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5 common misconceptions about the New York Jets defense

Robert Saleh's NY Jets 2021 Defense has some misconceptions surrounding it.
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These 5 common claims about Robert Saleh and Jeff Ulbrich’s 2021 New York Jets defense are not entirely correct.

The Jets will have 3 “starting” linebackers

The 4-3 defense gets its namesake from the personnel up front – 4 defensive linemen, 3 linebackers.

That description is a tad misleading regarding what it tells us about overall playing time at the linebacker position. Yes, there are three linebackers on the field when a team throws out a classic 4-3 look, but that does not necessarily mean a team employing a 4-3 base defense will have three ‘backers on the field for most of the game. Most 4-3 teams do not use their linebackers this way.

In 2020, the Colts (led by DC Matt Eberflus) were the only team in the NFL to have three linebackers who participated in at least half of the defensive snaps. No other team came close to doing the same.

The majority of the 4-3 defenses in today’s NFL have two starting linebackers who play nearly every down and a third linebacker who rotates in for less than half of the snaps.

Robert Saleh and Jeff Ulbrich both hail from defenses who utilized their linebackers in that fashion.

The 49ers had two every-down linebackers in 2020. Fred Warner handled the role throughout the season. Kwon Alexander was initially Warner’s partner until he was replaced by Dre Greenlaw in Week 6.

Serving as the rotational third linebacker was Azeez Al-Shaair. Save for a Week 17 start in which he filled in for Greenlaw, Al-Shaair played about 26% of the snaps on average when he served as the No. 3 linebacker. His role was highly fluctuant, playing as many as 58% of the snaps but also not playing any defensive snaps at all in three games.

Ulbrich’s Falcons had the same system. Deion Jones and Foyesade Oluokun were the starters. Mykal Walker was the third linebacker, playing approximately 31% of the defensive snaps when both starters were healthy. Walker’s snap portion ranged from 15% to 56%.

So, while the Jets will certainly have three linebackers playing important roles this season, they most likely will not have three “starters,” which is a concept that has been publicized at times. One of the three linebackers who make up the second level of the 4-3 front will not be playing nearly as much as the other two.

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Bless Austin is a good tackler

I often see Bless Austin‘s tackling labeled as a strength in his game. That is partially correct. His tackling is both a primary strength and a primary weakness.

Austin is a boom-or-bust tackler. The tackles he makes are often awesome, but he also misses a lot of tackles.

When Austin does execute a tackle, it is typically a beautiful, bone-shattering finish. His best tackles are more than just eye candy, too – they make a real positive impact on the game.

Austin has racked up a ton of clean one-on-one tackles in the flat where he limited the receiver to zero yards after contact. Those are the kind of tackles that really matter and are not merely highlight-reel plays that do not actually affect the game much.

However, it is often ignored that Austin possesses quite a large collection of missed tackles on his tape. Austin was credited with 11 missed tackles by PFF in 2020, tying for 17th-most among cornerbacks even though he ranked 65th in snaps played (651).

Austin had a PFF tackling grade of 47.5 in 2020, placing 69th out of the 87 cornerbacks to play at least 500 snaps (21st percentile). He was not much better as a rookie, earning a 52.7 tackling grade (33rd percentile among CB to play 300+ snaps).

If Austin can cut down on the misses, his length, strength, and physicality give him the potential to become a truly excellent tackler, but for now, he’s a coin-toss in this department.

It may be hard for Austin to find that balance without significantly altering his approach and technique as a tackler. He has a strong tendency to aggressively lead into his tackles with either his head or his shoulder. This technique leads to big hits when everything clicks right, but it is also the reason that he misses so often. Tackling is not supposed to be done that way on a consistent basis.

Austin needs to master using the correct tackling technique for the situation. While there are times when aggressive dives are the right call, it is too risky of a style to be the go-to approach in all scenarios. Sometimes you just need to wrap the guy up.

It’s the textbook tackling (both executing it and knowing when to use it) that Austin needs to improve. We know he can hit hard. He needs to be more fundamentally sound so that the misses can be cut down – even if that comes at the cost of cutting down his big hits as well.

Sheldon Rankins needs to replicate 2018 to be valuable

When you take one glance at Sheldon Rankins‘ standard career stats, it appears that he has been fairly unproductive outside of a great 2018 campaign.

Rankins had eight sacks, 12 tackles for loss, and 15 quarterback hits in 2018. Over his other four seasons combined, Rankins had 9.5 sacks, 13 tackles for loss, and 29 quarterback hits (2.4 sacks, 3.3 tackles for loss, and 7.3 hits per season).

