Florham Park, N.J. - There once was a moment in recent memory when the only guaranteed consistency of the New York Jets came from their hyped up defensive line. Stopping the run was their bread and butter. With the talent on the depth chart, it was almost certain running backs would be a non-factor on game day. Fans knew their team's rush defense would stymie opposing ground games and the mobility of quarterbacks. But - like the rest of the team in 2016 - the unit must be salvaged quickly before the ship sinks entirely.
Six games into the season, fans have asked plenty of times: where is the rush defense? Where are the sacks? Where is the pass rush? The fact these questions are being brought up represents a microcosm of the current state of the Jets: confusing. The talent is there. New York - on paper - still has a vaunted defensive front with Muhammad Wilkerson, Sheldon Richardson, Leonard Williams and Steve McLendon. The results have not been produced. It is one of the many reasons why the Jets find themselves in last place in the AFC East at 1-5.
When examining this 1-5 abysmal start to the season, the season opener - a game that saw the defensive line compile seven sacks and allow only 57 rushing yards - was a tease. It feels like an entire season has come and gone. For the majority of six games, the secondary has been grilled to a crisp while the rush defense - despite their share of struggles - has been stronger. Yet, on a weekly basis, one weakness appears.
Up until Monday night's blowout loss to the Arizona Cardinals, New York surrendered an average of 68 rushing yards per game with one touchdown. The week prior, the Steelers - with Le'Veon Bell and DeAngelo Williams - were limited to a mere 61 rushing yards. On Monday, with run-stuffer David Harris sidelined due to a hamstring injury, the unit was exploited for 171 rushing yards - the largest amount the Jets have allowed since Week 17 of 2014.
"We come [to Arizona] and give up 100-and-something yards. That's embarrassing" defensive lineman Steve McLendon said after Monday night's 28-3 loss. "That's just straight embarrassing."
The Jets looked bewildered. They had virtually no answer to David Johnson who ran for 111 yards and three rushing touchdowns. While the injury of David Harris certainly hurt the unit's chances, the players who were on the field missed several tackles - especially on Johnson's first rushing touchdown of the evening, a 58 yard sprint on the second drive of the game. He was able to find a hole and shed past several New York defenders.
"They had a little more effort, a little more energy," said McLendon. "They just wanted it more than we did."
It is disconcerting for Jets fans - in a season that is slipping away quickly - to hear the foundation of the team did not provide a great effort or want it more than the competition. Having said that, the cards have been stacked against them. The injuries are beginning to pile up making the road for a comeback even more challenging. With all of the bumps and bruises, lineup regulars - like Sheldon Richardson - have been forced into positions they are typically unfamiliar and unsuccessful with.
Normally a member of the defensive line, at times Richardson was even asked to replace David Harris at the inside linebacker position Monday night. With rookie Darron Lee sustaining an ankle injury during the game, the slow-footed but strong Richardson had no choice but to line up in the middle of the field. It did not end well. The decision behind the move was confusing - there is that word again - and it came back to burn the Jets on all three Johnson touchdown runs. You can throw away that experiment because Sheldon Richardson is far from a linebacker - he simply is not fast enough.
"I make plays. That's it," Richardson said after the game Monday. "Put me in position to make plays and they did that."
Richardson was more open to the opportunity while outside spectators were befuddled.
The hole the Jets dug themselves into is fairly deep. The defense has been consistently exposed. But, there should not be any quit around the locker room. The Jets field one of the more talented rush defenses in the league. Aside from the Arizona game, the unit has been the strongest on the team this season. That is a good sign because New York simply cannot survive another element of this team to sink.
Joe Barone is a staff writer at JetsInsider.com/NYJScout.com. He can be reached on Twitter (@28JoeBarone), or via email (Joebarone28@gmail.com)null