The 2021 Jets defense is built around a front four needing to generate pressure, reminiscent of the New York Sack Exchange.
Just about every diehard New York Jets fan (I feel like being a “diehard” fan is a Jets fandom prerequisite) watched Flight 2021: An Offseason with the New York Jets.
Flight 2021 was a truly great docuseries, providing fantastic intel into the philosophical premises of the team’s front office and coaching staff. The team’s main coordinators were the stars of the show, going through film sessions and speaking about how they want to manage their respective units.
Jeff Ulbrich, the Jets’ defensive coordinator, was very insightful:
“We are gonna play an aggressive, quarterback vision style of coverage,” Ulbrich proclaimed on Flight 2021. “In order to play that style of defense, quarterbacks cannot get to their second or third look. They just can’t. Or it doesn’t work . . . It’s a system where you’d like to start upfront because if you don’t and quarterbacks do get to their second and third look, guys in the backend lose faith a little bit in the system we are going to try to implement.”
To summarize, Ulbrich wants to create pressure with the front four and play aggressive coverage in the back end. But he recognizes that the Jets need to create pressure with their front four for this thing to work.
Saying that isn’t hyperbolic in any way. Ulbrich said it well himself: it either happens or everything else falters. It’s something the New York Sack Exchange relied upon as well.
Joe Klecko, Mark Gastineau, Marty Lyons and Abdul Salaam combined to form the talented and widely-hated Jets’ four-man front in the early 1980s. Similar to the 2021 defense’s plan, they were all about wrecking plays with a four-man pass rush. It’s a similar mentality this new coaching staff showcases.
The question is, how do the Jets plan to bring back those 1980s memories by allowing the front-four to run wild?
Talent is important, absolutely, but it isn’t everything. The Jets wouldn’t be able to run this scheme with the outstanding defensive line group they had in 2015, for example. It’s football, so, to complement talent, the players need to fit the goals of the scheme.
In football, a unit’s identity starts with answering the utmost question: “What do we want to do?” This will dictate everything. Player performance, play-calling, alignment, and, obviously, what the base defense is and which players fit your bill.
If a coach wants to stop the run and mix and match in the back end, he probably should run a 3-4 defensive base look, while investing in bigger, nastier defensive linemen.
If, on the other hand, the coach believes his unit’s success will come from getting to the quarterback fast and allowing his back-end guys to be aggressive, well, the man in charge should run a 4-3 defense, while going after athletic, pass-rushing defensive linemen. That’s football: you pick your goal and buy your toys.
The Jets are making the transition from a team that stops the run and calls exotic blitzes to a team that gets to the quarterback fast and plays simple, aggressive coverage on the back end.
So, what are the main changes that will come with switching from a 3-4 to a 4-3?
Differences between 3-4 and 4-3
The Jets are coming from more than a decade-long span of running a 3-4 defense. From Rex Ryan to Todd Bowles all the way to Gregg Williams, it was always the 3-4. Now, Ulbrich and Robert Saleh are a 4-3-oriented tandem.
Gregg Williams was more of a hybrid defensive coordinator, yes, but the Jets still played a lot of 3-4. Thus, the principles were much more run-stop oriented for defensive linemen than they will be now.
The 3-4 defense puts a lot of stress on the big guys upfront, especially against the run. Linemen in a 3-4 are responsible for two gaps on the running game, while the pass rush glamour stays within the linebacker group. In fact, you don’t even need to play a two-gap 3-4 defense for the pass rush glamour to be in the linebacker group: that’s just how the matchups are drawn.
This is a defensive lineman’s world in a 3-4 scheme pre-snap: read and react.
Being responsible for two gaps in the running game takes away a lot of freedom for defensive linemen. But that’s what the 3-4 defense wants to do: stop the run-up front, allow linebackers to make the plays, and mix coverages in the back end. That’s the philosophical point behind it, and it worked beautifully in the 20th century when the NFL was a run-oriented league.
The goal is different for 4-3 defenses – especially the 4-3 under the Jets will sometimes deploy. It’s a one-gap system for defensive linemen. They simply attack their gap responsibility instead of reading and reacting.
Quinnen Williams, for one, will greatly benefit from that. He will be able to be in attack mode on early downs, and his explosiveness off the ball will give him some good tackle-for-loss opportunities.
Williams will penetrate and react to what’s in the backfield. If it’s a run, he will be there for the TFL, while making sure that his only gap is perfectly covered. If it’s a pass play, even better; he will have beaten his man and will be close to the quarterback.
This freedom, obviously, puts a lot of pressure on the linebacker group. But, hey, nothing is granted in life. There has to be a trade-off.
However, in a league that has become extremely pass-happy, allowing defensive linemen to jump out of their shoes a little bit brings little harm when looking at the big picture.
See the gap responsibilities of a 4-3 defense below:
What do Ulbrich and Saleh envision?
The defensive line is the most talented group on the Jets’ roster, and probably the entire team as well.
Quinnen Williams, John Franklin-Myers, Sheldon Rankins, Carl Lawson, and Vinny Curry are all very good at rushing the passer. The linebackers, on the other hand, are a huge question mark. Even C.J. Mosley, the team’s most expensive player, is an unknown right now after playing one healthy game in the last two years. So, what are Ulbrich and Saleh thinking when defending the run?
The Jets’ four-man front will attack. Thus, when successful, they will penetrate. Ulbrich and Saleh believe in the four-man front’s ability to penetrate and make running backs alter their rush lanes.
Linebackers, then, will only have the job to clean things up on the ground. That will be the job of Mosley, the MIKE backer, and Jarrad Davis, the presumed SAM backer. The WILL linebacker, on the other hand, will be involved in a lot of action, usually with the C gap. The strong safety plays closer to the line of scrimmage, creating an 8-man box, which also helps. Remember, the Jets have three safeties that can interchange: Marcus Maye, Lamarcus Joyner and Ashtyn Davis, and all can be helpful against the run.
It’s all about the belief in the four-man front’s ability to penetrate and the other four guys to clean things up when needed. The ability to cover ground is extremely important, explaining why the team focused on former safeties to fill in the WILL role in the draft.
Take a look at these two plays from the San Francisco 49ers, where I try to showcase what’s being talked about here: one facing an offense in the shotgun (Arizona Cardinals) and another one facing an offense lined up under center (Tampa Bay Buccaneers):
With the edges being able to jump their shoes a little bit, the 49ers created pressure on two first downs snaps by the opposing offense.
It’s never easy to write an offseason article predicting what’s going to happen when the real action comes. Most of the time, the writer will look silly.
Well, I am a man with no fear: I believe the Jets four-man rush will be one of the league’s best and will provide this team a lot of sacks. Perhaps even more than 30 of them solely coming from a standard four-man rush.
However, it’s very reasonable to worry about whether the linebackers will be up to the task of stopping the big plays on the ground. If Mosley goes down, what happens?
What is going to be a constant no matter what happens is this: the front four will play in an attacking mode, knowing that their main goal is getting to the quarterback. No matter who is playing behind them, their focus will be on generating pressure.
And if the four-man rush is indeed successful in getting to the quarterback … well, everything else will easily take care of itself, including distant smiles from Klecko and the boys.