Analyzing how often Robert Saleh used a three-safety defense in San Francisco reveals interesting information about the New York Jets defense moving forward.
Ever since the New York Jets signed free-agent safety Lamarcus Joyner – giving them three viable safeties in Joyner, Marcus Maye, and Ashtyn Davis – a narrative has floated around that Robert Saleh commonly utilized three safety looks in San Francisco, and that he is going to do the same in New York.
I am not sure where that notion emanated from. Using three safeties was not a feature of Saleh’s defense, at all.
Robert Saleh’s lack of three-safety usage
In each of the 49ers’ games from 2019 to 2020, Saleh deployed two safeties that took the field for every single play – generally the extent of his safety usage. He almost never used any of the other safeties on the roster unless a starter needed to be replaced due to injury or to get fourth-quarter rest in a blowout.
Simply put, it was extremely rare to see Saleh utilize the safety position in any way besides putting the same two safeties on the field for the whole game. He would never rotate in a backup for a starter for a reason other than injury or rest, and it was very uncommon to see him place a third safety on the field next to the two starters.
In 2020, the 49ers gave only 3.3 snaps per game to safeties who did not either start the game or replace one of the two starters due to injury or rest. That number was even lower in 2019: exactly one snap per game.
Below is a look at San Francisco’s safety usage in each game of the 2020 season. Shown for each week is the percentage and number of snaps San Francisco allocated to its two starters (and any replacements for the starters) as well as the percentage and number of snaps allocated to any other safeties who entered the game alongside the two starters.
2020 49ers Safety Usage
|Week||Starting S Duo Snaps||Other S Snaps||Starting S Duo Snap %||Other S Snap %|
Outside of a Week 12 game against the Los Angeles Rams in which he put backup safety Marcell Harris on the field for 30 snaps, making up 51% of the 49ers’ defensive plays, Saleh stayed true to his two-safety defense throughout the year.
The 49ers ranked 29th in the NFL in snaps allocated to the safety position in 2020 (132.3 per game), and they placed 27th in 2019 (129.3 per game). Those rankings support the idea that the 49ers utilized their safeties in a traditional fashion, relying on two starters and rarely throwing anyone else into the mix.
Defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich‘s Falcons were in the same boat. Over Ulbrich’s 11-game tenure as Atlanta’s defensive coordinator, the Falcons ranked 30th in the NFL with 130.9 snaps per game allocated to safeties.
What does this mean for Ashtyn Davis?
The man who is impacted the most by this information is Jets’ 2020 third-round pick Ashtyn Davis.
Will there be snaps available for Davis in this defense?
The answer to that question will probably be “no” if the Jets distribute snaps in the secondary exactly how Saleh’s 49ers and Ulbrich’s Falcons did. Neither coach liked to deviate from strictly relying on two every-down safeties. If the numbers listed above carry over to New York, Davis’ role will simply be to fill in for Joyner and Maye in the event of an injury. Situational snaps will be extremely hard to come by.
However, the most important thing to keep in mind here is that Saleh and Ulbrich can certainly adapt their philosophies to match the talent on their roster. After all, adaptability was one of Saleh’s most appealing traits as a head coaching candidate. The idea that Ulbrich and Saleh haven’t emphasized three safety looks in the past doesn’t mean they are incapable of it now.
If the Jets like Davis enough to the point where they want to create an established role for him as a third safety, there are ways it can be done.
The Jets have a razor-thin cornerback group. Considering that weakness, the Jets could focus on giving snaps to Davis instead of a cornerback in nickel (5 DB) and dime (6 DB) situations, making the “Big Nickel” (2 CB, 3 S) and “Big Dime” (3 CB, 3 S) packages a featured part of their defense.
Davis lined up at either slot cornerback (11.7%) or outside cornerback (3.7%) on 15.4% of his defensive snaps last year, so he is capable of covering out wide if need be. He is also experienced as a box defender, lining up in the box as an outside linebacker, inside linebacker, or strong safety on 40.8% of his snaps. It’s in the box where Davis played his best football.
This versatility makes Davis a highly intriguing chess piece to use in nickel and dime packages. While the risk of placing a safety on the field instead of a cornerback in a nickel/dime situation is the sacrificing of pure coverage ability, it is one that this Jets team can afford to take due to their lack of appealing options at cornerback.
Davis can also snatch up some rotational snaps at linebacker.
As discussed in a previous breakdown, most 4-3 defenses in the NFL have two every-down starting linebackers and a third linebacker who plays about 30% of the snaps on average. The Jets will presumably start C.J. Mosley and Jarrad Davis, while Blake Cashman, Hamsah Nasirildeen, and Jamien Sherwood compete for the third spot.
At 202 pounds, Davis is much too small to handle that LB3 role full-time, but he has the physicality and aggressiveness to effectively handle linebacker-type responsibilities every once in a while.
Perhaps the Jets divvy up those LB3 snaps to multiple players? Instead of having a go-to rotational third linebacker, like Azeez Al-Shaair in San Francisco or Mykal Walker in Atlanta, what if the Jets divide the snaps between Cashman, Nasirildeen, Sherwood, and Davis?
Cashman offers the only traditional linebacker frame of the bunch. Nasirldeen and Sherwood are safety/linebacker tweeners. Davis is a traditional safety who has enough grittiness to survive in the box so his track-runner speed can shine.
There are a lot of different skills and abilities available between these four players. Spreading the rotational snaps around instead of sticking to one established third linebacker might be the best way to go.
Only time will tell
Saleh and Ulbrich’s histories suggest that three-safety packages will not be a fixture in the 2021 Jets defense, but coaches can change their approach when they switch teams. Heck, Saleh drastically changed his approach year-to-year throughout his 49ers tenure.
Malleability is a huge part of any great coach’s arsenal. This Jets roster is built in a way that makes three-safety looks a possibility, so the opportunity to feature them more often is there.
For now, trying to project what the Jets will do schematically is an act of mere speculation. We will have to wait until they hit the field in Charlotte this September to see with certainty what their true plans are.