Robert Saleh, New York Jets, Defensive Scheme, Defensive System
Robert Saleh, New York Jets, Getty Images

We’ve seen coaches adjust their playbook based on personnel in the past

Is New York Jets head coach Robert Saleh a defensive genius, or a scheme-hoarder who refuses to adapt?

It’s hard to argue the former at this point after the Jets fielded a defense that was the worst in the NFL in most notable categories in 2021. However, that defense also gave meaningful snaps to the likes of Isaiah Dunn, Nathan Shepherd, Javelin Guidry, and Ashtyn Davis, so it’s easy to shift the blame from the coach to the personnel.

That goes back to the original question: when the personnel doesn’t match the scheme, what should a head coach do?

To answer that, we need to take a step back and look at Saleh’s vaunted scheme first.

Cover-3 Press/Bail

Robert Saleh’s Cover-3 Press/Bail defense comes from Pete Carroll in Seattle, for whom Saleh worked as a quality control coach from 2011-13. The defense is very role-based, giving specific assignments to each player to allow them to play aggressively.

In Cover-3, you have two outside corners playing a deep third of the field, while a single high safety plays the middle third of the field. This allows the second safety to come closer to the box and make a stronger impact in the run game.

Another feature of this defense is that it’s a “spot-drop” Cover-3, meaning that the zone players keep their eyes on the quarterback as they drop to their zone. In Saleh’s spot-drop system, instead of having flat/curl defenders, the underneath outside defenders are not specifically assigned to cover the flat, but rather to rally to it if the throw is made to keep it to a minimum gain. Spot-drop is also heavily reliant on verbal communication between the zone defenders to alert about players leaving one zone and entering another.

However, spot-drop has a fatal flaw on the seam when combined with a deep route by the outside receiver. The ball goes right over the curl linebacker’s head, allowing for constant big gains. We have seen this so far in the preseason, with seam throws wide open time after time.

Most NFL teams play match zone over spot-drop in today’s pass-happy league. A match zone means that each player drops into a zone, then latches onto the player in their zone to cover them man-to-man. The defenders are not reading the quarterback, but rather the routes run by the receivers. This allows the defense to cover the most common route combinations run by offenses.

From a run-stopping perspective, this Jets defense focuses on one-gap responsibilities. Having the strong safety in the box with a one-back set (which most teams run nowadays) means that there’s one extra body to stop the run. This allows the eight men in the box to each hit one gap aggressively without worrying as much about leverage.

On the defensive line, Saleh implements the Wide-9 system, which moves either one or both edge rushers from over the offensive tackle to a few feet outside. This is called the nine technique, which is outside the tight end’s shoulder. It gives the speed rushers better angles to attack the tackles. However, it also leaves big holes in the A and B gaps, allowing teams to run at the teeth of the defense. That’s where the linebackers are key in this defense: they need to shoot those gaps quickly to stop the run.

One of the biggest flaws with the Wide-9 is play-action. Because the linebackers need to be so quick with shooting the gaps, they get caught up in the run-fake and then leave wide-open holes in the middle of the field. It takes disciplined linebackers to recognize the differences between run- and pass-blocking on the offensive line and quickly drop if they see the latter.

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Ideological roots

Saleh saw the birth of the Legion of Boom defense that decimated Peyton Manning and the record-setting Broncos offense in the 2013 Super Bowl. It’s easy to believe in a system that put up historic defensive numbers. In 2011, the Seahawks’ defense was top 10 in the NFL in fewest points and yards allowed. In 2012, they gave up the fewest points in the league while allowing the fourth-fewest yards. In 2013, they were the best in both points and yards allowed.

However, those teams also fielded a number of star players. Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas were first-team All-Pros in both 2012 and 2013. Bobby Wagner put up an 88.3 Pro Football Focus grade as a rookie in 2012 (No. 2 among linebackers), posting 140 tackles, nine tackles for loss, three interceptions, and the fourth-best stop rate among linebackers (13.6%), to name a few of his accomplishments. Those were just some of the stars fielded by the early Legion of Boom teams.

Saleh’s most notable stop before becoming a head coach was with the San Francisco 49ers as defensive coordinator. There, he made his reputation as a top defensive mind in the NFL, using the same Cover-3 Press/Bail system that he learned from Carroll.

In his first two years with the 49ers, though, Saleh’s defense was terrible. They bottomed out in 2018, when they were 27th in the NFL in points allowed per game (27.2) and 24th in defensive DVOA. Fans were calling for Saleh’s job.

