The defensive line of the 2013 New York Jets has gotten an agglomeration of hype from pundits and fans alike and is expected to be a bright spot on a team of unknowns. However, observers at every level have been putting square pegs into round holes when it comes to the men in the trenches.
Most envision a starting line up in either a 3-4 or 4-3 formation, with players pigeonholed into the position that they are supposedly best suited for. For instance, hypothetical NFL pundit could lament the Jets defensive potential considering their only viable “linebacker” is a convert from the defensive line and their other 3-4 end is a rookie (Richardson). These unjustified fears are results of many pundits and fans’ gross misunderstanding of Sheldon Richardson and Quinton Coples’ projected roles in Rex Ryan’s defense.
Ryan’s defense is truly a hybrid one and only a 3-4 in name. The looks Ryan will throw at opposing quarterbacks will vary and create confusion. With the players at his disposal, Ryan can show one front and stunt his lineman into a completely different formation. Ryan does not force players into a position where they are uncomfortable. He asks his players to do what they do best and lets them fly. It is impossible to crack the Rubik’s Cube of defensive ideology that is Ryan’s noggin. Yet, the best way to understand the roles of the individual front seven players in his defense is to look at their individual skill sets and project what they will be asked to do given that information.
Muhammad WIlkerson: Wilkerson is a beast, a behemoth, and a versatile cog to an ever-changing defense. At 6’4″ and 315 lbs, the big man worked up a nice stat sheet of 69 tackles, five sacks, three forced fumbles, one touchdown, four passes defensed, 37 quarterback disruptions, 46 stops in the run game, and one blocked field goal. His vision and field awareness, even as rookie, were stellar. When playing the run, Wilkerson uses his strength and long arms to hold off his blockers and dissect the offensive formation. His eyes are constantly moving, keeping track of the ball carrier. His arsenal of pass rushing moves is vast. Wilkerson particularly excels at the rip move, shoulder dip, and swim moves. Wilkerson also has a non-stop motor that puts him in a position to play everywhere in the trenches. He is not limited to playing as a 3-technique (standard for a 3-4 end) but excels while playing over center (0-technique) and shooting the A and C gaps (1, 2, and 5-techniques).
Role: Wilkerson is easily the most talented and versatile defender on the Jets. He will be tasked with stopping the run, attacking the quarterback, blocking throwing lanes, and taking on blockers. No technique or gap will be off limits for #96. The fear he strikes into offensive coordinators hearts will lead to double teams that he can handle and one-on-one assignments for his fellow linemen. Our very own Chris Gross said it best: “Wilkerson’s value is beginning to extend beyond his own personal play, something that will not only make him an elite defensive lineman, but will assist in reestablishing the defense among the NFL’s elite, as well.”
Quinton Coples: For a six foot six inch, 290 pound monster of a man, Quinton Coples is unnaturally athletic. Early in his career, Rex likened Coples’ measureless to those of freak-of-nature defensive end Jason Pierre Paul. Coples ran a 4.78 forty, put up 25 bench reps, and crushed the three cone drill in 7.57 seconds during the 2012 NFL Combine. Since then he has shed a few pounds and gone through two NFL conditioning programs. Improvement is expected. Coples’ rare combination of speed and strength make him a match up nightmare for offensive lines. He is quick off the line and uses his size and strength to move his blockers from their stance. His pass rush arsenal was dry coming into the league but improved as the 2012 season bore on. Coples has excellent instincts and can use leverage to great success. He gets into the backfield with ease where he harasses anyone touching the ball. The biggest knock on Coples has been his motor, though that has not been evident through two training camps and one full season. Coples excels at moving north and south (mostly south) but has been untested moving laterally across the field. Considering his athleticism and a few key plays in camp, he should have no problem handling those responsibilities if asked.
Role: The subject of much debate heading into the 2013 season, Coples will be asked to do what Coples does best, rush the passer. Rex Ryan made headlines when he announced, early in the offseason, that up-and-comming lineman Quinton Coples would make the move to outside linebacker. To most this was either an indictment of Coples performance or a desperate move by Ryan to bolster a weak linebacking corps. The truth of the matter is that Coples will be playing the role of outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense; ie. attack the quarterback. Outside linebacker is really just a more acceptable title for the “rush” position in Rex’s hybrid schemes.
