When the New York Jets began the 2009 season, their first under Rex Ryan, the defense produced a “wow” factor. The unit jumped off the screen, with their speed, exotic formations and endless blitz packages. They sustained it throughout the season and had arguably the league’s top unit but those initial games, victories over Houston, New England and Tennessee, set the tone and made it clear you’d be watching a special unit all season.
This season has the same feel.
Currently, the Jets rank 3rd in the NFL in total defense and third in sacks (!). They are averaging allowing a little under 17 points per game and many of those points have been a direct result of turnovers by the offense. Nine different players have recorded a sack already, including every starting linebacker, safety and two out of the three defensive lineman. They held Doug Martin to 2.7 yards per carry, Stevan Ridley to 2.5 yards per carry and C.J. Spiller to 0.9 yards per carry. Overall, they are averaging allowing less than 80 total rushing yards per game. Yet, it goes beyond the statistical production. This defense is swarming in a way it hasn’t since Ryan’s first year and has built a brick wall upfront by assembling one of the best collection of defensive lineman in football.
How did such a talented unit come together?
We knew coming into this season that Muhammad WIlkerson was an elite player at his position and poised to become an All-Pro player. He has made good on those expectations so far with 3 sacks, a forced fumble, and 9 tackles. The Jets lucked out when Wilkerson fell to them so late in the first round of the 2011 NFL Draft and made the right call by taking the best player available, which was easily him at the time. Alongside WIlkerson upfront, rookie Sheldon Richardson has provided an immediate impact. Again, the Jets took the best player available to them at #13 in April’s Draft and landed an absolute steal in Richardson, who is freakishly athletic and versatile, making him a perfect fit for a Rex Ryan defense.
Yet, the defensive line’s play has truly been pushed over top by second year nose tackle Damon Harrison, an undrafted free agent who the Jets scouts deserve a ton of credit for finding and who Ryan and defensive line coach Karl Dunbar deserve a ton of credit for coaching up. Harrison has been one of the league’s best nose tackles through three weeks, ranking fourth according to Pro Football Focus‘ grading system and garnering national attention for his play. Harrison has been a consistent presence in the opposing teams’ backfield and doesn’t allow teams to regularly double Wilkerson or Richardson. The depth behind the Jets starters has been impressive as well, with Kenrick Ellis playing well in limited action (since Harrison took his spot) and Leger Douzable proving to be a solid veteran addition.
The improved defensive line and rapid maturation of second year linebacker Demario Davis has revitalized David Harris, who looks to be getting close to his old self. Harris leads the team with 21 tackles and has recorded a sack, forced fumble and three tackles for a loss. Davis has lived up to his pre-season hype so far by providing speed and energy next to Harris. Despite many valid criticisms of the Jets previous front office, it looks like they found a keeper at inside linebacker in the third round with Davis.
With Quinton Coples now returning to 100% health after making his season debut last week, the outside linebacker production should improve. Coples plays a hybrid defensive lineman/linebacker rush role in the Jets defense and will provide a huge boost off the edge throughout the season. He is probably their most naturally gifted pass rusher and is another first round pick who paid both immediate dividends last season (led team in sacks in limited role) and should only improve with time in Rex’s system. Off-season acquisition Antwan Barnes has brought needed speed off the edge as well, recording a sack and helping collapse the pocket from the outside with consistency. Even much maligned veteran Calvin Pace has been valuable and the team deserves credit for bringing him back on a minimum deal. Through three games, he has 1.5 sacks, 11 tackles and a pass defensed.
The safety position was a major area of concern entering the season but they have been steady so far. Dawan Landry and Antonio Allen have been rock solid in run support and are yet to be gashed in the passing game. Both players have already recorded a sack and have a combined 30 tackles. Allen, in particular has been a pleasant surprise and has looked far from overwhelmed in a starting role despite being a 7th round pick in 2012 with limited previous experience.
Ironically, the position that used to be the strongest under Rex Ryan, cornerback, has been the Jets biggest issue on defense so far this season. Antonio Cromartie is working back from a hip injury and isn’t playing at his 2012 level yet. Opposite of him, Dee Milliner isn’t ready for a full time starting role and Kyle Wilson is Kyle Wilson, not a good starting NFL cornerback. Darrin Walls has looked very good in limited action the Jets would wise to let him keep the seat warm for Milliner, who took some positive strides last week against Buffalo.
This Jets defense has been built primarily through the draft, led by first round talent in Wilkerson, Richardson and Coples, mid-round talent in Davis and late round finds like Harrison and Allen. They have complimented their young pieces well by bringing in veterans like Landry, Barnes and bringing back Pace, while receiving a renaissance year from Harris. Right now, this Jets defense has the look of one the league’s best and it may just end up being better than Rex’s 2009 unit.