It is much easier to compare the team defenses in the AFC East now that each team is running a 3-4. The 3-4 defense has been a progressive trend in the NFL and the league has now 15 teams using this defense! In 2004 only 5 teams were utilizing the scheme. With the success of this defense I see these numbers rising.
Four of the top five defenses in the NFL run the 3-4 as well as 3 of the top 5 sack leaders. The 3-4 scheme is growing in popularity due to its success but in my opinion it has a lot to do with personnel also. The advantages of the scheme show up everywhere on your team. The NFL allows you to take 53 players to the game. Every week coaches try to find the right 53 players to help its team win. The 3-4 defense changes a teams personnel dramatically. You carry much more linebackers in the 3-4 and less defensive lineman. This helps your special teams tremendously. Picture being able to carry up to 10-12 linebackers on a roster. This gives you big, strong, athletic players sprinting down the field to make plays on special teams. Those hidden yards can be crucial during the course of a game, especially in the intense AFC East matchups.
When you are building a 3-4 defense you have to start with the defensive tackle. He is the heart and soul of this defense and is essential to its success. Having a strong nose allows your middle linebackers to flow freely to make plays. If he is able to take up two blockers in the middle of that offensive line, it produces a favorable matchup for the middle linebacker. He is either matched up with a fullback, or no one. The AFC East is very strong at this position and in this article I attempt to divvy out the accolades.
1) New England Patriots- Vince Wilfork is the best 300 pound athlete I have ever seen, hands down. A man that size is not supposed to do the things that Wilfork continues to do on a weekly basis. There are a number of things that stand out when mentioning the star nose tackle; the way he demands a double team, and beats it, the way he can get to the edge after beating an interior lineman to make a tackle for a loss, the way he pushes the pocket by man-handling the center. The things this man does put him in a class of his own.
Along with being an elite nose in the 3-4 defense, Wilfork has been an above average defensive end in it as well. Bill Belichick’s creativity with this scheme has been advantageous for Wilfork in allowing the big man to make plays. Wilfork’s versatility is not common at his size and his play along this defensive line has been crucial to New England’s continued defensive success. There seems to be this contention that the Patriots defense was poor last year and needs a huge makeover this season. The Pats were 11th in total defense last season and have brought back mostly all the players that helped get them there. Vince Wilfork, like all defensive tackles in this scheme, is the heart of the Patriots defense. This defense goes as he goes, and when he’s going good he is virtually unstoppable.
2) New York Jets- In any other division in football Kris Jenkins would more than likely be the number one tackle. Jenkins is an absolute monster and is the quintessential clogger in the middle of the Jets defense. He always requires a double team because of his immense size and strength. Jenkins plays with great leverage and is able to penetrate interior lines to make plays in the backfield.
Coming off of a season ending ACL injury to his left knee, Jenkins needs to come back healthy to help his team. More importantly, he needs to be in shape. Recent reports have Jenkins weighing 390 pounds! That’s thirty pounds heavier than his listed weight last season. As heavy as that sounds, Jenkins will be able to shed that weight in the heat of summer camps. The Jets had the number one overall defense last season, the best against the pass and 8th vs. the run. With Jenkins coming back healthy its scary to think that they will see an improvement in these areas. It is worth noting that the Jets also have a solid backup in Sione Pouha who played well in Jenkins’ absence last season.
3) Miami Dolphins- The Miami Dolphins were in the top five in rush defense halfway through the 2009 season. This was directly because of Jason Ferguson the team’s 35 year old captain. When he was lost for the season in week 12 with a quad injury, the Dolphins saw there run defense, along with its lofty playoff aspirations, crumble. The run defense dropped to 18th and that number needs to improve if they want to compete in this division.
Ferguson has returned to the team this year but faces an 8 game suspension due to a PED violation. His replacement comes from converted defensive end Randy Starks. Many speculated that reserve nose Paul Soliai would take the vacancy, but the coaching staff saw the drop in production from that spot and were forced to take Starks from the end position and move him inside. Randy Starks is relatively unknown to the common fan, but in NFL circles he is a great talent who emerged last season at the defensive end slot for the Dolphins in a big way. Starks plays behind the line of scrimmage and made a ton of plays for this Dolphins defense, but will it translate to defensive tackle? Starks is stout against the run and is very athletic for his size. He has a big test ahead of him and the first 8 games of the Dolphins season are brutal. He will face the likes of the Viking, Jets, Patriots, Bengals, and Ravens. All of these teams are in the top half of the league in rushing. If Ferguson has a set back in his rehab, the ninth game of the season is against Chris Johnson and the Titans. The Dolphins need production from this position if they want a shot at he division.
4) Buffalo Bills- The Buffalo Bills will be switching to the 3-4 defense this season. The Bills were 30th against the run last season and with the new defensive scheme they hope to be more productive. The changing of the personnel groups will be interesting to watch as this young team tries to get back to its early 90′s prominence. When you look at the Bills roster you see three nose tackles listed; Kyle Williams, Lonnie Harvey, and Torell Troup. Williams has the most experience (5 yrs) in the group, but I see 2nd round pick Torell Troup out of Central Florida taking the spot this season.
Troup had a very solid week at the Senior Bowl and impressed coaches with his ability to push the pocket. He is thought of as a high motor kid with good strength at the point of attack. Troup was a key reason why UCF ranked 4th in the country against the run last season. His transition to the nose will be a tall task to take on in this competitive division. The combination of Troup and Williams will be vital if the Bills want to stop the run on a more consistent basis.