Here are the biggest differences between Gregg Williams’ New York Jets defense and the San Francisco 49ers defense that Robert Saleh ran.
Yesterday, we took a look at some of the philosophical changes that will likely be coming on offense as the New York Jets transition from Adam Gase to Mike LaFleur. Today, we turn to the other side of the ball.
Whereas Gregg Williams has always been hell-bent upon blitzing aggressively no matter where he’s coached, Saleh seems to be more adaptable.
According to Pro Football Reference, the Jets had the NFL’s fourth-highest blitz rate in 2020 (39.2%) and the sixth-highest blitz rate in 2019 (38.4%). In 2018, the Williams-led Browns ranked fourth in the league in blitz rate (34.0%). Blitzing at a high frequency is Williams’ bread-and-butter and that is something that he has not shown he is willing to change.
On the other hand, Saleh showed great malleability in this area with the 49ers.
In 2019, San Francisco had a dominant defensive front that could create a lot of pressure on its own without the help of extra rushers, so Saleh let them go to work and blitzed on only 20.9% of plays, placing 29th.
However, in 2020, San Francisco’s four-man rush took a big hit as Nick Bosa, Dee Ford, and Solomon Thomas combined to play five games while DeForest Buckner was traded to Indianapolis prior to the season. Rather than stick with his 2019 approach, Saleh adapted based on what he had at his disposal, significantly upping his blitz frequency to help out the depleted defensive line. The 49ers ranked 10th in the league with a 33.6% blitz rate in 2020.
Saleh’s adaptability is an important thing to keep in mind as we go throughout this piece. We can look at San Francisco’s tendencies under Saleh all we want, but the fact of that matter is that he has proven to be a coach who is far more malleable than most others. There are some basic principles he will most likely continue to carry with him – such as the 4-3 base look – but in many areas, Saleh will mold his approach to best fit the players that he has.
Interchangeability at safety
Saleh’s safeties were not completely tethered to “free” and “strong” roles. He had both of his starters roaming all over the field.
Jimmie Ward and Jaquiski Tartt were the primary starting safeties for San Francisco over the past two seasons. Ward is listed as a free safety while Tartt is listed as a strong safety, and those are certainly the two players’ primary roles, but both of them take on a wealth of other responsibilities.
In 2019 (when both players were healthy for most of the season), Ward played free safety on 71.2% of his snaps, but he also played 15.6% in the slot and 12.8% in the box, throwing in a tiny 0.5% slice of the pie at outside cornerback. Tartt, meanwhile, played 48.8% of his snaps in the box, 13.4% at slot corner, and 1.5% at outside corner, but still played free safety 36.2% of the time.
Saleh likes to run a lot of looks in which both safeties drop back deep (resulting in both players being labeled as lining up at “free safety” on the same play). In 2020, the 49ers ran a Quarters coverage (Cover-4) on 18.1% of their defensive plays, the fifth-highest rate in the league. They ranked 15th in Cover-2 usage as they ran it 15.3% of the time.
Should they both return as starters, look for Ashtyn Davis and Marcus Maye to both handle all aspects of the position in some capacity while consistently covering alongside each other in Cover-4 and Cover-2 looks.