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Sheldon Rankins: Jets’ goal is to be best defense in NFL



From worst to first? That is what Jets defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins has in mind.

Rankins said Wednesday the goal is for the Jets to have the No. 1 defense in the NFL this season. The unit was dead last in 2021, in points and yards allowed in the league.

“I think the expectations, to a man, have to be to be the best defense in the league,” Rankins said. “If we look at anything else or we put any other goal out there, we’re selling ourselves short. What’s the point of showing up to the race if you’re going to say, ‘Oh, third is cool?’ ”

Rankins is in his second season with the Jets after playing on some good defenses in New Orleans early in his career. The Jets have improved the roster on defense with additions like cornerbacks Sauce Gardner and D.J. Reed, safety Jordan Whitehead, defensive ends Jermaine Johnson and Jacob Martin, and the return from injury of pass rusher Carl Lawson.

Even if the Jets are greatly improved, being the No. 1 defense seems like an unachievable goal. Not to Rankins.

Sheldon Rankins
Bill Kostroun

“For us, we want that target on our back,” Rankin said. “We want that challenge. We want to put that out there, because it gives us something to go out there and chase every day. It’s easy to say you just want to be good. That’s relative. What are you comparing it to? What is your barometer that you’re trying to judge that against? To say you want to be the best, everybody knows what that means.

“Going into it with any other mindset would just be flawed thinking. You’d be selling yourself short.”

The Jets hope that the changes made in their secondary and a better pass rush will make the difference. They have not led the league in defense since Rex Ryan’s first year as head coach in 2009. The last time the Jets had a top-10 defense was in 2015, Todd Bowles’ first season as coach.

Rankins feels just because a goal is lofty does not mean it is unattainable.

“For the people racing Usain Bolt, it must have sucked showing up every time knowing that you’re going to come in second,” Rankins said. “At the end of the day, no one showed up thinking that. The Tyson Gays, the Yohan Blakes, those guys showed up expecting to beat Usain Bolt, and if they didn’t, hey listen, we’re going to line up and try it again. That’s how we look at it. We’re going to go out there every day and expect to be the No. 1 defense in this league and let the chips fall where they may, but that’s what we expect of ourselves.”

The interior line looks as if it will be the strength of the defense. The line has Quinnen Williams and Rankins leading the way with John Franklin-Myers sliding inside on passing downs. Lawson, Martin and Johnson should be a strong pass-rushing rotation.

“The amount of talent that we have in that room is pretty crazy,” Rankins said. “Even last year we were pretty talented. Obviously coming from New Orleans I played on a lot of talented groups, but top to bottom, I’d have to say man for man this is probably as talented a room as I’ve been in.”

Sheldon Rankins
Sheldon Rankins
Bill Kostroun

The additions of Gardner, Reed and Whitehead in the secondary should pay immediate dividends.

“You have guys who can make the quarterback have to go through all his progressions,” Rankins said of the defensive backs. “That just gives us an extra hitch, that extra step to get home.”

The Jets added Kwon Alexander this week to go along with C.J. Mosley and Quincy Williams at linebacker.

“It’s going to be scary, for real, for real,” Williams said of the trio.

The defense will get tested early in the season against the Ravens, Browns and Bengals, which all have strong offenses on paper. We’ll find out quickly if Rankins’ early August goal of being the best defense in the league is possible or a pipe dream.

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Luka Doncic latest superstar the Knicks have to deal with



At some point, the Knicks are going to have to beat a superstar if they want to reach the postseason, and they will get another chance on Saturday afternoon.

The Mavericks and Luka Doncic, the NBA’s leading scorer, will visit the Garden for a matinee, giving coach Tom Thibodeau’s Knicks another chance against one of the league’s top players. So far, the Knicks have lost to Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks (twice), Stephen Curry and the Warriors, Ja Morant and the Grizzlies (twice), Kevin Durant and the Nets, Jayson Tatum and the Celtics and Donovan Mitchell and the Cavaliers.

The closest they have come to knocking off a top-flight star was when they beat Karl-Anthony Towns and the Timberwolves. The Knicks did nearly defeat Morant and Antetokounmpo in the past week at the Garden, but lost to the Grizzlies and the Bucks by a combined 10 points.

Doncic, 23, has become one of the premier players in the sport. He is averaging 33.6 points, 8.7 rebounds and 8.7 assists while shooting a robust 50.5 percent from the field. He leads the league in player efficiency rating at 32.18 and already has five 40-point games.

Luka Doncic

He will be a major test for the Knicks’ top perimeter defenders, RJ Barrett and Quentin Grimes. They did a good job on him last year in a season sweep of the Mavericks, holding Doncic to 20-of-48 shooting and an average of 26 points in the two games.

The Knicks will be looking to snap a three-game losing streak at the Garden and hoping to improve upon one of the worst home marks in the Eastern Conference. Only the Hornets, with three, have fewer home wins than the Kncisk, who are 4-6 at the Garden. On the road, the Knicks have been much better, with six wins, second in the Eastern Conference to the Celtics’ seven.

“I just think that we have to bring our same road intensity back home,” Jalen Brunson said. “At home, we’re obviously more comfortable and all that. On the road, it’s just us on the road, it’s us and the hostile environment. I think we just got to bring that same mentality at home and finish games.”

The Knicks have lost their last three games at home, to the Trail Blazers, Grizzlies and Bucks, by a combined 13 points.

Former Knick Kemba Walker, who signed this week with Dallas, isn’t expected to play for the Mavericks until the middle of next week, general manager Nico Harrison said on Dallas radio station KTCK-The Ticket. Walker was traded by the Knicks on draft night to the Pistons to free up salary cap space to sign Brunson, and Detroit later bought him out. … The Knicks’ Ryan Arcidiacono (sprained left ankle) didn’t practice on Friday.

