Best Run Defense In the League?

The New York Jets do not just stop their opponent’s running game – they attack it with tremendous talent in the trenches and with a solid linebacking corps. Rex Ryan’s front seven is one of the better groups in the AFC, surrendering a meager 3.3 yards per rushing attempt and a scant 83 yards per game allowed this season. In 2013, those numbers were 3.4 and 88, ranking them 1st and 2nd, respectively.

The Jets have one of the toughest run defenses in the NFL. They play a base 3-4 defense, but, as demonstrated in the passing preview, they show a variety of alignments, personnel groups, and formations both up front and in the backfield. This unit has players at every level that effectively stymie the run on every snap from every position on the field.

In the Trenches

Sheldon RichardsonMuhammad Wilkerson and Damon Harrison are a fearsome front three – strong, athletic, and adept at stopping running backs behind the line of scrimmage. On one end of the defensive line is Richardson, the most threatening to the opposition with exceptional quickness, strength and agility. In this play from Week 2, Green Bay has Aaron Rodgers under center and Eddie Lacy as a lone back. New York’s base defense is on the field with both outside linebackers up on the line of scrimmage. Inside linebacker Demario Davis shows B gap blitz pre-snap. The Packers try a stretch play to the right and left tackle Josh Sitton attempts to cut block Richardson backside:

Richardson hurdles Sitton, flows down the line of scrimmage, and blows up the play, hauling Lacy down for a minimal gain.

Directly over the ball rests Damon Harrison, a mountain of a man. Checking in at 6’ 4” 350 pounds, the player they call “Big Snacks” commands a double-team – or more – on running plays. In Week 4, the Detroit Lions planned to send Reggie Bush into the left B gap. The center and both guards try to get a push on Harrison, but the former UDFA does not give an inch:

Big Snacks clogs up the middle of the field, allowing the rest of the defense to swarm the ball carrier. Harrison even gets in on the tackle for good measure.

Opposite from Richardson is Wilkerson, another remarkable defender against the run. The bookends switch sides, gap alignments and techniques on every snap, making them an unpredictable and effective combination. Wilkerson is very athletic and his motor and work rate enable him to make plays from sideline-to-sideline, as illustrated on this play against the Lions. Running back Joique Bell tries the stretch play to the right of the offense, away from Wilkerson. As we saw with Richardson, it is nearly impossible to run away from the Jets’ defensive ends:

Sprinting out of his stance, 2013 2nd team All Pro ranges down the line and pulls the running back to the turf for no gain. Left tackle Riley Reiff fails to even get a finger on Wilkerson on this occasion.

Linebackers

New York’s linebackers are also a fantastic asset for Rex Ryan against the run. The two interior linebackers, Demario Davis and David Harris, really stood out on film. Davis is also a vocal leader on and off the field, recently holding himself publicly accountable for not helping his teammates “[practice] like a championship team”.

On this play from Week 1, the Raiders have Derek Carr under center with Marcel Reece and Maurice Jones-Drew in an i-formation attempting a lead play. New York’s base 3-4 defense shows an under front and a B gap blitz. Watch Harris destroy this play:

The Michigan product reads the play and shoots into the hole. He powerfully sheds the block from Reece and stones Jones-Drew at the line of scrimmage for a negligible gain.

In this Week 5 play, the Chargers are inside the 10-yard line on a 1st and Goal play. Donald Brown is a single back behind Philip Rivers as San Diego’s 11 personnel is at the ready. The Jets have their base defense on the field showing an over front. As this play begins, pay attention to how quickly Harris reads the run and gets himself in position to make a play:

The line of scrimmage is the 10-yard line, and Harris closes the running lane, forcing Brown to attempt a cut in the backfield. The running back cannot avoid the linebacker and Harris drags Brown to the turn for a short loss.

From the other interior linebacker spot Demario Davis creates havoc for opposing running backs. With 49 combined tackles to his name, the linebacker is adept at tracking down ball carriers on either edge. Oakland has 21 personnel on the field for a stretch run to the right. The Jets show a 4-3 defense, with Davis aligned over the right guard:

Davis bursts from his interior alignment, cutting through the blockers and executing a perfect takedown of the ball carrier.

In the Secondary

New York’s two safeties, Calvin Pryor and Dawan Landry, are also adept in run support. Both players are aggressive when they read run and more than willing to come towards the line of scrimmage to make tackles. While this does expose them to play-action passes, their eagerness in run support often leaves offenses losing the numbers game up front. In particular, while we pick on Pryor a bit in the passing preview (Part 2, out tomorrow), these two plays demonstrate why the Jets selected the safety in the first round.

