Rex Ryan has never been hesitant about using a variety of defensive looks since becoming the head coach of the New York Jets. However, they have predominantly been a 3-4 team. After a disappointing 2011 season, it appears the Jets will looking to use more 4-3 alignments this season and will be looking for different things out of a few key players in their system.
Surprisingly, defensive line has developed into the deepest position on the Jets roster. They have one of the best nose tackles in football in Sione Pouha, a promising second year player in Muhammad Wilkerson and one of the league’s better run stoppers in Mike DeVito. Behind them, Marcus Dixon was very good off the bench last year at both defensive end and defensive tackle. Last year’s third round pick Kenrick Ellis has the physical potential to be a force inside and Martin Tevaseau is a capable rotation player. Finally, they surprised many by selecting defensive end Quinton Coples in the first round.
On the other hand, the Jets have many questions at linebacker outside of David Harris. Calvin Pace is coming off his worst season with the team and appears to have lost his burst getting after the quarterback. Bart Scott is also coming off his worst season with the team and is a major liability on passing downs. Bryan Thomas is going to be 33 years old and is coming off major surgery. Aaron Maybin is a hybrid defensive end/linebacker and is predominantly just a pass rush threat. Demario Davis has plenty of potential but is ultimately still a third round rookie.
Outside of Maybin (who is built like a safety), the Jets have asked their linebackers to lose weight and improve their speed. Pace and Thomas are going to spend more time being pure linebackers instead of having different formations where they put their hand in the dirt because the Jets have enough capable defensive lineman.
It is a smart move by Rex Ryan to cater his defense to his depth chart. These is no need to fit square pegs in round holes. You play to your strengths and the Jets strength should be their defensive line more so than their linebackers. Ryan wisely hired a defensive line coach in Karl Dunbar, who was coaching a 4-3 in Minnesota to help with this adjustment. The Jets have a versatile front with most players being able to slide between defensive tackle and defensive end. Ryan should be able to send out a myriad of lineups that could both stop the run and rush the passer.
For example, a line-up with DeVito and Pouha at defensive tackle with Coples and Wilkerson at end, should be capable against the run while still getting push to the quarterback. On third downs, you could slide Coples inside to defensive tackle, bring Aaron Maybin in at end and then replace Bart Scott with Demario Davis or an extra safety to get after the quarterback.
Regardless of what the Jets de facto starting line-up ends up being, expect to see four to five defensive lineman getting major reps throughout the game while a player like Bryan Thomas could end up playing less than 50% of the snaps. It is also hard to see a scenario where Pace and Scott don’t see a decline in their reps.
The Jets strength on defense is cornerback and defensive line, Rex Ryan should be smart enough to build his game-plans around these two positions.