The Jets know that such plays are coming. With Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie, two superb cornerbacks on the outside, teams often test the Jets toward the middle of the field. Preventing them has become a weekly challenge, as it will again on Sunday, when another elite tight end visits MetLife Stadium. Marcedes Lewis of Jacksonville is as big (6 feet 6 inches) as Witten, 10 pounds heavier at 275, and, according to Ryan, faster.
The Jets feel that they can concentrate on stopping and the dynamic running back Maurice Jones-Drew, a luxury they did not have when preparing for the Cowboys, who also have two elite receivers and running backs with receiving skills. Lewis did not practice again Thursday because of an injured calf, but the Jets are preparing as if he will play.
The Jets want to be physical with Lewis, but not to the point of vicious collisions off the snap. Mike Pettine, the defensive coordinator, said he would tell his players not to crash into Lewis because players of that size and strength bounce off. A good shove off the line of scrimmage, by a linebacker or a defensive end, should work, helping the player actually assigned to cover Lewis.
While watching tape on Monday morning, Pettine noticed that the Cowboys lined up Witten at receiver, a change that curtailed the defender’s ability to disrupt his route. He expects the Jaguars to do the same with Lewis.
“Anytime you play a tight end like that, they don’t want you putting your hands on them,” safety Brodney Pool said. “It messes with guys if you bump them, rough them up, so they don’t run freely.”
Pass-catching tight ends present matchup nightmares for defenses. Deploying a cornerback to cover a Witten or a Lewis might appear an easy solution, but on rushing plays the tight end, bunched closer to the line of scrimmage and in full blocking mode, has a size and strength advantage.
So the Jets, like many teams, prefer a linebacker or a safety, players who in theory can cover them while holding their own in run support. On Witten’s big play Sunday, that responsibility fell to safety Eric Smith, who was left alone in coverage. Witten juked him off the snap, beating him inside, and gained separation about 5 yards from the line as he ran a seam route.
The Jets’ troubles with tight ends date to last season, when some of the league’s best — Todd Heap, Ben Watson, Aaron Hernandez — shredded them for long gains and touchdowns; in all, 10 posted catches of at least 20 yards against the Jets.
That list included Joel Dreessen of Houston, who is not considered an elite tight end, but amassed 106 yards and a touchdown. Rough games against the Patriots, whose tight ends combined for 19 catches and 286 yards in the teams’ three meetings, accentuated the problem.
Yet, there exists a chance that their shortcomings might be at once overstated and misleading. According to game charting by Football Outsiders, in 2010 the Jets ranked ninth in defending tight ends, down from fourth in 2009, allowing 44.8 yards per game. That figure could be as low it is because of a stroke of good fortune; they faced teams like Green Bay and Denver at points in the schedule when their top tight ends were unavailable.
Even so, a week after allowing 110 yards to Witten, the Jets are aware of their perceived deficiencies and are determined not to let Lewis have similar success. For starters, they know what Jacksonville intends to do.
“They’re going to try to get the ball to Marcedes in the middle of the field,” Revis said.
Linebacker David Harris sat out practice for a second consecutive day because of a toe injury, but Coach Rex Ryan said he expected him to play Sunday.