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Jeff Ulbrich hints at cornerback ‘committee’ in NY Jets opener

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Jeff Ulbrich discusses the New York Jets’ cornerback approach

The New York Jets will be making adjustments to their defensive Playbill even as the curtain rises on their 2021 season on Sunday afternoon in Carolina (1 p.m. ET, CBS).

Gang Green released third-year cornerback Bless Austin last week with the intent of showcasing their even fresher secondary defenders. Austin had been penciled in as the Jets’ top cornerback next to Bryce Hall for a majority of the offseason, but the team’s released depth chart featured three rookies sharing the starting spot opposite Hall: Jason Pinnock and Brandin Echols were late-round selections while Isaiah Dunn was added through freshman free agency.

Jets defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich acknowledged the unusual situation in his public comments on Thursday. He confirmed that viewers of Sunday’s game would see a variety of Jets defenders line up in the secondary as they battle the high-octane offense of Charlotte’s Panthers.

“I think all of them are going to have a place to play Sunday,” Ulbrich said, per notes from the Jets. “It’s not going to be just two corners like a lot of teams play, we’re going to do a little bit by committee and let them all have a piece of it.”

Gang Green’s defense certainly faces an immediate challenge to open their 2021 affairs: enough has been written about the ex-Jets that headline the Panthers’ offense (Sam Darnold and Robby Anderson). Carolina also features D.J. Moore (2,368 yards over the last two seasons) and newcomer Terrace Marshall Jr. from LSU’s national title run. Christian McCaffrey is also set to make his comeback after injuries limited to three games last season, shortly after the team named made him the highest-paid rusher in NFL history.

“I think it’s a collective thing, it’s going to take the entire defense,” Ulbrich said of the plan to stop a McCaffrey-led Panthers offense. “We’re going to have to play really sound, fundamental football. We’re going to have to set edges at all levels of defense, whether it be the D-line, linebackers, secondary. Then you get population to the ball and tackle really, really well.”

“Assume that the guy that’s approaching is going to miss the tackle and assume that it’s going to take all 11 to get him down. That’s a good assumption, because a lot of times that’s what it takes. He’s a great player.”

Despite several vital missing pieces on offense, Carolina played competitive football all season. Of their 11 losses, all but three came by a one-possession margin.

Ulbrich is quite familiar with the Panthers’ firepower. As a former defensive assistant with the Atlanta Falcons, Ulbrich would deal with yearly pair of matchups with the cats from Carolina. It was, in fact, a loss at the hands of the Panthers that forced a major coaching shake-up in Atlanta. Carolina’s 23-16 win over the Falcons last October led to the firing of head coach Dan Quinn after six seasons. Ulbrich was thrust into the defensive coordinator spot over the final 11 games under interim head coach Raheem Morris.

Despite Carolina’s improvements, Ulbrich professed his faith in the freshman defenders, claiming they’re ready for the workload of a regular season contest. Having worked with this group all summer, the defensive boss is pleased with the way his young defenders have responded to the challenge of proving themselves after falling to the final stages of the draft.

“This will be a great challenge for them. I think they’re all up for it though,” Ulbrich said. “To see their demeanor, it’s not a passive group. Although inexperienced and young, none of them came highly regarded from the standpoint of draft status or whatever the case may be.

“They all have their own inner confidence, swag to them that makes me feel better. They don’t seem overwhelmed by any means. Now, Sunday is going to be a new challenge, and we’ll see a new version of them because it’s their first time on a Sunday. But I’m excited for them, all of them.”

Ulbrich also confirmed that linebacker C.J. Mosley would more or less serve as the defensive quarterback, granted control of the huddle. Mosley is set to return to action after sitting out of last season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The former Baltimore Raven was voted into the role of defensive captain alongside Foley Fatukasi earlier this week.

As a rare veteran on a Jets defense that’s expected to feature seven first or second-year players (including 2021 draftees Jamien Sherwood and Hamsah Nasirildeen at linebacker), Mosley is expected to take on a larger leadership role on Sunday in Charlotte.

“He’s definitely a source of experience, and the guy has been there and done that,” Ulbrich said of Mosley. “He’s also a guy that is as even-keeled as I’ve seen any player in this league, especially at the caliber that he plays. He’s a great source of consistency and just the demeanor I think is calming to these guys. They’re going to lean on him on Sunday, for sure.”

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

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