It seems like the Jets' defense in the near future is going to be built around the versatile talents of two interior linemen, Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson. The Jets moved Wilkerson all over the place last season. Name a spot on the line, and he lined up there. Impressively, he also had success almost everywhere he lined up.
Richardson's assignments tended to be simpler. It made sense. No need to overload the rookie. I expect the Jets to start diversifying his assignments more as he gets more acclimated with the NFL game. His size, strength, and burst are likely to give the Jets and Rex Ryan plenty of options.
One rather diverse area where Rex did utilize Richardson last season was in coverage on zone blitzes. Sheldon dropped into coverage 35 times, a rate of more than twice a game. That was by far the most a pure defensive lineman has dropped into coverage during the Rex Era.
There can be advantages to dropping linemen into coverage here and there. For obvious reasons no defense is going to make putting a 300 pound guy in coverage a defensive staple. It has some uses, though. Sometimes in what are known as zone blitzes, you'll have somebody blitz from an unusual position and drop a lineman to cover a short zone. The general idea is to hope the unusual blitz leads to pressure. The defensive lineman can keep up with a receiving target for a few yards over a short time to take away a quick blitz beating pass. By the time a receiver has gotten open, hopefully the pressure will arrive.
Another way dropping a lineman can aid a defense is the element of surprise. Many quarterbacks, namely shaky ones, aren't expecting a defensive lineman to drop and won't account for it. A guy with Richardson's athleticism has more range than your typical lineman and can cover more ground when he drops.
Take this play Week 2 against New England.
That's Sheldon at the snap.
It ended up taking him a little over a second to drop seven yards.
This play looks like it might not have been designed for him to drop. He started out rushing the passer and got stonewalled so it's possible he was really smart and dropped to clog the passing lane when he realized he wasn't going to get into coverage. It's also possible Rex Ryan wanted to put in a wild disguise for Tom Brady.
At any rate, the ground Richardson can cover will be an advantage. Many quarterbacks won't account for a lineman dropping, and few are going to expect a lineman to be able to cover that kind of ground.
This puts a little something extra for Rex on the table depending on how creative he can get. Now please understand that I am not suggesting Sheldon Richardson is going to start playing a major role in the Jets' coverage schemes. It would be silly to make a lineman in coverage a staple of the defense. This is the kind of thing you do to show a different look and maybe catch the offense off guard. Do it too frequently, and you lose that element of surprise.
The Jets might want to look at utilizing Richardson's unique skills in this way, though, every now and then, especially against some of the weaker quarterbacks they face. You might get a cheapie turnover from a quarterback weak at reading a defense. Maybe you can even set up that rarest of beasts, the fat man touchdown return.