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Jeff Ulbrich, NY Jets are shaping their defensive identity

Quinnen Williams, John Franklin Myers, New York Jets
Quinnen Williams, John Franklin-Myers, New York Jets, Getty Images

Jeff Ulbrich deserves some credit after a rash of criticism

Heading into the 2022 season, it was evident what the New York Jets wanted to do on defense.

After spending premium draft capital on a cornerback and edge rusher while forgoing linebacker and safety in the second round, the Jets telegraphed their desire to rush the passer and play lockdown coverage on the outside.

That plan got off to a slow start, as the team allowed three deep touchdown passes in Week 1 and followed it up with the Amari Cooper show in Week 2. All the while, the defensive line barely made a peep, especially on the edge.

However, over the last two games, the Jets have come alive. Their corners have always been there: D.J. Reed and Sauce Gardner may well be the top cornerback tandem in the NFL, yielding passer ratings of 39.8 and 62.3, respectively, and Michael Carter II isn’t too shabby in the slot, either.

But the defensive line decided to join the party, putting the last touch in place to allow this defense to truly play its game.

We’ve already waxed poetic about the game put up by Carl Lawson. As Michael Nania detailed, Lawson’s seven QB hits against the Dolphins were the most by a Jets edge since the stat was first tracked in 2006. John Franklin-Myers was close behind with five QB hits, while Bryce Huff recorded another game with a pressure rate above 25%. Quinnen Williams added six pressures.

That pressure masks some of the coverage deficiencies underneath and in the deep middle. When a quarterback doesn’t have time to throw, he can’t unload deep to his top targets, even ones as fast as Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle. Finding the tight end over the middle will be less effective on third-and-18.

The Jets are still not perfect. After all, they allowed 137 rushing yards at a 5.3 yards-per-carry clip against the Dolphins. They’re 28th in the NFL in third-down conversion rate allowed at 48.4%, although that’s up slightly from 51% after the first three weeks. They’re 21st in defensive DVOA, including 23rd in pass DVOA and 19th in rush DVOA.

However, the Jets are also tied for fifth in the NFL with nine takeaways. They’ve forced at least one turnover in each game they’ve played, including four interceptions against the Steelers last week.

Getting those takeaways is a staple of Robert Saleh and Jeff Ulbrich‘s defense: they’ll allow yardage, but they believe that in the long run, the combination of pressure at the line and strong coverage on the outside will allow them opportunities at the ball. It’s one of the reasons they drafted Sauce Gardner at No. 4 overall despite having more than competent play from Bryce Hall last season: Hall has one career pick. Sauce had three in 11 games last season.

This is the Jets’ true defensive identity: they still struggle with covering tight ends. Although their run defense has held up surprisingly well as a whole, it’s shown some leaks in the past two weeks. They miss too many tackles. They’re not where they’d like to be on third down just yet.

But over the course of a game, this Jets defense will get theirs. There will be strong pass breakups from Reed and Gardner on the outside. Carl Lawson, Quinnen Williams, John Franklin-Myers, Bryce Huff, Jermaine Johnson, Sheldon Rankins, and Jacob Martin will get after the quarterback. And a whole host of Jets players will combine for takeaway opportunities. Surprisingly, despite the tackling struggles, there will be some excellent tackles made by Kwon Alexander and even Jordan Whitehead and C.J. Mosley (two of the worst tackling culprits).

Quinnen Williams actually played 70% of the defensive snaps against the Dolphins. Bryce Huff is here to stay, taking snaps from Jacob Martin to solidify the third-down defense. The Jets have finally begun to play matchups on defense, running a corner blitz in response to a Mike McDaniel offensive tendency and playing more two-high coverage and big nickel to contain the Dolphins’ explosive receivers.

Jeff Ulbrich, the much-maligned Jets defensive coordinator, deserves credit as the team’s defense takes shape. Sure, it’s early in the season, and one Aaron Rodgers matchup could obliterate all of the goodwill generated by back-to-back wins. But when something is working, you’ve got to recognize it.

After five weeks, the blueprint for the Jets’ season success on defense has been mapped. And with the talent they have at the positions that matter, it may well be a sustainable map.

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1 year ago

I’ll be the first to admit that I was an extremely vocal critic of Ullbrich and also Lawson.
I’m not ready to anoint anyone yet, but the signs of improvement are clear (LaFleur too).
It seems like the emphasis on high DLine rotation is waning, as it should. If Lawson is getting his groove back, let him get it. Q should be used like Aaron Donald. I’m not sure where I read it, but none other than Mr. Klecko said that a good player (referring to Q) needs to be able to wear down his opponent and set him up for strategies to be used when the game is on the line. Players can’t do that when they’re constantly being pulled from the action. Find our best four and play them until they need a break.

1 year ago
Reply to  Rivka Boord

Pat Kirwan is the best football analyst on the radio. He was with the Jets for 10 years. He is an analyst behind the scenes every weekend in NYC for the CBS show. He knows everything about football and he is so entertaining. Movin” the chains is his Sirius show at 3pm EST. Its the best radio show there has ever been for football. I look forward to one day reading his book. I enjoy JETS X factor’s videos and articles on O line play. Nothing better in all of sports journalism

Matt Galemmo
1 year ago

I was impressed with Ulbrich this past game. He played cover 2 and big nickel, like you said, but when Mostert was running it down there throats it would have been easy to switch it. He didn’t, because he wanted to be sure he kept hill and Waddle under wraps, and because he knew the dolphins offense wouldn’t score enough points without them.

Then the Jets got a nine point lead and the dolphins opened it up…and wham! On queue, Lawson strip sack, Q stiff arm, breece and a 16 point lead. Really good stuff.

1 year ago

I think you’re right, and we are going to have to get used to them giving up yards, in the bend don’t break style, looking for the DL to cause problems when the field tightens up. I’d like to see the DL get home a bit more and get off the field on 3rd down more but the fact they can improve and win at that same time is a good sign.

I give them credit for not taking the bait on Hall last season who isn’t good but benefited from the “he’s better than expected” claims, and moving on from him. The LB’s have been holding up, and given the play of Alexander, waiting to improve that group has proven to be the smart move.

They are on their way, but 2nd or 3rd and 14 is much different than 2nd or 3rd and 8. I’d like to see more sacks, and less 3rd and long conversions. I think they will get there.

Oh and I also give Saleh & Ulbrich credit for the Sauce blitz that set the tone.

1 year ago
Reply to  Rivka Boord

Good point on the PI. You’re spot on about the safety play. It was an abomination early but it seems those guys settled down.

Last edited 1 year ago by Jets71