TOJ: Fixing the New York Jets Defense By Creating The Bully

The Jets defense has looked as bad as they have looked in a few regimes.

Yes, they have been ravaged by injuries.

Yes, they are talent starved at key positions.

What has gone wrong for them goes beyond that. They can’t diagnose plays, can’t tackle and, worst of all, they look soft way too often. “Soft” is probably the worst thing you could ever call anyone on defense, and that cannot be acceptable for head coach Robert Saleh and defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich considering the defenses they have had success with in the past. So how did those defenses do it? And how can the Jets take those learnings into this off-season?

The Template

Robert Saleh and Jeff Ulbrich have been a part of special defensive units multiple times in their careers. Saleh and Ulbrich both helped build championship-level defenses at both San Fransisco and Atlanta respectively. Saleh was also a defensive quality control coach on one of the best defenses in NFL history in Seattle. However, right now there is a seemingly infinite chasm between the teams that they’ve had success on and the current Jets defense. There are certain characteristics of these defenses that Saleh and Ulbrich were a part of that the Jets need to employ to truly embody the identity of their defensive scheme.

All Gas (Fear)

The first aspect the Jets defense needs to develop is fear. One commonality (apart from the scheme) between Robert Saleh’s 2019 49ers defense and the Legion of Boom is that they were feared defenses. I’m not talking about having the physical presence of someone like Kam Chancellor on your team. The fear I’m talking about goes beyond physical intimidation (although that helps). It’s moreso developing respectful fear in your opponents with all 11 players playing with maximum effort and relentlessness. The type of defense that capitalizes on even the smallest openings an offense presents.

For example, an offensive player can do 99% of the work to score but make the mistake of stretching the ball out and all of a sudden you’ve fumbled out of the endzone and turned it over (yeah, Earl did it twice). That requires players that are willing to make plays that others are not. Let’s go through a few more examples:

Remember that Earl Thomas play? Here’s Jacquiski Tartt making a similar play in 2019. D.K Metcalf was running after a catch and about to score but Tartt didn’t give up on the play. He goes right at the ball against a player in Metcalf that’s clearly stronger than him, and rips the ball away right before Metcalf reaches the endzone. The broadcast doesn’t even realize what happened because it’s not something you see often.

Another similar play.

Lamar Jackson has a huge gain on the ground in front him but Marcell Harris, who just happened to be in the game after the starter Jacquiski Tartt picked up an injury, holds up his blocker and then snatches the ball right out of Lamar Jackson’s hands as he ran by.

Didn’t accept the block. Didn’t attempt a lazy tackle. Made a game changing play.

This is the embodiment of “All Gas.” It starts with always having players around the ball. It’s the old “swarm and punish” adage. Even if you don’t have the best tacklers, if you always have all 11 players hustling to the ball, you’ll punish the ball carriers and you’ll create turnovers. Saleh’s 49ers defense had incredible team speed mixed with maximum effort and it led to the kind of results shown above.

No Brake (Risk)

Another aspect that the Jets need defensively is the willingness to take calculated risks. The Jets have put way too much tentativeness on tape, particularly at the linebacker position. One common misconception is that a good defense is careful and minimizes risk. Yes, there’s an element of bend without breaking in any defense. However, the best defenses in the NFL take risks and take the ball away. The scheme Saleh and Ulbrich have brought to the Jets requires an attack mindset.

There are two position group improvements that really elevated the 49ers defense in 2019: the addition of an elite edge in rookie Nick Bosa and the development of second-year LB Fred Warner. Warner is the perfect example of a “No Brake” within the Saleh scheme. He trusts his eyes and knows when to pull the trigger.

Jeff Ulbrich also has also seen the value of having similar linebackers in Atlanta. As LB coach, he played a vital role in the development of Deion Jones and Foye Oluokun. Both linebackers perfectly embody those same characteristics.

What Fred Warner, Deion Jones, and Foye Oluokun have in common is athleticism, instincts, and relentless. Let’s look at some examples of how they showed that on the field:

The Jets have had so many issues defending screens. Part of it is rarely having linebackers jumping screens like Warner does here against the Packers in 2019. As soon as he gets the slightest whiff of a screen he knives past the offensive line and makes an incredible play. There’s no tentativeness here. It’s just read and react immediately. The offensive line doesn’t get a chance to come near him.

On this play, it’s Foye Oluokun vs Ezekiel Elliott. We see an immediate read and react from Oluokun (a rookie at the time) who moves into position and then squares up with Elliott who actually does see him coming. Then it’s all about who wants it more. Advantage: Oluokun. Also notice how urgent defenders come to assist him after the initial contact. Swarm and punish.

Juxtapose that stop by Oluokun to the LB play on this 7 yard gain from week 15 against the Dolphins:

The thing about relying on instinct is that sometimes you’re going to be wrong. That’s okay! Not making a decision in an attacking defense is a decision: it generally means you lost, but if you’re a player with good football IQ then most of the time you’re going to be right. If you have good athleticism, sometimes you can even recover from a bad initial read. Because of those factors, you rarely see hesitation from the players we mentioned above.

If the Jets can cultivate a defense that captures their mantra, you won’t see anyone laughing at Robert Saleh on the field. They can earn the respect they’re looking for by executing the scheme as its meant to be. Part of that is their mindset. But they also need the right pieces.

