The New York Jets 34-0 loss to the San Francisco 49ers this past week was undoubtedly one of the worst performances in the Rex Ryan era. New York’s brash head coach, the self proclaimed “best defensive mind in football,” watched helplessly from the sidelines as his unit was gashed for 245 yards by Frank Gore and company. The 49ers did to the Jets what the Jets wish they could do to every team on their schedule. They effectively ran the ball with a surplus of ball carriers – 9 to be exact – including an excellent demonstration of how to run the Wildcat, something the Jets were supposed to threaten the league with this season. 49ers backup quarterback Colin Kaepernick rushed for 50 yards on 5 carries, including a 7 yard touchdown run in the second quarter. Jim Harbaugh beat Rex Ryan at his own game, in dominating fashion.
But where did New York go wrong? What happened to a defense that has had great success in the past, and was regarded as one of the league’s best heading into week 1? A combination of poor technique, lack of speed, abysmal execution, and apparent conditioning issues all contributed to the Jets being laughed off the field in their own stadium. For our fourth edition of this column, we’ll once again start from the front and work our way back to dissect exactly what is wrong with the Jets defense.
Defensive Line -
Muhammad Wilkerson - Wilkerson has been horribly inconsistent all season long, and that did not change this past week against San Francisco. Mo was relatively quiet all game, however he was going up against one of the best Offensive Tackles in the NFL in Joe Staley. Still, if Wilkerson wants to be regarded as one of the upper tier defensive lineman in this league, he will need to begin to prove he can compete with the elite offensive lineman.
What really stood out in terms of Wilkerson’s role from Sunday was how much he was moved around the defensive line. On passing situations, he was frequently lined up at the nose, with players like Mike DeVito and Quinton Coples lined up at the tackle and end positions. While Wilkerson is certainly versatile enough to play just about any position on the defensive line, he is best coming off of the edge as a pass rusher, rather than up the middle. For a defense that’s edge rush is virtually non-existent, it seems a bit curious that Wilkerson would be placed at the nose in those situations. Certainly, several NFL defenses have personnel packages designed specifically for passing situations, where they will line defensive ends up on the inside to increase the athleticism of the entire front, however the presence of Mike DeVito in these situations contradicts that due to how limited he is in rushing the passer.
Wilkerson’s natural abilities, combined with some recent poor performances by the other players on the defensive front, might be a reason for his expanded responsibilities, which could be a primary cause for his inconsistencies. As a second year player, it is important to get comfortable in one role, before taking on multiple roles. The Jets seemingly want to give Wilkerson a little taste of everything, in terms of alignment on the defensive line, so he may be struggling to find a rhythm.
Sione Pouha - Pouha continues to struggle since his return at Pittsburgh in week 2. He shows virtually no explosion off the ball, and can absolutely not take on a double team like he has done in the past. Against San Francisco, he was repeatedly driven off the ball, creating a number of problems for the Jets defense.
First, just the ground he is giving up is creating ample running room at the first level, something that causes serious problems for the Jets’ rather slow linebacker corps. Second, the ease at which he is being blocked allows for more single blocking rather than double teams. What this means is that, rather than occupying two blockers like he has in the past, Pouha is now getting chipped by one lineman, while another takes over the drive block, allowing the would-be double teamer to get a clear lane to the second level and seal the linebackers, creating running lanes all over the field.
It is clear that Pouha is not himself. Whether it is due to injury or age, he has become a serious liability for New York. He has never been great at rushing the passer, so combine his lack of ability in that area with his newly found struggles against the run, and he is ultimately useless to this defense. It is simply a matter of time before Kenrick Ellis replaces Pouha as the full time starter at NT this season.
Mike DeVito - No surprises on DeVito’s performance. Another average day in run defense, coupled with a disappearing act when it came to rushing the passer. DeVito is a very solid role player, and can be very effective as a reserve player, coming in fresh in run situations to clog gaps and occupy blockers. However, the Jets are seriously reaching with the every down role they currently have him in. Quinton Coples has proved to be effective against the run in the limited reps he has had so far this season, and inserting him as the starter in place of DeVito would help this line tremendously. DeVito certainly still holds value on this team, as a veteran leader who will give the team everything he has in any capacity. DeVito certainly does not get worse each week, but he also does not get better. At some point, New York needs to go with the youngster with tremendous upside and let him grow naturally, with DeVito serving in a reserve/mentor type role.
