Nov. 8, 2008
FLORHAM PARK, N.J. (AP) -- There were moments during the last few seasons when Shaun Ellis wondered if he'd ever be the pass-rushing force he once was.
"I kind of felt I got overlooked a lot on certain things and I just tried not to get caught up in it," the New York Jets defensive end said Friday. "But deep down, it hurt sometimes."
Ellis had earned a cool nickname -- Big Katt -- and was recognized as one of the NFL's top young pass rushers, garnering a Pro Bowl selection in 2003. He had 12 sacks that season and 11 in 2004, but his production dipped the next few years, along with the rest of the defense.
"It was tough, but I just tried to stay focused and remember it's a team game," he said. "I didn't want to be a distraction. I just went to work every day and tried to lead by example."
Ellis, a first-round pick in 2000 and the Jets' longest tenured player, did just that even as his sack totals hardly struck fear in opposing offenses. He had a career-low 2 in 2005 and five in each of the last two seasons. The Jets' defense was criticized for not putting enough pressure on quarterbacks and not stopping the run, and Ellis was one of the main culprits.
"Last year was a wasted year for us, but we worked every single day, and hard," Ellis said. "It's paying off now."
That's for sure. Ellis is fifth in the AFC with seven sacks this season, with at least a half-sack in each of his last five games. The Jets are also third in the league with 29 sacks, already matching their total from last season.
"It's been a lot of fun," Ellis said. "Going to the games with the types of players we have, it makes you feel rejuvenated. You feel like you've revamped and you feel like you've got more help."
That's because he did get some big-time assistance with the additions of nose tackle Kris Jenkins and linebacker Calvin Pace. He said their presence, along with linebacker Bryan Thomas and defensive end Kenyon Coleman, has made the Jets one of the top overall defenses in the league.
"We're a whole lot improved," he said. "We're stout now. I feel like we can match up against anybody. We're all just feeding off one another. To see our work and effort that we put in through training camp, it's just been fulfilling. It's just kind of given me a new breath."
The Jets are also ranked fourth in the league in run defense, allowing 76 yards rushing per game.
"The holes are smaller now," he said. "Before, they seemed real wide. Now, those holes are a lot smaller and we're collapsing it. The holes don't stay open very long."
Ellis compared this defense's front seven to the unit the Jets had early this decade when he teamed with John Abraham, Jason Ferguson and Dewayne Robertson to form a sack-happy group.
"This is kind of bringing me back to how we were playing back then," Ellis said. "This is a special group, man. I think this group is actually better. It's a different defense, obviously, but we're playing the run really well and that's really helping our pass game."
Ellis, never flashy but always intense, was extra motivated to prepare for this season.
"With the new guys coming in and all that," Ellis said, "I told myself, 'I'm not going to be the weak link.'"
He's been far from it as coach Eric Mangini and defensive coordinator Bob Sutton have used the 6-foot-5, 285-pound Ellis inside on passing downs, similar to what the Giants did with Justin Tuck during their Super Bowl run.
"Shaun can do it all," Jenkins said. "Nowawdays, you see a lot of guys do it just one way. Either they're a run stopper or they're a pass rusher. He does both, and very well. From first to third down, he's coming."
Thomas said Ellis' athletic ability is often underestimated. Last season, the Jets also used Ellis at outside linebacker a number of times.
"That's why he's called Big Katt," Thomas said. "He's a big guy who can move well. He's got real good feet, he's fast and he can run well and chase guys down from behind. You don't see what he can do too often."
Ellis credits defensive line coach Dan Quinn with putting an emphasis on rushing the quarterback.
"There were times before when we didn't do pass rush at all, but with Dan, we do that every single day before practice," Ellis said. "It's just understanding how people are blocking me and recognizing that."
With 60 sacks, Ellis is four from tying Gerry Philbin for third on the team's career list. He relishes the feeling of taking down the quarterback and hearing his teammates and the crowd go wild.
"It's kind of like a golfer making a 30-foot putt, if there's even a putt that long," Ellis said. "It's something you really have to experience to understand, especially when it's one of those game-winning types of sacks."
Just like two years ago, when Ellis took down Tom Brady in the mud to seal a victory for the Jets at New England.
"Yeah," Ellis said with a laugh. "I guess that's equivalent to a hole-in-one."