Darron Lee

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Lichtenstein: Jets Could Use Pass Rush Help Immediate-Lee

Give Former 1st-Rounder Snaps At Edge Rusher

Steve Lichtenstein
August 27, 2018 - 11:01 am
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One should never construe anything from NFL preseason games, but the Jets’ pass rush -- or, more precisely, the lack thereof -- was a concern going into their 2018 campaign before any of these meaningless affairs were played.

Gang Green had a measly 28 sacks last season, the fifth fewest in the league.  Two of their top-three sack accumulators -- linebacker Demario Davis (five sacks) and defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson (3 1/2) -- have moved on, while linebacker David Bass (3 1/2) is currently sitting on the Jets’ roster bubble, having played just three snaps with the backups during Friday’s 22-16 preseason loss to the Giants at MetLife Stadium.

The Jets’ starting defense didn’t come within spitting distance of Eli Manning in Friday’s first half, allowing the Giants QB to dissect the Jets’ defensive backfield to the tune of 188 yards on 17-for-23 passing.

Jets coach Todd Bowles saw it differently. 

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Manning "was getting rid of the ball some, and there were sometimes they were in run sets and we were in run defenses and we had to transfer quicker from run to pass, but we got there a few times and the ball was out very fast,” Bowles said.  “We’ll just keep working on it -- we’ve got two weeks -- but I was happy with some of the progress some of those guys made down there tonight.”

That Bowles called Friday “progress” should tell you all you need to know about the Jets’ predicament.

In his 3-4 scheme, pressure from the edge rushers, typically outside linebackers, is an absolute necessity.  Without it, the defensive backs are at the mercy of the quarterbacks’ accuracy and the receivers’ hands.  Manning had enough time on Friday to read his fan mail before deciding whether to beat the Jets over the top or on underneath routes.

So far this preseason, among the Jets’ edge rushers, only strong-side linebacker Jordan Jenkins and third-stringer Dylan Donahue have registered a sack in the three games.

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It should not have been unexpected. With no replenishments for the departed in the offseason, sixth-year veteran Josh Martin is listed as the starter on the weak-side edge despite setting a career high with a whopping 1 1/2 sacks in 14 games last season.  Bowles has given long looks to journeyman Brandon Copeland and undrafted rookie Frankie Luvu, but neither appears to be the answer.  And, like Bass, 2015 second-round pick Lorenzo Mauldin is a long shot to even make the final cut after receiving two reps versus the Giants.

General manager Mike Maccagnan is keenly aware of this deficiency, telling reporters that he is open to looking outside the organization for help. However, I’m not buying the Khalil Mack rumor or any other game-changer landing here.

Maybe it’s time to try an outside-the-box solution. 

Inside linebacker Darron Lee lined up as an edge rusher on two snaps against the Giants, according to ProFootballFocus.com. At Ohio State, that was his regular position. He recorded 11 sacks in 28 collegiate games. Most scouting reports on Lee before the 2016 draft gave some variation of “he plays well in space” and “might have trouble taking on NFL blockers.”

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Of course, Bowles immediately transitioned Lee to play in the middle of the field, where his plus straight-line speed would be somewhat negated.

The Jets have acutely felt Lee’s growing pains from the switch on numerous occasions during his first two NFL seasons. From all the times he was blown out of the hole, or failed to plug the correct one, to coverage snafus, it’s clear to me this experiment is not going all that well.     

Though it’s very late in the process to make a full-time switch now, what do the Jets have to lose by giving Lee more reps on the edge, especially on passing downs, when teams typically remove linebackers to play more D-backs?

“I’ve done (playing outside linebacker) since my rookie year, so it’s nothing like brand new or anything,” Lee said.  “I’m always ready for whatever coach needs me to do.” 

Lee can’t be any worse than the dreck that has been lining up there the last few seasons.

BANK ON DARNOLD

The Jets’ quarterback competition has been beaten to death in the media, but it is relevant, so I’ll give you my very simple take:

It’s clear the Jets wanted Sam Darnold, the third overall pick in this year's draft, to earn the job. They feel he has done enough -- not necessarily more than his competitors -- in practices and in the preseason games to make them comfortable that he won’t be an embarrassment like Browning Nagle when the games count. Bowles sort of admitted that it’s not about the particulars of what Darnold has done right or wrong, or even if he’s really the quarterback who gives the Jets the best chance to win. Darnold is the future, and that’s why he will soon be announced as the starter in Detroit on Sept. 10.

End of story.

For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Devils and Jets, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.