Football pundits constantly harp on the faddish new formations and mind blowing innovations that NFL coaches and coordinators concoct year in and year out. Even a casual observer of the NFL can witness dramatic shifts in scheme and play on a league wide scale. In 1985 Buddy Ryan’s 46 defense stopped runners in their tracks. In 2001 everyone was captivated by the Tampa 2 defense. In 2008 the Wildcat formation reared its ugly head. More recently, the pistol and read option have become pervasive. Even just this past Monday, the Eagles displayed the high octane offense that is Chip Kelly’s brain child.
On a smaller scale, individual teams go through schematic and philosophical shifts regularly as they adjust to new tendencies that are league wide or perhaps just a tool of a particular rival. Such is the case with the New York Jets defense in the Rex Ryan era.
When Rex Ryan became the head coach of the New York Jets, he came in with a lot of guarantees. Buried amidst Super Bowl guarantees and avoiding the kissing of the Patriots’ finger bling, Ryan promised Jets’ fans a top defensive unit.
Ryan’s first year gave clout to his claims. Using exotic blitzing and relying on Darrelle Revis to shut down half the field, Ryan was able to confound both quarterbacks and coaches. By the end of 2009 Ryan’s defensive squad was tops in the NFL, including number one in pass defense.
Knowing that coordinators would soon decipher his defensive code and after being torched by the Colts’ passing attack in the AFC Championship, Ryan shifted focus from scheme blitzing to stifling coverage on the back end. The Jets brought in Antonio Cromartie and drafted Kyle Wilson in the first round with the hopes that they could sure up what Lito Sheppard and Donald Strickland could not. The Jets wound up with the third best defense in the league in 2010, though they dropped to sixth in pass defense.
Revis and Cromartie formed a formidable pass defending duo. Their ability to shut down the pass by singlehandedly eliminating wide receivers as targets allowed Ryan and defensive coordinator Mike Pettine to use the other nine players on the field to pressure the quarterback and stop the run. The fact that safeties Jim Leonhard and Eric Smith were relatively un-athletic and slow was a non-issue as they could both be used as in-the-box safeties or to bracket a receiver in the slot, and not take on a coverage assignment singlehandedly. Sione Pouha, Mike DeVito, and Shaun Ellis could focus on the run and taking up blockers, while the still youthful linebacking corps shot the gap to disrupt the passer and stuff the run. The stellar coverage on the back end allowed the safeties, linebackers, and defensive line to shoot up the rushing defensive rankings from number eight in 2009 to number three.
However, the health and level of play for most of the Jets’ defensive unit declined quickly over the course of the 2011 and 2012 seasons. Calvin Pace, Bart Scott, and Bryan Thomas played like geriatric patients. Sione Pouha’s back caught up with him. The reinforcements the Jets brought in did little to help a core of defenders that were clearly struggling. Still, the Jets managed to produce the fifth and eight best defensive units respectively for those two seasons. This can be attributed to Ryan’s defensive genius and exceptional coverage even after Revis went down with the ACL tear.
Despite this, the defenses’ tendency to play like they were running in a tar pit was eventually exposed by more explosive and fast paced offenses. Teams with quarterbacks that could successfully run the hurry up (*cough* Tom Brady *cough* ) would catch the Jets base defense on the field and execute play after play without allowing for a substitution. The Jets individual players had little flexibility and were a liability against the pass. Even with good coverage from a deep corner back group, teams could exploit the Jets lack of pass rush and middle of the field coverage by simply waiting for a receiver to break free.
Now, as Rex himself will tell you, seeing a team tear apart your defense (known for its dominating coverage) is unacceptable. With the number of teams using high speed offenses that execute an unheard of number of plays per game increasing, it was clear that a change was needed. Add to that the best cornerback in the NFL essentially demanding out of the Big Apple, and a coverage first defense could no longer cut it.
Ryan observed that to make up for poorer coverage and counter the hurry offense his defense needed versatility and an interior pass rush. The group that Jets would field for a two tight end, two back set had to be the same one they would use for a five wide. Without the ability to substitute, the Jets defense had to be able to stop the run, rush the passer, and keep up with the hurry up from any scheme. So, the 2011, 2012, and 2013 drafts yielded impressive versatility in Muhammad Wilkerson, Kenrick Ellis, Quinton Coples, Demario Davis, and Sheldon Richardson.
Everyone of the Jets new toys was touted for their impressive athleticism and speed for their massive frames. With Wilkerson, Coples, and Richardson on the field at the same time the Jets could rush the passer and stop the run with equal efficiency. Demario Davis would be able to drop into coverage or get into the backfield. This new front seven would be able to stop even the fastest offense without the need to substitute. This was all very theoretical, until Sunday that is.
The Jets defense (sans Quinton Coples, their designated pass rusher) managed to create constant pressure and completely disrupt Tampa Bay’s offensive line. Despite relatively poor coverage from the Jets secondary (a serious departure from the defenses of ’09-’12), the Jets defense shook Josh Freeman and kept the Bucs’ offensive production relatively low. Even with Vincent Jackson, Mike Williams, Kevin Ogletree, and Doug Martin on the field together the Jets hardly had to substitute. Wilkerson and Richardson both stopped the run and rushed the passer with a high level of efficiency. Demario Davis had a good day against the run as well and was reasonable against the pass (notably chasing down Vincent Jackson for an open field tackle).
There are pluses and minuses to every defense that the Ryan Era Jets have fielded over these five years. The exotic blitz packages were baffling to offenses but left other major areas exposed. The coverage heavy units frustrated quarterbacks who, despite pristine pockets, could not find an open receiver but were susceptible to the hurry up and intermediate passes.
The new Jets defense featuring a disruptive pass rush is very exciting and could yield high pressure and sack numbers. The versatility of the front seven should limit the damage done by high octane offenses and passes to the middle of the field. We have yet to see a particular flaw to this novel defense, but that is not to say it is without reproach. A flaw will make itself apparent eventually but for now we can just enjoy the creative genius and effectiveness that this versatile defense displays.