As an assistant with the Baltimore Ravens, Donnie Henderson watched running back Jamal Lewis use his speed to devour chunks of yardage and his size to overpower tacklers.
"He finds his crease," said Henderson, the Jets' first-year defensive coordinator, who coached in Baltimore from 1999 until last season. "Once he finds his crease, he's running full speed, and all of a sudden the nightmare train is coming."
This week, the nightmare train is headed straight for the Jets. Against Lewis and the Ravens on Sunday at Giants Stadium, Henderson's defense will probably encounter its toughest matchup. Against the Miami Dolphins on Nov. 1, the Jets' run defense produced its best game of the season, yielding only 78 yards. That was followed by the team's worst effort against the rush, when it surrendered 157 yards to the Buffalo Bills on Sunday.
The Jets' run defense was the fifth worst in the NFL last season. Under Henderson this season, it had a ranking of eighth best by last week. The challenge is helping his run stuffers regain the consistency they had earlier in the season. The defense did not allow a 100-yard rusher through the first five games.
Since then, the defense has allowed two runners -- Corey Dillon of the New England Patriots and Willis McGahee of the Bills -- to gain at least 100 yards. The Jets lost both games.
Henderson said he hoped to resolve the unit's problems by re-emphasizing the basics. Against Buffalo, he said, his defenders were often out of position on running plays, allowing McGahee to ring up 132 yards and a touchdown on 37 carries.
"Our fundamentals on the outside broke down," Henderson said. "We've got too many guys outside the football on leverage. That's one thing we had to go back and make sure we got cleaned up. If you're supposed to be on the inside, make sure you stay on the inside. Our gaps were a little out of sync. That's what we're all about. We addressed it, we'll see how we play."
Lewis is among the league's best running backs and, if nothing else, his reputation has already gotten the Jets' attention. He ran for 2,066 yards in 2003, the second-highest total in NFL history. (Eric Dickerson rushed for 2,105 yards in 1984.)
Jets defensive tackle Jason Ferguson had a newspaper clipping featuring Lewis' photograph taped inside his locker. He said he did not know who had placed it there, but he said it was a reminder of the importance of stopping the run.
"That's something you have to preach every week, regardless," Ferguson said. "Every team in the league wants to run the ball. It's cold weather, and they know it is hard to tackle, so everyone has to get on the ball. You know what they're trying to do: most of their offense is to Jamal, give the ball to Jamal and No. 29" -- a reference to Ravens running back Chester Taylor.
In Baltimore's conservative offense, the second-year quarterback Kyle Boller is often asked simply to manage the offense, limit mistakes and allow the Ravens' voracious defense to keep games within reach.
Said Jets coach Herman Edwards, "If the games are close and you have a power running game like these guys do, they can sit there and play that kind of game, in the fact that they've got a good runner and they've got a great defense."
Defensive tackle Dewayne Robertson said group tackling would be crucial because Lewis, who is 5 feet 11 inches and 245 pounds, is strong enough to break tackles in many one-on-one situations. "It's going to take more than one guy to bring him down," Robertson said. "We've just got to rally to the ball. Everybody's got to pursue the ball and get him down."