The Jets defensive end on his kinship with coach Todd Bowles, and his desire to sack Tom Brady in Sunday’s battle for first place in the AFC East
NEW YORK — Muhammad Wilkerson turned 26 yesterday, marking yet another year when the Jets defensive lineman’s birthday falls around the most intense workweek of the season: Patriots week. “They’re always around the same time,” Wilkerson said with a shake of his head. “Always.” The Jets have played the Patriots in mid-October all four of Wilkerson’s years in the NFL, but he’s only been a part of one win. For the Jets to challenge their division rivals in Foxborough on Sunday, they’ll need Wilkerson to continue being the dominant force up front that he’s been so far this season. Wilkerson has made his impact felt for the Jets’ No. 1-ranked defense, with four sacks, three passes defended and one forced fumble. The Jets didn’t lock up their former first-round pick this offseason to a contract extension, and the way he’s playing is only driving up his price tag. But it’s not Wilkerson’s style to fixate on money. He’s thinking about getting to Tom Brady, which would be the best birthday present he could give himself.
VRENTAS: This week, it’s the No. 1 defense vs. the No. 1 scoring offense. When two units like that go head to head, what usually decides the game?
WILKERSON: If we do our job, the results show. We have to just cut back on our mental mistakes, penalties, which of course can cause us to lose games. So we need to make sure we have as few penalties as we can. Against Washington, we only had one penalty, so that was good, and only three mental errors on defense. As long as we keep those down to zero, I don’t see why we couldn’t still be the No. 1 defense.
VRENTAS: With 3-4 defensive ends, you don’t always expect to get a lot of glory, but you already have four sacks this season. Have you been asked to penetrate more, or have you just made the most of your opportunities?
WILKERSON: It all depends on the call. We are always taught to get up the field and get penetration. But I am just making the most of my opportunities. It really doesn’t matter where I line up at, I am going to be effective someway, somehow, whether I’m taking on a double-team, or running a game with a teammate to help them make the play. It’s about going out there and executing whatever the call is and doing my job.
VRENTAS: It looked like you and Sheldon Richardson were running a game on the play against Washington last week when you split a sack of Kirk Cousins.
WILKERSON: It wasn’t even really a game. It looked like it, but we’re just comfortable playing with each other. I know his game, and he knows my game. We know how Snacks [Damon Harrison] plays, and he knows how we play. Now we are trying to get [rookie Leonard Williams] along with that. We are always there for Leo to help him out. If I think he can do something better, I let him know. He’s a young guy that listens. He soaks everything in, and he tries to learn and get better from it. Once we get comfortable all playing together, it’s going to be something special.
VRENTAS: Part of what makes you unique as a player is that you can play almost anywhere along the defensive line—over the center, on the outside shoulder of the tackle, or even standing up. How much preparation goes into being able to do that?
WILKERSON: I just have to focus on different blocking schemes. Out on the edge, I might only get a one-on-one with the tackle, or a double-team would be a tackle and tight end. If I’m lined up on the center, I’m having a one-on-one, and I know that the guard might help a little bit. I just have to be aware what type of formation and what type of blocks I’m going to get. Sometimes you can outthink yourself, I might think something is going to come and it doesn’t, but it’s part of the game. If I know what is going on, and nine times out of 10 I do, it’s just worrying about defeating the block.
VRENTAS: Every player is something of an unknown coming into the NFL. You’ve maximized your potential to become one of the best players of your draft class. How have you done that?
WILKERSON: I just go out there and better myself as a player and better my teammates. Coming out of Temple, I knew I wasn't getting a lot of credit. I just had to go out there and prove that I could play at this level, and I had no problem doing that.
VRENTAS: It was questions about your consistency coming into the draft, right? Which is funny now, because you are one of the most consistent players.
WILKERSON: [Chuckles]. Yeah. Everybody is entitled to their own opinion, but I knew what I was capable of doing.
VRENTAS: A lot of quarterbacks, including Tom Brady, get the ball out quickly to neutralize the pass rush. How can you still harrass the quarterback even when they are doing that?
