New York Jets Defensive Line: Nucleus In The Making

Chris Gross with a look at the Jets building a defensive foundation on the defensive front.

Over the past few weeks, there has been a great amount of discussion about what type of scheme the Jets are moving toward on the defensive side of the ball. First, the Sheldon Richardson selection fueled speculation that the team was working toward moving to more of a 4-3 base look as opposed to the 3-4 base defense that Rex Ryan has been so successful with throughout his coaching career in the NFL. These ideas were partially debunked last week when the Jets announced that second year defensive end Quinton Coples would be making a positional change to outside linebacker, the thought process being if New York was, in fact, moving to a base 4-3 front, they would not be moving Coples from what seems to be his natural position to a position he has much less experience at for the sake of the scheme.

So what is New York planning to do on defense for 2013 and beyond? The answer, which may be surprising to some, is nothing too different from what they have done since the arrival of Ryan in 2009. But why then, would the team use a first round selection on Richardson, who is at his best as a penetrating 3 technique, rather than selecting a player like Georgia’s Jarvis Jones, who spent nearly his entire productive collegiate career as a 3-4 pass rushing outside linebacker and who would seemingly be a better fit for such a scheme than a player like Richardson? The answer lies in what the Jets have done, and the vision that Ryan seems to have for his defense moving forward.

Discussion has been running rampant about the type of scheme Ryan runs with the Jets. Is it a pure 3-4? Is it a 46? Is it a 4-2-5? Are there variations of the 3-3-5? In short, all of these different fronts are used abundantly by the Jets. What makes Ryan’s defense so successful is his ability to find versatility in his defensive players and to use them with great flexibility in his myriad of fronts. The truth is, the Jets are, in fact, primarily a 3-4 defense. But Ryan’s 3-4 should not be thought of the way a traditional 3-4 is run. Defenses in the NFL are all unique – to their coordinators, coaches, and personnel. New York, for example, has different 3-4 philosophies than other 3-4 teams, who all also vary from one another, like Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Houston, San Francisco, etc.

What makes Ryan’s defense unique is that he will not ask a player to try and excel in an area of weakness solely because they are labeled as a certain position and must achieve every aspect of what that position is asked to do against every offensive look on every series. The image below is from the very first series of the Jets 2012 game against the Indianapolis Colts.

Colts 2

To the naked eye, from this wide shot, this defense can be interpreted as a 3-3-5, or even a 4-2-5 based on the alignment of Calvin Pace (denoted by the red circle) in a wide 9 to the outside shade of the tight end, with three defensive lineman to his right, two linebackers behind him, and a total of five defensive backs on the field. However when you look at the tight shot (image below), you will see that the alignment of the interior linebackers proves this to be a pure 3-4.

Colts 3

The inside linebackers, Bart Scott and David Harris, are lined up in A and B gap, respectively. Muhammad Wilkerson is head up on the right tackle, and will eventually work his outside shoulder on the snap of the ball, Mike DeVito is aligned as a pure NT, and Quinton Coples is aligned as a 5 technique on the outside shade of the left tackle. The variable here, as shown in the wide shot from above, is Antonio Allen substituted as the outside linebacker opposite Calvin Pace. While Allen is technically in the role of the slot corner here, this is the exact position that another outside linebacker in this 3-4 front would be in had he been in the game instead of Allen. This scheme is based, not so much on the personnel itself, but on the alignment and assignment of each of the players. While Allen is technically a defensive back, he is very much an outside linebacker in this formation. His versatility to play the run from inside the box gives Ryan the peace of mind to know that if the slot WR motions over or reduces down, Allen can get tighter to the line of scrimmage and not get killed if Colts QB Andrew Luck checks to a run in his direction.

So what does this all have to do with Quinton Coples and Sheldon Richardson? The answer lies in their versatility. Versatile defensive front seven players are the life of this defense. They give Ryan and the Jets the ability to show a pre-snap 3-4, 4-2, or 46 and then suddenly slide out, stem, reduce down, or stunt into an entirely different front with similar, but ultimately different principles.