Lining up with the story that is told by those numbers, I have often seen Rankins discussed as if his 2018 season is the only appealing aspect of his resume. Some seem to think that the Jets signed him only to roll the dice on a potential return to his 2018 form, not for anything that he did over the two seasons that followed.

Rankins was actually still a productive player over the past two seasons even if the box score stats suggest otherwise. He created pressure on 9.5% of his pass-rush snaps in 2019 (81st percentile among interior defensive linemen) and 8.9% of his pass-rush snaps in 2020 (80th percentile).

While Rankins’ volume production in 2018 was far better than the following two seasons, his efficiency was not that much better. He had a 10.2% pressure rate that year, placing at his position’s 89th percentile. That is a fantastic mark and stands as a career-high, but it isn’t lightyears ahead of the similarly excellent 9.2% mark he posted across the next two years.

The decline in Rankins’ volume production largely had to do with injuries and a slice in his playing time. Over the past two seasons (including the playoffs), Rankins missed 11 games and played 33.1 snaps per game, giving him 795 snaps total. He played 648 snaps in 2018 alone, missing no games and playing 38.1 snaps per game.

Sure, the 2018 season was easily Rankins’ best and it would be phenomenal for the Jets if he found a way to revisit that level. There is no doubt that the potential exemplified by his 2018 season is one of the most intriguing parts of his profile.

With all of that being said, the Jets did not sign Rankins just to pray that he turns back the clock. He will still be a valuable piece even if he is the same player he was over the last two years.

Foley Fatukasi is not a fit in the Jets’ 4-3 defense

I’ve seen some talk that Foley Fatukasi is not a fit in the Jets’ 4-3 scheme. It’s a fair concern. The defensive line is abandoning a style that was an excellent match to the bruising Fatukasi’s skill set, switching from a two-gapping 3-4 front to an attacking 4-3 front.

For Fatukasi, the scheme change is almost definitely a negative thing. It will most likely limit his playing time and thus his production ceiling.

In a defense that emphasizes athleticism and pass-rushing, Fatukasi is not an ideal starter. Contrarily, he was starting material in the Jets’ 3-4 defense. Fatukasi elevated into a starting role in the latter portion of the 2020 season as he played about 54% of the Jets’ defensive snaps on average over his final nine appearances.

That is not going to happen in a 4-3 defense.

While the 4-3 switch is a bad thing for Fatukasi individually, I do not think it means there is no place for him or that he isn’t a “fit”. The Jets will be thrilled to use his run-stopping abilities in certain situations. He will just have to be used in a niche role rather than in a featured role.

The Jets’ 4-3 defense needs explosive athletes with great pass-rushing ability to feature as its primary interior defenders, and on most downs, the Jets will ask them to one-gap with aggression. Fatukasi does not fit that bill, making him a poor fit as a starter.

However, that does not mean the Jets will need those aforementioned skills on every single play and will never need what Fatukasi offers.

Fatukasi will likely be used quite frequently in high-likelihood rushing situations, and in those instances, the Jets will allow him to do his thing – take up space, clog up multiple gaps, read the play, and shed to make stops.

There is certainly a role for Fatukasi to do damage in this defense. It just won’t be as big of a role as the one he played last year.

Ashtyn Davis is better as a deep safety than a box safety

If we are talking about long-term potential, this is a perfectly fine claim. A former track star with blazing speed who thrived as a deep safety in college, Ashtyn Davis was drafted for his potential as a deep man. It makes sense to think that this is his ideal home in the NFL.

However, as things currently stand, Davis is a better player the closer he is to the line of scrimmage. That is what he put on tape in his rookie season.

Of course, this can change as he develops throughout his professional career, but if the Jets had to play a game today to avoid being relegated to the Antarctican Football League, Davis would be utilized in a box role while rarely (if ever) playing deep.

Jets X-Factor’s Vitor Paiva hit the film room to break down the upside that Davis showed as a box player in his rookie season. Davis’ aggressiveness, versatility, and athleticism made him a useful player who could adequately serve in a number of different roles in the box, ranging from outside linebacker to slot cornerback.

Davis’ ugliest moments occurred as a deep defender. He struggled mightily when covering the deep-third in Cover-3 or the deep-half in Cover-2, misreading route concepts and taking poor angles in pursuit.

One would expect a rookie to struggle in those aforementioned areas considering their mental nature (especially since Davis’ worst game in that role came against the Chiefs’ elite offense). With time, Davis could certainly improve his route recognition, instincts, and decision-making to become a good free safety.

For now, his home is in the box.

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