Defensive Analysis: Trends from Both Ends (Part One)

As we approach the upcoming season, the defensive coaches face the same dilemma as in each of the last two seasons. How can they operate the kind of system they want to run but still optimize the performance they can get out of defensive linemen Leonard Williams, Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson?

Last year, the team opted to play Richardson on the edge, often standing up, and the results were not good. However, at either end of the season, there was a game where they did something else and achieved much better results.

On opening day, Richardson was suspended. Without him, the Jets racked up a season-high eight sacks in a disheartening one-point loss to the Bengals. In the season finale, the defense had another strong game in an easy win over the Bills. This was after the Jets had decided they were no longer just going to stick Richardson out on the edge.

So, what can we learn from these games? Did the Jets stumble on some better ways to operate their front seven? Also, does the game with Richardson not available tell us something about how the team will approach their defensive gameplanning if they manage to trade him during the season, as some have predicted?

Today, we're going to focus on the personnel used and some of the thinking behind that. Tomorrow, in part two, we'll dig a bit deeper into positional usage and specific roles.

The following table shows just how much better the defense performed in the first and last game compared with the 14 games in the middle.

In addition to these improved team statistics, there were some good individual performances on the front seven. In the last game, both Richardson and Wilkerson had easily their highest-graded games of the year, according to PFF. In that first game, Wilkerson had had his only multiple-sack game of the year.

When looking deeper into the defensive gameplans for the these two match-ups, some interesting trends emerge.

With no Richardson, the team employed a nose tackle - primarily Steve McLendon - more regularly than usual. They also gave plenty of rotational reps to another lineman, Lawrence Thomas. Even with Richardson out, they didn't use their outside linebackers very much, which is similar to how they approached Richardson's four game suspension in 2015. In those games, they often used a four man front with Wilkerson and Leger Douzable on the ends.

Flash forward to the last game and the Jets opted to employ their outside linebackers a lot more. This time it was Anthony Johnson as the rotational lineman, rather than Thomas. With McLendon out and the youngster Deon Simon replacing him at nose tackle, that may have forced their hand to some extent, but the approach seemed successful. Could this perhaps mean it'll be an approach they adopt more often next year?

Also, does it mitigate the importance of the nose tackle to some extent? The Jets head to camp with McLendon, Simon and veteran Mike Pennel all vying for a role. With McLendon being the most expensive of the three, perhaps his job is on the line if the position is marginalized.

You can see how dramatic those changes were compared to their usual averages in the chart below. Obviously gameplans changed from week to week due to opponent and were tweaked based on game situation as the game went on, but the trend is clear.

You might look at that chart and assume there was a linear evolution over the course of the season. However, that really wasn't the case. They didn't gradually phase out the nose tackles and give more and more time to the outside linebackers. In fact, a lot of the time, they used the outside linebackers even less than they did in the first game.

This was more of a change in approach late in the season, fuelled by McLendon's absence and Richardson's desire to play inside more as much as it was based on the outside linebackers showing signs of development and deserving to play more. However, entering 2017, perhaps the team is hoping for more from their outside linebackers.

Entering 2017, McLendon won't be absent and Richardson will still want to play inside. When that was the case in the middle of the 2016 season, the coaches struggled to find a way to make everyone happy. Something's got to give, unless they are still looking to move one or both of them...

Part two of this article will be published here tomorrow and will look specifically at how certain players were employed according to specific situations and their roles. Next weekend we'll be looking at the offense in depth.