It has been the kind of the season the Jets were hoping for from Quinnen Williams, since they drafted him third overall in the 2019 draft.
The 25-year old has 12 sacks and another 15 quarterback hits in addition to playing well all year against the run.
Today, we’re going to focus on that pass rushing production, analyzing further how he has generated these hits and sacks. We went back and looked at each of these plays to see what kind of trends presented themselves.
Defensive Line Packages
It’s first necessary to re-familiarize ourselves with what the Jets typically do with their front four. While Robert Saleh famously rotates a lot of different players in and out of the game - typically every four plays - the Jets don’t vary up what they do on the defensive fronts too often.
One constant is that both defensive ends line up extremely wide, as is commonly seen in a wide-9 alignment. This is the case whether it’s a non-passing situation package or a pass-rush package. Usually these players will have their hands in the dirt, but they will sometimes be standing up.
How the four linemen align themselves varies somewhat but the most common alignment in non-passing situations is for the two tackles to each be either side of the center. Conversely, in pass rushing situations, they tend to isolate one end with the two interior rushers aligned over the center and over the opposite tackle. So, that second interior rusher (usually John Franklin-Myers) is actually on the edge, although he will have another edge rusher further outside him.
While those aren’t the only packages they run - they’ve sometimes moved Quincy Williams to the edge and operated in a 3-4 style alignment and you may have noticed some packages with Bryce Huff standing up opposite the center - they don’t mix things up very often. This is probably because they don’t really need to.
It’s quite common for the first unit and second unit to stick together, especially at the start of a drive. Therefore, Quinnen Williams would be lined up alongside Sheldon Rankins most of the time in non-passing situations. Solomon Thomas and Nathan Shepherd will typically play together too. Of course Thomas and Shepherd have lined up alongside Williams at times, but he’d primarily be paired with Rankins.
That’s true of the defensive ends too. Franklin-Myers and Carl Lawson are the starters and most of their reps on non-passing downs would be when Williams and Rankins were on the field.
As for the pass rush packages, that’s been Huff, Franklin-Myers, Williams and Lawson for the majority of the season. Jacob Martin was initially in this package, but Huff gradually took his job and then he was traded at the deadline. In recent games, though, rookie Jermaine Johnson has started to take some of these reps away from Huff. Rankins would occasionally be in this package rather than Franklin-Myers, but still with the asymmetrical alignment in place.
To blitz or not to blitz
Since the Jets are so strong up front, they’ve been able to generate consistent pressure from just a four-man rush. The team actually leads the NFL in quarterback hits entering the final weekend.
You’ll probably recall a highly publicized argument between Williams and defensive line coach Aaron Whitecotton during the Bengals game in week three. While the Jets downplayed this, it was clear that Williams felt the Jets could get pressure without sending a blitz and tensions were high after the Jets dialled up their first seven-man rush of the season and Joe Burrow exploited it to throw a 54-yard touchdown pass.
At the time of this argument, Williams had just half a sack and one other quarterback hit for the season, so obviously the team’s and his individual success was greater once they had this discussion.
Williams was showing faith in the front four to get there without needing to send a blitz, but there’s another aspect to this too. By dropping seven men into coverage, you’re much less likely to have left open an early dump-off option. This therefore improves the chances of the front four getting home, by buying them an extra second or so.
What the data tells us
There were 13 plays on which Williams recorded either a sack or half a sack. Nine of these came when the Jets were lined up in pass rush packages. Lawson was on the field for all 13 plays.
This underlines how important the pass rush packages have been to the Jets’ ability to generate pressure and to Williams’ ability to rack up sacks.
Lawson is crucial to this and he is typically the player who is isolated on one side of the formation. This means the offensive line is compelled to pay more attention to him because if he beats his man cleanly, then the quarterback is going to be flushed into the other three rushers, one of whom is likely to bring him down.
This happened on multiple occasions throughout the year, but even when he doesn’t beat his man, just by occupying blockers, Lawson is setting up a scenario where another player, often Williams, is going to get a chance to beat a one-on-one.
It was rare for the Jets to isolate Huff instead (and Lawson lined up on the left just 22 times in the first 16 games), but they did do this on one of Williams’ half-sacks:
Franklin-Myers was in the game on 11 of these 13 plays, Huff was in on seven and Rankins was in on four.
In terms of quarterback hits, only six of the 15 came when the Jets were in a pass-rush package. Lawson was in the game on 12 of these plays, Franklin-Myers was in on 10 of them and Rankins was in on eight.
For the 28 plays where Williams recorded either a sack, half-sack or quarterback hit, Lawson was in on 25, Franklin-Myers was in on 21, Huff and Rankins were in on 12 each and nobody else was in on more than four. Again, these are the players Williams would usually be in the game with, so that’s not a complete surprise.
As you’d expect, the Jets hardly blitzed on any of these plays. We counted just three five-man rushes on plays where Williams had a sack, half-sack or a hit and in each case this was just sending CJ Mosley as a fifth rusher. One such play led to this sack:
In fact, one of Williams’ hits came on a three-man rush, as Rankins dropped into coverage, probably with an eye on spying the quarterback. You can see here that the goal (on 3rd-and-2) isn’t so much to get to the quarterback as it it to keep him bracketed in the pocket and forced to make a throw. To his credit, Skylar Thompson does this successfully despite Williams’ hit late in the play.
Assuming the coaching staff remains intact, it seems highly unlikely that the Jets deviate too far from this gameplan in 2023. There may be some personnel changes ahead, though.
While some analysts have suggested Lawson could be a cap casualty, he seems to be such a big part of what they do and perhaps the biggest contributor towards unlocking Williams’ potential to increase his statistical production by helping him into favorable matchups.
However, all three of Williams’ interior lineman colleagues are out of contract at the end of the year, as are Huff (although he is only a restricted free agent) and Vinny Curry.
While it would seem to make sense to bring back Huff, the fact that they’ve started feeding some of his situational pass rush reps to Johnson could be telling. The team hasn’t used Huff in non-pass situations all season, so they seem to be making a move towards Johnson having a more impactful role next year.
As far as Williams is concerned, he was a worthy MVP for the Jets this year and may even have more to offer in future seasons. The next order of business will be to get him signed long-term. This isn’t going to be cheap, but if Williams continues on this trajectory, it will be money well-spent.