However, in 2019, the 49ers’ defense rebounded. They posted the second-best defensive DVOA in the NFL while allowing the second-fewest yards and eighth-fewest points. The 49ers rode their defensive success all the way to the Super Bowl, where they picked off Patrick Mahomes twice, sacked him four times, forced two fumbles, and kept him contained for the majority of the game. They came within an overthrown Jimmy Garoppolo deep pass of winning the game.

Again, the star power was abundant on the 2019 49ers defense.

Nick Bosa made the Pro Bowl and was Defensive Rookie of the Year after recording nine sacks, 18 quarterback hits, and 52 hurries for an absurd 16.3% pressure rate. Richard Sherman made the Pro Bowl after allowing only 27 receptions for 227 yards (8.4 yards per reception) and 1 touchdown with a 46.8 passer rating against.

Jimmie Ward became the 49ers’ do-all free safety, combining strong tackling skills with solid coverage (56.5% catch rate allowed, 84.2 overall PFF grade, 81.0 coverage grade). Dre Greenlaw excelled in tackling, putting up just a 4.7% missed tackle rate. Fred Warner’s best season came in 2020, when he was a first-team All-Pro, but he put up 118 tackles and three sacks in 2019, as well. DeForest Buckner had eight sacks and a 10.8% pressure rate up the middle. Arik Armstead was even better from the inside, posting 11 sacks and a 12.6% pressure rate.

It is also important to remember that Saleh moved away from Pete Carroll’s defense in 2019. Along with implementing the Wide-9, he stopped playing the strong safety in the box, allowing him to play more match coverage rather than spot.

Although the team took a step back in 2020, they still managed to rank sixth-best in defensive DVOA despite dealing with numerous injuries, most notably losing Bosa for the majority of the year.

Saleh turned his success with San Francisco into his first head-coaching opportunity with the Jets.

Jets defensive scheme

When Saleh came to the Jets, he decided to bring Pete Carroll’s original system along with the Wide-9. He brought in Jeff Ulbrich from Atlanta to implement the defense and call the plays, as Saleh is expected to be more of an overall manager than a tactician on this Jets team. As described earlier, the Year 1 results were disastrous.

The Jets have doubled down on their scheme in Year 2. However, they have started to bring in some more talent to be able to implement the scheme that Saleh desires.

Carl Lawson was signed as a free agent last season to be a Wide-9 speed rusher, and the Jets hope that he will be back to full strength to make their investment pay off. They brought in Sauce Gardner and D.J. Reed to play the outside corner positions, which should help in Cover-3. They signed Jordan Whitehead to be that aggressive box safety.

However, the Jets have neglected two of the key positions that made the Seahawks’ and 49ers’ defenses tick: linebacker and free safety.

For example, the Jets have brought in undersized, fast linebackers in the mold of Bobby Wagner (6’0″, 241, 4.45 40-yard dash), Fred Warner (6’3″, 229, 4.64), and Dre Greenlaw (6’0″, 227). They had C.J. Mosley lose weight. They drafted Jamien Sherwood and Hamsah Nasirildeen to convert from safety to linebacker. They brought in Quincy Williams (5’11”, 225, 4.56) and Kwon Alexander (6’1″, 227, 4.55).

However, they’ve neglected to notice one simple point: for all their physical similarities, the current linebacking corps does not have near the talent of Bobby Wagner and Fred Warner. Emulating the measurables will not emulate the talent.

To illustrate the point, the Jets’ three presumed starting linebackers in the base 4-3 alignment (Williams, Mosley, Alexander) put up missed-tackle rates of 12.1%, 9.2%, and 19.0% last season, making Mosley the only above-average tackler. Their coverage grades from PFF were 47.9, 50.2, and 67.6, making Alexander the only above-average coverage defender.

The free safety position is even worse. Earl Thomas was the ultimate center fielder with the Seahawks. He made five consecutive Pro Bowls from 2011-15 (seven total in his career) and was a three-time All-Pro. In 2013, Thomas’s 85.6 PFF coverage grade was seventh among starting safeties, and he posted five interceptions, a staple of the Carroll offense. Thomas’s 4.43 speed allowed him to fly around the field. Jimmie Ward played a similar position for the 49ers; if not quite as effectively as Thomas, still quite well.

With the Jets, the free safety position is one of the biggest question marks. Lamarcus Joyner has not played free safety in several seasons and is coming off a year in which he played just nine snaps. His last full season was not impressive, featuring a 55.2 PFF coverage grade as a nickel cornerback. He has looked iffy at best this camp and preseason.

The Jets’ other options at the position are Jason Pinnock, a converted cornerback with a ways to go in learning how to play center field; Ashtyn Davis, a fan scapegoat who seems to be present on a poor angle every time the defense allows a big play; and Will Parks, who has flashed in training camp but is still a relative unknown.

