It's up in the air who named the Jets' defensive line of Sheldon Richardson, Damon Harrison, and Muhammad Wilkerson the "Sons of Anarchy," but there's no question how disruptive and dominant the line has been. Without much help from the secondary, it's helped return Rex Ryan's squad to its place as one of the best defenses in the league. Here's how.
The 2012 Jets were not very good, but they didn't go 6-10 because of their defense. The dysfunctional offense derailed the team, but Rex Ryan's defense wasn't too shabby, ranking ninth with a -4.2% defense DVOA. This year, the addition of Richardson and the development of Harrison have completely changed the makeup of the defense.
Last year's squad was actually better against the pass than the run, but this season that's flipped. In 2013, it's the run defense powering the Jets. So far it's been best in the league, allowing a league-low 73.8 rushing yards per game, after being middle of the pack in adjusted yardage to running backs last year. The Jets have the best run defense DVOA in the league by quite a substantial margin, according to Football Outsiders. The line has stuffed a league-high 30% of the run plays called by the offense. When it comes to crucial conversions for the opponents—measured by FO as runs of two yards or less on third or fourth down—the Sons have held opponents to the second lowest success rate in the league at 40%. Meanwhile the pass D, outside of Antonio Cromartie, has been lacking.
The Sons have destroyed pockets and killed running games. They're the heart of the resurgent Jets, so it's worth taking a closer look at each of the "3" in this 3-4 defense.
The Rookie: Sheldon Richardson
The Jets selected Sheldon Richardson with the first-round draft pick they received from shipping Darrelle Revis to Tampa Bay, and the Missouri product could end up being the defensive rookie of the year. In 2012, Quinton Coples was at right end; this season, he was switched to outside linebacker, with Richardson taking his spot. Richardson's notched three sacks so far, but his true value is his ability to ruin a run. Richardson has 22 stops—for the unfamiliar, a stop is defined as a tackle that ends an offensive play in failure (including sacks)—fourth-highest out of defensive ends in a 3-4 defense.
When the offense rushes his way, Richardson kills it. Take a look at the second chart on this Football Outsiders page, measuring the success of running plays against each defensive line. Runs to the left tackle, which would be towards right end Richardson, produce only 2.44 adjusted line yards, fifth-lowest out of all teams. Running straight at ends might work on other sack-happy guys like Jared Allen, but it doesn't do shit against Richardson.
Besides stonewalling running backs, Richardson can also open up holes in the pocket, as seen against the Saints in Week 9. While Damon Harrison fights with Brian de la Puente (No. 60), Richardson rushes inside to the left of Jahri Evans, leaving Evans with no other option but holding on the inside of Richardson's pads—a penalty that went uncalled—to stop him from hitting Brees, who was rushed into throwing an incomplete pass. If Richardson can maintain this versatility for the second half of the season, he'll be crowned the best defensive rookie by a mile.
The Breakout: Damon Harrison
Harrison was lost in the depth chart in 2012 as a rookie, playing only 22 total snaps on the line while Sione Pouha and Kenrick Ellis saw the most time. This year, Pouha's gone and "Big Snacks" has outplayed Ellis, earning the starting job at nose tackle. Harrison has been an incredible space eater with a 22.7 grade against the run, best out of all defensive tackles on Pro Football Focus. (For reference, Brandon Mebane is second for DTs at 15.2; Peyton Manning's rating at quarterback is 24.2.) He won't reach the quarterback often, but his ability to kill a run play is amazing. The undrafted gem has played a crucial two-gap technique like Vince Wilfork. As a matter of fact, Harrison, at six-foot-four, 350 pounds, is (listed as, at least) much bigger than the six-foot-two, 325-pound Wilfork. And all this while playing on a dirt-cheap three-year, $1.4 million deal—crucial when you remember the Jets are still eating Mark Sanchez's cap-killer of a contract.
Harrison isn't exactly useless in the pass rush, either. Watch him slide through the pocket on this play from Saints-Jets in Week 9. Harrison blows by Jahri Evans and nearly takes down Drew Brees, but his pressure does enough as Brees forces a hard pass to Ben Watson that's deflected and intercepted by DeMario Davis. The Jets are getting elite production out of their War Daddy, and more often than not, that will lead to good things for a defense.
The Stalwart: Muhammad Wilkerson
Wilkerson's excellence was evident last season; he graded out as the second-best 3-4 defensive end behind J.J. Watt. (His positional value was the equivalent to a Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers.) But now, he has help. Instead of Coples and a rotation of Pouha and Ellis, Wilkerson has Harrison and Richardson, who can both keep offensive linemen occupied, creating more opportunities for him to punish the quarterback. Wilkerson finished his 2012 campaign with five sacks; he already has eight in nine games this season, a league-wide high for defensive tackles.
Tom Brady's always been an easy sack if you can get to him, but Wilkerson would have completely lit him up if Brady didn't fall down. Wilkerson beats Nate Solder with a sharp inside move and goes inside untouched for an effortless takedown.
Even when Wilkerson doesn't get to the quarterback, he can take away yards from the offense by forcing linemen to resort to their last option. In this example from Week 9 against the Saints, Wilkerson draws a holding penalty from Brian de la Puente, nullifying a 16-yard completion to Nick Toon.
The best way to minimize the effect of the Sons of Anarchy? Pray that the Jets offense completely undermines them. (The Jets have 13 or fewer points in each of their losses, and lose the turnover battle 12-1 in those games.) If that doesn't happen, hope your running back can block well on passing plays. Pass like crazy. (The Bengals did that in Week 8 and drubbed the Jets, 49-9.) Occasionally double up Wilkerson. He's the biggest threat—Yes, officer, this is the rabid grizzly bear I find to be the most dangerous—and canceling him out of plays can give your quarterback just a bit more time to exploit the mediocre secondary.
The problem with doubling Wilkerson, however, is that Harrison also demands double teams due to his sheer size and technique. On passing plays, that leaves one lineman and a tight end or running back with Richardson and any blitzing Jets. Even without doubling Wilkerson, you're left with three linemen and another possible blocker to take care of him, Richardson and anyone blitzing. Those are some less-than-ideal match-ups which leave the Jets with a lot of room to create havoc.
The Jets' remaining schedule looks soft enough to make a late-season run at least conceivable. Not a certainty by any stretch, but it's possible. And if that happens, it'll more than likely be the defensive line powering it.
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