The Jets are so thin at inside linebacker, the player with the most experience at the position on the field Sunday might be Blake Cashman, their rookie fifth-round draft pick.
Starter Avery Williamson was lost to a torn ACL during the second preseason game. High-priced acquisition C.J. Mosley, who already has missed four games with a groin injury, will be out again Sunday as the Jets’ medical staff continues its “deep dive” into his injury issues. Mosley’s backup, Neville Hewitt, missed Monday night’s game against the Patriots with a stinger, hasn’t practiced fully all week and is being listed as doubtful.
“It hasn’t been an ideal situation, losing some guys,” coach Adam Gase said on Friday.
That leaves Cashman, who said in August his expectations were that he would mostly play on special teams, outside linebacker Brandon Copeland and possibly practice squad call-up James Burgess. And waiting for this MASH unit is the AFC’s leading rusher, Leonard Fournette, and the Jaguars’ potent ground game.
“I think it’s a big difference, honestly,” defensive lineman Leonard Williams said. “It’s like losing the quarterback of the offense. The middle linebacker is the quarterback of the defense and we’ve been rotating through them all season. … It’s kind of hard to have unity and stuff like that when you’re rotating a lot of guys like that.”
Copeland will start next to Cashman if Hewitt can’t go. He strictly has played outside linebacker with the Jets the past two years, but did play inside earlier in his career with the Ravens and Lions, and is comfortable there. Under defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, the Jets teach their linebackers to play both spots. It’s uncertain who will be the one with the radio receiver in his helmet, communicating with Williams and relaying his plays calls to his teammates. Copeland, Cashman and Burgess all practiced with it.
“That’ll be a decision on game day,” Williams said.
This is obviously not a situation the Jets envisioned after signing Mosley to a monster five-year, $85 million contract in the offseason. The four-time Pro Bowler was a big factor in the season-opening loss to the Bills, producing a pick-six, five tackles and two passes defensed before suffering the groin injury. He attempted to return Monday night against the Patriots, but wasn’t himself, moving gingerly and without explosion, before getting pulled in the second half.
“We’ll miss C.J. out there,” Copeland said.
When asked if injured reserve is a possibility, Gase said he did not know at the moment, but indicated there will be a resolution of some sort by Monday.
“I think everything is on the table right now,” the Jets coach said.
The injuries have obviously had a negative effect on the defense, which is ranked 23rd overall in points allowed (26.0) and is 24th against the pass (260.0 yards per game). They have done better against the run, allowing only 92.2 yards per contest, though against the top two rushing teams the Jets have faced — the Cowboys and Bills — they have allowed an average of 128.5 yards on the ground.
The Jaguars feature a similar attack and if Hewitt can’t play, the inexperienced inside linebackers will be asked to do a lot of heavy lifting. They’ll be facing a hot player. Fournette has run for at least 108 yards three of the past four weeks.
“He’s a guy, you don’t take it to him early he can get going. He’s a guy that can get stronger as the game goes on,” Cashman said. “We’re expecting to bring it to him and try to take away their running game.”
That’s easier said than done, especially when considering the makeshift personnel.
For more on the Jets, listen to this episode of the Jets podcast, “Gang’s All Here”: