New York Jets Defense is Awful When Muhammad Wilkerson, Sheldon Richardson and Leonard Williams Play Together 2
Dec 11, 2016; Santa Clara, CA, USA; New York Jets defensive tackle Leonard Williams (92) celebrates with defensive end Sheldon Richardson (91) after Richardson's tackle against the San Francisco 49ers during the fourth quarter at Levi's Stadium. The New York Jets defeated the San Francisco 49ers 23-17. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Like ESNY has been claiming for the last year-plus, the New York Jets defense is bad when Muhammad Wilkerson, Sheldon Richardson and Leonard Williams play together.

Finally, somebody else has said it.

If you’ve followed New York Jets coverage here at Elite Sports NY for the past year or so, you understand our stance on the front seven of the Jets. We think it’s setup to fail spectacularly. 

Though the choice of Leonard Williams in 2015 was the right one by Mike Maccagnan, not solving the issue of possessing three stud 3-4 defensive ends in a two-man starting system has crippled Todd Bowles‘ defense time and again, and it’s a criminal action that hasn’t been solved two years running.

Simply review the game tape. Review the box scores. In 2016, the Jets two top defensive performances came when Sheldon Richardson and Muhammad Wilkerson missed the game. These two glaring examples came in Week 1 against the Cincinnati Bengals and several weeks later against the Baltimore Ravens.

Trying to fit all three big guys along the line compromises EDGE play and desperately hurts the integrity of the defense, the speed element of the group. The worst part about it all is that the setup also destroys the ability to develop other young defenders within the unit.

In a Rich Cimini article via ESPN New York, stats have surfaced backing up the claim that playing all three at once is a nightmare.

via Zach Mariner of ESPN Stats and Information

Zach Mariner of ESPN Stats and Information dug up these stats that prove it simply doesn’t work.

Look at the snaps a year ago. In 513 tries, the trio yielded a disastrous 8.0 yards per pass attempt and 19 TDs to just two interceptions. First of all, it’s an indictment on Bowles that he tried to fit all three together that frequently. We already knew this didn’t work once the 2015 season came to a close.

With just Wilkerson and Williams, it was worse. Only when Williams or Wilkerson was on the sideline, did the defense actually improve. This is a major plus for the prowess of Richardson.

Why is this the case? The casual fan may not grasp it. I mean, all three are studs, right?

Well, because once a defense — 4-3 or 3-4, or even 5-2 if you’d like to go back half a century — tries to play too many interior linemen, EDGE play suffers. In the Jets 3-4 system, since neither of them plays nose tackle, a ridiculous four interior linemen setup was attempted earlier in the season.

The end result shook out to a loaded and far-too-heavy 4-3, something no intelligent defensive mind attempts due to obvious football reasons. He lined up all three stud defensive ends plus Steve McLendon as the four linemen in a 4-3 look.

It was simply insanity.

This is why, whether they received fair value or not, Richardson needed to be traded this past offseason. A compensatory pick in 2018 is just not worth the headache of another brutal 16 games. It’s not worth sacrificing the development of the rest of the defense.

In 2015, the defense got away with it mainly because Big Cat was still a rookie and they played a soft schedule. But once Week 17 came around, it was evident that Richardson trying to play the outside linebacker spot was just brutal.

Here are a few examples from the Week 17 loss up in Orchard Park, New York:

Remember, this was a playoff game for the Jets, a “win and in” situation. In such a situation, Bowles ran the risk of placing a 300-plus pound man at the EDGE spot.

Here’s Sheldon trying to keep up along the EDGE in 2016 against the Arizona Cardinals on Monday Night Football:

During this first example, they put him at an inside linebacker spot. So, for all intents and purposes, because he was blitzing, he was plugging the A-gap as a DT.

It obviously didn’t work as David Johnson took one to the house that started at that very A-gap and eventually the C-gap inside the right EDGE.

Yup, that’s Richardson jumping offsides from the EDGE.

