Rex Ryan is still feeling good about his defense.
Sure, the New York Jets have a handful of new faces. And, yes, there are a couple of injuries to deal with. But none of that is keeping Ryan from issuing a bold prediction: The Jets will rank among the top 5 defenses in the NFL this season.
"We will be," Ryan said Tuesday. "Right now, we're not there. Obviously, we have to make some improvements, especially from this past week. I'm certainly confident that we'll be where we always are — or better."
Defense is Ryan's bread and butter, and a top-notch performance this season will be counted on for a team that is still unsure whether Mark Sanchez or Geno Smith will be the quarterback of an offense that lacks playmakers.
That's not an issue on defense, despite the trade of Darrelle Revis to Tampa Bay in April and linebacker Quinton Coples being sidelined indefinitely with a fractured ankle.
"I think for me, I agree with (Ryan) 100 percent," cornerback Antonio Cromartie said. "It's just about us going out and making sure that we do our jobs and making sure we cut down on mental errors and cut out the self-inflicted wounds. For us, we feel like we have a good front seven to get to the quarterback. Just (have) to make sure we're communicating from the safeties to the linebackers and out to the corners."
Sounds simple enough, but there's another reason Ryan believes his defense will be one of the league's best.
"I guess my history," Ryan said. "I think in knowing what it looks like. We have a lot of good players. There's going to be a lot of new faces in there, but I guess, you put that decal on the side of your helmet, it says 'New York Jets,' you have to be special. You have to understand that there (are) expectations that come along with it.
"I expect our guys to play extremely well."
The Jets finished eighth in overall defense last year, the worst ranking in Ryan's four seasons in New York. In Ryan's first year in 2009, the Jets were No. 1 in the league. They were third the following season, and fifth in 2011. So, clearly, Ryan knows what a top-5 defense looks like.
Losing Revis, a former All-Pro, was a big blow to the defense because of how regularly the cornerback shut down opposing teams' best receivers. But Cromartie did a terrific job last season of filling in when Revis suffered a season-ending injury early in the year.
Cromartie will be counted on to be the No. 1 cornerback again for defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman. First-round draft pick Dee Milliner, the No. 9 overall selection, is expected to start opposite Cromartie. Milliner, a former star at Alabama, had a rough game against Jacksonville last Saturday night but Ryan revealed that the cornerback was playing with a sore calf. He spent most of Tuesday working with the trainers.
"It hasn't been getting a whole lot better," Ryan said. "So when the trainers came to me and said, 'Let's just give him some time here,' obviously, that's what we'll do. We'll listen to them. They're the experts. Hopefully, it won't be long and hopefully he'll be back out there."
The Jets allowed productive veteran defensive lineman Mike DeVito to leave for Kansas City and Pro Bowl safety LaRon Landry to go to Indianapolis as free agents, and they cut popular nose tackle Sione Po'uha.
New York used the No. 13 overall pick — the one it acquired from Tampa Bay for Revis — to draft defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson, who is expected to start in Week 1 on a line that includes rising star Muhammad Wilkerson and Kenrick Ellis, who is dealing with a sore back. The Jets stayed in the family to replace Landry by signing his older brother Dawan, who played for Ryan in Baltimore a few years ago.
Demario Davis, in his second year, will replace the newly retired Bart Scott at inside linebacker next to David Harris. Garrett McIntyre, a solid backup, will fill in for Coples along with free-agent signing Antwan Barnes.
"I don't really think it's going to be any kind of drop off," Cromartie said of the new faces. "I think we have a great group of guys that understand what we're trying to accomplish here as a defense, as a whole."
That means, they expect to be a whole lot better than they were in the first half against Jacksonville, when the Jets allowed Blaine Gabbert to move the ball down the field seemingly at will.
"I've been trying to coach them, and I think that's the big thing," Ryan said. "I try to teach and coach from the tape. That's what you do and that's how you get better. Was it strong language or whatever? I don't know. I just try to teach. But again, I'm confident that we'll be right where we expect to be."
NOTES: Ryan said the team hasn't decided on whether Sanchez or Smith will start against the Giants on Saturday. It is expected that Smith will be under center if his sprained right ankle is healthy. "He looked good," Ryan said. "I still don't think he's 100 percent, but I certainly think he's getting closer to that." ... FB Lex Hilliard was carted from the field with an apparent injury to his right arm/shoulder. Ryan had no immediate update on the severity of the injury, but said it reminded him of when he dislocated a shoulder back in his playing days. ... Antonio Allen will start at safety against the Giants, and Jaiquawn Jarrett in the preseason finale against Philadelphia as the two compete for the starting job.