us as a defense, we put that on our back, to be able to go out and get turnovers and get the ball back and let those guys use those weapons they have on the offensive side of the ball. That’s our goal, to be plus-2 every week.”
The Jets then need to convert those turnovers into points. Last year, the Jets scored just 47 points off turnovers, tied for 26th in the NFL.
And here’s a crazy idea: How about scoring a defensive touchdown this year? The last time the Jets scored on defense, Adams was a senior in high school. That would be 2013, when Antonio Allen brought back a Tom Brady pass for a score.
That drought has to end for the Jets defense to go from talking about being elite to becoming elite. It feels like every year we talk about the Jets defense having potential, but it’s been a while since that potential has turned into production on the field.