FLORHAM PARK – Through the first two weeks of the season, opponents ran the ball just 37 times against the Jets – the second-fewest in the NFL.
“I think the film doesn’t lie, and I think people are seeing that we’re taking the run seriously,” said rush outside linebacker Quinton Coples. “You look at film and you see that, and you make adjustments. Until somebody beats us, until somebody does something that’s successful against us, I think we earned a sense of respect.
“We want to set records. It ain’t about just stopping it. We’ve got that mindset up front that we aren’t going to let nobody run on us. That’s just the way we’re built.”
The Jets’ successful run defense last season is perhaps one reason why the Raiders and Packers did not run too frequently against them in this season’s first two games.
But to posit that it is the only reason would be ignoring the obvious. The Jets have major issues with their secondary, as they did last year. So opponents are wise to test that area of their defense, rather than their front, which rates among the league’s best.
Plus, the Packers have one of this generation’s finest quarterbacks, Aaron Rodgers, and they aren’t paying him to hand off. Green Bay ran 22 times for 80 yards while beating the Jets. Rodgers threw 42 passes and completed 25, for 346 yards and three touchdowns.
Opponents avoiding running against the Jets this year hasn’t surprised defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson.
“Nah, not at all,” he said. “Kind of figured that guys wouldn’t try to keep testing our run defense. They’re paying quarterbacks $100 million contracts. Why not use them?”
The Raiders tested the Jets’ run defense even less in the opener than the Packers did in Week 2. Oakland ran 15 times for 25 yards, as rookie quarterback Derek Carr attempted 32 passes in a loss.
Oakland and Green Bay also played from behind in those games – a situation that demands more passing. The Raiders trailed for the entire second half and went down 19-7 with 8:03 left in the game. The Packers trailed 21-3 until 5:43 remained in the first half, and then stormed back for a 31-24 win.
Monday night’s home game against the Bears brings the sternest test yet for this Jets’ run defense. Chicago running back Matt Forte is coming off the best season of his six-year career: 289 carries, 1,339 yards and nine touchdowns. He finished third in the NFL in attempts, second in yards, seventh in touchdowns and ninth with 4.6 yards per rush.
Forte gashed the Bills in the 2014 opener – 17 carries for 82 yards (a 4.8 average) – before the 49ers slowed him in Week 2, holding him to 12 carries and 21 yards (1.8 per carry).
Through the first two weeks of this season, the Jets were third in the league with 2.8 yards per rush allowed.
Last season, for as poor as their pass defense looked, they enjoyed their finest run defense of coach Rex Ryan’s five seasons. The Jets ranked third in the league with 1,412 rushing yards allowed (88.3 per game) and first with 3.4 yards per carry allowed. Their previous best performances under Ryan came in 2010 – 1,454 yards, 3.6 per carry.
The Jets’ 2013 run defense was an about-face from 2012, when they finished 26th in yards surrendered (2,138) and 20th in yards per carry allowed (4.3).
The Jets brought back their entire, mostly young defensive front from last season. So their defensive linemen believe opponents must recognize the reputation the Jets’ run defense began to establish last season.
“If they don’t, they’re going to put us to the test,” said Richardson, a second-year pro. “I feel like all teams are going to try to do it.”
The Jets have invested heavily in their defensive front in recent years. In the 2011 draft, they picked end Muhammad Wilkerson 30th overall. The next year, they selected Coples 16th. In 2013, they grabbed Richardson at No. 13 and he won the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year award.
“I guess we should be decent at stopping the run,” Ryan said.
But it has not been as simple as plugging draft picks in, and stuffing every running play.
In 2012, the Jets signed undrafted free agent Damon Harrison, who played at an NAIA school. Defensive line coach Karl Dunbar helped develop Harrison into the Jets’ starting nose tackle.
Coples, as a rookie, played defensive end, and defensive tackle in sub packages. (He played both positions in college at North Carolina.) Last year, he had to transition to the rush linebacker spot, which required more patience in his approach to defending running plays. On the line, especially at tackle, running plays unfold quickly. Coples could simply attempt to shoot through a gap in the offensive line.
From the rush linebacker position, on the edge of the line, Coples said a run play “slowly develops,” which tests his ability to react. His first duty is to “set the edge” – make sure the running back cannot curl around the fringe of the line and get to the outside of the defense. Then Coples has to spot the running back – “seek the ball,” as Coples put it. If the running back cuts back toward the inside, Coples must pursue.
Whereas an interior defensive lineman can “just go get it” on a run play, “because it’s right there,” playing on the edge is more cerebral, Coples said.
The Jets feel plenty prepared to stop the run, but are wary of Forte, whom they expect the Bears to use heavily Monday, even though quarterback Jay Cutler has dangerous receiving targets in Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall.
“He’s a primetime guy, a franchise guy,” Richardson said of Forte. “I don’t see why not use him.”
Jets defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman said Forte is “a one-cut, downhill runner” who “does a tremendous job of breaking tackles” and poses a significant threat in the passing game. For his career, Forte has 354 catches for 3,021 yards and 12 touchdowns.
“They try to get him the ball in a variety of ways,” Thurman said. “We have to pay attention to him. When he’s going, their offense is going. So far, he hasn’t had the explosive game, but he’s more than capable. If I were them, and I had a runner like him, I’d test everybody’s defense. He’s one of the better backs in the league. We’re not sleeping on the fact that he’s in their backfield. Our No. 1 objective almost every week is to stop the run first, and then play good pass defense and not let the ball go over our head.”
Therein lies the rub when you face a team like Chicago, and receivers like Jeffery and Marshall. Ryan and Thurman know they might need to rely only on the front seven to stop the run – with no safety help – more than they would prefer, Ryan said.
“I think maybe your scheme may leave you a little more vulnerable or susceptible to the run than maybe the pass,” Ryan said.
Such is the nature of trying to avoid big passing plays, particularly with a patchwork secondary like the Jets are using. They can ill afford to creep their safeties too close to the line, lest Jeffery or Marshall get loose for a long touchdown pass.
But even if the front seven is left alone for most of Monday night to limit Forte, the Jets understand they have proven run defenders in that group.
“I get it, I know it’s a passing league, but we all know eventually, you have to stop the run,” Ryan said. “I think we can do that. We’ll be challenged this week, but again, we feel pretty good about it. Obviously, we’ve been fairly successful at it.”