The New England Patriots offensive line will have their hands full with the three first rounders on the New York Jets defensive line. Muhammad Wilkerson, a 2011 1st rounder, is the 3rd highest paid defender in the NFL; Sheldon Richardson was the 13th overall pick in the 2013 draft and is one of the most versatile defensive linemen in the league; and Leonard Williams was the 6th overall pick in the 2015 for a reason- he’s arguably the best of the trio.
The Patriots interior line comes from far less impressive stock. Rookie left guard Joe Thuney is the highest draft pick of the bunch and was selected in the third round of the 2016 Draft. Sophomore right guard Shaq Mason was a fourth round pick in the 2015 Draft. Sophomore center David Andrews went undrafted in 2015.
Head coach Bill Belichick knows that his team is going against a rare group of talent since defensive tackles are rarely able to rush the quarterback with as much success as the Jets defensive front.
“Those guys don’t grow on trees,” Belichick said about pass rushing defensive tackles. “Leonard Williams, he was the- I don’t know sixth, fifth pick of the draft, whatever it was. Those guys- Sheldon Richardson, Wilkerson- I mean, a lot of those guys aren’t hanging around in the eighth round now, ninth round, free agency. They’re not there then. Yeah, they’re definitely harder to find. They’re definitely harder to find. That’s why they go so fast.”
What makes these defensive tackles so unique is their ability to line up anywhere in the formation.
On any one play, any of the could play nose tackle, or three-technique in between the tackle and guard, or five-technique outside of the offensive tackle, or even in the standard 4-3 defensive end position.
The Jets are able to play a heavy defensive front against the run or a speedy pass rush against the pass, all with the same personnel. This allows the Jets to disguise their defensive packages, which makes it more difficult for quarterbacks like Tom Brady to decipher prior to the snap.
New York is also able to concentrate their effort in pass coverage because the defensive linemen are talented enough to rush the quarterback. In other words, the Jets can play a three-man defensive front that is big enough to stop the run, while also offering the ability to rush the quarterback if the linebackers need to drop into coverage.
While Wilkerson and Richardson were recently benched for missing meetings, and there is clear trouble with both of them, Williams has continued to develop in his second season in the league. He aligns all over the formation and he is able to take advantage of the weaknesses of each of the Patriots offensive linemen.
“[Williams is] tough to block, disruptive player, impact player [in both the] running game, passing game,” Belichick said. “They put him on the nose a decent amount when they play their five-down look and get him isolated on the centers. He’s been very disruptive there, been hard to block. He plays some three-technique when they get into their four-man rush and they put him out at end, so they go with Richardson, Wilkerson and him, and then whoever the fourth guy is. So he can play out on the tackle when they play three-technique, and then they use him some on the nose in their five-down scheme, so he’s hard to block no matter where he is.
“He’s long, quick and has very good leverage and strength for as long as he is. He plays with a good pad level and he’s got good leverage. He’s a good power rusher but he’s long and he can use his arm overs and his length and he’s got the quickness on stunts and games to be disruptive, too. He’s just a really good player; plays hard, makes some plays from the back side. He’s a good player; hard to block, long, can tip balls. He’s a problem.”
“[Williams has a build like Richard] Seymour, Tommy Kelly, that kind of six – whatever he is, six-four, six-five, however big he is,” Belichick added. “He looks big, I mean, he’s got long arms, he plays long. Those guys are tough matchups inside when they can do all those things, when you’re not just moving a big guy in there to take up space, but when they can actually play like a tackle and play like an end at either spot.
“Just like when you move him out to end, they kind of power out there. For some of the taller tackles that have trouble getting down low, he just kind of powers through them and they can’t handle his quickness; reaches blocks and he undercuts them, things like that. He’s a tough guy to block everywhere; really good player.”
Mason struggles against defensive linemen with good counter moves in the pass rush, while both Thuney and Andrews struggle against defensive tackles with strong bull rushes. Even left tackle Nate Solder and right tackle Marcus Cannon have trouble handling the “quickness” of certain rushers.
Tom Brady will have to be on top of his game to read the Jets defense, and his receivers will need to get open as quickly as possible if the Patriots are going to move the ball against the Jets defensive front.