Quinton Coples - Coples likely saw more reps this past week than he has all year and his rate of growth from rep to rep was highly notable. Early in the game, Coples played rather familiarly in terms of his technique and execution. He began the game as a mismatch on inside stunts, as he has been all year due to his superior athleticism against opposing interior lineman. He did, however, struggle to use his hands, something that would make him a nightmare to opposing lineman because of his tremendous length. On a few particular plays, after showing great burst off the line, Coples would allow Staley and other 49ers lineman to get into him, rendering him completely useless with no counter move.
However, during the second half, Coples corrected this error, and the results were obvious. He became very violent with his hands, striking the opposing lineman quickly right out of his initial burst. What this allows defensive lineman to do is to dictate their own actions on that particular play. Coples repeatedly executed text book stack and shed technique as he would engage the lineman, occupy his gap responsibility, then shed the blocker and make the play. By my count, the improved technique resulted in Coples obtaining two tackles for loss, and multiple QB pressures.
Coples rate of growth from the first quarter to the fourth was the most encouraging aspect of the defensive performance on Sunday. With more reps, you can see him becoming more familiar with his opponents and more comfortable with his role within the defensive scheme. His ability to fix his mistakes within a game is a sign of coachability and attention to detail, part of the little things that will allow him to take his vast potential beyond its limit. Consistency will be key for him moving forward, assuming he will get the extended reps that he deserves.
Kenrick Ellis - Ellis continued to impress against San Francisco. Unlike Pouha, he is stellar against the double team, and is clearly a natural fit at the Nose Tackle position. He plays with amazing leverage, which as previously noted, is deadly when combined with his strength and athleticism. He simply cannot be blocked with one man, something that benefits not only the remaining defensive line, but the entire run defense, as it allows for the linebackers to run free after the ball carrier.
The only poor play Ellis had was late in the game. In the 4th quarter, Ellis was lined up as a 3-technique on the outside shade of the guard, where he was double teamed (by the guard and Joe Staley) and driven about 5 yards off the ball. However, at that point in the game, it is doubtful that even the best defensive linemen in the league would be able to withstand such a double team. Ellis, like Coples, needs to be the primary guy for New York, whether Pouha is healthy or not. He is a natural run stuffer, gets much more of a push in his pass rush, plays with an edge that is necessary for the position, and most importantly, is consistent week in and week out.
Aaron Maybin - Another quiet day for Maybin in what is turning out to be a very disappointing season for a player that led this team with 6 sacks just a season ago. Maybin continues to simply run up the field with no regard for where the quarterback actually is. The league has seemingly caught up to his tactics, as displayed again this past Sunday. Numerous times, Staley and the rest of the 49ers offensive line could allow Maybin to run by them, like he always does, and simply ride him past the quarterback, making him virtually useless.
Maybin did have a nice play on his sole tackle of the day, in which he strung out a sweep and made a leg swipe tackle. Maybin has been very disappointing, proving he is not working to add any type of pass rush moves. However, the true disappointment here is Karl Dunbar. Where on earth is the coaching for a player like this? Perhaps Dunbar is attempting to coach Maybin on these issues, but he is being insubordinate. If that is the case, there is no way he should even step on the field. Whatever it is, it needs to be fixed, or Maybin will undoubtedly finish without a single sack this season, and likely run his way right out of the league.
Calvin Pace - Pace, again, proved to be the most fundamentally sound of anyone in the front seven. However, Pace, again, proved to be too slow to do anything truly effective with that technique, other than his single sack of Alex Smith in the first half. While he is solid against the run, setting the edge, allowing virtually nothing to get outside of him, Pace is almost useless in the passing game at this point in his career. He has very little burst left in his pass rush, and continues to struggle in coverage. Still, he plays with the most confidence out of anyone in the front seven, and should continue to start due to the fact that, despite his flaws, he is still head and shoulders above the next player at his position.