New York Jets linebacker C.J. Mosley: Tackling machine with a 'cheat code'

Linebacker C.J. Mosley has established himself as the heart and soul of the Jets defense. AP Photo/Seth Wenig

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- In the crucible of a deadlocked game, New York Jets linebacker C.J. Mosley did something he wasn't supposed to do. He changed the play at the line of scrimmage -- a no-no in head coach Robert Saleh's system.

On the Jets' sideline, stunned coaches barked at linebackers coach Mike Rutenberg, "Rutey, what's he doing?"

Mosley knew exactly what he was doing and it worked brilliantly, as teammate Quinnen Williams sacked quarterback Ryan Tannehill in the Jets' 27-24 overtime win over the Tennessee Titans. It was vintage Mosley, a wise veteran showing leadership in crunch time. After two years away from football, he's having the time of his life, galvanizing a young defense.

"It shows that he's like a cheat code," Saleh said of Mosley's unauthorized audible. "His mind plays at a different level, he’s playing a different game. He knew exactly what we needed to get into, and he made the right call."

It was a third-and-6, with 10:05 remaining in the fourth quarter. As Mosley explained to ESPN, the Jets were planning to send pressure. Tannehill recognized that and checked to a max-protection scheme, while also motioning a receiver into a bunch formation.

Mosley's gut told him it didn't feel right, so he made the unilateral decision to change the play. He motioned to linebackers and defensive backs, giving them a new call. As is turned out, they dropped seven and rushed only four, with defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins providing immediate pressure and Williams cleaning up.

"In my mind, I'm like, 'All right, we've been beat on this look a few times already in the game,'" Mosley said. "Luckily enough, all my guys, we had time to change the defense. The DBs and the linebackers did a great job of communicating the call across the board.

"Thankfully, it worked out. We took a gamble. Something you just have to be instinctive when you see something."

It was a momentum-changer. On the ensuing punt, Braxton Berrios broke off an 18-yard return to provide excellent field position. On first down, quarterback Zach Wilson launched a 53-yard touchdown to wide receiver Corey Davis, giving the Jets a 24-17 lead. Those 61 seconds -- the sack, the return, the touchdown --- were a perfect example of complementary football, something they hope to build on Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons (1-3) at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in London.

After the Tennessee win, Saleh managed a smile. He said Mosley "did something we’ve never had a linebacker do in our system," which doesn't allow for audibles because it's designed to have built-in flexibility. Saleh was willing to forgive and forget, considering how it turned out.

"You guys know me, with my infatuation for the man: I think he’s phenomenal," Saleh said.

Mosley believes he's off to the best start of his career, and that's saying something because he made the Pro Bowl in four of his first five seasons with the Baltimore Ravens. His career went south when he went north. After signing with the Jets as a highly coveted free agent, he missed 14 games in 2019 due to a severe groin injury that required surgery and he opted out in 2020 due to COVID-19 concerns.

He came into this season having never played a complete game for the Jets. Instead of hitting the cruise-control button and collecting his $43 million in guarantees, Mosley re-invented himself, dropping more than 15 pounds in the offseason. While critics were saying he was washed up, he was getting revved up for the 2.0 version of his career.

On the eve of the season opener, at the team hotel in Charlotte, North Carolina, Mosley heard something that gave him chills.


Fans in the lobby and street were loud.

"Our hotel was rocking," he said. "I could hear them doing the 'Jets' chant while we were in bed Saturday night."

Mosley quickly established himself as the heart and soul of the defense, which is comprised mainly of rookies, second-year players and castoffs. He made 13 tackles and a sack against the Titans, which makes three straight games with double-digit tackles -- a career first. He leads the team with 37. He's one of the big reasons why the defense is overachieving; the Jets are ranked 13th in yards allowed and 14th in points allowed.

"He's the leader of the defense," second-year cornerback Javelin Guidry said. "He's smart, intellectual and makes sure everyone's right. He's just a ballplayer, a great ballplayer."

Rankins said of Mosley, "He's as locked in as I've ever seen a player."

Mosley isn't an outspoken leader, but he's being more vocal than usual because he knows he's surrounded by so much youth and inexperience. This isn't a new role for him. At Alabama, he ran the defense, which meant he was licensed to call audibles. It was the same deal with the Ravens.

The Jets do things a different way, so no audibles. Mosley said Sunday was his first (and only) audible in the first four games.

"It's part of the game," he said. "It comes from the coaches trusting me, me trusting what I see and me trusting that the coaches allow me to do something like that."

Except he's not allowed to do it. Saleh said he's not planning to change his system even though he acknowledged Mosley made an "executive decision" and got the defense into the right call.

For Mosley, the thrill was seeing the reaction from his teammates, the celebration on the sideline. His time away from football made him appreciate the smaller things, even the mundane tasks such as practice and meetings. Asked if he's having fun, Mosley laughed.

"I am," he said. "I definitely am.

"My main focus when I come in every day is to do everything the right way," Mosley said. "I've been playing football my whole life, so not too much has changed in that aspect. It's all about sharing my knowledge and giving everything I've got for my team."

Even when he's not supposed to. Wink, wink.