The Jets inch closer to the season as phase three and OTAs begin this week. As head coach Robert Saleh continues to implement his scheme in year one, the group that has to carry the Jets defense in 2021 is the defensive line.
Last year, the Jets pass rush had only 31 sacks, which was tied for 21st in the league. With a group now featuring Carl Lawson, Sheldon Rankins, Quinnen Williams, Folorunso Fatukasi, Vinny Curry and John Franklin-Myers, the Jets arguably have the best defensive line in the AFC East … at least on paper.
In 2020, Lawson had only six sacks but had 32 quarterback hits (second in the NFL) and totaled 64 pressures. Williams had seven sacks in 13 games, which was sixth most for an interior lineman. Rankins had various injuries in 2019 and last season, but if he can return close to his 2018 form — when he finished with eight sacks and 12 tackles for loss — that will be a massive boost. Fatukasi and Franklin-Myers also performed well last season.
Pro Football Focus graded Fatukasi 14th and Franklin-Myers 35th out of 126 interior defensive linemen.
The Jets defensive scheme won’t be too complex. The team doesn’t want to over-complicate its playbooks, making the defensive play call difficult on the players which causes mistakes. (The Cowboys had that issue last year.) Instead, Gang Green plans to find a balance to still allows players to react and not overthink. Saleh doesn’t want to make the scheme too much about him, but more about the players making plays.
In the run game, the responsibility for the defensive line is “knock back,” which means to be a penetrating front that reestablishes the line of scrimmage. Translation: the defensive ends get up field and drive offensive tackles back and disrupt ball carriers’ running lanes. Lawson has shown the explosiveness to get up field and cause problems for tackles.
The two interior defensive tackles also have to get up field to handle the A and B gaps. The space between the center and the guard is the A gap, and the space between the guard and tackle is the B gap. Williams, Rankins, Fatukasi and Franklin-Myers will have to consistently penetrate those holes to create lanes for linebackers to attack. If Williams can stay healthy after having surgery on a broken bone in his foot, he should take another step towards being a Pro Bowler.
The defensive line wants to force running backs to run horizontally. Then their underneath defenders, whether it’s linebackers, box safeties or the nickel, can overflow with their sideline-to-sideline speed and out run guards and tackles to get to ball carriers. If teams run between the tackles it’s on the linebackers to fill those gaps and find the ball.
This explains why the Jets moved Hamsah Nasirildeen (6-3, 215 pounds) and Jamien Sherwood (6-2, 220 pounds) from safety to linebacker, because those two swarm and seek contact.
It also explains why they signed Jarrad Davis, who’s 6-1, 227 pounds but ran a 4.6 in the 40-yard dash. They don’t want oversized linebackers, they prefer the speed and athleticism even if they’re slightly undersized. If CJ Mosley can return close to his Pro Bowl form, that will give the defense a significant boost. If the defensive line can control the line of scrimmage, it allows this unit to free flow to the ball.
For the secondary, it’s a two-way relationship.
Last year the Jets gave up 275.6 passing yards per game. If the defensive line can get after the quarterback that’ll put less stress on the corners. And while they’re in coverage if they can force the quarterback to hold the ball long enough then the pass rush will sack him.
The defensive backs group has questions, but free safety Marcus Maye is the stalwart. Whether it’s Lamarcus Joyner or Austin Davis, we will see who will play alongside Maye.
Cornerback is the spot with the most questions. Byrce Hall struggled at times but showed promise in his rookie year. According to PFF, Hall had the fourth best zone coverage grades (62.8) among rookie CB in 2020 — behind Kansas City Chiefs L’Jarius Sneed (71.2), Minnesota Vikings Cameron Dantzler (69.8) and Dallas Cowboys Trevon Diggs (63.9). Don’t pencil Hall as the starter yet, he’ll have to earn his spot under a new staff.
The slot and the other outside cornerback spot are open for competition. The Jets have Lamar Jackson, Javelin Guidry and Blessuan Austin. And in the draft they added Isaiah Dunn, Brandin Echols, Jason Pinnock and Michael Carter II. Still expect struggles from this group. However, if the pass rush can be ferocious, it will make their job easier and help the growth of the cornerback group. It doesn’t matter how many studs a team has in their secondary if they can’t get after the quarterback.
The Jets defense will be predicated on the defensive lines’ disruption. With it, the defense will be vastly improved from allowing 28 points per game. Without it, it’ll be closer to the same.