With the loss of Jonathan Vilma to the injured reserve, the Jets defense looked to their youth to fill the void at middle linebacker this afternoon against the Buffalo Bills.
Rookie David Harris got the nod for his first professional career start in place of the Jets defensive captain. And the second-round pick from Michigan performed like a seasoned veteran, accumulating a game-high 17 tackles.
"My teammates did a great job helping me prepare this week, especially Jonathan and Eric Barton," Harris said in his postgame news conference. "We had a real focused week of practice, but we came up a little bit short today."
Harris wasn't necessarily thrown into the fire. The rookie has been seeing more and more playing time in coordinator Bob Sutton's 3-4 defense and in the nickel over the last month and was also Vilma's replacement for several plays in the base defense last week in Cincinnati, when the injury took place.
"Filling in for a guy like that is tough," said Harris, the 47th overall selection in April's draft. "He's our captain on defense and has been leading our defense for the past four years and has done a great job at it. He's very vocal. He's the heart and soul of the defense."
Despite the pressure of filling in for the D's heart and soul, it didn't take Harris long to shake off any jitters. On the Bills' first offensive play of the game, Harris joined defensive end Shaun Ellis for an assisted tackle on running back Marshawn Lynch.
The rookie inside linebacker than added two more solo tackles on that first drive alone, including stuffing Lynch on first-and-10 at the Jets' 13-yard line for no gain. Two plays later, the Bills were forced to kick a field goal to end a series that lasted 10:07 and 15 offensive plays.
"David did a great job. I thought he did a lot of good things," said Ellis, the Jets' other defensive captain. "He's a great player and he'll be OK."
Harris ended the game with 10 solo tackles and seven assisted stops credited by the Jets' pressbox stat crew.
Harris and teammate Darrelle Revis, the Jets' top two draft picks, had a significant impact on this game. Revis, the Jets first round pick out of Pitt, came up with his first career interception and had six total tackles, raising his total to a team-leading 54 for the season.
Still, the excitement and celebration of Revis' first interception was short-lived as the Jets dropped to 1-7 when the final second ticked away. This second loss to the Bills this year marked the first time the Jets were swept by the Bills since 1997.
"I'd rather settle for a win," Revis said of the interception after the game. "It's my first pick but now it's over with. I still think I had a productive game."
The effects of playing without Vilma extend beyond just the linebacker unit. Perhaps Vilma's greatest attribute is his leadership, knowledge and direction on the field. Those seemingly irreplaceable characteristics have helped Revis, among many others, to play successfully.
"It was kind of different," Revis said of playing on a defense without Vilma. "He's a leader and he's always putting everybody where they need to be and he's a vocal guy. He was vocal on the sidelines as well today, always talking to me and being around the defense and helping out."
But the cornerback was still very impressed with his fellow rookie's performance.
"David was vocal out there, being the leader," he said. "It's kind of crazy to throw a first-year guy in there unexpectedly. David did a great job, played the leader well and played a great game."
Harris was also able to get his first career sack on the Bills' first drive of the third quarter. However, the solemn atmosphere of the Jets clubhouse got to the rookie, even on one of the most successful games a rookie could ask for.
"I don't care about that," he said of his tackle total. "The only thing I care about is whether we win or lose, and we lost."