Now is the time for the New York Jets defensive line to unleash its wrath
The New York Jets have worked hard to build a defensive line that is filled to the brim with explosive, athletic players who can get after the quarterback. They are allocating the second-most cap space to defensive linemen of any team in the NFL this season at $51.0 million (active roster players). It’s a unit that’s high on talent and faced with equally high expectations.
So far, those expectations have not been met. Through two weeks of football, the Jets have the sixth-fewest sacks (3), sixth-lowest pressure rate (18.2%), and seventh-fewest quarterback hits (9).
There are some reasonable excuses for the slow start. New York’s Week 1 opponent, the Baltimore Ravens, required the Jets’ defensive linemen to ease up on the gas pedal and play with more discipline so they could stop Lamar Jackson from beating them with his legs. To the DL’s credit, they did a good job of that. In Week 2, the Jets faced a Browns offensive line that might be the NFL’s best.
But with the Cincinnati Bengals making their way to the Meadowlands in Week 3, there are no more excuses.
The Bengals’ offensive line is a travesty for the second consecutive season (despite the team’s valiant offseason efforts to improve the unit). Bengals QB Joe Burrow has been sacked an NFL-high 13 times while RB Joe Mixon is averaging only 3.0 yards per carry.
It’s time to eat.
How can the Jets ensure they take full advantage of this sputtering offensive line? Let’s break down each player on the Bengals offensive line and analyze how the Jets’ defensive linemen should try to beat them.
LT Jonah Williams
Bengals left tackle Jonah Williams will primarily face off against Carl Lawson, who plays nearly all of his snaps on the right side of the defensive line. Micheal Clemons, who fills in for Lawson (typically in running situations), also plays most of his snaps on the right. Jacob Martin rotates between both sides.
Williams is off to a brutal start this season. The former first-round pick out of Alabama has allowed 10 pressures, the second-most among tackles this season. He’s tied for first with three sacks allowed.
Best known for his athleticism and technique, Williams is on the smaller side for an offensive tackle at 6-foot-4 1/2″ (15th percentile among OT) and 304 pounds (12th percentile). His total of 23 bench reps at the 2019 Combine (41st percentile) also signals a pedestrian amount of strength.
Williams’s smaller frame and middling strength leaves the door open for Lawson to unleash his dominant bull rush.
Carl Lawson's very first pass-rush rep in over a year 😳 pic.twitter.com/glUt1kFDr0
— Michael Nania (@Michael_Nania) August 29, 2022
The same goes for Clemons, who can utilize his massive frame (6-foot-5, 270 pounds) to overwhelm Williams.
On this play, Cowboys edge rusher Micah Parsons is able to completely obliterate Williams with a bull rush. Parsons sells upfield and catches Williams relaxing. With Williams’s hands down, Parsons explodes off his outside foot and lands both hands into Williams’s chest to send him flying.
Williams and Lawson were teammates in Cincinnati for two years (2019 to 2020), so they know each other well. We’ll see on Sunday who makes better usage of the familiarity.
LG Cordell Volson
Bengals left guard Cordell Volson will see a lot of Quinnen Williams, who plays most of his snaps on the right side of the defensive line. Nathan Shepherd subs in for Williams when he rests.
A rookie fourth-round pick out of North Dakota State, Volson is off to a predictably rough start. Volson is tied for sixth among guards with six pressures allowed and is tied for first with two sacks allowed.
Volson is the opposite of Jonah Williams. He is a big guard with plenty of size and power but subpar athleticism. Volson stands at 6-foot-6 1/8″ (85th percentile among OL) and 315 pounds (63rd percentile) but had woeful numbers in the three-cone drill (8.31 seconds, 6th percentile) and vertical jump (25 inches, 16th percentile).
The Steelers exposed Volson’s lack of athleticism on this sack. Pittsburgh puts LB Myles Jack in the B-gap and has him penetrate inside to open up the nose tackle on a stunt. Volson cannot stick with Jack and gets carried too far to the inside, leaving the B-gap wide open for the NT.
The Jets should attempt to expose the rookie’s inexperience and lack of athleticism as the Steelers did in the play above. Make him try to keep up with speedy rushers by putting Quincy Williams or Kwon Alexander on the inside. Run some stunts to keep him guessing. Don’t let the youngster get comfortable.
As for Quinnen Williams’s one-on-one battles against Volson, I think he should attempt to rely on his finesse moves rather than power. If Williams can beat Volson either inside or outside, Williams’s massive athletic advantage (9.84 RAS vs. 6.06 RAS) should allow him to easily turn the corner on Volson for sacks or hits.
I want to see Williams go back to relying on the rip move that he used to achieve great success in late-2020. If he can consistently beat Volson on Sunday with moves like the forklift/rip combo seen below, he should get multiple hits on the quarterback.
C Ted Karras
All of the Jets’ defensive tackles will likely get their fair share of reps against Bengals center Ted Karras.
Karras is not a part of the Bengals’ pass-blocking troubles right now. He has allowed only three pressures with zero sacks.
