2006-12-22 / Sports

Vilma Soldiers On As Jets Thrive In Playoff Hunt

By Brian Bohl


Jonathan Vilma (51) tackles New England Patriots RB Corey Dillon (28). Photo by Peter Borriello.Jonathan Vilma (51) tackles New England Patriots RB Corey Dillon (28). Photo by Peter Borriello. HEMPSTEAD, NY—Jonathan Vilma knows his numbers are down compared to last season. He is asked questions on a weekly basis about playing in a 3-4 base system, which asks the middle linebacker to funnel plays towards other positions while sometimes hurting individual statistics.

Playing in a 4-3 scheme in his first two NFL seasons under Herman Edwards, Vilma thrived after being selected 12th overall the 2004 draft. He was a Pro Bowl selection last season after recording 173 tackles, a sack and four forced fumbles.

Rookie coach Eric Mangini replaced Edwards this off-season and brought over the 3-4 he utilized as an assist in New England. While the Jets so far doubled their win total and improved from a 4-12 disaster to an 8-6 team in playoff contention, Vilma is still searching for a balance between on-field coach and impact player.

Those answers will need to come soon, as the Jets are tied with Jacksonville and Cincinnati among others for the final two wildcard positions. A 10-win season might be needed to qualify for the post-season spot, but winning the final two regular season games would not guarantee a January game.

“It is what it is,” Vilma said about the system. “I’m not the defensive coordinator and I’m not the coach. I’m the player, and I do what I’m coached to do.”

The former University of Miami standout registered just 100 tackles through 14 games this season, adding no sacks or forced fumbles. The Bills loss two weeks ago was a microcosm of the 24-year-old’s season. He played most of the game trying desperately to stop running back Willis McGahee, but ended up with only one tackle and did not serve as the every-down force he was last year when his play earned him a Pro Bowl spot when Miami’s Zach Thomas went down with an injury.

“When you look at Jon, two weeks ago he was the defensive player of the game,” Mangini said about Vilma’s role in the 38-10 win at Green Bay Dec. 3. “We’re [two games] removed from that. He does so much, he isn’t necessarily just tackling or blitzing that helps the whole defense operate effectively. Jon has been very good at that. That contribution has been extremely valuable.”

Vilma’s contribution in a win over Green Bay extended beyond the stat sheet. He was credited with just three tackles, but Mangini said the third-year pro was responsible for directing coverages and helping teammates get in the right position to make plays. While fantasy football aficionados may not agree, Mangini said Vilma’s impact is just as big this season as in the past.

“We do everything based on what is best for the team,” Mangini said. “Jon has made significant improvement week-in and week-out. We talked about this three or four weeks ago where as you grow in a system, you find the way to play the system that best fits your skill set.”

Every successful defense needs someone that can match strategy against the opposing offenses, and Mangini saw the value of that type of player first-hand when he served as the Patriots’ defensive coordinator in 2005, depending on Tedy Bruschi for the important signal calls.

The Jets rely on Vilma to make those calls now, and his coach praised his willingness to sacrifice numbers for the good of the team. He added just two tackles in a 26-13 win over the Vikings at the Metrodome last Sunday, but helped keep Minnesota quarterback Brad Johnson to just 96 passing yards.

“It’s a little different, it just takes time to get used to and I’m getting used to it,” Vilma said about his new role. “As the season goes, I’ve gotten better at it. As a unit, we’ve gotten better at it. For us, it would be good to come back next year and keep improving.”

Vilma still can make plays, which is something the Jets could use this week when they play the Dolphins in a AFC East divisional game. Though faced with constant questions about his ability to succeed in the 3-4, the Coral Gables, Florida native said he likes helping other get in position to help the team win, regardless of personal numbers.

“I can’t help every mental error that everyone makes, but I always want to try to help and put everyone in the best position as possible,” Vilma said.

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