The honeymoon is over for Robert Saleh and Jeff Ulbrich
The 2021 New York Jets defense is currently on pace to finish as the worst unit the team has ever seen. Its per-game averages for points allowed (32.9) and yards allowed (417.1) would be franchise records.
Since Week 4, the Jets defense has let up an average of 461.7 yards per game. Their defense sits in the bottom five across the league in both passing and rushing yards allowed while ranking last in both points and total yards allowed. The Jets are also the first team to allow 45 or more points three times in four weeks since the 1966 New York Giants.
Josh Allen’s Buffalo Bills are the latest team to enjoy dismantling the Jets, dropping 45 points and 489 yards at MetLife Stadium in Week 10.
Buffalo receiver Stefon Diggs was the driving force behind the Bills’ successful day. Diggs finished with eight receptions, one touchdown, and 162 receiving yards, which is his season-high by nearly 50 yards.
On two of Diggs’ biggest plays of the day – a 57-yard bomb near the end of the first half and a subsequent touchdown grab four plays later – Diggs wasn’t covered by the Jets’ top corner, Bryce Hall. Instead, rookie Brandin Echols was in single-coverage on Diggs’ 57-yarder, and backup Javelin Guidry was left alone on the touchdown after Echols left with an injury.
Head coach Robert Saleh and defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich have preached patience all year, fairly expecting plenty of ups and downs with such a young team. However, after another blowout loss at the hands of a division rival, patience has started to run thin.
When asked in his post-game press conference why Hall didn’t shadow Diggs, Saleh went back to the same old well he’s been getting water from to douse the now-weekly fires: youth and inexperience.
As Saleh explained, if Hall shadowed Diggs, he would have had to know the responsibilities for each corner position. Considering the Jets’ zone-heavy scheme, Hall would be required to know the various pass-off rules for each coverage in each spot, which is too much information for Hall to handle, according to Saleh.
While avoiding overloading Hall during his second season is sound reasoning, leaving everyone else out to dry is not.
The Jets’ rigid defensive structure, a trademark of coaches descendant from the Seattle “Legion Of Boom” tree-like Saleh and Ulbrich, has been their Achilles’ heel in 2021.
The scheme predicates itself on simplicity. In theory, it allows its players to focus on the offense and less about their responsibilities on defense. In practice, it leads to a defense that is maddeningly predictable, and easily exploitable if the talent can’t compensate. The Jets do not have the talent to compensate, and now that teams have them figured out, the defense is being taken behind the woodshed with seemingly little effort.
Gang Green has been victimized by the same concepts over and over all season long, with each coming team seemingly copying the game-plan of the team before.
Screens, trap and counter runs, and trick plays – all designed to take advantage of the defensive line’s aggression – have killed the Jets all year.
On the back end, New York has become as predictable as the sun rising every morning; Cover-3 and Cover-6 on early downs, and man coverage on third down. At this point, opposing offenses know how to beat the Jets’ defense before they even get to the stadium. If the defensive staff refuses to adjust, why should they try anything other than what’s been proven to work? As the saying goes, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
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In any sport at any level, a coach’s job is to put their players in the best positions to succeed, maximizing their strengths and limiting their deficiencies. Over the last month, the Jets’ coaches have not been doing their jobs.
By refusing to adjust their defensive structure, the coaches are actively harming their young defenders by putting them in borderline no-win situations time and time again. They have to start mixing in some wrinkles to be less predictable, and they have to start trusting their youth to handle the extra information just as they trust them in single coverage against All-Pro wideouts.
Until that happens, the Jets’ defense will continue to be vaporized, while the young players only regress, rather than improve.
A young team struggling while learning a new defense shouldn’t be surprising. To their credit, Saleh and Ulbrich can make a convincing argument that the unit will get better as time goes on.
Injuries have been piling up since training camp, and backups have been forced into starting roles with little time to prepare. It’s fair to assume that said players will improve with more reps. As Saleh himself has said more than once, in his opinion, “the difference between player A and player Z is minuscule, and most of the time player Z just needs an opportunity.”
However, the Jets have shown little improvement and instead are spiraling further and further into the abyss.
Game reps only lead to improvement when players can actively learn from their own tape and find specific areas to focus on. They can’t learn anything if they are in a losing situation from the start. With no sign of change coming, it seems likely that the Jets’ young defense will continue to get abused, and subsequently chastised by fans and the media alike, despite the coaching staff deserving most of the blame.
Saleh and Ulbrich shouldn’t be at risk of being fired. They deserve time to install their schemes, add talent to the roster, and improve the talent that’s already there.
But while they shouldn’t be at risk of joining the unemployment line, they are deserving of criticism.
Saleh and Ulbrich have talked the talk, prioritizing their roles as teachers, putting the blame on themselves with the media, and stressing patience through a rocky first year on the job. Now, they need to start walking the walk and actively work to help their players, rather than getting in their way.