We saw flashes of this last season. The Jets tirelessly tried to plug Mike DeVito and Sione Pouha into the interior defensive line role of a player who can play a 0, 1, 2, 3, and 5 technique. While each of these players were serviceable in most of these roles, neither really excelled at any of them. When reviewing film from the 2012 defensive line, it is clear that New York’s goal was to generate playmaking ability and pass rush from the defensive line. Time and time again DeVito and Pouha were put in positions to beat one on one blocking, but neither ever really managed to create any big plays, tackles for loss, or sacks. Muhammad Wilkerson was able to break out because he possesses the type of skill set and versatility that Ryan’s scheme needs from its defensive lineman. The same goes for Quinton Coples’ late season surge.

Ryan’s scheme relies heavily on interchangeable players along the defensive front, and that includes the outside linebacker position. Calvin Pace played the position of “Rush” linebacker last year, which is a 3-4 outside linebacker, but with responsibilities more geared for setting the edge against the run, and getting after the quarterback on passing downs. Certainly, there are plays where this position is asked to drop into coverage, more so than the other defensive line positions. However, these situations are not overly abundant. The “Rush” LB position has that name for a reason. Their primary job is to rush the quarterback on passing downs, with the secondary role coming in the form of coverage, depending on what coverage scheme is called and what the offense shows.

Looking below, we see two cases from two separate games where Calvin Pace, although technically an outside linebacker, looks like a pure defensive end based on alignment and assignment.

Pats 1

Here, the Jets are aligned in more of a 4-2-5 front. Pouha and Wilkerson are both lined up as 3 techniques, while Pace and Coples are lined up at defensive end, with Scott and Harris stacked behind the defensive tackles. This plays into the concept discussed above. The Jets are in their 3-4 personnel group, but are in a 4-2 front. Again, it is not so much about the personnel that is on the field in terms of what they are labeled as, positionally, but it is more about the alignment and assignment of the scheme, regardless of who is lined up at certain positions.

We see a similar look from the Jets 2012 contest against Seattle below. SEA 1

Here, Seattle gives the Jets a double TE look. New York aligns in a 4-2 front again with Pace and Coples as 9 techniques and Wilkerson and Pouha as the 3 techniques, with Harris and Scott stacked behind them with a slight gap shade.

The flexibility that Ryan craves in these fronts can be illustrated in a number of ways. Let’s say, hypothetically, that Seattle was to motion one tight end into the slot and the other one into the backfield as a fullback. Ideally, Coples could reduce down to a 5 technique with the 5th defensive back sliding out over the slot. On the other side, Pace could stand up into a 2 point stance with Wilkerson sliding to the other 5 technique and Pouha sliding over the center as the nose.

What has hurt the Jets in the past in situations like the one listed above is the lack of versatility along the interior of the defensive line. While Pouha would be fit to play as the nose in this situation, he is not the ideal 3 technique for he lacks the athleticism and explosion to be a difference maker. The same would go for DeVito if he were in that role, however he lacks more of the strength and overall power to be able to slide to the nose tackle, while remaining serviceable, but not a problem for the offense, as a three technique.

Enter new additions to the defensive line this offseason – first round draft pick Sheldon Richardson and free agent Antonio Garay. We have already gone over Garay’s strengths and versatility here, along with touching on what Richardson could potentially bring to this team, but let’s take a bit of a closer look at the 13th overall selection from this year’s draft.

Where Richardson truly excels is as a gap penetrating 3 technique. The sequence below from Missouri’s contest against South Carolina from last season can give you an idea of just how disruptive Richardson can be on the interior of the defensive line.

Sheldon 1

Here, Richardson is lined up as a 3 technique and uses an amazingly quick swim move to beat the opposing guard into the backfield at the snap of the ball. He then demonstrates tremendous athleticism and bend quickly turning and screaming down the line as he reacts to action away.

Sheldon 3

The next sequence is a demonstration of how disruptive Richardson is as an interior pass rusher.

Sheldon 01.1

Sheldon 4

Sheldon 5

Sheldon 6

As you can see, Richardson possess a fantastic blend of strength, quickness, explosiveness, technique, and creativity in his pass rush arsenal. He has the ability to work the outside or inside gap when lined up as a three technique by using a bull rush, quick hand strike, tremendous first step, or a combination of each. He is truly a disruptive force on the interior.

The next sequence displays what Richardson can do when lined up as a 1 technique against the run. While athleticism and explosiveness are his biggest strengths, he also plays with the leverage and has the power to disrupt run plays by penetrating and altering the path of the back.

