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The Decline And Fall Of The Jets Run Defense

In 2014 the New York Jets were in disarray. It was the last year of the Rex Ryan regime. The general manager was under siege. The head coach was too. Both were in their last year as Jets employees. Discipline was shot. The quarterback was a mess. The receivers were bad. The once vaunted pass defense was in ruins, ranked 30th in the NFL. The record reflected the terrible situation at 4-12. With all the awfulness of the 2014 Jets season, one thing still held the line: the Jets run defense. Anchored by three excellent defensive linemen in Damon Harrison, Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson, along with a still effective David Harris thumping running backs from his inside linebacker position, the 2014 Jets allowed just 3.8 yards per carry to opponents, good for 6th in the NFL. That 2014 Jets team allowed just 93 rushing yards per game, good for 5th in the NFL. In 10 out of 16 games that year Jets opponents were held under 90 yards rushing. Not much was good about the 2014 Jets, but that run defense and that defensive line represented one of the few bright spots, a small foundation upon which to build a new Jets contender.

In 2015 the Jets fired head coach Rex Ryan and general manager John Idzik and began an organizational reset. Mike Maccagnan replaced Idzik and Todd Bowles replaced Ryan. Maccagnan started off with a bang, going on an enormous spending spree and replacing nearly the entire secondary. One thing he left untouched on the defense was the defensive line, choosing instead to up the ante and add a potential star to the mix in first round draft choice Leonard Williams. With the addition of Williams the Jets defense continued to shut down the run, ranking 3rd in the NFL in allowing just 3.6 yards per carry and ranking 2nd in the NFL in allowing just 83 yards rushing per game. The 2015 Jets allowed 75 or less rushing yards a superb seven times. If you were going to beat the 2015 team, it wasn’t likely going to be with your ground game.

The superb performance of the 2015 Jets against the run continued a tradition started with Rex Ryan’s defensive philosophies. Since Ryan was hired in 2009 the Jets were consistently one of the top run defenses in the NFL. The pass defense eventually fell apart, but the one consistent mainstay of the Jets defense for years was the ability to stop the run and force opponents into a lot of third and long situations.

This reliable strength of the Jets defense began a gradual, inexorable unwinding beginning with the 2016 off season. Mike Maccagnan’s 2015 spending spree left very little cap space in 2016, and with the emergence of Leonard Williams as a force on the defensive line, giant run stuffer Damon Harrison was deemed expendable. Harrison was allowed to leave in free agency, signing with the New York Giants, where he promptly had a career year and became an All Pro. The money saved by letting Harrison walk was partially used to re-sign Muhammad Wilkerson to a monstrous contract. It was a move the Jets would live to regret.

The 2016 season saw a still excellent performance by the Jets run defense, led by the three top remaining interior linemen Williams (who became a Pro Bowler), Richardson and Wilkerson. The 2016 Jets allowed 3.7 yards per carry, an almost imperceptible decline from the 2015 3.6 yards per carry number. However, the 2016 Jets allowed 15 rushing yards per game more than the 2015 Jets, a harbinger of things to come.

After the 2016 season the Jets parted ways with Pro Bowl defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson, as well as long time run stuffing linebacker David Harris. The Jets were down to two top defensive linemen, and one of them, Muhammad Wilkerson, was becoming a problem with repeated discipline problems and lackluster play on the field. Add in 2016 first round pick Darron Lee at linebacker, who was routinely washed out of running plays by opposing blockers, and the resulting Jets run defense took a dive. The Jets gave up 4.0 yards per carry in 2017, good for just 15th best in the NFL, and allowed 118 rushing yards per game, an increase of a whopping 20 yards per game over 2016 and 35 yards per game over 2015. The 2017 Jets only had six games all year in which the opponent rushed for less than 110 yards. A long time strength had become a weakness.

After the 2017 season the Jets parted ways with malcontent Muhammad Wilkerson, and the dismantling of the great 2015 Jets run defense was complete. A defensive front four that featured four stars who would at some point in their respective careers make a Pro Bowl or All Pro roster has been reduced to Leonard Williams and the Three Nobodies. Nathan Shepherd making a play is almost an oxymoron. Henry Anderson has done good work for the minimal investment the Jets made in him, but he is nobody’s idea of a Pro Bowl player. And Steve McLendon has been steady as usual, but is on the decline at age 32.

Muhammad Wilkerson, Sheldon Richardson, Damon Harrison and Leonard Williams. That was a line to be reckoned with. Leonard Williams, Nathan Shepherd, Steve McLendon and Henry Anderson. That is a line to be toyed with. In three short years one of the best defensive fronts in the NFL has been completely dismantled, replaced by a bunch of stopgap, hold the fort type players. The predictable result: a bad defensive front.

The 2018 Jets have allowed their opponents a sickening 4.5 yards per carry. That hasn’t happened in more than 15 years, since the 2002 team. The 2018 Jets have allowed opponents 128 yards rushing per game, a stunning 55% increase in rushing yards allowed in just three years since the stellar 2015 group allowed just 83 yards per game. That 128 yards per game is good for 26th in the NFL, tied with the 2012 Jets for the worst ranking in the last decade. The 2018 Jets have held only four opponents all year under 125 yards rushing, and recently they allowed back to back 210+ yards rushing games for the first time since 2002 and only the third time since the 1970s, when rushing totals were much higher across the league than today. In short, this 2018 Jets run defense, like most of the rest of this team, has been atrocious.

In three short years the Jets have gone from 3.6 yards per carry allowed to 3.7 to 4.0 to 4.5. They have gone from 2nd in the NFL in rushing yards allowed to 11th to 24th to 26th. They have increased their rushing yards allowed by a ridiculous 55%. And they have dismantled one of the most talented defensive fronts in the NFL and replaced it with a bunch of hold the fort type guys who aren’t actually holding the fort, but rather inviting the enemy in for a cup of tea and the run of the castle.

The Jets run defense is now a hollow shell of its former glory. The barbarians aren’t at the gate, they are running amok inside the fortress, ravaging the land, pillaging the treasury and laying waste to any hopes of victory. If the NFL wars are won in the trenches, this year’s Jets war was lost well before it was fought, doomed by poor planning, poor execution, and limited talent among the big guys paid to hold the line and stop enemy runners from penetrating.

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