NEW YORK — Rex Ryan has issued a challenge to anyone who thinks his Jets defense will be anything less than elite.
"Put your negative comments out there," New York's confident coach said Tuesday, "and we'll see what happens at the end."
If you ask Ryan, there's no doubt what his aggressive attacking-style defense will accomplish this season. Or any season, for that matter. He talked up his guys while he was the coordinator in Baltimore, and he has done the same since taking over as coach in New York.
"I wouldn't trade this defense for anybody's in the league," he declared. "You're not going to be perfect, but will we end up being the best defense in football? I think so. Believe me, the least concern I have is about our defense. I think our defense is going to be outstanding."
It's hard to argue with Ryan, who has established the Jets as one of the defensive powerhouses in the NFL. New York finished third overall last season, and Ryan made a tongue-in-cheek apology during training camp for not being No. 1. There has been criticism of the team's pass rush — or lack thereof at times — and the inability to close out games at times during the last two seasons.
"There are some areas where we felt we took a step back and our focus this offseason once we got back into camp was correcting that," safety Jim Leonhard said. "I think we've done a great job here in the preseason. We're really looking forward to kicking it off against Dallas and making that march back to where we want to get."
And that's back to the AFC championship game for the third straight year — but this time, they plan to win it and go to the Super Bowl. The defense will need to be even better than it has been, and the Jets know that.
"He wants to be known as having a great defense year in and year out," Leonhard said. "Just with the talent that we have been able to keep on this defense, and the guys we were able to bring back through free agency, we feel very confident that we are going to have a successful year."
The Jets allowed the Giants to roll up 224 yards in the first half of their 17-3 victory Monday night. But, they also kept them out of the end zone by taking advantage of turnovers as Leonhard and linebacker David Harris had interceptions. And that's all that matters in Ryan's eyes. In three preseason games, the starting defense has allowed 13 points.
"We're where we thought we'd be," he said. "I think it's going to be one of the premier defenses."
Just don't label it a bend-but-not-break unit.
"That's not the type of defense we want to play," Leonhard said. "It our really makes our defensive coaches sick, actually."
It helps that Leonhard is back healthy from a broken leg, linebacker Calvin Pace's foot is healed and cornerback Darrelle Revis is in camp for a full summer after a contract holdout a year ago. And, other than losing defensive end Shaun Ellis in free agency, the main pieces of last year's unit are still here.
Throw in two promising rookies in first-round pick Muhammad Wilkerson, who'll be a starter at defensive end, and third-rounder Kenrick Ellis, a big nose tackle, and the talent to be dominant is there.
Wilkerson has had a decent if unspectacular preseason, and thinks he has improved with each game. He certainly made an impression Monday night when he got into it with Giants running back Brandon Jacobs — and both were tossed from the game for throwing punches at each other.
"I was just pass rushing and he came up to pass protect and I ran into him the first time, the ball was thrown and he approached me, threw a blow at me and that's what it was," Wilkerson said. "I retaliated. Was it a smart move? No. Do I regret it? No. It's football and I am not going to let somebody try to take advantage of me. It's over with now."
While the Jets didn't condone one of their players fighting, they appreciated the passion from the rookie out of Temple.
"It was a hard-nosed football play and it ended up where it ended up, which was unfortunate," Leonhard said. "But you do like to see that. He's not backing down. He's going to be an aggressive player for us."
Wilkerson will get some more opportunities to make an impact Thursday night, when the Jets play in their final preseason game against the Philadelphia Eagles. Ryan said the veteran starters will not play, but youngsters such as Wilkerson, Ellis and Kyle Wilson will see playing time.
Otherwise, the game will be filled with several players fighting for roster spots, including outside linebacker Aaron Maybin. The former Buffalo Bills first-round pick played a bit with the Jets' first-team defense against the Giants so Ryan and the coaches could see how he fared against top competition.
"I think he's going to have to do more," Ryan said.
Maybin, the No. 11 overall draft pick two years ago, was a bust in Buffalo and is trying to jump-start his career with the Jets. He'll have one more game to prove himself to Ryan.
"He's going to have to show us he's that pass rusher he has a chance to be," Ryan said. "I think he can play in this league. We'll see if he can play for us."
Notes: Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Namath told ESPN.com he thinks wide receiver Plaxico Burress will struggle in his first season with the Jets after a 20-month layoff while in prison on a gun charge. "I hope he makes All-Pro," he told the website. "The reality is, he'll be damn lucky if he makes it through the season."