With the Mavericks in town, Thibodeau was asked about the NBA’s ongoing tampering investigation regarding the Knicks’ pursuit and acquisition of Brunson.

“At the appropriate time, I think [president] Leon [Rose] will make a statement. But let everyone do their job,” Thibodeau said. “So, that’s the way we’re approaching it. We feel very good about the way we went about things.”

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Pulisic Is Mending but Still Uncertain for Next U.S. Game



DOHA, Qatar — Christian Pulisic was happy to talk about what happened leading up to the goal he scored on Tuesday that carried the United States into the round of 16 at the World Cup.

He was happy to talk about the ride to the hospital after colliding with Iran’s goalkeeper, about how during that journey he followed the rest of the game on a trainer’s cellphone, and about the chances — still not 100 percent, he said — that he would be available to play when the United States faces the Netherlands on Saturday.

What he was far less comfortable talking about, as he stared out into the faces of at least 100 journalists, were the details of where he had been injured. U.S. Soccer has labeled Pulisic’s injury a “pelvic contusion.” Asked by a reporter to clarify what that meant, Pulisic took a long pause.

“I mean,” he said, “it’s a pelvic contusion, you know?”

The specifics hardly matter. What does matter, at least for the United States, is that Pulisic admitted he was not sure he would be physically capable of going through a full training session with his teammates Thursday, 48 hours before they play the biggest game of their lives.

Pulisic’s problem, basically, is that the shot he took in the collision while scoring in Tuesday’s 1-0 victory had affected his ability to do his job. A soccer player’s hips, and especially any of the muscles and tendons and tissue that support them, do vital and interconnected work in assisting movement, turning and sprinting. Pulisic seemed to admit that, at least as of Thursday, he was not sure he had recovered sufficiently to be able to perform at the level he knows will be required on Saturday.

“I’m going to go now and meet with the team and the medical staff and make a decision on today, just kind of see how I’m feeling,” he said in his first public comments since the injury. “Taking it day by day for now, but doing everything in my power to be able to be out there on the field on Saturday.”

It had been excruciating, he admitted, to leave the game after scoring. Pulisic had lain on the field for several minutes after scoring, then needed assistance to get to his feet and remain standing. After a few minutes, he returned to the game, but minutes after that, the halftime whistle blew and he was gone down the stadium tunnel.

When his team returned to the field for the second half, Pulisic was missing, replaced by his teammate Brenden Aaronson.

“Obviously the emotions were running so high, so I was doing everything I could to continue playing,” Pulisic said of his brief return to the game. “It was all kind of a blur, to be honest.”

After an assessment of his condition was made at halftime, he said, the U.S. Soccer medical staff determined he needed to go to a hospital for scans to determine the full nature of his injury. A team trainer, Harris Patel, went along; on the way, Patel called up a video feed of the game on his phone so he and Pulisic could watch what they were missing.

“It was the hardest thing,” Pulisic said. “I think they were checking my blood sugar and everything, and it was flying through the roof, but it wasn’t because of anything — it was just me stress-watching the game. Once I got through that, and the final whistle blew, I was very happy.”

Saturday’s game would be a difficult one to miss. The United States has not played a knockout game at the World Cup since 2014, and the current team represents a new generation of players who have high hopes not only for this tournament, but for the World Cup that will take place in the United States, Canada and Mexico in 2026.

Pulisic already has one good memory from this year’s tournament — and one excruciating one. But as he sat alongside his teammate Timothy Weah, who has scored the Americans’ only other goal in Qatar, in the team’s opening game against Wales, Pulisic said they still felt they had a long way to go.

“It feels great to score in a World Cup,” Pulisic said when asked if he had enjoyed his special moment of the tournament already. “Timmy knows what that’s like. I’m hoping I haven’t had that moment yet. I’m hoping it’s in front of me.”

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Three keys for a US victory over the Netherlands



Three keys for a U.S. victory over the Netherlands in the World Cup Round of 16 match on Saturday morning in Qatar:

Not half bad

A hallmark of the Americans’ World Cup showing has been to deliver dynamic first halves and less inspiring second halves, allowing an equalizer after halftime to Wales and white-knuckling the finish against Iran (on the bright side, they haven’t trailed for one minute). Whether it’s purely a matter of not easing off the throttle or it’s in how coach Gregg Berhalter manages his substitutions (not waiting too long to deploy them) and tactical adjustments, the U.S. will need to be equally dangerous after halftime to defeat the Dutch.

Contain Gakpo

Cody Gakpo
Getty Images

Don’t let No. 8 in orange beat you, though that’s easier said than done. Cody Gakpo has a world-class goal in each of the Netherlands’ games so far. Defensive midfielder Tyler Adams and the U.S. center backs will need to mark him at all times.

Game, “Set,” Match

The USMNT has yet to score — or even come close to scoring — on a set piece, historically a strength of the team. Instead, they have scored two beauties from the run of play. Virgil van Dijk is a tower in the Dutch defense.

Can the U.S. produce one of those vintage goals off a corner kick?

Saturday’s other Round of 16 match

Argentina vs. Australia: 2 p.m., Fox

After an underwhelming group stage, Argentina has what should be a manageable game in its Round-of-16 match against Australia. It will be a heavy favorite in this match as Australia plays its first knockout game at a World Cup since 2006, after getting through the group on a win over Denmark on the last day.

Still, Australia already scored an upset in that game and could be on for one here. Lionel Messi is playing for his legacy and the Argentinians have a chance to right the ship after a rocky first three games. Can they?

— Ethan Sears

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