Jets Defense: D-Line Domination

Dan Essien previews the Jets new defensive line and what they can achieve this season and beyond.

The Jets have much to look forward to after a multitude of changes this offseason. One of the more important units will be their defensive line. They could be the difference between winning and losing at critical points this season. Let’s take a look at how the Jets improved defensive front can work together and make an impact when it matters.

The Jets made a some solid upgrades to their defensive line this offseason. In free agency, they added Carl Lawson, Vinny Curry, and Sheldon Rankins. During the draft they added an intriguing project player in  Jonathan Marshall in the 7th round. They did nearly exactly what we wrote about earlier in the offseason, creating a diverse and versatile attack up front. They also followed a similar model to the Philadelphia Eagles. Snagging Vinny Curry in free agency was an ironic twist on that. The Jets’ defensive line rotation is now fairly deep. So what can we now expect?

New Roles

The Jets currently have an interesting mix of hybrids, and true position players along the defensive line. Of the players likely to make the roster, their true EDGE players are Carl Lawson, and Bryce Huff. Their true interior defensive lineman are Quinnen Williams, Sheldon Rankins, Foley Fatukasi, Nathan Shepherd, and Jonathan Marshall. Their hybrid defensive linemen are John Franklin-Myers, Kyle Phillips and Vinny Curry (on passing downs). Here’s how they could be lining up this season:

Base

On early downs and short yardage situations, I believe they’ll likely start with Lawson as the weakside EDGE or “Leo” as many refer to the position as. Foley Fatukasi will likely start as the 1-tech. He has excelled in this role, finishing as one of the best run defenders in the NFL last season. Quinnen Williams will get to play exclusively in a 3-tech role. John Franklin-Myers will likely start as the strong-side EDGE. While JFM is versatile and a great rotational piece, he’s also best suited for this role on early downs over Vinny Curry and Bryce Huff. Huff would likely rotate with Lawson. Shepherd could rotate in for Fatukasi. Rankins, and rookie Jonathan Marshall could spell Quinnen Williams. Curry could switch in with Franklin-Myers.

Passing Downs

On passing downs, the Jets will have a ridiculous amount of combinations they could use.  I think to start their best 4-man combination will be Lawson and Curry as ends and Rankins and Williams on the inside. I think this group has loads of potential. Each of them can win one-on-one with above average consistency. We’ll get back to what that could mean for opposing offensive lines later on.

John Franklin-Myers, and Kyle Phillips can rotate in at any spot in this package. Vinny Curry also showed he can rush inside at times with the Eagles. Bryce Huff would rotate in with the ends.

Don’t Think. Just Go.

One of the big benefits of Robert Saleh’s defensive scheme is that responsibilities for defensive lineman are extremely simplified. Solomon Thomas mentioned in 2019 that he had to learn twice as much in college with Stanford’s playbook than with Saleh’s playbook. This change will really benefit the most valuable player along their defensive line, Quinnen Williams. The Jets owe a debt of gratitude to former defensive line coach Andre Carter who seemed to unlock something in Williams last season. He mentioned in an interview last summer that Williams was starting to think less and “just go.” That’s exactly what he’ll be doing in Saleh’s defense. The Jets need him to be a constant force as the foundation to unlock the potential of the defense as a whole.

The Saleh philosophy for the defensive line will also be a big help for the Jets’ linebackers. The Jets strength is on the inside and they’ll do a good job keeping linebackers clean with the freedom to simply wreak havoc. It also should support the Jets’ young and raw secondary. The Jets will need to consistently create pressure in order to protect their backend and allow them to take more chances underneath.

Isolating Matchups

There are many advantages to having solid depth and rotational pieces along the defensive line. Part of that is isolating favorable matchups on opposing offensive lines. As I mentioned earlier, the Jets will have 4 players on the field that can win one-on-one matchups on passing downs more often than not. Each week there will be different areas of weakness along opposing offensive lines. Being able to effectively attack from every pressure point is the key to consistent pressure.

For example, the Jets face the Panthers week 1. Their offensive line struggled overall last season but they had particular weaknesses at the guard positions and on the left side with Cameron Erving. For week 1, the Jets will likely be trying to get Quinnen Williams and their other interior rushers isolated against the likes of Pat Elflein, Matt Paradis, and John Miller. I also think in games against offensive lines with weaker interior players we could see Curry rushing on the inside as well. Against teams with weaker tackles, you should see Lawson and Curry shine. If those tackles are more susceptible to speed, you might see more of Bryce Huff rotating in opposite Lawson. This is the benefit of having a defensive line full of varying strengths and skillsets, and not just duplicates. You can throw a variety of different looks at the offensive line until you find the right combination.

Closing The Show

The benefit of a deeper defensive line rotation is that players will be fresher later in the game.  As Joe Douglas is familiar with, a solid pass rush can close games for you. That is going to be pivotal with all of the improvements the Jets have made on offense. If their offense can keep them in games, this defensive line should be able to shut the door when they’re leading late.

The Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers showed the value of this concept throughout last season. Of the top 5 teams in sacks only the Bucs had a higher percentage of sacks in the 4th quarter. They recorded 50% of their total sacks in the 4th quarter. They also allowed the fewest 4th quarter points in the NFL. The Bucs have a far superior secondary and linebackers group than the Jets, so, of course, attaining that kind of statistical dominance is likely more of a long term goal. However, it all starts with pressure up front and the Jets will have to establish that foundation with the defensive line this season.

Outlook & Predictions

I believe the Jets could have a special season from their defensive line. Their rotation is solid, and though they are missing a bigger threat opposite of Carl Lawson, they still have enough rotational pieces to give offensive lines problems consistently.  I believe the Jets finish top 5 in run defense, and top 10 in sacks (46). I think Quinnen Williams, and Carl Lawson both finish the season with double digit sack totals and combine for 25 in total. Lastly, I believe the Jets sack party will get started early week 1 against Carolina with a Quinnen Williams 3 sack showcase.