It’s within soccer analysis, but not so much football analysis, that you’ll hear pundits discussing the “spine of the team”. If a team has a good goalie, central defender, midfield general and goal-hungry striker, they have all the ingredients to be strong up the middle, giving them a strong foundation.
The same philosophy can be applied to NFL defenses. Cornerbacks are important, but if you can be strong up the middle, that forces opposing offenses to challenge players in one-on-one match-ups and puts defensive players in a position to make plays in coverage.
Unfortunately for the Jets, over the past 12 months, they’ve had the spine of their defense ripped out as violently as if they were being finished off by Sub-Zero in a game of Mortal Kombat.
In Leonard Williams, CJ Mosley and Jamal Adams, the Jets have lost their most valuable interior lineman, inside linebacker and safety. That should render the Jets weak up the middle. However, their response to the losses last year suggests that perhaps won’t be the case.
Let’s start at the linebacker position, because that was a loss the Jets had to deal with almost immediately last season, with Mosley going down with an injury in the third quarter of the very first game.
The initial response was not good as the Jets blew a 16-0 lead and dropped to 0-4 and then 1-7 before a late-season resurgence. A lot of the optimism heading into the offseason was based on the fact that Mosley’s return should galvanize that unit, but that was spoiled when Mosley decided to opt out due to concerns over Covid-19.
However, the Jets should be much better equipped to deal with the loss of Mosley in 2020. Avery Williamson is back from a torn ACL and they had already signed Patrick Onwuasor, Mosley’s former Ravens teammate, to add more depth. In addition, Neville Hewitt and James Burgess should be more comfortable with a year under their belt in Gregg Williams’ system having started 22 games between them in 2019. Finally, Blake Cashman, who is returning from an injury of his own, isn’t a rookie any more.
It’s easy to forget that when the Jets signed Williamson, it looked like a shrewd signing for a player who was productive and had excellent grades against the run, while also being younger than the departing Demario Davis. However, Davis has developed into an all-pro and confidence in Williamson has waned after he missed all of last season. Nevertheless, if Williams was able to get good production from Burgess and Hewitt, then there’s no reason he can’t get even better production from the 28-year old.
The likes of Onwuasor and Cashman should help here because Williamson is better off against the run than he is in coverage, so perhaps won’t need to play an every down role.
The Jets went 6-4 with Burgess starting last year, so Williams - who also coached him in Cleveland - should be confident in his ability to fill in. He missed some time while on the Covid-19 reserve list, though.
On the defensive line, the Jets didn’t have to deal with the loss of Leonard Williams until mid-way through last season and he hadn’t been playing particularly well to that point anyway.
With Williams gone, Folorunso Fatukasi and Nathan Shepherd really stepped up and Quinnen Williams started to establish himself over the second half of the season. Shepherd had been suspended and Quinnen Williams was dealing with a high ankle sprain in the early part of the season, so it’s a good sign that their return saw the Jets’ defensive line step up.
The Jets ended up with one of the best run defenses in the league, an impressive feat considering the fact that they had lost both Mosley and Williamson. While the linemen didn’t produce much as pass rushers, Shepherd showed a few flashes and the hope is that Williams will develop that aspect of his game in his second season.
This brings us to the safety position, where the loss of Jamal Adams - much like Adams himself - hits hard. Again, this is something the Jets had to deal with last season, albeit only for two games.
In those two games, they narrowly beat Miami and then got blown out by the Ravens. The approach was to move Marcus Maye into Adams’ position, albeit that he didn’t rush the passer as often as Adams, usually dropping into coverage instead. Maye played well against Miami but was exposed in coverage a few times against the Ravens. The Jets had opted to put Darryl Roberts as the deep safety in these games.
With Bradley McDougald coming in for Adams, the Jets have the option of leaving Maye in his regular deep safety role and employ McDougald in a similar fashion to how Maye was used with Adams out. McDougald won’t make as many impact plays as Adams, but hopefully he can shore up a secondary that should otherwise be stronger than last year due to their increased number of options at the cornerback positions.
However, Maye has reportedly been making plays all over the field in camp, which might mean that the Jets can build some added flexibility and interchangeability into their defensive system.
The likes of the Steelers, Ravens and Patriots often manage to deal with defensive losses seamlessly by simply operating a next-man-up philosophy. The Jets are left with no choice but to do the same thing and will hope that they are able to do so with more success than recent Jets defenses in the same kinds of situation.
Based on the relative success Gregg Williams had last year in dealing with these losses, we can be optimistic about his ability to meet this challenge.