Overall this group was just like the rest of the team: uneven and inconsistent. Early in the season they dominated some good opponents, but later in the year there were a lot of times when the production just wasn't there. Lets look at how some of the key players along the defensive line held up this season.
Derrick Morgan: Oh, what might have been… Morgan missed a lot of time in the pre-season with various hamstring and calf issues, but made on hell of an impression once he was healthy. Anybody else remember Derrick playing in his first preseason game, on basically one practice as a pro player, and just demolishing the Panthers offensive line? Morgan continued to show why he was a first round pick by logging 1.5 sacks in the 3 full games he played in before his rookie season was ended by a torn MCL. Provided he gets back to where he was, Morgan looks like he'll be a beast for years to come no matter who is coaching the defense.Jason Jones: This guy's been a favorite of mine since his rookie year. We've all been waiting for the season he stays healthy enough to be a starter. This was that year, but the results weren't quite up to the lofty expectations. Jones started out his 3rd season looking nearly unstoppable logging 6 tackles for loss, 2 sacks and a pass defensed over the first four games. The sack numbers weren't gaudy, but Jones was blowing up the middle of the line like nobody we'd seen at D other than Albert. After week 6, however, Jones started to become hampered by injuries and just wasn't able to push the pocket like he had earlier in the year. Usually when that's the case he's playing too high and letting lineman get into his chest and stand him up straight. This was also around the time that the D-line rotation withered away due to injuries, and the extra workload seemed to have slowed his production. Probably the most surprising part of Jones' season is how well he defended the run. He was active, disruptive and pursued like a linebacker. That is a great sign from a guy who was mainly looked at as a pass rusher. Jones is a key player on this defense, but after 3 full seasons we have to resign ourselves to the fact that he's not going to be hitting that upper-echelon of interior pass rushers he once looked destined to join. He might make the world's best Robin, but he's not cut out to be Batman.
Jason Babin: Studly. That's a pretty good way to describe Jason Babin's breakout year. Babin filled in for the departed Kyle Vanden Bosch and it was like watching the KVB of 2007 and 2008 all over again. Babin got consistent pressure off the edge and played the run at least moderately well. Babin was the rare player on this line who was productive in the beginning, middle and end of the season. Really the only down point in Babin's season was that goofy 'Greek God' stance during the last snap of the second Texans game. If this were school he'd get docked half a letter grade for that one alone. Still, he's the no.1 priority as far as guys headed into free agency this off-season.
Tony Brown: Chattown Tony Brown was rewarded for his outstanding play (and impeccable mid-timeout dancing) last off-season with a big contract. Unfortunately Brown's season was severely impacted by a knee surgery during the off-season that never fully healed. Brown sat-out of camp and missed the first 3 preseason games trying to rest the knee, but it just didn't get all the way back. A few weeks into the season Fisher announced that they were going to adjust Brown’s schedule through the week to give him more rest. He managed to get 3.5 sacks despite getting limited time and missing 5 games. His recovery will be a huge issue this off-season because the middle of this line is in serious trouble if our only lineman over 300 lbs. can't get back to his former glory.
Sen'Derrick Marks: More than any player short of Vince Young, Marks was the guy observers in and around the team pegged as the most improved over the course of training camp. By all accounts this was going to be the year he justified that 2nd round pick. People raved about his new pass rush moves, he's great physical tools and increased fire. Then, the season started and all of that was promptly forgotten. Marks didn't record a sack all year, missed a few games with injuries (particularly notable were the 3 games he missed after a vicious cut block against the Texans). Marks' 2nd year was a big disappointment for a guy who was drafted so high and hyped-up so much. Marks is really going to have to pull it together next year, especially if Brown isn't able to get back to the level he was playing at before his knee issues began.
Jacob Ford: Not a banner year for this pass rushing specialist who showed so much promise his rookie year. Since notching 7 sacks back in 2008 Ford's production has declined to the point where it basically bottomed-up this year. 3 sacks. That's it. The worst part is, he wasn't even consistently disruptive when he was getting sacks. Ford's season was probably summed up when he crashed inside against the Dolphins' Wildcat formation and left a gaping hole for Ricky Williams to waltz through for a crucial first down... then the exact same thing happened again on the next play.
William Hayes: Hayes started off the season injured and took a long while to get into prime playing shape. By about week 11 he was consistently beating guys around the corner like we'd seen him do his first two years. That paved the way for a 3 game burst of production where he logged 1.5 sacks and 3 more tackles for losses. In the last 3 games, however, Hayes was a non-entity. Getting healthy and in shape is a must for Hayes this off-season. He's been Washburn's pet project since Wash lobbied for us to trade up and get him from that powerhouse school of Winston-Salem State, but now that Wash is gone so is Hayes' security blanket.
Dave Ball: Ball went from barely making the roster by many accounts to starting the season red hot. He totaled 6 sacks over the first 7 games and disrupted a lot more plays than that number indicates. Ball benefited from a switch back to his more natural end position after playing the other side the year before due to injuries. Ball's season was cut short by concussion issues. Hopefully he can recover completely and bring some of that same rush off the edge that we weren't able to get from guys like Ford and Hayes once Ball went down.
Jovan Haye: Miserable year for Haye. He was a back of the rotation guy and struggled with that meager task.
Marques Douglas, Malcolm Sheppard and Amon Gordon all played admirably after being plucked from practice squads or the street to fill in as the injuries mounted. Sheppard should get a shot to stick with the team into next year.
We'll start running these features on a (hopefully) daily basis for as long as it takes to cover the whole team. Be sure to check 'em out!