By: Noah Nichols
A good pass rush makes a great defense. A great pass rush makes an elite defense.
Yes, that argument is not one hundred percent true, because secondary players are important. Are they more important than the front seven? It’s debatable. However, every single great defense in the NFL always has a good to great pass rush. And the best defenses have a great pass rush. Always.
And arguably the best way to build a team is to begin in the trenches. Build a great defensive and offensive line and go from there. That’s what the New York Jets and Detriot Lions are trying to do. Both the Jets and Lions took offensive lineman with high picks, and Jets head coach Robert Saleh has clearly made the defensive line a priority by adding Carl Lawson, Sheldon Rankins, and Vinny Curry.
And when your trenches have an “x-factor” player, then it’s that much easier for the defense to be great. Just take a look at the Los Angles Rams. If Aaron Donald played for some other team, there is no question that the defense would be much worse. Or look at T.J. Watt. If he were to be on some other team besides the Pittsburgh Steelers, would their pass rush even break 30 sacks? There is a good argument that it would not.
The Jets need an x-factor on the defense. After they traded Jamal Adams to the Seattle Seahawks, the only player of note on the Jets defense is Marcus Maye. And while Maye is a fine safety, he is not a star player. And if the Jets want to build a great defense, which is a good bet considering head coach Robert Saleh’s background, then the Jets need start players. They need players that can “call game,” making a play when the defense, and team, need it most.
There is plenty of talent on the offense. Zach Wilson, Mekhi Becton, Elijah Moore, and Michael Carter will give splash plays to an offense that badly needed them in 2020. The defense, however, will be picked on if it can’t pick up its own end. Without a star player on defense, it doesn’t matter how many points the offense scores. The Jets will lose anyways. At least, that’s what will happen if Quinnen Williams doesn’t play football in 2021. However, last time I checked, he will play football in 2021. A lot of it.
The former third-overall pick is the focal point on the Jet’s defense. He is their only star player. The pass rush and run defense start with him. Why? He has the most talent out of anyone else on the Jets defense. And because of the free-agent additions of Lawson, Rankins, and Curry, Williams is set up to succeed. The free-agent additions ensure that it won’t be just Williams and “everyone else” rushing the quarterback. And Williams is only getting better himself. He has not reached his ceiling yet, not by a long shot.
Williams almost doubled his rookie stats from 2019 to 2020. In thirteen games last season, Williams had 55 tackles, 10 for a loss of yards, seven sacks, 14 quarterback picks, three passes defended, and two forced fumbles. And the players around Williams were not as talented as the new group of free-agent acquisitions. Instead of players like Nathan Shepard and Kyle Philips on the line, forcing attention to the way of Williams because he was so much more talented than everyone else, Williams now has help. Lawson and Rankins make sure that offenses cannot focus on Williams and only Williams, if they don’t pay attention to Lawson and Rankins and company, life could get hard, and quickly.
Saleh pointed that out in an interview. “That kid is special,” Saleh said during an appearance on “The Michael Kay Show” on WEPN-FM in New York. “He’s a game-wrecker. He’s somebody you have to game plan against to keep him at bay, and, obviously, it gives the other 10 guys an opportunity to excel just because of the focus that he’s going to garner.”
Saleh really likes what he sees in Williams. Really likes what he sees. “In regards to that young man,” Saleh told reporters about Quinnen Williams, “his mindset, his athleticism, his power, his love for football, really, really excited to see him in our system, especially up front and the way we design with that attack style.” So Saleh is going to give Williams chances and create opportunities for Williams to succeed.
The 2021 NFL season is the year for Williams to breakout. And he certainly has the opportunity to become one of the best defensive lineman in the NFL. His talent and surroundings make him the Jets x-factor. Williams can be a Chris Jones, Cam Heyward type player. He only played thirteen games last year. Add four more games to that and his stats have to go up. He probably gets double-digit sacks. The forced fumbles and fumble recoveries should go up as well, but those things are less certain and are more up to chance.
If Williams can take advantage of the talent that surrounds him.
That is really the biggest question. Williams has already proven that he has talent. 2020 proved that he knows how to get to the quarterback too. But can he be the guy on the Jets defensive line? The x-factor so to speak? What does that even mean, “be the x-factor?”
Jokes aside, the x-factor is someone that makes big plays in big moments. Someone who always comes up clutch when needed, cannot be ignored, and most importantly, cannot be stopped. Williams is most of the way there to be the Jets X-factor. Offenses will not ignore him. Not after the campaign that he put together in 2020. He has the opportunity to build on that again this year. The new free agent additions will put together one of the strongest defensive lines in the NFL. Williams should be able to take advantage of the problems that the line will cause to offenses. He has the best chance to, out of everyone else on the line. Why? He has the most talent.
And the way that the Jets have built their line, they certainly believe that Williams can become an elite defensive player. The free-agent additions were all compliments to Williams. Rankins improves the inside of the line, Lawson the pass rush, and Williams provides the interior pass rush. The biggest problem is a lack of prominent edge rushers, but there is not much that the Jets can do about it now. Aside from perhaps Justin Houston, no real effective edge-rushing threat remains on the free-agent market.
Williams will have to put in the work. He will need to become the vocal leader of the Jets defense. X-factors lead the defense, both by example and verbally. And he already has started stepping up as a vocal leader. Williams said this when talking about his defense.“The main thing I feel like we need as a defense is just a mentality, like a standard, a culture,” Williams said. “You could definitely see that culture coming with the young guys who we have now. That mentality with the young guys coming in, who’re getting their feet wet in the NFL, who stepped up big like Bryce Hall, Lamar Jackson, Ashtyn Davis, and just a few other guys, like (former St. Paul’s Episcopal standout) Bryce Huff, Jabari (Zuniga), like a lot of young guys, me, Foley.”
But that isn’t everything. Williams wants his defense, and himself to be known. He didn’t say it but perhaps he would even want his defense to be feared. “We’re all young, so the main thing I think next year that we got to establish as being third-year players and fourth-year players is just a defensive culture, man, because you got like the New York Sack Exchange, who had all these sacks and them guys were being known for their defense.” Clearly, Williams has a goal in mind. That culture is starting to improve. Starting with Williams.
But Williams will still need to step up, helping rookies learn a thing or two here or there, calling other players, and himself out, when mistakes are made. Staying up late to watch film, over and over again? Stay after practice to continue working on some small pass rush move that he doesn’t have done quite right?
Yeah, he will need to do that. And more, if he wants to become one of the players on the Jets. It’s a good thing, then, that hard work is not something new to Williams. The former Alabama star received glowing praise from legendary head coach, Nick Saban. “He has always played with a great attitude. Lots of tenacity. He’s a hard worker who tries to do everything right, and he’s a smart player as well.”
Williams has the work ethic. He has the talent. He has the opportunity. The only question left isn’t “can he do it” but “will he do it?” Let’s take a look at the Jets opponents for 2021 and see if we can find our answer there. As a disclaimer, when I say “such and such team had the “insert rank here” line in the NFL”, I am ranking it solely on sacks given up. NOT on how good the line was at running the ball. That statistic is much, much harder to account for because it relies just as much on the running back as the line.
Buffalo has neither a particularly stout or weak offensive line. The Bills gave up 27 sacks in 2020, good for seventh-best in the NFL. Certainly, that is partly due to Josh Allen, who is hard to bring down. Williams certainly has a chance to notch a sack or two, and will certainly garner some pressures, but his biggest challenge is actually bringing down Allen.
The Dolphins gave up 34 sacks last year, tying the Los Angles Chargers for fifteenth-best in the NFL last year. Williams has a much better chance here to dominate the game. A middle of the road offensive line partnered with Tua Tagovailoa who is not extremely mobile or tough to bring down, should not be a tough challenge for Williams. Williams should eat in this matchup.
vs. New England
The Patriots ranked 19th in the NFL last season in sacks allowed, with 37 sacks given up. And while the offensive line should be a little better than last season given some off-season upgrades through the draft and free agency, it won’t be a top ten unit. Williams will have no trouble with the quarterback either IF it’s Mac Jones, who is not very mobile. And even if Cam Newton is the quarterback, Newton is not what he used to be so Williams won’t have as much trouble bringing him down as perhaps Josh Allen.
This is a matchup that Williams should LOVE. The Jaguars gave up 44 sacks in 2020. They were tied for the sixth-worst offensive line in the NFL last year. And the Jaguars have not done a whole lot to upgrade that position through free agency or the draft. And even though Trevor Lawrence is a mobile quarterback, Williams should still be able to add a sack or three to his stat sheet during this game. He should dominate.
