The Jets’ cornerbacks have been the best unit on their defense, and possibly their whole roster.
Sunday against Cincinnati they’ll be tested by arguably the best receiving corps in football.
“I wouldn’t say this is a challenge; it’s a whole bunch of challenges. … They’ve got a phenomenal receiver corps, got a quarterback that can spin that thing, and you’ve got to be able to tackle this big back,” cornerbacks coach Tony Oden said. “So there’s not a challenge; it’s multiple challenges.”
One they claim they’re looking forward to.
The Jets upgraded their secondary in the offseason, signing corner D.J. Reed and safety Jordan Whitehead and drafting corner Sauce Gardner fourth-overall. That talent infusion has been evident so far.
“[Reed] has done phenomenal, but I’m not surprised,” Oden said. “That’s why we got him here, that’s what his film said. That’s what the man is.”
Still, that’s been facing the run-heavy Ravens and Browns. The Bengals are a different kind of explosive.
“It’s a huge challenge. They’ve got a lot of different weapons. If one guy is getting shut down, they feel like they can go to another guy,” Gardner told The Post. “Great receiver corps all around: They’ve got more weapons.”
The Bengals have an arsenal featuring Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd, with Joe Burrow delivering the ball. Forget the 0-2 mark; they’re explosive.
“It’s a big challenge for the secondary playing against the good receivers. They have probably one of the best wide receiver corps in the NFL,” Reed told The Post. “I love it. I played in the Big 12. I love when they’re throwing the ball. It’s just more opportunities for me.”
Downfield mistakes could determine Sunday. Burrow has been picked off four times already, meanwhile the Jets gave up big plays on miscommunications in their first two games. They allowed an Amari Cooper score on a Gardner gaffe.
“[Gardner] thought he heard something or didn’t hear something. There was a miscommunication. And it was something he’d tell you the same thing: It’s not going to happen again,” said defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich, adding Gardner doesn’t make the same gaffe twice. “He acknowledges the mistake, grows from it and he’s not going to be an error repeater, which is the best you can ask for rookies.”
Ulbrich said rookies have to be watched closely, because one mistake can often become two or three, and confidence can be lost. But Gardner has been a quick study, and ensured the Jets haven’t had to baby him.
“I hold myself accountable with everything. I don’t depend on coach having pity for me as a rookie,” Gardner told The Post. “I tell the other rookies we’ve got to be the ones to help change the culture, change the organization, so we can’t come in with the typical rookie mindset. We’ve got to hold ourselves accountable and be able to scout ourselves. If we make a mistake we’ve got to learn from it. We can’t put our head down, we’ve got a bounce back.”
That self-assurance is clear, with Higgins even saying, “You can tell they’re playing with a lot more confidence.”
What’s unclear is just how much the Jets will tweak their defense to slow the Bengals. Cincinnati has struggled against zone defenses, and while the Jets don’t play a lot of prototypical Tampa 2, Ulbrich admitted they do have some zone elements they can sprinkle in when needed.
The Jets’ corners also don’t typically travel with the receiver. But with Gardner’s 6-foot-3, 190-pound size, might they switch that up to keep him on the 6-4 Higgins? Would that leave Reed on Chase? Or vice versa?
“I wish,” Reed told The Post. “Personally, I definitely want to start traveling with the receiver. That’s just my competitive edge, my nature. I want to play against the best. So maybe we’ll get to that. Maybe we won’t. Whatever they want me to do.”