FLORHAM PARK, N.J.
The numbers aren’t what he had in mind at the start of the season, and the Jets’ Leonard Williams is the first to admit it.
“In a position like mine, people want to see sacks,” the third-year defensive tackle said.
There are only two sacks next to Williams’ name on the stat sheet, far less than the sack-a-game goal he brought into the season. But even if there isn’t numerical confirmation of what he has contributed to a season in which the Jets remain in contention for a playoff berth, there still is the “D” word. And that’s good enough for the Jets’ 2015 first-round draft pick.
“Being a player and not just someone looking from the outside in, we know what a defensive lineman is, and that’s to be able to be disruptive,” Williams said. “Just because I don’t have the sack numbers, I know I’m still being disruptive, and I’m still helping out the team as much as possible.”
Williams has played better in recent weeks, and although he had no sacks in Sunday’s 38-31 upset win over the Chiefs, he did have four hits on quarterback Alex Smith.
“We think Leonard is definitely improving. He is really coming up,” defensive coordinator Kacy Rodgers said. “He is really getting to the point where we have high expectations for Leo, and he’s exceeding them.”
Williams had seven sacks last season, but Rodgers isn’t worried about this year’s reduced total.
“That’s the way it goes sometimes,” he said. “He’s probably kicking himself because he came free on a [defensive line] stunt that he really should have had one [sack]. He left one out there. But sometimes it happens like that. As long as he’s hitting the quarterback, we’ll be OK.”
Williams’ improved play of late is especially important in light of Muhammad Wilkerson’s continued unreliability, both on and off the field. Despite vowing to be more of an outspoken leader and improve his level of play, Wilkerson has languished statistically and is coming off yet another first-quarter benching for being late to a team meeting. That’s three straight years in which Wilkerson, a first-round pick in 2011, has been disciplined for being tardy.
It’s not what you expect from a player who was re-signed for five years and $86 million before the 2016 season. With only 2½ sacks and 40 tackles this season and a bloated 2018 salary of $16.75 million that becomes guaranteed in March, it’s a lock that the Jets will release him after the season.
Williams has been a far more reliable performer, and after the trade of Sheldon Richardson and Wilkerson’s impending release, it is Williams who will be the survivor of what once was a deep defensive line.
“We have high expectations for Leo,” Rodgers said, “and he’s exceeding them.”
While the numbers aren’t there, the work ethic is. And that’s what ultimately will carry Williams in what he hopes is a run to the playoffs.
The Jets are on the road the next two games in what could be a defining stretch. After facing the Broncos in Denver on Sunday, they visit the Saints the following week in New Orleans.
“I’ve been doing a lot of extra work, a lot of extra studying,” said Williams, who has fully recovered from a sprained wrist that limited him earlier in the season. “In between drills, when I’m not on the field, I’ll work on my pass rushing with Coach Glove [La’Roi Glover], our assistant defensive line coach. Coach Glove has been helping me a lot. It’s a lot of little things coming together.”
Williams hopes the sack numbers eventually will reflect his improved play; if not, no worries.
“Getting the quarterback off his spot, hitting him, making him feel uncomfortable while he’s back there in the pocket,” he said.
Bottom line: It’s all about the wins, not the stats.
“I don’t want to make it too individual,” Williams said. “Overall, the team has been playing great. We found a way to finish last week, which I love.”
What he’d love even more: playing in January.