On this play, the Raiders have Carr in the shotgun flanked by running backs with New York’s Harris and Davis showing a double A gap blitz. Oakland tries to run Reece on the stretch play to the right but watch how fast the rookie safety makes this play:

Pryor evades the block attempt from Rod Streater and cuts down the runner for a small gain. On the next play, the Louisville product plays a bit of cat-and-mouse with Aaron Rodgers. While Rodgers won the war (Tune in tomorrow!!), Pryor was victorious on this snap:

From his safety position, the rookie shows Rodgers blitz. Rodgers adjusts the play and hands Eddie Lacy the ball on an interior run. Harris moves into the hole and the running back looks to cutback to the left. Pryor closes quickly and stops Lacy cold.

While Pryor typically plays the deep centerfield role, Dawan Landry prowls near the line of scrimmage on most snaps. On this play, Detroit has 21 personnel on the field with the running backs in an i-formation. The Jets counter with their base 3-4 defense showing an over front. The Lions send Reggie Bush to the right side of the defense on a counter play:

Watch how Harris and Landry work in tandem to stop this play. The linebacker and safety both recognize the running corridor and fill the lane. Harris takes on the fullback leading through the hole, which allows the safety to step forward and meet Bush at the line of scrimmage. Quick teamwork stops this play before the running back can break through the line to the next level.

At every level the Jets have players who are awesome against the run. When these pieces are assembled the result is a unit that is one of the league’s best in grinding opposition ground games to a halt.

To the Left, To the Left

Watching a team’s film in chronological order provides a sense of just how much the NFL is a “copycat” league. Given the stinginess of the Jets’ run defense, every offense has tried to duplicate plays or concepts that had even the slightest bit of success in prior games. Our film evaluation uncovered one trend that New England may wish to continue: running at the right edge of the defense.

In their Week 1 win the Jets held Oakland to 25 yards on 15 carries. One of the few successes Oakland had on the opening weekend was this carry by Darren McFadden. Carr is under center with Oakland’s 21 personnel against the Jets’ defense, aligned in a 4-3 for this snap:

McFadden carries the ball on a counter play to the left edge. Left guard Austin Howard pulls around the edge and does a great job of sealing off David Harris. McFadden puts his head down and picks up six tough yards and a new set of downs.

The Packers threw the ball 42 times against the Jets in Week 2, but also managed 80 yards on 22 rushing attempts. Here, the Packers are backed up in their own territory and have 12 personnel on the field against the 4-3 look from New York. Rodgers is under center and gives Lacy the ball heading to the outside:

Eddie Lacy’s 10 yard carry – his longest of the day – was nothing fancy: a simple man blocking scheme with each blocker winning his matchup. This allowed the running back to break into the secondary before he is forced to make a cut.

Detroit continued this trend in Week 4. The Lions have Matthew Stafford under center using their 11 personnel. The Jets have their base defense in a 3-4 alignment for this carry. Bush takes the hand-off from his quarterback and attacks the left side of the line:

Again, the Lions utilized a simple man-blocking scheme with no pulling linemen. Each blocker simply takes the man across from them and wins their individual battle. Bush gets to the next level untouched and has a crease up the field to gain more yards. Unfortunately, his feet go out from under him as he makes the cut. If he is able to keep his feet, this run likely goes for double-digit yardage.

The Chargers exploited the left edge to the tune of 9 carries for 80 yards, with 53 of those yards coming from Branden Oliver on one play. Philip Rivers is in the shotgun and San Diego has 11 personnel on the field. The Jets respond with 3-3-5 personnel and are in a blitz posture. Each linebacker is in an aggressive alignment with one showing C gap blitz with the other two standing threatening the A gap. Oliver takes the handoff from his quarterback and scurries towards the left edge:

The center and left guard execute a combination block on the defensive tackle allowing King Dunlap to come out of his stance from left tackle and get to the next level. The Auburn product combines with Antonio Gates to get a block on the outside linebacker who showed C gap blitz. The blocks are executed perfectly and Oliver cuts into the secondary, using a stiff arm on Harris to continue his run. 53 yards later the running back has completed the longest carry against the Jets on this short season.

Conclusion

Against the run, the Jets have proven to be a very stout defense. Rex Ryan has players at each defensive level that are aggressive against the run and often look “run first” on each play. This mentality has provided for some great plays in run support this season. Given the success teams have enjoyed on runs to the left and on plays using man blocking schemes, look for New England to try and keep things simple on Thursday night and work behind Nate Solder in the running game.  Yes, Solder has been criticized this season for his poor form, but the film and the numbers do not lie. Since the Jets are weakest on their right edge against the run, the Patriots have to try and attack that area.

Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkSchofield.

Mark Schofield has always loved football. He breaks down film, scouts prospects, and explains the passing game for Inside the Pylon.

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