The New York Jets have a perfect one-two punch at defensive end in the wide-9 scheme
Last season, there was a bubbling excitement around Robert Saleh‘s arrival to the New York Jets and the defensive structure he was going to bring from San Francisco.
After all, back in 2019, the 49ers had allowed the second-fewest yards per game in the NFL at 281.8. They followed that up with another top-five finish in 2020 at 314.4 yards per game.
Part of that system was the heralded wide-9, which is a sub-package that prioritizes getting to the quarterback.
The defensive positioning chart below shows that in a wide-9 system, the defensive end lines up on the outside shoulder of the TE.
Even if there is no TE on the field or on that player’s side, a wide-9 edge rusher will still line up in that same distanced position where the tight end would have been – leaving them “wide” from the tackle’s outside shoulder.
In the first image below, on your left, you’ll see the 49ers’ Arik Armstead in a wide-9 alignment outside of the tight end. In the second image, on your right side, you’ll see Nick Bosa in a wide-9 alignment with no tight end on his side.
The theory behind this alignment is all about geometry. The wide-9 creates better angles to get to the QB, and since it also allows rushers to generate more speed, it places pressure on the opposing tackles, forcing them to move further before contact.
I searched throughout recent NFL history for the prototypical defensive end for the wide-9 alignment. It would have been easy to pick someone from the 49ers, but I wanted to go back a little bit further.
The search led me to the 2012 Miami Dolphins and Cameron Wake. The team had just transitioned to a 4-3 defense, and Wake lined up in a wide-9 alignment to maximize his explosion and speed.
That 2012 season was Wake’s best pass-rushing season statistically. He racked up career-highs of 15.0 sacks and 86 pressures. It’s safe to assume that switching to that 4-3 came with good results.
Back in 2018, Pro Football Focus called Wake the prototypical 9 technique defender, mentioning those two keywords – speed and explosion. The Jets got a firsthand look at his ability to disrupt the passer since Wake had more career sacks against the Jets (12.5) than any other team in the league.
Jim Schwartz brought the wide-9 alignment back in vogue in the NFL. He set up his ends there more than anyone else, going with speed, speed, and more speed.
That brings us to the 2022 Jets defense, specifically their defensive ends, Jermaine Johnson and Carl Lawson.
To see how Johnson compares with Wake, RAS (Relative Athletic Score) provides a good look at their athletic profiles.
Jermaine Johnson vs. Cameron Wake
In overall RAS, Johnson beats out Wake. Considering that Wake compiled 100.5 sacks and over 11 seasons in the NFL while operating primarily as a wide-9 rusher, it’s intriguing to think about what Johnson could do in the same scheme with better overall athleticism.
There are a couple of things worth mentioning here. Wake is listed at 236 pounds, which was his weight when he entered the league. However, he actually played at around 255-260 pounds for most of his career, which is almost identical to Johnson.
The two had similar bench press numbers, but Johnson beats Wake in one key area: the 10-yard split on the 40-yard dash. Whereas Wake sits at 1.68 seconds, Johnson beats him at 1.59, which is among the elite. That’s a positive sign for a player who will rely on quickness off the snap in his new position.
On the negative side for Johnson, one thing that stands out from these numbers is the vertical jump. That test is often used to measure explosion and the ability to burst off the line with a strong lower body. Wake scored a perfect 10 in that category with a 45.5-inch leap while Johnson posted a disappointing 5.46 with a 32-inch jump.
But from an overall perspective, Johnson’s athletic numbers look pretty good next to Wake’s. Having a similar athletic profile is one thing; being able to replicate the things that Wake did on the field is another story, though.
Carl Lawson vs. Cameron Wake
If we do the same comparison between Wake and Carl Lawson, it tells a similar story. Lawson’s weight is similar to Wake’s. The two were almost identical in overall RAS.
Like Johnson, Lawson has a quicker 10-yard split than Wake, which is a great indication of explosion and start-up speed. Again, though, Lawson’s vertical pales in comparison to Wake’s.
But it’s also worth noting that Lawson’s 35 bench press number is absolutely phenomenal while Wake struggled in that area. Lawson’s combination of strength and speed gives him an excellent bull rush.
Lawson has already shown his explosion off the line on the NFL level, using his speed and burst to consistently pressure the quarterback. His athleticism has shown up in similar ways to Wake’s even though he does not have the sack totals to show for it. That may change this season with the wide-9 alignment and the athletic Johnson opposite him.
RAS is only one piece of the puzzle and is not an exact science in comparing edge rushers. But with Johnson and Lawson’s RAS scores mirroring that of Cameron Wake, a prototypical wide-9 defender out of a 4-3 formation, the Jets may finally have the right pieces to succeed in Saleh’s system.
Outside of the performances of the Saleh, Zach Wilson, and Bechton, how much these guys rush the passer will determine how successful the Jets will be this season. I’m optimistic. Great read, David!
Leg day will be interesting for Lawson & Johnson, working on explosion and vertical , could be a path for QB sacks.