Jets need defensive line to become consistent strength again

What do the Jets do well?

Zach Wilson has been a Year 1 disappointment, his protection has not been particularly strong, his weapons have shown flashes but not contributed enough and now have a litany of injury issues.

The defensive backfield is composed of a young group with cornerbacks playing better than their draft values would indicate but lacking difference-makers. C.J. Mosley has been solid, but the linebacker corps has needed help.

For much of the season, the defensive line has been regarded as the load-bearers who, on good weeks, can prop up the rest of the leaky foundation.

For a Jets team that has lost 11 of 15 games ahead of Sunday’s penultimate game of the season at MetLife Stadium against Tom Brady’s Bucs, there have not been enough good weeks.

“We will win and lose games with our defensive line,” head coach Robert Saleh said Friday. “If that’s the case — same with our O-line — we won four games, so it’s not good enough.”

John Franklin-Myers sacks Tyrod Taylor earlier this season.
AP

What had begun as a clear strength has regressed, at least numerically, to the middle of the pack. The Jets were tied for fourth in the NFL with 13 sacks through four games and ranked fifth with 28 hits of the quarterback.

In the 11 games since, they have brought down the quarterback behind the line of scrimmage 19 times. Their 32 total sacks is tied for 19th-most in the NFL.

There are season-long and shorter-term excuses, led by the absence of the $45 million Carl Lawson, who ruptured his Achilles tendon in the preseason. But the Jets had performed well without him, which included an early-season breakout from defensive end John Franklin-Myers, who earned a $55 million extension after tallying three sacks in four games.

He has picked up only three more this season, but was sidelined by the coronavirus — as was defensive tackle Quinnen Williams — for last week’s win over the Jaguars. Defensive end Bryce Huff, the fourth member of the line without Lawson, started the first six weeks before a back injury knocked him out until Week 15.

The Jets have needed more from players such as Sheldon Rankins, Folorunso Fatukasi, Nathan Shepherd and Shaq Lawson.

There are reasons for a downturn in the group’s production — not just injuries but adjustments from opposing offenses — but the Jets cannot afford their strength to not be a strength. In their four wins, they have averaged four sacks.

“Teams start doing different things schematically to slow us down,” said Franklin-Myers, who has been cleared out of the protocols. “But you talk about the presence, you talk about the pressure and getting guys off their spots and whatnot, I think all that is there.”

According to Pro Football Reference, the Jets have pressured quarterbacks 22.7 percent of the time, just 25th in the NFL. They do not blitz a whole lot, which does not help their standing in the metric, and rely upon the defensive line to win the matchups.

The Jets have not had a true quarterback-crushing force on the line since John Abraham left after the 2005 season. And because they knocked off Jacksonville, they likely fell out of the sweepstakes for Oregon defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux.

Jets
John Franklin-Myers
Bill Kostroun

They will hope Lawson, who looked like a star before his injury, comes back strong, though that is one more question for a unit the Jets would hope is more assured.

“And if you ever have an opportunity to add somebody who’s going to elevate the entire room, then you don’t hesitate,” Saleh said of the defensive line. “But [I] really like the foundation of that group. It’s a very deep group, it’s a good group.”

A group that has had a few moments but not enough consistent dominance to carry the team.

In his 2018 rookie season, Franklin-Myers made it to the Super Bowl with the Rams and strip-sacked Brady, though the Patriots recovered.

Reliving that moment a few more times would help the Jets’ strength look more like a strength.

“I think we’ve done good. We put pressure on the quarterback. Those sack numbers just aren’t there,” the 25-year-old said. “In some cases, you can say that’s a failure. But in some cases we’re talking about the pressure and the position we put these guys in.

“I think that’s a plus.”