Roster construction

Given these realities, some questions come up about how the Jets constructed their roster. After having seen the utter futility of the defense last season, you’d think that Joe Douglas would have focused on bringing in better linebackers and a more talented free safety. Yes, the Jets did have many holes to fill, and something would have to give. The Jets chose to focus on pass rush and cornerback, which, admittedly, are considered the two most important defensive positions from an analytics perspective.

Still, the Jets had the opportunity to draft at least one or the other.

They chose to take Micheal Clemons, a 25-year-old rookie with some previous character concerns and whose skillset didn’t seem to be immediately necessary on the team. They traded up to get Breece Hall in the second round, and while no one is questioning his talent, the use of a second-round pick on a running back with both a safety (Jalen Pitre) and a linebacker (Nakobe Dean) available, plus the loss of an additional draft pick, makes the decision somewhat questionable. Taking a tight end (Jeremy Ruckert) in the third round after investing heavily in the position in free agency overlooked those two critical defensive needs.

Again, there is justification for each of the moves that Douglas made. It’s not that Breece Hall and Jeremy Ruckert were bad picks. It’s just that given the utter discombobulation of the Jets’ defense last season, it’s hard to understand why the team neglected to add premium talent at both the linebacker and free safety positions.

Scheme adherence: smart or stubborn?

Given that the Jets lack the manpower to run the system that the Seahawks and 49ers implemented, what should Saleh do going forward?

At this point, with just one preseason game remaining and fewer than three weeks left until the Game 1 kickoff, the overarching answer to that question must be to continue with the scheme. An NFL team cannot change their entire scheme in late August.

However, there is the overall scheme, and then there is game-planning. Most teams do not rely solely on one defensive set for an entire game. Moreover, they usually switch up the focus of their defense to attack different offenses.

Saleh and Jeff Ulbrich should be able to at least mix and match their coverages somewhat. Even if they’re committed to spot zone, they should be able to play some match coverage. Even if they like to have one high safety, that second one is going to be necessary against teams with big-time deep threats. Instead of refusing to cover the flat, they can actually designate a zone linebacker as a curl-flat defender. They can stay away from the Wide-9 on rushing downs. These are the kinds of adjustments that coaches make throughout a game and a season.

Furthermore, with the biggest roster cutdowns still a week away, the Jets still have time to improve the talent in some of their weakest areas.

Fans have long been clamoring for a run-stopping defensive tackle. If the team finds that they do not have an internal option, such as Tanzel Smart or Jonathan Marshall, who can fill that need, they can go shopping for one. Malcom Brown is a player who was just cut and has filled that role well in the past. The Jets clearly feel that they may have a hole at defensive tackle, as they worked out Sheldon Day yesterday. However, Day’s skillset is more similar to those of the players they already have on their roster.

Though the Jets seem to be content to ride it out with the linebackers they currently have, largely because of C.J. Mosley’s albatross of a contract, they can still keep their eyes out for a free safety. There isn’t much talent on the market right now, but it’s likely that someone better than Ashtyn Davis will be cut from another team before the season starts.

The bottom line

I have wondered a time or two if the Jets still consider their defense a year away from taking the shape they want. Joe Douglas does not like to overpay, and he recognizes that C.J. Mosley’s contract hinders his ability to bring in the talent needed to run the defense effectively.

It seems to me that the team may have focused on trying to build both a pass rush and ball-hawking cornerback group to get off the field as much as possible in that way. They figure that they can survive the big-yardage plays by making some of their own, and that next season is when they will be able to fill in the rest of the holes to make the defense switch from mediocre to dominant.

It is obvious that Saleh is highly committed to his scheme. The question is if he can have a modicum of success without the star power he requires. No one expects the Jets’ defense to be lights-out against the run, but fans and analysts do want to see a better pass rush and coverage and at least a defense that avoids the bottom quarter of the league.

I believe that it will take at least some flexibility and willingness to mix and match on the part of Ulbrich and Saleh for this defense to stand a chance. Despite the improved talent, the holes on this defense are too easily exploitable if kept as vanilla as they’ve been so far. Some change, some disguise, some adaptation is going to be necessary for Ulbrich to get another year.

If this defense looks even close to as bad as last season in the early stages of this season, the narrative can get ugly pretty fast.

