Ben Roethlisberger's ability to perform under a heavy pass rush remains critical to Pittsburgh's offensive success.
06 Dec 2006
by Michael David Smith
Eric Mangini was hired as the Jets head coach because of his experience as a defensive assistant to Bill Belichick, who is widely regarded as the sharpest defensive mind in the game. Some of that defensive knowledge must have rubbed off on Mangini, the Jets brass figured, and he'd be the right person to build the defense in New York.
The early returns, however, were not impressive. Week after week, opposing running backs had big days against the Jets, and even the worst of offenses (like the Kerry Collins-led Tennessee Titans) could be counted on to put up a couple of touchdowns. But after the Jets' Week 9 bye, something changed. In the last four weeks, no team has scored more than 14 points against the Jets, and they're starting to look like legitimate playoff contenders. Is the Jets' defensive improvement real, or a mirage?
To find out, I watched the Jets defense on every play of their 38-10 win over the Green Bay Packers. The Jets got out to such a huge first-half lead that most of the second half consisted of soft zones, so I'll mostly focus on the first half. I saw a defense that does a lot of things well, like changing its blitzes and maintaining coverage discipline, but also a front seven that struggles with that most basic of tasks: stopping the run up the middle.
Let's start with that weakness on running plays. The Packers' second play was a second-and-2 handoff to Ahman Green. If you watched the tape of the play one frame at a time, you'd be sure after the first few frames that the Jets were going to stuff it. The Packers line hardly got any push at all, nose tackle Dewayne Robertson got past both center Scott Wells and left guard Jason Spitz, and linebacker Eric Barton hit Green at the line of scrimmage. But Robertson over-pursued and opened just enough room in the middle of the line for Green to get through, and Green kept pushing forward after Barton's initial contact and managed to pick up the first down.
The Jets played like that a lot on running plays: They did everything correctly ... right up until the point where they had to make the tackle. On a fourth-and-1, Green picked up the first down even though the Jets got good penetration into the backfield because no one wrapped Green up. On a first-and-10 pass to Vernand Morency, cornerback David Barrett got his arms around him but couldn't bring him down. All in all, I think the Jets could benefit by spending some time on some basic Pop Warner-style tackling drills.
Tackling isn't the only problem with the Jets run defense, though. On a first-and-10, the Packers ran a Colts-style stretch handoff to Green, and Wells destroyed Kimo von Oelhoffen, who lined up at nose tackle. Wells pushed von Oelhoffen about five yards downfield, then dumped him onto his back. It was the definition of a pancake block. I wouldn't want to be von Oelhoffen during film study when that play comes up. Spitz also knocked linebacker Brad Kassell onto his back on the same play, although Kassell did a nice job of sticking his arm out as he went to the ground to help slow Green before Erik Coleman brought him down.
On the Packers' biggest running gain of the day, Green went 35 yards on a handoff that looked like a typical Denver Broncos "one cut" play. Fullback Brandon Miree made the key block on Jets middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma to lead Green through the hole. Vilma is great in coverage and pursuit, but offenses have a lot of success running directly at him. I think Vilma is much more suited to playing in a 4-3 front, with two big defensive tackles helping to keep blockers off him, than he is to Mangini's 3-4 front. Vilma made some nice plays, including an excellent tackle of Morency, but as long as teams know they can send their running back up the middle behind their fullback every time they play the Jets, the Jets will have problems on defense. Linebacker Victor Hobson isn't nearly as fast as Vilma in the open field, but he's much better in traffic because he can fight off lead blockers. On a handoff in the third quarter, Hobson shoved Miree aside and tackled Green.
What can the Jets do to shore up that porous run defense? Backup Rashad Moore looks more comfortable than Robertson does as a 3-4 nose tackle, and he should get more playing time. He's stout against the run, and he's a better pass rusher than you'd think from looking at his big body. He chased Brett Favre and forced an incompletion on a third-and-1 in the third quarter. Robertson wouldn't need to come off the field when Moore enters; he might be better suited to end in the 3-4 front. Strong safety Eric Smith doesn't play a lot, but he looked good when he did against Green Bay. He prevented a first down on a third-and-10 pass to Green by coming in and laying a hard hit on him, limiting his gain to nine yards. Smith should probably get some more playing time in place of Coleman, who took a terrible pursuit angle on that 35-yard Green run, finally pushing Green out of bounds about 15 yards after he should have reached him.
