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Sheldon Richardson Could be the Key to Rex Ryan’s Defense

Sheldon Richardson

Back in 2009 and 2010, when the New York Jets were dominating offensive fronts, Rex Ryan devised a surplus of exotic blitz packages out of his 3-4 defense that left quarterbacks questioning protection assignments.

Ryan ran a myriad of overload blitzes, and in some cases, sent as many as 6 rushers at a time.  Of course, when you have the luxury of running out the best cover corner in the league in Darelle Revis, it’s a lot easier to play man coverage in the secondary and allow your defense to take advantage of the numbers game.

Having an exceptional cover corner is something any coach would covet — especially in a 3-4, blitz-happy defense — but the most important player to a 3-4 base is the nose tackle.  The nose tackle is responsible for both A gaps, and is the driving force behind the front line attack.  Additionally, if the nose tackle can occupy more than one lineman, it allows for at least one free-rusher the offense can’t account for.

Chris Jenkins, whose career was shortened by injury, is a prime example of a talented nose tackle to thrive in Ryan’s system.  In his first year with the Jets, Jenkins was dominant and regarded as one of the best interior defensive linemen in the game.  In 2009, the Jets’ defense was the NFL’s best, according to Football Outsiders’ DVOA rankings.  Jenkins tore his ACL in October and subsequently missed the rest of the season.  New Yorks’ defense, though, didn’t miss a beat at nose tackle, when they replaced Jenkins with Utah University product and current free agent, Sione Pouha.

Both Jenkins and Pouha excelled at occupying two defenders in the interior, while allowing blitzing backers and ends a clear path to the quarterback.  It’s this type of nose tackle play the Jets need out of their first-round draft pick Sheldon Richardson if Ryan is intent on harping back to his aggressive ways.

In college, Richardson was a prototypical down defensive tackle in Missouri’s base 4-3, which is why some draft experts were surprised when the Jets selected him 13th overall.  But Ryan, with his supreme confidence and defensive acumen, felt Richardson represented the compact-speed interior-rusher he needed to solidify the inside of his unit.

In his first defensive snap against the Detroit Lions Friday night, Richardson exploded out of his stance, worked his way into the back field, and showcased why he was taken early in the first round. This backed Ryan’s belief that Richardson is the perfect blend of speed, explosiveness, and power.

The ability to push centers off their spot and drive them into the backfield is paramount for a nose tackle.  Richardson proved in college he has the athleticism and speed to get up field, but as a pro, he’ll have to develop better hands and leverage techniques if he wants to compete at the highest level against the best centers and guards in the NFL.  There’s also a chance that Richardson will play right defensive end and the nose tackle duties will be designated to Antonio Garay or Kendrick Ellis.  Because of his smaller size and shorter arms, Richardson would fit best as a traditional defensive tackle in a 4-3 scheme (similar to the one he played in at Missouri), but his quickness off the ball and his knack for getting into the backfield warrants at least giving him a look at the nose.

Will get a better indication as to who will play the nose tackle position throughout training camp and the preseason.  But if Richardson shows he has similar abilities to Jenkins and Pouha, he may prove to be the most important player on defense for the Jets this season.