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Rivka Boord has followed the Jets since the age of five. She is known locally for her in-depth knowledge of football. She hopes to empower young women to follow their dreams and join the sports conversation. Boord's background in analytics infuses her articles with unique insights into the state of the Jets' franchise and the NFL as a whole.
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mlesko73
mlesko73
1 month ago

Wow, what a fantastic article! One of the best football articles I have ever read. Really.
The scheme vs personnel quandary is probably best exemplified by putting Sauce (lockdown/matchup) in the “Spot Zone” system. Put him on the opponent’s biggest threat, period!
Like Belichick, take away the opponents biggest strength.
If the Spot Zone requires so much communication how can a rotating cast of players be expected to execute it? Communicating during a play, on-the-fly in a loud stadium seems unrealistic
For all of his bluster and foolishness, Richard Sherman was an extremely intelligent player and general on the field. Who is that guy for us?
I very much wanted us to take Nakobe Dean. He fell precipitously b/c of injury concerns, but I have read that he is excelling.
The Wide 9& Spot Zone combo is a nightmare for screens and counters, keep an eye on that (see last yr’s Colts game).
Finally, when I saw the release of Malcolm Brown I commented that we should be exploring that and was roundly panned by the peanut gallery, thank you for pointing out the need there.

Jonathan Richter
Jonathan Richter
1 month ago

Good analysis. I expect a major turnaround on D this year, from 32nd to about 20th, but I think the lack of LBs and Safeties will prevent us improving much beyond that. Hopefully next offseason JD takes care of the remaining holes in the roster.

Jets71
Jets71
1 month ago

Great article Rivka! I do think last year was viewed as strictly a “teaching” year and developing some base principals. I have contended the talent was so bad last year it really wouldn’t have made a huge difference in the win/loss column if they had schemed up different game plans week after week.

I do think the Jets would like to be a bit more “multiple” in the defenses they play but reality is they didn’t have the talent. I do see them making some adjustments from week to week this season, as they gel as a unit. I don’t put much stock into the game the other night (other than Hall is not good, time to get real on him), if you watch Ulbrich’s presser he said he spoke to Art Smith and told him what they plan to run and to exploit is as much as possible. Clearly they did. I do think it will help in the long run.

I do think this defense is a year away from being top 10 but they will be improved. This is hard for Jets’ fans but this team was SO FAR away when this crew arrived, to expect a one year turn around it way too much, not saying not to expect winning, but realistic expectations are needed.

For me, I don’t want them to look confused all the time. I don’t want to see screens and swing passes gashing them and I don’t want to see 3rd and 8 or more being converted. As you pointed out there are still some talent weaknesses and opposing teams will find them, after all this is the NFL. I think this D can compete and keep the team in games, we need to find out if they can make big plays in big spots. Time will tell, you are right, it could get ugly fast if there isn’t immediate improvement.

Psi
Psi
1 month ago
Reply to  Rivka Boord

“Signs of the poorly versus well coached” is one of my issues so far this preseason. I watched the Pats vs. Panthers the other night and the difference between NE and (the Panthers and Jets) from a look standpoint is stark. I have rarely seen the Jets under Saleh be seemingly ready to play in the 1st quarter. Little things like not benching Quincy on that egregious hit to Hurts is another sign to me. Until these themes change, color me a Saleh skeptic for now.

Jets71
Jets71
1 month ago
Reply to  Rivka Boord

Truth is, I haven’t see a Jets’ coach actually “outcoach” someone since Rex. That said, I believe in Saleh, and I think this team improves. I do wonder if he’s put too much faith in Ulbrich. I also believe in LaFleur, and think the offense will be much better this season.

Jets71
Jets71
1 month ago
Reply to  Rivka Boord

I’m not saying what’s he’s done is enough but Saleh clearly changed the culture on the team. Considering how bad and toxic it actually was, especially after Gase, that’s a major feather in Saleh’s cap. Yes, there is much to still be proven on game day but removing the stench of a decade worth of cesspool build up is monumental and isn’t easy. That was a major hurdle. I think we can tap the brakes a bit on the demands based on the fact this is still the second year of him being here and facing a lot of new players to fit into the team. I don’t think any “heads will roll” this season.

I couldn’t agree more with him stepping in with the D. I have always said D coordinators get a bad rap, they need to be the CEO but a great offensive coach can and are expected to call plays. If the defense sputters Saleh will need to be more hands on, which I think he will. I think Ulbrich will be on a shorter leash than last season.

Jets71
Jets71
1 month ago
Reply to  Rivka Boord

I hope you’re right. I really don’t have confidence in him.

mlesko73
mlesko73
1 month ago
Reply to  Jets71

If last yr was a teaching yr so will be this yr. Two new starting corners and a new strong safety. If the Drop Zone requires such communication/integration we are starting over again.

Noam
Noam
1 month ago

I loved the article. It was so good I read it twice. Thank you for the education.