When the New York Jets lost starting outside linebacker Bryan Thomas to a season-ending injury back in Week 4 in Baltimore, Rex Ryan had to get creative.
The Jets head coach and his fellow defensive coaches had to scramble to find a way to replace the ten-year veteran, who has been a staple in the Jets’ starting lineup the past six years.
Calvin Pace, the Jets’ other starting OLB, has picked up the slack in run defense from that point on. The Jets have used Pace to set the edge in Thomas’s absence and Pace (#97, above) has responded.
Pace has had a tremendous bounce back season for the Jets, after a down year in 2010 that was no doubt caused in part by a lingering broken foot that he fought through and played with all year.
Normally used in a pass rushing role, Pace has filled in admirably for Thomas, showing versatility with his ability to play multiple positions in the Jets’ creative defense.
While Pace has certainly stepped his game up after a disappointing 2010, it’s been the play of a trio of unheralded young outside linebackers that have given the Jets a big boost with some impressive play.
By now, Jets fans are familiar with the electrifying Aaron Maybin, the 23-year-old pass rush specialist who leads the team with six sacks and four forced fumbles in just nine games so far this season.
Maybin is usually in for passing downs, as he’s a little undersized for the base defense. 27-year-old Garrett McIntyre has been starting in the base defense the last three weeks, and was doing an adequate job.
McIntyre, who was undrafted out of Fresno State in 2006 and signed with the Jets prior to the 2011 season, has worked his way up from specials teams duties and earned more playing time on defense.
However, last week against the Washington Redskins, after the Jets were run over on their opening drive by running back Roy Helu, they turned to 26-year-old linebacker Jamaal Westerman, who played his college ball at Rutgers.
Westerman, who came to the Jets as an undrafted free agent in 2009, responded with a sack and five tackles, and now has 3.5 sacks on the season as the Jets’ revolving door at OLB continues.
“You get into certain positions where it’s ‘Hey, let’s feet the hot hand,’ ” said Jets defensive coordinator Mike Pettine. “Westerman came in and did a nice job, but I think both those guys know that they’re probably going to end up sharing [playing time].”
When asked whether Westerman is the man for the moment, Pettine indicated that it will indeed be Westerman who gets the start opposite Pace this week against the Kansas City Chiefs. But McIntyre will likely see time, too.
“That’s good competition between those two,” Pettine said. That competition has been a blessing in disguise for a Jets team that has struggled to find a permanent fixture at that OLB spot.
“It’s nice having that type of depth, … that type of competition,” Pettine said. “There’s no substitute to keep a guy motivated than to have a guy right there behind him.”
The Jets know all about having guys step up to replace fallen teammates on the defensive side of the ball. Each of the last two years, they lost Kris Jenkins to a knee injury. Last season they lost safety Jim Leonhard as well.
With every opening comes an opportunity for a new player to step in and step up. The Jets have a smart coaching staff and the right personnel to overcome almost anything, or so it seems.
The Jets have been pleasantly surprised by the contributions they’ve gotten from Westerman, McIntyre and Maybin, three players who previously made almost no impact on an NFL defense prior to the 2011 season.
Now, trust into the spotlight, they’ve become lynchpins in a Jets defense that is only going to be as strong as its weakest link.
With Bryan Thomas on injured reserve, the linebackers who have stepped into his shoes are doing a pretty good job not being that weak link, and it’s paying off for Rex Ryan and the New York Jets.