They say things never look as good on tape after a win, or as bad after a loss. And from the standpoint of the Jets defensive line following Sunday’s frustrating loss to Pittsburgh at MetLife Stadium, the statement certainly rings true.
Yes, this group failed to consistently get after Pittsburgh quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, when given the opportunity, despite terrific matchups all along the offensive line. But there were also some positives, including continued success against the run, as the Jets were able to hold Pittsburgh running backs to a measly 2.8 YPC average, limiting the Steelers to just 78 yards overall on the ground.
The defense got off to a fast start as it forced Pittsburgh into two consecutive three and outs before Steelers Offensive Coordinator Todd Haley adjusted to a short passing game similar to what the Jets saw in Tennessee two weeks ago and in Atlanta on Monday night. The change in philosophy once again saw the Jets presence up front neutralized in passing situations, allowing Roethlisberger to shred the defense, finishing with a 23 of 30 passing day for 264 yards and one touchdown.
Whether it’s fair or not, Jets fans have put this group up on a pedestal, due in large part to its early season production. But with Antwan Barnes out, Quinton Coples just not producing as an edge rusher, and the secondary struggling in spots, the onus falls on the defensive line to consistently get after the quarterback.
On to the grades:
Muhammed Wilkerson: 59 Snaps (91%)
- 2 Tackles
- 1 Sack
- 2 QB Pressures
He wasn’t his usual dominant self on Sunday, which was surprising considering the matchup with a struggling Steelers offensive line. Mo got off to a quick start, though, which included a missed sack in the end zone in the first quarter (a play we’ll look at a little later), but struggled to impact the game consistently– as seen in his stat line.
Once again we saw Rex Ryan move Wilkerson all over the line, using him inside during a lot of passing situations, which looked like an attempt to create better matchups outside for his outside linebackers and defensive ends. It wasn’t his best day, but Wilkerson was still able to record his fifth sack of the season.
Sheldon Richardson: 52 Snaps (80%)
- 6 Total Tackles (5 Solo Tackles)
- 1 Forced Fumble
As was the case with most of the Jets defensive line, Richardson thrived against the run, and struggled to do anything in passing situations. His performance on Sunday left something to be desired, as many believed he would show off better pass rushing ability against a defensive line that has struggled to protect the quarterback.
Richardson’s success stopping the run is something that shouldn’t be overlooked this season, as his dominance in that area has him in the conversation for Defensive Rookie of the Year honors.
Damon Harrison: 32 Snaps (49%)
- 5 Total Tackles (4 Solo Tackles)
- 1 Tackle for Loss
I feel like a broken record here, but Snacks has been so unbelievably consistent against the run, that there’s really nothing else to say. He continues to be one of the best nose tackles in the league this season, and was a big reason for the Steelers pathetic 2.8 YPC average.
He’s a terrific player who not only fills gaps and takes on blockers, but also is becoming a pretty impressive playmaker in his own right. It’s because of that, that he’s making Kenrick Ellis, a pretty talented guy himself, somewhat expendable to this team.
Each week we see Harrison eating up blockers, and this week we got to see him get great penetration on his way to a big tackle for loss. It’s fun watching the the UDFA improve as the season progresses, and I expect we’ll continue to see it in the coming weeks.
Kenrick Ellis: 19 Snaps (20%)
- 1 Tackle
Ellis was given the start this week and spent some time along side Harrison on the Jets defensive line (the first time we’ve seen that look this season), but still played sparingly, logging only 19 snaps in this one.
With Harrison excelling in so many facets, Ellis finds himself in a tough spot, struggling to consistently get on the field. And if Harrison continues to improve, Ellis will likely continue to see limited snaps, further supporting TOJ Staff Writer Mike O’Connor’s theory that the Jets should really consider moving him to avoid a logjam of unused talent along the defensive line.
It’s getting harder and harder to grade Ellis, who, despite seeing some more time on the field, didn’t provide the same production that we saw from Harrison. He’s a true nose tackle (who actually spent some time playing the three-technique alongside Harrison in this one) and played a role in the Jets stifling the Pittsburgh rushing attack.
Leger Douzable: 9 Snaps (14%)
- 0.5 Sacks
- 2 QB Pressures
I appreciate this kid more and more every week, and this week was no different. Despite seeing limited time on the field, Douzable is really beginning to stand out more and more as the season progresses. This week, the UDFA recorded a half-sack as he and Cal Pace converged to bring down Big Ben in the pocket.
He’s been excellent as a rotational guy on this defensive line, further supporting the idea to trade Ellis. Whether it’s a result of terrific talent evaluation, great coaching, or a guy just figuring it out, Douzable has found a niche with this group. If he continues to impress the way he has, Rex will have no option than to get him more time on the field.
Game Changing Moment:
It’s tough to tag a play that resulted in a Steelers punt in the first quarter a “Game Changing Moment”, but when your offense fails to get in the end zone all game, missed scoring opportunities become even more devastating. That’s exactly what happened here, as a safety early in this one could have really changed things.
But as many know, Roethlisberger has been making people miss for years, and on this play, Wilkerson was his latest victim.
Lets take a look:
The Jets use a four man front on this first down play inside the five-yard line with Wilkerson and Coples lined up at the defensive end positions. Wilkerson is matched up with LT Kelvin Beachum (who was thrust into the starting role after Levi Brown was injured in pre-game warmups).
Wilkerson uses an inside move to get past Beachum, leaving him with a clear path to Roethlisberger in the end zone.
It looks like Mo has Big Ben dead to rights…but football fans have seen this movie before.
Instead of going low, Wilkerson tries to bring the elusive QB down from his shoulders–a mistake that Wilkerson admitted to after the game.
Roethlisberger shrugs off Wilkerson’s attempted tackle and leaves Mo laying on the turf as he rolls out to fire an incomplete pass down the sidelines. While the Jets defense forced Pittsburgh into a three and out on this drive, it was clearly a missed opportunity to capitalize early.
Final Analysis: This defense will live and die with the defensive line. If the pressure isn’t there, we’ll likely see QBs shred the defense by exposing the middle of the field. My biggest gripe with Sunday’s performance is, if the DL isn’t going to pressure the QB, they’ve got to get their hands up and disrupt the passing game. It’s something that haunted them in Tennessee, and it came back to bite them against Pittsburgh.
We’ve seen it sparingly in the past couple of games, but it’s something that the coaching staff will need to focus on moving forward. The lack of turnovers from this defense is an issue, and getting hands on passes would undoubtably help that.
With New England coming into MetLife this weekend, the defensive line faces one of its biggest test of the season. You can bet Tom Brady & Co. are game planning against the Jets defensive line as we speak, expecting to see a heavy dose of Wilkerson, Harrison and Richardson up the middle. Defensive line coach Karl Dunbar has done a fantastic job with his group this season, and I expect to see him adjust to the approach taken by opposing offenses in the past few weeks.