Sheldon 2 tech

Sheldon 2 tech 2

With the way the blocking on this play appears to be set up, South Carolina RB Marcus Lattimore ideally wants to hit this play off of the outside of the right guard. The right tackle is riding the defensive end upfield, the center seems to be aiming to seal the middle linebacker to the inside, and the left tackle looks to be trying to gain inside leverage on the defensive end to his side. However, since Richardson is so disruptive and has caused such great penetration, Lattimore is forced to bounce to the outside, where the outside linebacker is able to scrape and make the tackle for a short gain.

Outside of what he can do on the defensive line, Richardson’s versatility and athleticism allowed the defensive staff at Missouri to use him a linebacker at times. Sheldon LB

Sheldon LB 2

Sheldon LB 3

While we don’t expect Richardson to see an abundance of time at linebacker with the Jets, there’s certainly a good chance that there are some packages designed for him to do so, more likely as a blitzer than in coverage, but it is something Rex has not been afraid to do with his athletic defensive tackles in the past, notably Kris Jenkins before his injury back in 2009.

The Jets run a very complex defense, there is no doubt about it. The key to its success, however, is having versatile players up front. The additions of Richardson and Garay give the Jets players who can not only sustain the brutality of the interior of the trenches, but can make plays and be difference makers as well. While DeVito and Pouha were adequate players who you knew were not going to get killed on the inside, they simply did not have the playmaking ability of someone like Richardson or Garay. These two additions have allowed Ryan to get more creative with Coples who will now see much more time on the edge. I expect Wilkerson to see a bit more time on the edge, as well, but likely serving primarily in a role similar to what he have seen him in. Why fix what isn’t broken?

The bottom line in all of this? The Jets defense will live and die with the defensive front, now and in the years to come. You simply don’t select a defensive lineman in the first round of the draft in three consecutive years without having a plan or a vision. Ryan now has playmakers along the interior of the defensive line and on the the edge. Improved play up front will assist the play of the linebackers, a position of trouble for New York last season, and will take a great amount of pressure off of the secondary, a group that lost arguably the best defensive player in the league and will likely be starting a rookie. The core and foundation of this group is in place, and now Ryan and the Jets defensive staff will have the flexibility up front to create a disruptive force that, if reaches its potential, will be one of the best units in all of football.

Author: Chris Gross

Chris Gross is a Staff Writer and Head NFL Draft Editor who is a graduate of Union College where he obtained a degree in history and captained the football team as a defensive end. Doug Brien is the only grown man to make him cry. Chris will assist me in leading our Jets and NFL coverage along with leading our 2013 NFL Draft coverage. He will also run the site when Editor-In-Chief Joe Caporoso is unavailable.

  • matr dontelli iii

    beautiful analysis. i think the defensive future is much brighter with the addition of richardson and the deletion of arguably the best defensive player. hopefully richardson plays more than the three games the injury prone cornerback gave us last year. this would equal an improvement which would not be arguable. now all we need is decent (acceptable, c level) qb play to go with the revamped running game. the other skill positions will have to wait. there were too many holes to fill in one year. mr. idzik is doing great work for a rookie.

  • Adam from Chicago

    Excellent work. If only there was a vision for the offense.

  • Circles26

    I was confused by both draft picks originally, since I hadn’t considered either CB, or DT. I didn’t know too much about either player. I was also confused about Davis being to small last year. Now it’s all starting to make sense. Everyone has been upset about us not drafting Ware type edge rusher for years. There does seem to be amethod to this madness. Defenses have evolved to stop these edge rushers lately with quick athletic LTs, and spread offenses designed to get the ball out too quickly for an outside rush to get there. Coples more physical, and direct pass rush(pushing the LT back then swimming, or ripping outside or inside)should negate this, and also allow him to rush, and play the run with basically the same technique(also negating play action). If we have this much size and speed and explosion in the front 4 I think they will need to double team at least two of these guys, and chip another. That would seem to leave the other 3 LBs free of lineman. Now maybe our LBs don’t need as much size. Now DD could play more sideline to sideline coverage. We wouldn’t need a Bart Scott type to take out blockers, and Harris could still play moving forward without having to worry about engaging, and shedding blockers which he is not good at. Barnes may be able to provide more of a full time roll given that Wilk, Richardoson, and Ellis/Garay should be able to provide penetration which would limit the traffic on the other side. This would allow either two deep safeties, or a nickle back to play over a TE, or the slot with Davis getting depth to cover underneath. Can’t wait to see it.

