Breaking Down the New York Jets' Dominant Front 7

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Breaking Down the New York Jets' Dominant Front 7
Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Despite scoring just 14 points per game through the first two weeks, the Jets are just a dropped pass away from having an undefeated record.

While their offensive struggles were expected with a rookie quarterback, one question begs answering: how are the Jets so competitive against quality teams in the first place?

The answer: their defensive front seven.

Since Rex Ryan took over as head coach in 2009, the Jets have slowly but surely constructed one of the most dynamic 3-4 defensive lines in football. While they never got around to drafting their version of Aldon Smith or Von Miller, their dinosaurish linebacking corps has come a long way from the Cretaceous period and has improve significantly from 2009 to 2012.

It may have taken three-straight first-round picks (and then some), but the Jets now have speed, athleticism and power at more positions on the defensive front than ever before in the Rex Ryan era.

Jets Starting Front Seven
Player Position Acquired via Year
Calvin Pace OLB Free Agency 2013 (originally 2008)
David Harris ILB Draft 2006 (second round)
Demario Davis ILB Draft 2012 (third round)
Quinton Coples/Antwan Barnes OLB Draft/Free Agency 2012 (first round)/2013
Muhammad Wilkerson DE Draft 2011 (first round)
Damon Harrison DT Rookie Free Agent 2012
Sheldon Richardson DE Draft 2013 (first round)

http://www.newyorkjets.com/schedule/draft-2013.html

The Jets have generally been stout against the run under Ryan, but last year was a hiccup in that area, as the team finished 26th in yards allowed per game on the ground. While it is still early in the season, the Jets appear to be back on track in 2013, allowing less than 60 yards per game on the ground and just 2.4 yards per carry.

The essence of quality run defense features the combination of bringing numbers to the football, getting off blocks and swarming to the ball-carrier—areas where the Jets have shown vast improvement from a year ago.

 

New Athleticism

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

At the expense of the rest of their roster, the Jets now have incredible depth, youth and athleticism along the defensive line that few other teams in the NFL can compete with.

Muhammad Wilkerson already established himself as one of the league’s top run defenders in 2012, but he has actually been outshined by some rookies and first-year starters this year—and that is not because Wilkerson is playing poorly.

The two new starters along the defensive line, rookie defensive end Sheldon Richardson and second-year defensive tackle Damon Harrison, are among the best run defenders in the league, according to Pro Football Focus.

Sheldon Richardson checks in as the second-best run defender among defensive ends, while Damon Harrison takes the throne as the best run-stuffing nose tackle in the NFL through the season's first two weeks.

While both players have taken very different paths into the league (Richardson was a first-round pick while Harrison went undrafted), they both display tremendous athleticism for their size, which allows them to cause negative plays in the run game.

On this play from Thursday night, the Patriots came out with two tight ends and one running back—otherwise known as "21 personnel"—and the Jets responded with an eight-man box that gave them enough support against the run.

Sheldon Richardson (circled) was lined up in the "B" gap, or the 3-technique—an ideal position to penetrate and get into the backfield.

After the play started, Richardson did not take long to show off his athleticism. He was able to bend around the attacking guard, which was an incredible display of athleticism and flexibility for a man of his size.

While Richardson was able to get into the backfield in the blink of an eye, the rest of the Jets defense was still playing at "normal" speed.

While Richardson had blocked off one side of the field, Stevan Ridley actually had a well-blocked hole to work with to the right, but that all changed in a hurry.

It was not long before the rest of the Jets' front was able to get off their blocks and clog up the lone running lane. Ridley was promptly taken down by a swarm of Jets defenders.

While not as athletic as Richardson, Harrison can move exceptionally well for a man of his size as well.

On this play from Week 1 against Tampa Bay, he was able to shed a guard and run down Doug Martin for a two-yard loss.

Harrison is able to take up so much ground that the fullback did not see him coming. Regardless, nose tackles are not supposed to be around to make a tackle that far away from center.  

 

Sound Fundamentals

All of this newfound athleticism is great, but it is meaningless if the Jets do not improve upon their lackluster run defense fundamentals from a year ago, which includes gap discipline, getting off blocks and tackling.

Through two games, the Jets have made drastic improvements in all of those areas. 

On this play, the Jets actually made a disadvantageous call on a run blitz that wound up being on the opposite side of the run. Antonio Allen was set to blitz off the right side, but the Buccaneers called a toss to the left.

A play like this should have capitalized on over-aggression by the Jets, but solid fundamentals by the rest of the defense bottled up the play.

When the ball was snapped, Doug Martin actually had two big running lanes to work with, thanks to the ill-advised run blitz to the opposite side.

Once again, however, Sheldon Richardson and Damon Harrison came to the rescue. Richardson penetrated into his backfield yet again to take away the outside line. 

Meanwhile, Damon Harrison was able to extend his arms and separate himself from his blocker. This allowed him to react to whichever way Martin decided to go. 

Martin ended up going almost nowhere, and yet another promising run was swallowed up by the Jets.

In less than a full year, the Jets have turned what used to be a liability into a strength. While their pass defense has taken a step back because of turnover in the secondary, a new emphasis on building the front seven has landed the Jets back in the top five in total defense (currently ranked second).

If the Jets can continue this trend, they will easily have one of the best defenses in the league by season's end.

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