The Offseason

Saleh and Ulbrich have also shown in their careers that they have the ability to not just identify elite potential, but the ability to develop potential to its ceiling. General manager Joe Douglas needs to get Saleh and Ulbrich plenty more moldable talent to work with this off-season. The Jets scheme under Saleh calls for a dominant defensive line (particularly at edge), athletic linebackers who excel in coverage, and a scrappy secondary that can help in run support but can also give your pass rush at least 4-5 seconds of sticky coverage with adequate help over the top from the safeties.

The Jets defensive line is in a good place. We’ve seen some early returns of the strong development ability of this staff with the cornerback group. Adding talent there isn’t quite as critical as it seemed it would be before the season but they should still consider upgrading in the offseason. The most glaring needs are at linebacker and safety. C.J Mosley needs more help around him, and Ashtyn Davis hasn’t been reliable enough in a starting role. They could also use a solid EDGE as Lawson insurance and also to raise the ceiling of the pass rush overall. Based on the template we discussed earlier, let’s go through some ideal fits in free agency and the draft. I’ll spotlight a few and list out others.

Free Agency

Primary targets

S Quandre Diggs (SEA) / S Jessie Bates (CIN)

The Jets need to replace Marcus Maye this off-season and they could luck into a great upgrade. Jessie Bates and Quandre Diggs could become available this off-season if they can’t workout new contracts with their respective teams. Both players would be nice fits.

Bates and Diggs are both physical safeties with outstanding range and coverage ability. Bates is younger and may have a slight edge in his ability to cover man to man, which Ulbrich emphasized as an important part of the Jets defense when they signed Lamarcus Joyner in this past off-season. With the way the Jets corners have been developing, a ball hawk safety is exactly what the secondary needs. Either player could come in and immediately provide stability and start creating game changing turnovers. If there’s a player I might lean towards, it would be Quandre Diggs mainly because he’s coming from the same system in Seattle. The Jets could use a veteran leader in a young secondary.

S Jayron Kearse (DAL)

Jayron Kearse has had an outstanding season for the Dallas Cowboys after living in virtual anonymity in Minnesota. Kearse in a Dan Quinn system showed what he was truly capable of as a movable hybrid safety. Good news for the Jets is their system has plenty of similarities to the one Quinn is running in Dallas. Kearse signed a one year deal with Dallas the past offseason and with the team’s success, he’ll likely have an inclination to return. However, there’s no doubt he’d get more money from another team if he’s allowed to hit the market given the Cowboys current cap situation. Perhaps that will be enough to get his signature.

As you can see above, Kearse perfectly represents the style of play this defense needs to succeed. He plays with maximum effort, he’s always around the ball, and he has great instincts. Everything Kearse does well is exactly what they’re missing in the secondary. He’s a great tackler and he’s shown much improved ball skills this season. Kearse would be a sneaky great signing.

LB Foye Oluokun (ATL)

Whenever you see a player like Quincy Williams playing above expectation in a role, it doesn’t just automatically mean that you should re-sign that player. It means you should diagnose the players’ qualities and what is allowing them to succeed in this scheme and then look for players with similar qualities that could do the same thing but way better.

Enter Foye Oluokun. I mentioned Oluokun earlier and he just happens to be a free agent this offseason. Oluokun is the 2nd leading tackler in the NFL behind only Seattle’s Bobby Wagner. Some may have concerns about his play this season, particularly in coverage. I’d have to point out that the decline in coverage this season happened to coincide with the departure of current Dallas defensive coordinator Dan Quinn and Jeff Ulbrich and the introduction of a new defensive system. I doubt there’s anyone that knows how to utilize Oluokun better than Ulbrich and Quinn. At his best, he fits the bill for what the Jets need at the position. Oluokun is a sharp run defender with excellent reaction time, and he’s way better in coverage than any of the Jets linebackers not named C.J Mosley.

EDGE Chandler Jones (AZ)

One of the best pass rushers of his generation. There isn’t really much justification needed here. He has 10 sacks right now in a “down year.” The price tag is main concern as he looks for one last big payday. Chances are he’ll want to join a contender but money talks.

Jones and Carl Lawson are very similar in terms of playing styles. That overlap could see some time split in the base defense which requires more a better run defending defensive end opposite players like Jones/Lawson.  However, on more obvious passing downs, they could definitely feature together along the defensive line.  Imagine having Jones and Lawson on opposite sides with Quinnen Williams and John Franklin-Myers in the middle? Good luck to any offensive line with that.

Other Names to watch

S Marcus Williams (NO)
CB Donte Jackson (CAR)
S Jaquiski Tartt (SF)
CB Isaiah Oliver (ATL)

The Draft

Early Targets (Round 1)

LB Devin Lloyd (Utah)

There are very few players that I’m as certain about their fit and ability to thrive with the Jets scheme, coaching staff, and fanbase as I am with Devin Lloyd. Utah’s standout linebacker is my favorite first round target for the defense. Lloyd has all of the qualities we described in the template. He’s plays with relentless effort, and has great instincts but he’s also incredibly versatile.

Lloyd can excel at every linebacker position in the Jets defense. He can play SLB, WLB, Nickel LB and he can be their MLB of the future. As a former safety, he’s been outstanding in coverage and has also shown the ability to rush the passer from the edge. This season Lloyd has had 107 tackles, 22 tackles for loss, 8 sacks, 4 interception, and a forced fumble. Lloyd would be the perfect compliment to C.J Mosley and an immediate impact starter with the Jets.

CB Derek Stingley (LSU)
S Kyle Hamilton (Notre Dame)
EDGE George Karlaftis (Colorado)

other names to watch (Round 2+)

EDGE Jermaine Johnson
CB Roger McCreary
LB Channing Tindall
S Jalen Pitre