It will almost be more interesting to see how Williams handles Derrick Henry than how he handles Ryan Tannehill. The Titans were tied for the sixth-best offensive line in the NFL last year, giving up only 25 sacks. So while Williams sure will be focused on sacking Tannehill my best guess is that he focuses more on stopping Henry. It will be a tough task for Williams, but he has the talent to make it happen. If he shines in this game, and the next one, then Williams will be recognized as a bona fide star.
vs. New Orleans
The only offensive line in the NFL that might be better than this one is the Cleveland Browns. And while the Saints gave up 29 sacks, good for 11th-best in 2020, they still have more talent on the o-line than anyone but the Browns. This game will be tough for Williams. It will be easier for him if Jameis Winston is quarterback over Taysom Hill, because Winston is a lot less mobile. If Williams can prove his mettle in this game and make a few splash plays, then he will be well on his way to earning a pro bowl, and potentially, All-Pro honors.
vs. Tampa Bay
Tampa Bay statistically the fourth-best offensive line in the NFL last year and gave up only 22 sacks. This game will be yet another strong test for Williams. He wont have any trouble with Tom Brady, who is not anywhere close to being a mobile quarterback. Williams will certainly be able to put up a sack or some tackles for loss, but that does depend on if the Jets are winning or losing. If the Jets are losing, by a lot, then Williams will probably get pulled from the game at some point to prevent injury, or he just will become a nonfactor. However, if the Jets want to have any chance at winning this game, it will start with Williams being disruptive and in Brady’s face all day.
Tied for the 5th-worst offensive line last year, the Bengals gave up 48 sacks. And while they do get Jonah Williams back from injury, and added some players in the draft, the line still won’t be great. Williams should have a field day with this line. A two-sack game is very plausible and would be the primary force in shutting down a potentially potent Cincinnati offense.
Quinnen Williams should have this game circled on his calendar. Next to the circle should be words that say something like; “If Line not healthy, set career sacks record.” The Eagles had the worst line in the NFL last year, by far. They have up 65 (yeah, you read that right, 65!) sacks in 2020. that beat the next closest team by 15 sacks. And while injuries were certainly a problem last year, the Eagles line will still be pretty bad. Jalen Hurts is a mobile quarterback, but Williams should have no real trouble logging a sack or two, and a good amount of tackles for loss.
Speaking of teams that sucked at protecting the quarterback, the Texans gave up 50 sacks last year. That tied them with the New York Giants and Washington Football Team for the second-worst offensive line in the NFL in 2020. So, everything that I mentioned about Williams having a field day against the Eagles is the same here too. Oh, and Deshaun Watson probably won’t be the quarterback, so Williams doesn’t need to be worried about a mobile, dual-threat, quarterback.
The second-best offensive line in the NFL last year, the Colts will present a tough task for Williams. He will have his work cut out for him in the run game too, with Jonathan Taylor at running back. Williams certainly could have a sack in this game, but if there is any game in 2021 where he becomes a mostly nonfactor, it would be this game. If Williams were to show up big in this game though, the Jets would have a much better chance of winning. Williams could make it happen, but the chances are lower than any other game.
the Broncos had a middle-of-the-road offensive line last year, giving up 32 sacks. That was good for 11th-best. Williams should be able to take advantage of talent disadvantage the he poses in this game. His main concern should be Javonte Williams, who led his college division in broken tackles last year. Quinnen Williams should have no problem leading the defense to some big plays in this game. However, if Williams does not play well in this game, the Jets have no realistic shot at winning.
The Falcons had the tenth-worst offensive line in the NFL last year and gave up 44 sacks. Williams should eat in this matchup. There is no real threat at running back, Matt Ryan is largely a statue at quarterback, and does not shake off would-be tacklers at all. Williams should shine in this game against a weak Falcons o-line, and largely un-talented running back room.
The panthers had the definition of average at offensive line last year. They gave up 36 sacks, good for the 17th-best offensive line in the NFL last year. This game will primarily focus on Williams ability to defend the run, with Christian McCaffrey coming back from injury. If Williams can stop McCaffrey, then the defense should largely be able to handle business. McCaffrey is a big challenge, but it should not be something that Williams cannot win. And while Sam Darnold is a mobile quarterback, Williams knows how Darnold reacts to pressure and should be able to notch a sack.
Overall, throughout all these games, Williams is the key to the defense. As he goes, so does the rest of the defense. If he has a great game, then the rest of the defense will probably shine as well. If Williams is dominant in a game, then the Jets don’t have to worry so much about their secondary. Williams play not only helps the defense, but it will help the offense too. Nothing is better for an offense than a defense that makes timely plays. And Quinnen Williams is the best place to start when looking for someone to make that splash play on defense.