Believe It or Not, the New York Jets' Defensive Line Is the NFL's Best

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Believe It or Not, the New York Jets' Defensive Line Is the NFL's Best
Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sport
Sheldon Richardson (91, right) and Damon Harrison (94, left) are two stout players on the Jets defensive line, but they have plenty.

Preseason claims to fame often fall to the wayside rather quickly, but some choice words from Jets defensive end Quinton Coples ring true seven weeks into the season.

When asked if there's a group that he and his linemates try to emulate, Coples simply said, "Us."

"I see the talent that we have. At the end of the day, with the coaching staff that we have, the sky's the limit," Coples said in late July, according to Brian Costello of The New York Post (via ProFootballTalk). "No disrespect or discredit to any defensive front out there, but we want to be the best and make our own name." 

They're already on the right track.

It's not as if the Jets defensive line is comprised of seasoned NFL veterans, either. The four starters have a combined four full years of NFL experience (not counting 2013): one rookie, two players in their second year, and one more in his third year.

Against New England on Sunday, they took over the game in the span of 11 minutes and 26 seconds from the end of the second quarter to the middle of the third quarter. The pressure didn't get home on every snap, but their solid play for that long stretch gave the Jets ample opportunity to climb back into the game.

It's not just the pressure the Jets are bringing on quarterbacks, though; the Jets defensive line might be the most well-rounded unit in the NFL. 

Statistically speaking, few compare.

New York Jets defensive line, 2013
Stats Sacks Adj. sack rate (FO) Yards/rush att. Adj. line yards (FO) Power success % (FO)
Jets 24 8.4 3.1 2.85 44%
Rank 3 10 1 2 4

Pro-Football-Reference.com; FootballOutsiders.com; ProFootballFocus.com

With so much talent on the line, this should come as no surprise. The Jets have spent a first-round pick on a defensive lineman in each of the past three years, picking up Muhammad Wilkerson (2011), Coples (2012) and Sheldon Richardson (2013). 

Not surprisingly, two of those players (Wilkerson and Coples) logged sacks of Brady on Sunday in order to help swing the game in their favor. 

Coples' strip-sack of Brady on the first play of the second half kick-started a stalwart defensive effort. He beat Patriots left tackle Nate Solder on the play, and considering that Solder has been one of the better left tackles in the NFL this year (ranks 11th out of 72 offensive tackles in pass-blocking efficiency), that's no small feat.

The ball was recovered by the Patriots, but the damage had been done.

Coples rushed from the defensive end spot in this particular contest, but he's been a movable chess piece for the Jets defense this year and has played some outside linebacker as well. 

Richardson has lived up to his first-round billing, but not for the reasons some might have assumed. Coming into the draft, Richardson was pigeon-holed as a pass-rushing defensive tackle, but it's actually his run defense that has stood out this season. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), he's currently ranked fourth in run-stop percentage, which tracks tackles that qualify as a "loss" for the offense.

Richardson has great technique, and on this play, he lined up as a nose tackle in a base 3-4 defensive front. The Falcons wanted to run the ball straight up the gut, and if Richardson was nearly as bad in run defense as some made him out to be, he wouldn't have been able to handle the double team.

However, he fought through two blockers and a lot of extra traffic to make the tackle, keeping his eyes in the backfield and lunging at the running back to make the play for a 1-yard losspart of a defensive series inside the 5-yard line that kept the Falcons out of the end zone before halftime.

Richardson hasn't been a pass-rushing force yet this season, but he clearly has the ability and the sound technique necessary to make plays in the backfield. He has 2.5 sacks on the year, but he's created some form of pressure (hurry, hit or sack) at least twice in each of the past six games.

He's not getting into the backfield on every play, but he's still showing signs of consistency.

The praise doesn't just go for the first-round picks, though. 

Defensive tackle Damon Harrison entered the league in 2012 as an undrafted free agent. But in his second year, he's proving that it's not about how you come into the NFL; it's about what you do when you get there.

His combination of size and athleticism make him a tough matchup for any NFL center, as Ryan Wendell learned the hard way this past Sunday.

How is such a big man so athletic?

Alen Dumonjic of TheScore.com points out a little-known fact about the young nose tackle—he used to play point guard, which lends itself to his agility:

It’s not easy playing nose tackle in Rex Ryan’s defense, because it requires two-gap responsibility. Ryan has his nose tackles read a center’s helmet to determine which gap to defend prior to shuffling their feet and rotating their hips to work into that gap. It’s a tricky proposition for Harrison, who at 24 years old is only in his second-year and still learning the position.

...Harrison has the potential to be a star. He’s quickly becoming one because of his dominant physical traits. Still at a young age and inexperienced, he’s learning techniques on the job, but there’s no doubt he has the physical talent. He’s nimble on his feet, and has vision and quickness, which he’s learned from playing point guard on the hardwood.

The Jets lost nose tackle Sione Pouha this offseason after they released him in a salary cap move, but they have found a younger, healthier and more explosive version of Pouha in Harrison.

For reference, Harrison has five tackles for loss this season through seven games; that's the same number Pouha had for the entire 2011 season, the last time he was fully healthy.

Pouha was great at plugging the gaps in the middle and soaking up multiple blockers, but while Harrison shares that trait, he also has the keen ability to get into the backfield, as evidenced by those five tackles for loss. He also ranks in the top five among all defensive tackles in PFF's run-stop percentage.

He showed impressive lateral agility on this tackle for a loss on Patriots running back Stevan Ridley in the first meeting between the two teams. He once again lined up head-on over the center, and the Patriots ran the ball on a zone stretch to the left.

Harrison absorbed the block of Wendell, and was able to get inside Wendell's pads in the process. Once he had leverage, he used his sheer strength to toss Wendell to the side, crashing into the backfield to make the tackle on Ridley.

Harrison holds things together in the middle, but the leader and anchor of the group, without question, is Wilkerson. 

He began to emerge in 2012 as one of the better 3-4 defensive ends in the league (part of the reason why it was such a surprise when the Jets drafted yet another 3-4 defensive end in Richardson). 

Wilkerson's sack of Brady in the third quarter kick-started a third consecutive three-and-out for the Patriots offense. He ripped Solder's arms to the side with ease, and an inside swim move helped him get a straight line to the quarterback. He brought Brady down 2.46 seconds after the snap, a sign that his pressure got home in a hurry.

You can stack the Jets starting talent on the defensive line next to any group in the NFL, and the result would probably be the same. Advantage: Jets.

"We've got a long road before we can say that," head coach Rex Ryan said in July, via the aforementioned New York Post article. "How about we play a couple of games? But they are certainly a talented group. There's no doubt about it. You want your guys to have that type of confidence. Could it be the best? If they keep working like that, I certainly hope so."

Now that they've played more than a couple games, they're showing everyone what they're made of.

They certainly are playing with that kind of confidence, and now, Rex is free to exude that kind of confidence in his group.

 

 

Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand or via team news releases.

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