The Jets’ season felt like it took a death blow on that August afternoon in Green Bay as defensive end Carl Lawson was loaded onto a cart. It felt like that cart not only carried the team’s prized free-agent acquisition, who had just torn his left Achilles tendon, but also their hopes of having a ferocious defense.
But a funny thing has happened since that day in Green Bay. No one told the Jets’ defensive line that their season ended that day. Instead, it has been the team’s best unit this season and that was on display again Sunday when the Jets sacked Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill seven times in their win over Tennessee.
The Jets are tied for fourth in the NFL with 13 sacks and are fifth with 28 quarterback hits, according to Pro Football Reference.
Their defensive line has been huge. The group of John Franklin-Myers, Quinnen Williams, Sheldon Rankins, Bryce Huff, Folorunso Fatukasi, Shaq Lawson and Nathan Shepherd have been disruptive to opposing offenses, lightened the load on their own young secondary and kept the Jets in games when the offense has struggled.
Huff, who has two sacks this season, said the group knew it had to step up when Lawson was lost for the season. Through the first few weeks of training camp, Lawson was unstoppable and looked primed for a big season. The rest of the line knew they had to pick up the slack.
“There was a sense of we have to pick up where he left off,” Huff said Monday. “He brings that intensity every day, his attention to detail, his focus and how serious he takes every aspect of the game on and off the field. It put a good bit of pressure on us knowing we really have to elevate our game in order to make up for that loss.”
The Jets have gotten contributions up and down the line. On Sunday, there were six players in the NFL who recorded six pressures or more. Four were Jets — Franklin-Myers, Huff, Williams and Rankins.
Jets coach Robert Saleh builds his defense around the line. In San Francisco, he had Nick Bosa, Arik Armstead, Solomon Thomas and DeForest Buckner. It is clear that Saleh and defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich want to pressure the quarterback with the front four on first and second down and then bring the blitzes on third down.
“I’m very vocal, and our defense is very vocal, [Jeff] Ulbrich’s very vocal, with the fact that we win or lose based on our D-line on that side of the ball,” Saleh said. “They’re the heartbeat of that side of the ball and they take ownership in that. Obviously, it’s still a team game and the young guys in the back end are doing a phenomenal job giving them the time to get home, but that D-line takes pride in what they represent for this team and they’re a bunch of dogs and they play their butts off and it shows every Sunday.”
The Titans did some damage Sunday with star running back Derrick Henry (33 carries, 157 yards, 1 TD) but the Jets were able to make big plays on third down (5 of 19) and in the red zone (2 of 5). The line hurried Tannehill 21 times and pressured him on 35 of 45 pass-rushing snaps, per PFF.
Saleh said the pass rush is not all the front, but also the coverage the secondary is providing to force quarterbacks to hold the ball.
“We talk about it all the time with rush and coverage,” Saleh said. “We’ve got a young secondary back there who is doing everything they can to buy the D-line a hitch on the quarterback and if that quarterback hitches, our D-line is taking a lot of pride in making sure that he gets hit. So, it’s really a team game and if our back end wasn’t covering the way they were, our D-line, doesn’t matter how good they are, they never get home. So, I think it’s a significant complement of rushing coverage and obviously the mindset of the D-line to get home and make them pay as quickly as they can.”