Many might have guessed that the New York Jets defense would continue to be one of the league's best against the pass this season, even without star cornerback Darrelle Revis. Few, however, would have guessed that Titans quarterback Jake Locker would rank among the league's most efficient quarterbacks headed into the Week 3 meeting between the two teams.
Shutting down a dual-threat quarterback like Locker may seem like too much for some defensive coordinators to handle. On one hand, you have a quarterback who is playing some of the most efficient football in the NFL right now. On the other hand, that same quarterback can use his legs to make you pay for focusing too heavily on the threat of his arm.
As it turns out, the game plan may not be too complicated. That doesn't mean it will be easy.
Pressuring Locker with four defenders is a good place to start. Like most quarterbacks, Locker is better when he has a clean pocket than when he's pressured, but he is also better against the blitz than he is against a standard four-man rush.
Truth be told, that would probably be part of the game plan, anyway.
The Jets are already adept at creating pressure without the blitz, as pointed out by ESPN's Rich Cimini:
What made the eight-sack performance so impressive was that most of the pressure was generated by the line. Rex Ryan didn't have to rely on exotic pressure schemes to rattle rookie QB EJ Manuel; the front four did the trick by itself. ...
Seven of the eight sacks came with the four-man rush—and we're not talking about tricked-up, four-man rushes, either. Five of those seven sacks were accomplished with the usual cast of characters among the rushers, meaning defensive linemen and rush linebackers such as Quinton Coples, Antwan Barnes, Calvin Pace and Garrett McIntyre. They blitzed inside linebackers David Harris and/or DeMario Davis on only two sacks and there were no defensive-back blitzes.
Keeping extra defenders in coverage will force Locker to fit the ball into tight windows and will also provide the Jets some extra insurance against the threat of Locker scrambling.
The Jets will probably sprinkle in some blitzes, but they don't want to leave themselves exposed to Locker scrambling into the second or third level before being touched. Locker's legs have been one of his best assets in the NFL, and he averages a gaudy 7.02 yards per carry on his 61 career rushing attempts.
Gap discipline will be a focal point, and the Jets will probably keep a defender in as a spy in the event Locker tries to take off.
That's exactly what they did against Bills quarterback EJ Manuel, using mainly a four-man rush and keeping most of their defenders in zone coverage, with their eyes square on the quarterback and ready to react to whatever moves he made, whether he threw the ball or tucked it and ran.
With a security blanket of four defenders in the short to intermediate zone in the middle of the field, the Jets were well prepared to not only defend the routes in that area but also to react if Manuel took off running.
Once he took off toward the right sideline, linebackers David Harris and Calvin Pace met him on the edge and forced him out of bounds.
Containment, spying and sound coverage are great starts to keeping Locker in check, but the Jets must be ready for Locker's arm, as well.
As mentioned above, he has been one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the NFL this season in passer rating. Most of his other metrics have remained the same (as they have for years), but he is presently one of just three quarterbacks who has yet to throw an interception.
The Titans have made life easier on Locker by allowing him to get the ball out of his hands quickly. He is often throwing to his first read on a route that is designed to be open.
On this play, for example, Titans wide receiver Nate Washington ran a 10-yard curl against zone coverage. Chargers cornerback Johnny Patrick was playing off coverage seven yards away from the line of scrimmage.
None of the other options were open, but it didn't matter; Locker never took his eyes off Washington, who was clearly his first read on the throw.
Patrick was unable to react quickly enough to disrupt the throw, so he waited for Washington to catch the ball before trying to make a tackle.
He badly whiffed, though, and Washington was off to the races for a 35-yard gain.
This was a trend that continued throughout the game; 17 of Locker's 37 throws went to his first read, and 17 more went to his second read. Three throws went to his third read, and on two of those, he scrambled to buy more time in the pocket.
When Locker gets the ball out quickly, he is deadly efficient. When he is forced to hold onto the ball and go through his progressions, though, things quickly go downhill.
Keeping things simple for the quarterback has its advantages, but it can also be a huge detriment once a defense catches on.
Later on the same drive, Locker would try the same throw to the same side of the field, only this time targeting wide receiver Kenny Britt with cornerback Derek Cox in coverage. Cox started off at five yards away from the line of scrimmage but backed off before the snap to give the look of a bigger window on the outside.
Once again, Locker didn't come off his first read. Britt's curl route created separation initially, but Cox knew it was coming and timed his break on the ball perfectly.
Had the pass been on target, it probably would have been intercepted. Instead, it went down as nothing more than an incompletion.
Of course, if the defense's job were as easy as taking away Locker's first read, the Titans wouldn't be 3-0 as we speak, and Locker surely would have thrown an interception by now.
On this play, Locker's first read was the seam route to tight end Delanie Walker. The Chargers did a nice job of taking away that throw, forcing Locker to hold onto the ball.
Locker hung in the pocket, reading the defense, but the rush started to close in.
That's when Locker used his other asset—his legs—to help him make the play.
By rolling to his right, Locker bought himself some more time to find an open receiver. Washington settled into the zone behind the linebacker and in front of the safety, and Locker made the throw on the move.
One more item they may borrow from their game plan against EJ Manuel is the strategy on deep balls.
Bill Barnwell of Grantland had an interesting post on Locker's performance against the Chargers and came away with some interesting conclusions:
I saw more functional accuracy on shorter throws than I was expecting; Locker still misses the occasional easy pass, but so does just about every quarterback. I don't think his zero interception rate means much of anything, since we saw how lucky he was to avoid one and there has been little change in any of his other rate statistics.
What I'll be watching for is that final step Locker has to make to go from being a promising quarterback to a prosperous one. He needs to stop being the guy who can make all the throws and become the guy who does make all of them.
Against the Bills, the Jets didn't devote a whole lot of resources to defending long passes, and Manuel was unable to make them pay for it. Locker has a league-worst accuracy percentage of 18.8 percent on his throws traveling 20 yards or more through the air, despite attempting a deep pass on 18.4 percent of all attempts—the third-highest rate in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
How do we take all this and turn it into a game plan that can slow down Locker?
Well, we start by trying to force him off his first read. The Jets love to play press-man on the outside, forcing the receivers to adjust their routes and/or disrupting the timing between the quarterback and the receiver.
Secondly, it's important to keep Locker in the pocket. Force him to go through his progressions without allowing him to buy more time to do so by rolling out of the pocket. Locker wants to roll to his right, like most right-handed quarterbacks, so containment on that side will be particularly important.
The Jets also don't want to watch him scramble through the heart of the defense, so it will be equally important for defensive linemen Muhammad Wilkerson, Kenrick Ellis, Damon Harrison and Sheldon Richardson to close off the lanes up the middle.
Leaving the linebackers in zone coverage over the middle is another way to effectively take away Locker's ability to scramble while also taking away the throws in the short to intermediate zones in the field and forcing Locker to throw deep.
The best defenses in the NFL can make an offense play outside of its comfort zone. After reviewing the film, it's pretty clear what Locker's comfort zone is. Now, the Jets just have to use that information to force Locker into unfavorable situations.
Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand or via team news releases.