WILKERSON: Everybody knows what Tom is capable of doing, but we have to focus on what we need to do: stop the run and get after the passer, and try to get hits on him. If you sit back and let Tom get comfortable, he is going to pick you apart all day. Us guys up front, we have to make sure we get to him as early and often as we can.
VRENTAS: Another way that he escapes from pressure is by sliding around in the pocket, something he’s done especially well this season. What kind of challenge does that present?
WILKERSON: We just have to have precise rush lanes, keep him in the pocket and don’t let him get out.
VRENTAS: You’ve beaten the Patriots only once since you’ve been with the Jets, a home overtime win in October 2013. What do you remember about that game?
WILKERSON: I finally got to beat him, and [Tom Brady] didn’t ruin my birthday.
VRENTAS: So you’re hoping he doesn’t ruin your birthday again?
WILKERSON: Yeah, try again. Last year they got us, so try again.
VRENTAS: You also sacked Brady in that win didn’t you?
WILKERSON: I did. I got to him. He ducked, and I really didn’t get to hit him. I have hit him before, though.
VRENTAS: Is he one of the harder quarterbacks to sack?
WILKERSON: He is one of them, because he's a guy who knows what is going on around him. Like I said, as far as him ducking, that’s how he escapes out of sacks. He bends over and ducks and lets the guy fly over him and makes a play.
VRENTAS: There’s not a lot of buzz coming out of Florham Park for Patriots week. What do you think of Todd Bowles’ approach?
WILKERSON: He's taking the right approach. It's a division game, we all know that. We just have to do what we have to do on our side of the ball, and make sure all three phases are executing: offense, defense and special teams. Last week we shot ourselves in the foot, having 10 guys out there on that punt, and they get a block. We have a lot of talent, so we just have to make sure everybody is doing their job.
VRENTAS: How about your Temple Owls?
WILKERSON: They are doing well, finally ranked, 7-0. I talked to the quarterback, P.J. Walker, because we are all from Elizabeth, N.J. I told him to focus on ECU on Thursday. They play Notre Dame next week, so I told him to make sure the guys are not looking forward to that game and already thinking that they can beat ECU. Just focus on the next opponent.
VRENTAS: How much kinship do you feel with your head coach, who is also from Elizabeth, and who also played at Temple?
WILKERSON: I heard about him as a player and a coach, of course. I knew about his background and his years in Arizona, that’s all I knew, but when I finally met him, he was a cool and laid-back guy. We talk about it a little, coming from Elizabeth and growing up and the different streets where we grew up at and everything. I’m happy to have him as my coach. He chills out and has fun with us during practice, but at the end of the day, when it’s about business, we know he means it.
VRENTAS: Some of your teammates said Todd asked at halftime last week, ‘What kind of team do you want to be?’ What kind of team do you think you have this year?
WILKERSON: We can be as good as we want to be. We have a lot of talent, and we just have to make sure we execute. Pre-game last week, [guard] Willie [Colon] was saying to the team, around this time, there are two types of teams: there are teams that thrive, and teams that survive. We can thrive, and we just have to make sure we continue to do the things we need to do to win.
VRENTAS: You and your agent tabled contract negotiations once the season started. Why was it important for you to do that?
WILKERSON: I’m not a selfish guy, so it would be selfish of me to be having contract talks and situations going on as the season is going on, when myself and my team need to be preparing for games. At the end of the day, I just realize that it’s a business and things take care of themselves.
VRENTAS: Is it hard not to think about your future and wonder what will happen next?
WILKERSON: No. In the season here, I am just worried about football.
VRENTAS: You had a neat event last week where you honored 96 breast cancer survivors at a luncheon in New Jersey. What did that event mean to you?
WILKERSON: My mom found all the survivors, 96 of them, because that’s my number. At the end of the day, I am all about giving back and trying to help out others. I spoke to all the survivors and told them, not only are my mom and grandma survivors and strong women, but so is every woman in that room. Being a survivor of breast cancer and fighting through that adversity, and being able to still be here and be living, that’s a blessing.
VRENTAS: Your mom, Janice, comes to almost all of your games, right?
WILKERSON: She goes to every home game, and she comes to some away games. She’ll be there this week. I heard she’s a loud fan; she can get a little hostile up there in the stands. No fights, though. People try to pick one, but she doesn’t go that far.