One of the stories of the season for the Jets has been the disappointing play of the defensive line. There are many problems with the way the unit is playing. The simplest one is Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson have not been playing well enough.
There have also been some puzzling issues with the way the coaching staff is deploying the players, Richardson in particular. The addition of Steve McLendon in free agency gave the Jets an extra 300 pound lineman to go with Wilkerson, Richardson, and Leonard Williams.
From the way the Jets have schemed, it almost seems like the coaching staff felt like the addition of McLendon freed them up to move Richardson all over the field. He has been used frequently far away from the ball and in some instances in very puzzling ways.
Now, look, Richardson is an incredible athlete for a man of his size. Does this really mean he's best utilized playing far away from the quarterback as frequently as the Jets have used him that way, though? I don't think so. He frequently has looked like a fish out of water and gotten himself lost in unfamiliar roles.
This has a lot of people saying the Jets cannot use their three first round linemen together effectively. I question this proposition.
It might be true that the Jets cannot use four 300 pound linemen effectively if you add in McLendon. There are still plenty of ways the Jets can maximize what they get from Wilkerson, Richardson, and Williams on the field at the same time, though. It isn't like playing a trio of big interior linemen is unorthodox.
I usually don't love it when people say to just copy the best defense in the league, but Broncos defensive coordinator Wade Phillips has been running a defensive style for decades that would fit what the Jets' talent perfectly. Sure, you might say any defense would look great with a stable of edge rushers led by Von Miller. In Phillips' last stop, though, he ran a defense built around a big lineman in JJ Watt. While none of the three Jets linemen are on Watt's level, Phillips' defense in Houston did not have the same talent along the defensive line from top to bottom.
Phillips ran a base 3-4 defense. A lot of people have in their mind that a 3-4 defense means you have a bunch of big linemen whose job is to tie up offensive linemen and keep their linebackers clean from blockers. These linemen aren't there to penetrate. They are there to occupy space and eat up two gaps.
That is the space each linemen is responsible for taking in a traditional 3-4 defense. There is no rule that a defense has to play that way, though. In fact, even among 3-4 teams, it is uncommon to play this way exclusively. In fact, calling a defense a base 3-4 is usually a misnomer these days since the passing game usually requires at least five defensive backs on the field, which takes a linebacker away. I'm just oversimplifying for the sake of making a point.
At any rate, Phillips through his career has usually wanted his linemen to focus on one gap and penetrate.
A good linemen told to beat his man is still going to draw double teams, but he will also create a lot of disruption. He just is now trying to make plays.
Who is the nose tackle? Phillips has had success with traditional nose tackles, but his defense has also relied on undersized guys like Jay Ratliff and Greg Kragen through the years. You don't necessarily need a 330 pound guy to hold the point of attack. A guy in the middle of your defense whose size athleticism can overwhelm interior linemen can be just as effective or in some cases more effective.
None of the three linemen has to play outside in space, but none of them has to be a conventional nose tackle either.
This is essentially a 3-4 that works like a 4-3. (Again, I know I'm oversimplifying. Just go with it.) It is a three man line, but the fourth guy can just put his hand on the ground.
The Jets' most common units on the field have had Wilkerson, Williams, Richardson, and McLendon on the field together. Too frequently this has kicked Richardson to the outside, where his ability has not been maximized.
There have been instances where the Jets have stuck Richardson, Williams, and Wilkerson together without McLendon. These have tended to come in obvious passing situations, though.
Now this one is a little different because it is a four man line. Lorenzo Maudlin has his hand in the dirt on the left. Wilkerson is on the right. He is playing defensive end, but that is not a big issue. He had the best season of his career last year playing there extensively.
The real thing to note here is inside. In the box are Richardson and Williams. These two rushing the passer against interior linemen is a mismatch.
Won't they lose out not having a traditional nose tackle, though?
Let's think about that. If the opponent tries to run it, there are three interior linemen trying to block Williams and Richardson.
A. One of Richardson or Williams is going to be single teamed. That guy has a great chance of dominating and blowing up the play.
B. One of them will be double teamed, but these guys are so talented that they still have a pretty good chance of beating it.
C. David Harris is still there and being paid quite a bit to get through traffic and clean up in the run game.
Wait, isn't the example I showed above a little different from the Wade Phillips suggestion? It is a little different, and that is the point. There are a number of different ways the Jets can maximize the defense with all three of these guys on the field. How about throwing a few Bear fronts?
That is where you have three big linemen line up next to each other over the center and two guards so the offense cannot double team them since everybody is lined up in a condensed area across from a single offensive lineman.
One of the things that is frustrating about this Jets team is both the allocation of resources and the way they are utilized.
The Jets entered the offseason with limited salary cap space, but they used a chunk on a nose tackle, Steve McLendon. It isn't that McLendon is a bad player. It is his presence seems to kick Richardson out of the area of the field where he can be most effective. It also seemed like this was part of the plan. Mike Maccagnan and Todd Bowles seemed to view Richardson as a movable chess piece because of his athleticism. The way he has been moved far away from the ball has limited his effectiveness because he has not been as effective there as the regime has hoped he would be.
I do not think it is an issue of the three star linemen being unable to fit together. I see plenty of defensive alignments where they could. I think it is an issue of the coaching staff not using these enough.
It also wouldn't hurt if Wilkerson and Richardson also just played better.