The Jets' two best players Sunday were Shaun Ellis and Bryan Thomas. On a second-and-10 handoff to Green off the right tackle, the Packers line couldn't move Ellis and Thomas at all. Ellis forced Green to the outside and Thomas tackled him for a gain of two. On a third-and-6, Ellis beat the double team of Spitz and right tackle Tony Moll and hurried Favre just enough to force him to miss what could have been a long pass to Greg Jennings. Thomas showed great versatility. He's officially listed as a defensive end, but he's all over the field. On some plays he even lined up opposite slot receiver Donald Driver, jammed him at the line of scrimmage, and then rushed Favre. Mangini uses Bryan Thomas somewhat like Baltimore defensive coordinator Rex Ryan uses Adalius Thomas.
Frustrating Favre, as Ellis and Thomas did, was the key to the Jets' game plan against the pass. Although they only sacked Favre twice, they pressured him into making rushed or ill-advised throws throughout the game. They also exploited a clear weakness in the Packers' blocking schemes by repeatedly blitzing the outside linebacker who lined up across the line of scrimmage from tight end Bubba Franks.
On one first-and-10, the Packers signaled run by coming out in a two-tight end formation, and when Favre faked a handoff to Green, six of the Jets' front seven bit on the play action. But the one who didn't, outside linebacker Victor Hobson, came on a blitz, and Franks whiffed on the pickup. Hobson was about to sack Favre, but Favre made a nifty little shovel pass to Franks to avert disaster. Franks took it about two yards before free safety Kerry Rhodes and Robertson brought him down. Although Robertson, the starting nose tackle, is one of the reasons the Jets are weak against runs up the middle, that was a great play. He kept chasing Franks even though the play was well past him. That play was also one of many times that Rhodes went from deep pass coverage to making a tackle near the line of scrimmage quickly.
On a first-and-10 early in the game, with the Packers in a three-receiver set, the Jets came with their first big blitz, rushing five. Thomas came around the end untouched and sacked Favre, forcing a fumble that Robertson recovered. The key to the play was the way the two blitzing linebackers mixed up Franks, who let Thomas rush right past him and instead helped Morency block the Jets' other blitzing linebacker, Vilma, even though Thomas was clearly Franks' responsibility and Morency didn't appear to need any help with Vilma. It was a good play by Thomas, a bad play by Franks, but also a smart part of the game plan by Mangini to have his linebackers repeatedly rushing into areas occupied by Franks.
I mentioned the play when von Oelhoffen was pancaked, so I should also mention that he had a very good pass rush on a first quarter play. The Jets blitzed five and the Packers kept six in to block. Even though von Oelhoffen was the one Jets player who got double-teamed, he was the key to the pressure, beating Wells and left guard Daryn Colledge. Favre made a bad throw to get rid of the ball before von Oelhoffen got to him, and Coleman probably would have intercepted it if Franks hadn't tackled him. (Franks should have been called for offensive pass interference.)
I was impressed with both starting cornerbacks, Andre Dyson and new addition Hank Poteat. On a first-and-10 Dyson was in man coverage on receiver Donald Driver and stayed with him every step of the way on a deep route along the right sideline. When Favre (who wasn't pressured at all, as the Packers line picked up the Jets' four-man rush) threw the pass, Dyson made a great diving interception.
If Dyson and Poteat can be a reliable pair of corners down the stretch, that will allow the Jets to keep Rhodes, their great safety, closer to the line of scrimmage to help out against the run. That won't be enough to make the Jets a great defense against the run, but it might be enough to make them good. And with the Jets a surprising 7-5 and playing their best football as the calendar turns to December, a good run defense is probably all they need to get to the playoffs.
Each week, Michael David Smith looks at one specific player or one aspect of a team on every single play of the previous game. Standard caveat applies: Yes, one game is not necessarily an indicator of performance over the entire season.
46 comments, Last at 09 Dec 2006, 2:57pm by Led