Sheldon Richardson: Scheme and player fit really began to come into question when the Jets drafted Sheldon Richardson 13th overall. However, the Jets had a plan in mind for the über athletic 6’2″, 295 pound wrecking ball. Richardson has uncanny agility for a man of his girth and is able to worm his way through blockers into the backfield. These talents make him incredibly versatile His first step is lightning fast as he attacks his assigned gap. Richardson does not have elite upper body strength and can be a liability if asked to hold the point of attack. Richardson has an advanced set of pass rush moves for a rookie that should allow him to be a penetrator early and often. He displays excellent hands when using rip and swim moves. Both techniques are vital to Richardson becoming adept at both rushing the passer and stopping the run. His athleticism gives him superb pursuit ability in the short game. Richardson has no problem moving sideline to sideline from the interior line position. When a double team exposes a hole in their block, Richardson can easily shuffle through linemen and work his way towards the ball carrier but will fall to solid double teams by savvy veterans. He excelled in college as a one technique against the run and both a three and five technique against the pass.
Role: Richardson is so versatile that his role in the defense is hard to project. His strength lies mostly as a penetrating 3-technique in 4 man fronts. However, expect to see him play 5-technique in a 3 man front often. Richardson will also be a vital piece to 46 looks by the defense as an interior lineman along with Ellis and Wilkerson. One can look at Richardson’s projected role to improve on DeVito’s role as the 2012 5-technique by adding a pass rush to the position.
Kenrick Ellis: The new big man on the block, Kenrick Ellis looks to improve on Sione Pouha’s role in 2013. Ellis has ideal size for a 0-technique defensive tackle (the prototypical nose tackle in a 3-4) at 6’5″ and 346 lbs. Ellis is a force at the point of attack, able to both hold his own against aggressive run blocking and push the pocket at will. Decent block shedding technique and unusual burst (for a man of his size) allow Ellis to make an impact in the backfield and in pursuit as well. He has yet to make his mark on the stat sheet and can be overwhelmed by counters and play fakes at times. He seems to be addressing these issues however, with a strong showing in Cortland.
Role: The Jets run defense suffered with Pouha’s health always questionable in 2012. The loss of stalwart Mike DeVito only exacerbates this deficiency. However, the hope is for Ellis to use his size and strength to take over the line of scrimmage and hold fast at the point of attack, much in the way our dear departed did in years past. It is also key for Ellis to command double teams, allowing his fellow linemen an easier path to the ball carrier. Ellis’ size and talent are there, its just a matter of him putting it all together to anchor this crew. Expect to see Ellis lined up at 0-technique, responsible for double gapping the A and B gaps against the run.
Antonio Garay: Known more for his hello-kitty-mobile, “mean-muggin” and funky hair styling, newcomer Antonio Garay can be a key part of the defensive rotation in 2013. Like all the other players listed here, Garay has the versatility to be an cog in a Rex Ryan pressure package. Over his 9 year career, the 6’4″ – 340 lb defensive tackle has played all over the interior line. He is an effective two gapper over the center but excels as a pass rushing 3 or 5-technique. Garay uses his natural agility, advanced pass rush repertoire, and overwhelming power to blow by opposing offensive linemen.
Role: Garay is technically the back up nose tackle to Kenrick Ellis. However, his role is far more complex. Ellis can be dominant against the run but may be two slow or unpolished to play the pass. Garay is a better pass rusher than Ellis and may step in as a pass-rushing nose tackle on obvious passing plays. He has a similar skill set to Muhammad WIlkerson and could spell him in a pinch as well. Look for Garay to be lined up mostly on the interior, responsible for double gapping as a nose or penetrating the A and B gaps from a 4-3 tackle position.
Calvin Pace: Ah, the man we thought (and some hoped) we’d seen the last of following the 2012 linebacker debacle. Pace was brought in during the 2008 Tennenbaum spending spree to be a pass rush specialist. He never lived up to his billing. However, Pace did serve as a consistent outside linebacker for the Jets, setting the edge well and providing veteran leadership. Though Pace looked slow and out of shape next to the 2012 versions of Bart Soctt and Bryan Thomas, he still maintains a valuable skill set. He has good strength for an outside linebacker and is always in position. Pace understands how to set the edge, maintaining contact with his blocker until he must shed and attack the ball carrier. Pace’s main issue is his much deteriorated speed, which was easily noticeable following the his eight sack 2009 season.
Role: Some may ask, why bring up Pace at all if he was a cap casualty and a roster bubble hiring by the new management? Well, in 2012 Pace was forced into a complete linebacker role (due to injuries) and taken out of his element. Pace was never good in space and excelled as a down lineman, either rushing the passer or setting the edge. Pace is included in this post because he will be used him mostly as a defensive end in 4-3 sets and asked to set the edge. Expect to see Pace in mostly contain or edge setting roles, losing pass rushing reps to…
Antwan Barnes: Barnes is a pass rush specialist. He was drafted by Ryan’s Ravens in 2007 where he excelled on special teams and as a DPR (designated pass rusher). Barnes later latched on with the Chargers and recorded 15.5 sacks in his first two years with the Bolts. The 6’1″ – 250 lb Barnes ran a 4.43 at the NFL Combine. He uses this speed and his high motor to get after the passer. Some may see similarities to reclamation-project-gone-bad Aaron Maybin, however, Barnes posses an array of pass rushing moves that sets him apart. Barnes has a nose for the ball and good pass rushing instincts that will make him seem like the Tasmanian Devil compared to the linebacker play Jets fans are used to.
