As long as Rex Ryan is the head coach of the New York Jets, expect the team's defensive front seven to remain a topic of interest. As a former defensive line coach and defensive coordinator, the front seven is near and dear to him.
This offseason, the Jets' front seven has undergone its first major overhaul of Rex Ryan's tenure. To discuss the changes and how they will impact the Jets' 2013 campaign, I had a conversation with Bent from SNY's TheJetsBlog.com.
On the Jets' Defensive Scheme
Q: If you could clarify one misunderstood aspect of the Jets' hybrid defense for the national media and for casual fans around the country, what would it be?
A: The main thing is the misconception over what the 'rush linebacker' role entails. Sometimes people see 'linebacker' and assume that means the player will need to go sideline-to-sideline and cover tight ends and slot receivers, but really this position has more similarities with a defensive end role than a classic linebacker role. This means that even though there are four guys on the field with 'linebacker' in their job title, the defense is not a standard 3-4 alignment.
Q: When looking back on the 2012 season, one thing that stands out is that the Jets' defense earned a lot of quarterback pressures but not a lot of sacks. In your opinion, who deserves the blame for this? Was this a failure of the front seven, a coverage failure, or something else?
A: There were certainly a few memorable blown opportunities to convert pressure into a sack, and I think it was clear that the likes of Calvin Pace and Bryan Thomas had lost a step and couldn't turn the corner as explosively as they perhaps could two or three years ago. However, one other factor was that they blitzed less in 2012, which was probably necessary, because the absence of Darrelle Revis created a need for more bodies in the defensive backfield. It looks like they're equipping themselves to be able to create pressure without needing to blitz, and adding versatile linemen should contribute to this.
Q: Suppose it's third-and-six, and the Jets are on defense, trying to prevent a first-down pass. Who does Rex Ryan put on the field as his front seven (or six)?
A: Many teams will simply take out a defensive tackle and put a slot cornerback into the game in this situation. However, for the Jets, it's much more complicated. They vary what they do a lot, and it's often dictated by the offensive personnel sent into the game. I therefore can't give you a clear answer. In such situations, the Jets will always have at least five defensive backs in the game and sometimes as many as seven. Over the last year or two, Bryan Thomas came out of the game in such situations and Calvin Pace stayed in. However, I would imagine that if Pace does start for the Jets (which is by no means certain), he'd be coming out of the game this year. With regard to Quinton Coples in particular, he did much of his best situational pass-rushing work from the defensive end position in a three-man front, typically lined up opposite a tackle. However, the Jets also ran some four-man fronts on passing downs.
On Quinton Coples
Q: When looking at Quinton Coples, how do you view his progression? Clearly Muhammad Wilkerson made a huge leap in his second year. Should Jets' fans expect the same from Coples?
A: Coples' playing time and production certainly improved over the second half of the season, and watching film of him seems to show that he is using his hands better. What's exciting about this is the fact that the way Wilkerson uses his hands seems to be what sets him apart and sparked his ascension last season. The common denominator seems to be the Rex Ryan/Karl Dunbar combination. If they can get Coples on a similar development curve, then that could be huge for this defense, not to mention the improvements that other defensive linemen on the roster could make. Wilkerson excelled at stopping the run from the get-go, improving his pass-rushing productivity as he went along. In contrast, Coples has been a very good pass rusher so far, but still needs to improve against the run. That's good in a way, because it means they complement each other well.
Q: Supposing Coples lines up as an outside linebacker on a running play, do you foresee that playing to his strengths or exposing his weaknesses? From what you have seen, does it seem he will be able to set the edge effectively?
A: Coples had his ups and downs against the run, and it's certainly an area where there is some room for improvement. As he said himself, he needs to be better in terms of making open field tackles. He has the strength and ability to get upfield that you like to see in an edge setter, but he will have to strike a balance between being disciplined and not allowing these responsibilities to get him on his heels and slow him down in the pass rush.
On Sheldon Richardson
Q: The Sheldon Richardson pick took a lot of people by surprise. Do you believe general manager John Idzik is being honest when he says that Richardson was one of his top four overall prospects? What do you think the Jets see in Richardson that makes him a more valuable player than Star Lotulelei?
A: I am always skeptical of post-draft front-office comments, because pretty much every team comes out and says they got the guy they wanted. However, I was not really surprised by the pick because I figured the team had more of a need for interior linemen than outside linebackers, given that I was already predicting Coples would play on the outside more. I was looking at Lotulelei as a possibility, but I did see Richardson as good value at that point of the draft. What Richardson brings to the table that Lotulelei doesn't is that he's smaller and more athletic, making him suited to the 3-4 defensive end position where the Jets had a need following Mike DeVito's departure and Coples' potential move to the outside. The team is obviously happy with Antonio Garay and Kenrick Ellis manning the nose tackle position.
Q: Some fans have suggested to me that the Jets could have waited until the second round of the draft and still taken Richardson. Do you think there is truth in that view?
A: No, I don't really buy that. I had been hearing that if the Jets had traded down to the San Francisco 49ers, Richardson is the player the 49ers would have targeted with the 13th pick, though they eventually addressed that need by taking Tank Carradine with the 40th pick after they had traded back from 34. I'd imagine they'd have just taken Richardson at 34 if he fell that far, and there were probably several other teams that would have taken him before the Jets' second rounder.
On the Jets' Linebackers and Future
Q: Let us suppose that Coples, Wilkerson, Richardson and Kenrick Ellis are all rushing the quarterback in some sort of 4-3-esque scheme. How much faith does Rex Ryan have right now in his linebackers? Should fans anticipate Antwan Barnes or Calvin Pace playing starter-level snaps, should they expect to see more action for Demario Davis and Garrett McIntyre, or will it be necessary for the Jets to acquire a new linebacker before the season starts?
A: They've got plenty of options, which fits right in with the competition theme this summer. In 2011, Barnes handled himself well when given a full-time role. Alternatively, if he splits time with Pace, that makes the most of his strength (pass rushing) and leaves Pace to play the run, which he still does reliably enough. Davis has room for improvement, but Josh Mauga isn't a bad fall-back option. If they could pick up someone more established on the cheap, then it wouldn't upset me, but I haven't heard anything about them targeting anyone so far this offseason. The Jets play with five or more defensive backs more than half of the time, so the need for starter level snaps from more than two linebackers might not be as significant as you might think.
Q: Lastly, moving from the topic of the front seven more broadly to the whole defense, if fans are going to watch one undrafted rookie on the Jets' defense this summer, who should it be?
A: Despite their perceived lack of depth, the Jets already have plenty of young guys that will be competing for time on defense this year. For that reason, it's going to be difficult for any of the undrafted free agents on that side of the ball to make it onto the roster. If there's one position where there could be an open spot, it's at safety, so I'll pick free safety Rontez Miles as the most likely to come close to cracking the rotation.
As one closing note, my initial post-signing thoughts on Rontez Miles can be found here.
Adam Waksman is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations in this article were obtained first-hand from Bent of SNY. Note that Bent is a pen name. In depth game film analysis from Bent can be found throughout the NFL season here.
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