Rex Ryan, New York Jets Need to Focus on Linebacker Corps
New York is a big market, and that means the national focus goes on the stars. Discussions tend to center around quarterbacks, wide receivers and other highlight reel positions.
But if you want to look at the position that is failing the Jets this year, look at the linebackers.
The Jets offense is no worse than it was during back-to-back trips to the AFC championship game. The special teams are still good. It is the defense that has gotten worse this year.
Yet the Jets still have the best secondary in the NFL. They have an improved and well above average defensive line.
So why is the defense worse?
The simple answer is that the linebackers as a unit have gotten significantly worse. I take a look at the entire linebacking unit and shed some light on why they have performed so poorly so far in 2012.
Let me start my saying that I am a big David Harris fan and have been since 2007 when the Jets drafted him in the second round. That was a great pick, and Harris was a steal at No. 47 overall.
If you asked me in 2009, 2010 or 2011 whether or not Harris deserved to be in the Pro Bowl, I would have said yes all three times. He deserves to have been a three-time Pro Bowler, and it is a shame that he has never gotten the vote.
Nevertheless, so far this year Harris' performance has been a massive letdown. Harris is the Jets starting middle linebacker, a defensive leader and terror, and he has been invisible all season long.
Harris is not a bad player. But the difference between what he could be doing and what he is doing equates to losses. Sometimes the worst thing for a team is when a great player only plays like a good one (think Moses Malone in 1983-84).
The biggest problem area is when it comes to sacks. The Jets secondary is covering well, and the defensive line is generating pressure.
The difference between a pressure and a sack is small in theory but huge in practice. Quarterbacks are being flushed out of the pocket and are not getting hit by the linebackers.
So far this season, Harris ranks as the worst linebacker on the Jets. This is slightly skewed by the fact that he has taken by far the most snaps (500), but it also conveys that his play has been closer to average than to great.
Outside linebacker Calvin Pace is another guy I like a lot. He was a first-round pick in 2003 and has been with the Jets since 2008. He is another guy who arguably deserved a Pro Bowl selection in the past.
This year? Not even close.
Pace turns 32 this week, and his age is showing big time.
Pace has 40 sacks in his career. This year he has one. The Jets entire starting linebacking group has a total of three sacks in seven games this season. That is not enough for a defense-first team.
It is not enough for any team.
The biggest problem with Pace right now is lack of speed. He is one of the slowest edge-rushers in the NFL at this point. A former sack specialist, he now ranks as the worst pass-rusher on the entire Jets roster.
Multiple games this year—especially the game against the Pittsburgh Steelers—were affected by quarterbacks escaping the pocket and making plays. The Jets are getting no pursuit from their starting linebackers, and these linebackers are letting down the rest of the defense.
At 32 years old, Bart Scott is yet another Jets linebacker having problems with age. Despite being a starter, he rarely plays on third downs because he cannot succeed in pass coverage anymore.
The bigger problem is that he can also no longer cover the run. Scott ranks as below average against the run even though he is now supposed to be a run specialist.
All three of the Jets star linebackers—Harris, Pace and Scott—are playing average to below average football. That makes for a very poor linebacking corps that used to be one of the best in the NFL.
That alone can be the difference between a 3-4 record and a 5-2 record.
At 33 years old, Bryan Thomas is the oldest of the Jets linebackers. He has been with the Jets since he was a first-round pick in 2002.
With him it is the same story. He has had a major drop-off in performance this year. He ranks as well below average against the pass and average against the run, despite having played only 122 snaps. Thomas's specialty is setting the edge on run plays, and he is still decent at that.
However, do not look to him for TFLs, sacks or any other big plays. At this point, his quickness is not enough to do more than set the edge and try to contain.
Overall, the Jets have nine linebackers on their roster. All nine of them are ranked as below the NFL average so far this season.
That is a crucial issue and needs to change if the Jets want to reach the playoffs.
The last linebacker I will talk about is rookie Demario Davis. A third-round pick this year, the expectations for Davis were not sky-high right away. He was meant to primarily sit behind a strong veteran group.
However, with the linebacking issues the Jets are having, Davis is getting more snaps. He has gotten 128 snaps already—more than Bryan Thomas—and got his first NFL start Sunday in New England. It was a respectable start—seven tackles, no big plays and no big mistakes.
Davis is playing fine so far—as well as a third-round rookie should. He is arguably an average NFL linebacker already. However, at the moment he is far from elite. If Davis is the Jets best linebacker this season, that will be a disappointment.
As a rookie, Davis was supposed to find himself under the tutelege of an elite linebacking core. Instead he fins himself trying to resurrect a failing group.
This is leading to defensive weakness, and it is leading to losses.