Yup, that’s the entire Cardinals offensive line not even blocking Sheldon because they understand he’s not quick enough to get the QB on a 3-step drop.

And yup, that final video is Richardson’s out of position body killing the Jets right EDGE on the end-around. And mind you, this is all from just one game.

The Jets heavy look on defense is an offensive coordinator’s dream. All he has to do is gain the advantage along the EDGE. He understands there’s no speed and knows he can pinch his offensive line in pass protection on every drop back.

Which offensive coordinator is going to leave an extra running back in to chip the edge when the edge rushers (Sheldon or Mo), aren’t fast enough to get there? These are guys who prevail much more prudently when using their quickness against slower guards rather than trying to outmuscle offensive tackles.

The ripple effect starts there. Thanks to a simpler protection scheme, Lee and David Harris have a tougher time keeping up with the running backs and tight ends who are afforded more freedom in the passing attack.

How is a Darron Lee going to develop and excel behind a slow, lagging line who constantly breaks the integrity of the defense by not funneling everything inside, like they’re supposed to when an individual has EDGE responsibility?

He can’t. A Lee can’t develop properly thanks to the compromised setup. Calvin Pryor can’t fill in the run-game gaps as well as he should, thanks to the unbalanced look. And if Bowles tries to play all three of them together again, in 2017, Jamal Adams won’t be allowed to flourish to the highest degree.

Literally, the only chance this trio has of playing together is if one of them can slide inside to the nose tackle spot, but in this situation, whoever does, would be sacrificing his own play by playing out of position in a bigger, double-team like fashion. Not only that, but one could argue they then become to “light” along the line.

Like previously mentioned, we’ve done more on this topic over the last 18 months than any outlet in the world.

ESNY Game Tape Articles on this Situation:

All of the evidence is there. All of the plays can be looked at and dissected. And on top of attempting to fit a square peg in a round hole along the line, Bowles continues to battle his demons when it comes to defending the run first and leaving heavy packages out in passing situations. (That’s another sad story for a different day.)

The naysayers will point to the fact that Sheldon Richardson is a blue chip talent and shouldn’t be traded unless fair value is returned. And hey, the Jets will receive an end-of-third-round compensatory pick once he walks at the end of the year.

I simply don’t care about a third rounder when the entire structure of the defense is compromised. I’d rather bite the bullet, start fresh and provide my other defenders the best chance of developing. Only if two true EDGE players are on that football field can that scenario actually play out.

During Week 1 of 2017, if you see Bowles once again try to start and play all three studs, you already know it’s going to be a long season defensively. If you see him smartly rotate the three within the two 3-4 DE spots and occasionally toss the three in on a few specific sub packages, then OK, perhaps he’s learned his lesson and the team will just ride it out the proper way until that comp pick comes in 2018.

The bottom is this: there’s a reason during the history of football defensive ends and outside linebackers in the 3-4 are lighter, quicker guys. It’s because quickness and explosiveness are an absolute necessity at that position.

Muhammad Wilkerson, Sheldon Richardson nor Leonard Williams can play the EDGE spot in the NFL. It’s been proven the last two years and now, finally, thanks to Zach Mariner of ESPN, there are a few stats to go along with the video evidence.

Still, this evidence won’t make any New York Jets fan feel any better right now. They’re all heading into another season with all three guys employed and ready to play.

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Robby Sabo is a co-founder, CEO and credentialed New York Jets content creator for Jets X-Factor - Jet X, which includes Sabo's Sessions (in-depth film breakdowns) and Sabo with the Jets. Host: Underdog Jets Podcast with Wayne Chrebet and Sabo Radio. Member: Pro Football Writers of America. Coach: Port Jervis (NY) High School. Washed up strong safety and 400M runner. SEO: XL Media. Founder: Elite Sports NY - ESNY (Sold in 2020). SEO: XL Media. Email: robby.sabo[at]