  • KAsh

    How does Ellis fit into all of this? Is he dynamic and versatile enough to become a starter? Is a solid NT limited in this type of approach to the front 4? Will the NT spot in the front seven in the future become more of a platoon between a NT like Ellis or Harrison and more versatile DT/DE hybrids?

    I am assuming that a player weighing upwards of 340lbs will not be as versatile or have as much penetration as a Richardson type DT.

  • Q94

    “injury prone cornerback” ? C’mon dude. Don’t be that bitter. Before the knee injury, Revis only missed a handful of games.

  • Simon

    Excellent article. Nice Work !

  • Angel

    The more I patiently analyze what Mr. IDZIK has done, the better I feel about it.

    I don’t like Geno as a QB or a character yet, but I don’t really know him and I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

    I’m concerned about Coples speed as an LB.

    I can’t tell you how anxious I am for preseason.

  • matr dontelli iii

    first: i won’t deny that i’m bitter, however the truth is he missed 17 of his last 48 regular season games, more than a third of them. additionally of the thirty-one he played he didn’t finish at least two of them. hence the label ‘injury prone’.

  • Anthony

    You are not injury prone if you have two unrelated injuries in 6 years that make you miss games. One of which is a catastrophic failure of the knee, which can and does happen to anyone.

  • Jeremiah Johnson

    I would agree that Revis isn’t injury prone, although, I would argue that he is injury prone when he chooses to hold out & miss training camp.

    I’m looking forward to see what Rex does with this collection of big, young, talented DL-men.

  • Matr Dontelli III

    It can be viewed either way, just like you can view his attitude either way. You can see him as a great team player ’cause he was great and stayed outta trouble or a cancer due to his me-first attitude and holdouts. Similarly you can consider him non-injury prone due to his reliability over the years or you can look at his last three years and inability to stay on the field as he is getting older and deem him injury prone. Due to my bitterness I’ll opt for the latter on each case. Had he not farcically claimed to want to be a jet for life I might not be so bitter, we’ll never know. I’d certainly have more respect for him if he simply said I play for the money and left out the jet for life part.

  • Q94

    You’d be better off letting that go. However much we have been scorned by Revis, that fault is not entirely his. Tannenbaum all but made sure we couldn’t re-sign him.

  • KAsh

    No, Revis’s insistence on being paid $16 million dollars per year made sure that we could not resign him.

    At a time when five DB formations are becoming more common in order to counter three receiver and four receiver sets, you use over an eighth of your entire cap on one cornerback? Revis’s insistence on being paid was why the Jets only had one offer for him and why, compensation-wise, he was valued less than Percy Harvin. There were at least two other teams – the Browns, one of them, also really needed a corner – who could have paid him $16,000,000/yr but they did not even bother trying to trade for him.

  • Matr Dontelli III

    He’s gone, I’ve accepted it, I’m frustrated by it yet I realize it’s for the better. I acknowledged that by having Richardson hopefully playing more games than that corner played we should have an improved defense. Good riddance.

  • Frank Antonelli

    I concur about the fact we’ll be better off without Revis. Good Riddance. I’m also happy that his number will NEVER be retired by the Jets.

  • CranBoogie

    To all those hating on Revis, You really need to get a life. The OWNER did not want to pay him. BOTTOMLINE…If you call a player the best at his position and he goes out and proves it, then he will want to be paid accordingly. Revis is a 1stBHO’er that WE drafted and let go for an UNPROVEN rookie in Dee Milliner…Understand that of all sports, football players have the least amount of leverage. Hate the owner, not the player…

  • Andrew Suds

    Losing Revis definitely hurts and for once we had a player that was truly one of if not the best in the league on Defense. It would have been cool to watch him retire as a Jet and I am a season ticket holder who would show up early to watch him in warm ups. However, this reminds me when the Pats released Ty Law and Lawyer Milloy back in the day. People were outraged but it made them a better TEAM. Also- Revis is one of a kind but I wonder if he doesn’t play well will people bring up Rex’s system. Time will tell