Florham Park, N.J. - In one corner of the practice field at the Atlantic Health Jets Training Center, the fearsome group of New York Jets defensive linemen and starting linebackers game planned with coaches. They mocked formations and walked through a number of plays the unit will need, to have any success against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday.
Muhammad Wilkerson, Sheldon Richardson, Leonard Williams and Steve McLendon - a quartet that has looked sharp through the first quarter of the schedule - took charge, educating young players Lorenzo Mauldin and Jordan Jenkins where to line up. They reminded the entire group how important each snap is - especially with dual-threat running backs on the other side of the ball.
In this corner, coaches called offensive plays on one side of scrimmage while personnel communicated which direction to jog. Not one player was at full speed but it showed the attention to detail needed for a tall task the defense faces in the Steel City over the weekend - arguably one of the better running backs in the game - Le'Veon Bell.
Bell missed the first three games of the regular season due to his suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy. Yet, Bell did not miss a beat in Pittsburgh's 43-14 rout over the Kansas City Chiefs - a team that happen to embarrass New York a week earlier. The Steelers running back carried the ball 18 times for 144 yards. He was able to bust downfield for a 44-yard run in addition to catching five passes for 34 yards - he can do it all.
"He's a great young talent," Jets running back Matt Forte said of his counterpart. "He's a unique two-way player and is universal because he can run the ball and catch the ball. He is patient in the backfield - but he's been able to master that early in his career to pick the holes he wants to run through."
The four-year veteran out of Michigan State poses a major challenge to a Jets defense that has looked overwhelmed for the majority of their opening four games. New York's unit that had extreme hype during training camp is now ranked 16th in the league in total yards allowed but maintain the second spot in rush defense behind a stout Green Bay Packers front seven. They have already faced their share of strong running backs in Giovani Bernard, Jeremy Hill, LeSean McCoy, Spencer Ware and Christine Michael, but none come close to the explosiveness of Bell and always consistent DeAngelo Williams.
"[Bell's] a very smooth runner but he's a bigger and taller running back [than me]," said Forte. "It makes him dangerous when you get a guy like that - with all of these weapons - you have to look at him."
Pittsburgh has Antonio Brown drawing the primary hype and rightfully so - he gets to face a banged up New York secondary. But, Brown is not the only weapon Ben Roethlisberger utilizes while in the pocket. The dynamic ability from Bell and Williams provide Roethlisberger a safety net if the Jets front seven decide to bring pressure. If it is not Bell's speed and strength, it is Williams powering his way for 143 yards and two touchdowns like he did in Week One against the Washington Redskins.
Through four games, the Jets have surrendered an unsettling number of big plays on defense while forcing just three turnovers. The trend likely does not end against Le'Veon Bell who has one fumble in his four-year career and DeAngelo Williams who has yet to fumble in 70 attempts this season.
For years, the Jets have relied on a concrete rush defense. If they want any realistic chance at a victory over the Steelers, it starts with their bread and butter - controlling the ground game.
Joe Barone is a staff writer for JetsInsider.com/NYJScout.com. He can be reached on Twitter (@28JoeBarone), or via email (firstname.lastname@example.org)null