Role: Where Pace excels against the run and struggles as a (slow) pass rusher, Barnes struggles against the run but is an excellent (fast) pass rush specialist. Expect Barnes and Pace to switch off defensive end roles in 4-3 looks, to play a rush linebacker (opposite Coples) in 3-4 looks, and maybe even play a bit of Sam or Will backer in 4-3. Barnes is untested against the run and may be a liability, so expect his role to continue to be limited to pass rushing and special teams.
Looks to Expect: NFL offenses have adjusted to the speed of outside rushers with quick hitting, arial attacks. Such is the nature of the league. Ryan hopes to combat this and find the next evolution in rushing the passer. Ryan’s vision seems to focus on pressure from interior linemen. This method allows for fewer pass rushers, interior pocket collapse, and disrupted throwing lanes. For this reason, the Jets have begun to collect versatile big men to create varied and disruptive fronts. Focusing on a few multifaceted defensive linemen allows for optimal numbers on the back end in order to cover the modern era passing attack.
3-4 Run: Coples (LOLB) – Wilkerson (LDE) – Ellis (NT) – Richardson (RDE) – Pace (ROLB)
This set up provides the Jets defense with their best talent and versatility, plus the run stopping specialization of Pace and Ellis. WIlkerson, Coples, and Richardson have enough versatility to start in a run blocking mind set but switch to a pass rush if it is a play fake.
3-4 Pass: Coples (LOLB) – Wilkerson (LDE) – Garay (NT) – Richardson (RDE) – Barnes (ROLB)
In this formation, Garay substitutes for Ellis and Barnes for Pace. While the original two specialized in run defense, Garay and Barnes are pass rushing specialists from their respective positions. WIth Coples and Barnes pinning their ears back and attacking the quarterback the pass rush should be much improved. WIlkerson, Garay, and Richardson can also provide some serious push and disruption from the interior.
4-3 Run: Coples (LDE) – Wilkerson (DT) – Ellis (NT) – Richardson (RDE)
This formation allows Wilkerson and Ellis to take up the blockers and frees up Coples and RIchardson to attack the ball carrier. Wilkerson and Ellis can also attack the A and B gaps and make plays in the back field, something I expect often from #96. (Richardson may be switched with Pace in this situation depending on how he responds to playing five technique).
4-3 Pass: Coples (LDE) – Richardson (DT) – Wilkerson (DT) – Barnes (RDE)
This may be the formation I am most excited to see. All four of them excel against the pass and will destroy offensive lines in pass block. This combination will be able to wreak havoc on the quarterback from any position on the field with both interior and exterior pressure. Quarterbacks beware, the Jets 4-3 rush package is coming for you.
Coples (LOLB) – Harris (ILB) – Davis (ILB) – Pace (ILB)
Richardson (LDE) – Ellis (DT) – Garay (DT) – Wilkerson (RDE)
The 46 (Buddy Ryan’s brain child) is excellent as a run defense. This line up is perfect for the 46 because all of the down linemen have the potential to command double teams and shed the blocks themselves. Considering this, the rush lanes should be wide open for the linebackers to attack the pocket and make tackles for a loss.
Amoeba: Different coaches have different terminology for this formation. Essentially, the players are constantly moving around the field, disguising their actual assignments. This may be one of Ryan’s best opportunities to utilize his defensive line’s versatility and get his best guys all on the field at once. Perhaps some combination of Ellis, Wilkerson, Coples, Richardson, Pace, Barnes, and Davis can be expected. Ellis as your down linemen and the others constantly moving, looking for a weak spot.
Also, look for a good ammount of 4-2-5 and 3-3-5 worked in, depending on the game situation.
The key to Ryan’s 2013 defense is the versatility of the defensive line. It should allow him to make seamless substitutions and put all his best defenders on the field at once. Nobody will be asked to leave their comfort zones because even the least versatile of them have compliments in the front seven. This defense could never show the same look twice. It could also show the same look every down and function completely differently. That is the beautiful potential of the Jets 2013 defense. Never the same outfit twice and it is truly more than the sum of its parts.
*Note: The players covered are those most likely to make the roster and get playing time. Players left off this list are likely on the roster bubble or to be inactive on a regular basis. Their exclusion is not an indictment of their abilities or fit in this defense but a symptom of their unstable place on the active roster.