However, Karras is in the middle of the team’s run-blocking woes. The Bengals have gained only 31 yards on 19 carries directed through the A-gaps (to either side of the center): a ghastly 1.6 yards per carry. All 31 of those yards were gained after contact, meaning Cincy has gained 0 yards before contact when rushing to either side of Karras.
Watch here as Cowboys DT Quinton Bohanna (#98) stands up Karras at the point of attack, creating congestion that ultimately holds Mixon to a 1-yard gain on second-and-2.
The Jets’ defensive tackles cannot allow the Bengals’ offensive linemen to control them the same way they allowed the Browns’ offensive linemen to do so. Cincinnati is struggling mightily to create holes in-between the tackles.
Williams, Shepherd, Rankins, and Thomas need to take full advantage and overpower Karras on run downs. Don’t get too aggressive: Just control the point of attack and let the troops rally.
RG Alex Cappa
- Projected primary Jets matchups: Sheldon Rankins, Solomon Thomas
Sheldon Rankins and Solomon Thomas split reps on the left side of the Jets’ defensive line, so Alex Cappa will see plenty of both players on Sunday.
Coming over as a free agent from the Buccaneers, Cappa has been the Bengals’ best offensive lineman. He’s only allowed four pressures (one sack) and is generating success in the run game as Cincinnati is rushing for 6.3 yards per carry through the right B-gap (Cappa’s outside shoulder). That’s their best average of any gap.
Still, Cappa can be beaten; and just like Cincinnati’s other guard, it’s speed that hurts him the most.
Cappa registered a woeful RAS (Relative Athletic Score) of 2.94 back in 2018. Outside of a decent bench-press performance, Cappa was unimpressive in every other drill at the combine.
Last week, the Cowboys were able to get a sack off Cappa by putting 255-pound defensive end Dante Fowler on the interior. Fowler beats Cappa with an inside spin move.
Considering the consistency between Cappa and Volson’s issues with speed (particularly in mismatches against LBs or EDGEs placed on the inside), I really think the Jets should experiment with some unique looks in this game. Take full advantage of Cincy’s slow-footed guards. Get Quincy Williams and Kwon Alexander in the A or B-gaps. Kick Carl Lawson, Micheal Clemons, or Jermaine Johnson into the 3-tech spot.
Even if the Jets do not mix things up with one of those aforementioned suggestions, Cappa’s lack of athleticism still makes him an ideal one-on-one matchup for Rankins and Thomas. Both of them are excellent athletes whose entire games revolve around explosive pass-rushing from the interior.
RT La’el Collins
It’s unclear as to whether La’el Collins will suit up on Sunday. Collins did not practice all week with a back injury (although he was in uniform on Friday), but Bengals head coach Zac Taylor was optimistic on Friday that Collins will play.
The former Cowboy was an exciting free agent acquisition. So far, things are not going as planned.
Collins is doing great work for the Bengals in the run game, but he is struggling as a pass-blocker. He’s given up six pressures, including a sack and two hits. His 43.3 pass-blocking grade at Pro Football Focus ranks 63rd out of 67 qualified tackles.
Collins is coming off a brutal game against his former team. Cowboys edge rusher Micah Parsons completely dominated him.
Inside moves were the problem for Collins. On each of these two plays, watch how Parsons gets Collins to open up outside before slicing back inside through the B-gap.
Collins (or whoever plays right tackle) will get a heavy dosage of John Franklin-Myers and Jermaine Johnson with a little bit of Jacob Martin sprinkled in. Franklin-Myers and Johnson have been holding down the left edge for New York while Martin switches between both sides.
I’m particularly looking at Johnson as the guy who could take advantage of this matchup.
Johnson hasn’t really tried to use combo or finesse moves so far, mostly relying on simple speed rushes or bull rushes. I think he can use this to his advantage. Collins will see those tendencies on tape and enter this game prepared to sit back on Johnson’s speed. That could allow Johnson to flip the script on Collins by setting him up outside and then working back inside – just like Parsons did.
We know Johnson is capable of adding some outside-to-inside moves into his NFL repertoire. They are on his college tape and even his Senior Bowl tape, as seen below.
Jermaine Johnson is a certified stud, just absurd rep after absurd rep, it will be impressive when someone is able to stop him. Here he makes Paul (who has also had a good first day!) look silly with the inside move!b #SeniorBowl pic.twitter.com/WSck1UvgMQ
— Ben Glassmire (@BenGlassmireNFL) February 3, 2022
If Collins does not play, he will be replaced by either Hakeem Adeniji or D’Ante Smith. The Bengals have not publicly declared which player would be the first one off the bench in the event of an injury.
Adeniji was a sixth-round pick in 2020 who started 14 games for the Bengals over his first two seasons. Smith was a fourth-round pick in 2021 who started one game as a rookie. Either way, it seems likely that the Bengals would be experiencing a downgrade if Collins is sidelined.
No more excuses
The Jets have favorable mismatches across the board against this Bengals offensive line.
A dominant performance must be the baseline expectation on Sunday. “Decent” will not suffice. Neither will “good”.
Significant questions will be raised about the legitimacy of this Jets defensive line if it fails to steamroll one of the most exploitable offensive fronts in football.