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.