I chose Muhammad Wilkerson as this week's player to watch for a few reasons. First, as the starting left defensive end for the New York Jets, he will directly face one of the Detroit Lions' struggling or banged-up right tackles this week. Second, even though he only has eight tackles on the year, he is capable of being a dominant player and is coming off of a breakout year. Finally, he anchors a Jets defensive unit that ranks near the top of the league against both the pass and the rush.
The Jets drafted Wilkerson in the first round of the 2011 NFL Draft. Now in his fourth season, Wilkerson has played in every game of his young career while compiling 189 tackles and 20 sacks. Slightly more than half of those sacks came during his breakout 2013 season when he established himself as the Jets' top pass rusher.
Although Wilkerson primary plays on the left end of the Jets' 3-4 defensive scheme, he has the physical attributes to play all along the Jets' front seven. His 6-foot-4, 315-pound frame is large enough to dominate inside while his 4.96 40-yard-dash speed is fast enough to pressure outside of the pocket. His main criticisms stem from his lack of elite first-step quickness, but his size and stamina more than make up for that, as he is a true three-down lineman. Wilkerson played an astounding 95 percent of the Jets' defensive snaps last year (cough cough Nick Fairley cough).
So far this season, Wilkerson has not had the same impact as last year in terms of sacks and tackles. However, he is still playing at an extremely high level. In Week 1, he applied consistent pressure and disrupted the Oakland Raiders' passing game by batting down three passing attempts. In Week 2, Wilkerson's impact against the Green Bay Packers was limited by a third-quarter ejection for fighting with the Packers' offensive line (but any lineman worth his salt has done that, so we cannot hold that against him). Against the Chicago Bears in Week 3, Wilkerson dominated the opposing offensive line by sacking Jay Cutler 1.5 times and helping shut down the Bears' rushing attack. In his two full games this season, Pro Football Focus awarded Wilkerson a +3.4 and +3.9 grade, plus one game ball.
So much of this week's matchup against Wilkerson depends on who will start at right tackle for the Lions. With starter LaAdrian Waddle on the shelf for most of the season so far, the right side of the Lions' offensive line has struggled. Fill-ins Garrett Reynolds and Cornelius Lucas have been horribly overmatched, painfully so at times. When going head to head with a premier pass rusher like Julius Peppers last week, the backup duo just tried desperately to get in the way and pray for guard or tight end help. Wilkerson may not have the pedigree of Peppers, but he is more than capable of taking advantage of a mismatch. There is still hope that Waddle will return, and the early injury reports this week look promising.
Regardless of who starts at right tackle for the Lions, Wilkerson and the rest of the Jets' front seven pose a significant challenge. Jets coach Rex Ryan is well known for his aggressive defensive style. He uses blitzes and different formations to throw off blocking schemes and apply quarterback pressure. Fellow POD writer Jeremy Reisman provided an excellent breakdown of the weaknesses of that system and how the Lions can attack the Jets' aggressive style here. If you are too lazy to click on that link or read the post, it boils down to quick-hitting throws, misdirection plays like draws and screen passes.
I completely agree with Jeremy that the first three weeks of the season show how susceptible the Jets are to quick-hitting attacks that turn their own aggressiveness against them. The good news for the Lions is that, if the offensive line can give Matthew Stafford time, the Jets' secondary is likely to crumble. While the Jets have one of the lowest passing yards allowed totals in the league, that number is deceptive. Their allowed quarterback rating is 100.4, and they have given up seven aerial touchdowns this year without a single interception. Give Stafford time and he can pick this secondary apart.