Jeff Ulbrich and Robert Saleh mixed things up to help New York Jets’ defense corral Josh Allen, Buffalo Bills
The New York Jets‘ defense just passed its most difficult test yet – and possibly the toughest test the NFL can offer.
New York shut down Josh Allen and the Buffalo Bills’ No. 1-ranked offense (based on DVOA entering the week). Buffalo was held to season-lows in points (17), total yards (317), passing yards (183), and total first downs (19). Allen posted season-worsts in passing touchdowns (0), passing yards (205), yards per attempt (6.0), passer rating (46.8), and sacks (5).
How did they do it?
Head coach Robert Saleh and defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich concocted an unconventional gameplan for the Bills. It featured numerous quirks that are uncommon for both Buffalo’s opponents and the Jets themselves. Their gameplan caught Allen and the Bills by surprise, putting the Jets’ defenders in a favorable position to succeed.
These are some of the unique decisions by Saleh and Ulbrich that allowed the Jets’ defense to thrive against Buffalo.
Extremely low blitz rate
Statistically speaking, Josh Allen tends to produce better results as a passer when he is not blitzed. On the year, Allen has a 104.2 passer rating when he is not blitzed compared to an 88.3 passer rating when he is blitzed.
Because of this disparity, teams have been blitzing Allen fairly often. Over the first eight weeks of the season, Allen was blitzed on 35.9% of his dropbacks, which ranked seventh-highest out of 32 qualified quarterbacks.
Going into this game, I thought the Jets should mirror this approach and use a fairly high blitz rate against Allen. It seemed like the best way to force him into turnovers, based on the evidence.
The Jets showed zero interest in mimicking the popular trends. Instead of following suit with other teams’ (mostly unsuccessful) gameplans against Allen, New York went against the grain and elected to do the opposite.
New York blitzed Allen on just two plays. Two! It’s the second-lowest number of blitzes that Allen has faced in his entire career.
This plan worked like a charm. The Jets relied on their four-man rush all game long and got brilliant results when doing so.
When facing fewer than five rushers, Allen completed 18 of 33 passes for 205 yards, 0 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions. His 48.2 passer rating in these situations ranked fourth-worst among qualified quarterbacks in Week 9. Allen also averaged -0.35 EPA per dropback, ranking sixth-worst.
The Jets are known for being a light-blitzing team that relies on its four-man rush, but their blitz rate against Buffalo was extreme even by their standards. For the season, the Jets rank 31st with a blitz rate of 16.8%, per NFL Next Gen Stats. Against Buffalo, their blitz rate was 5.1%, which is less than one third of their already-low season average.
Give credit to Saleh and Ulbrich for sticking with their guns and trusting their pass rushers to win. It’s not easy to just sit back and refrain from getting aggressive when you’re facing an MVP-caliber quarterback, but Saleh and Ulbrich pulled it off, and the Jets reaped the rewards.
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Mixing it up with Sauce Gardner and D.J. Reed
The Jets usually ask their two outside cornerbacks to stay on one side of the field for the vast majority of the game. Sauce Gardner mans the left side and D.J. Reed mans the right side. Prior to Week 9, Gardner had played 96% of his snaps on the left side while Reed had played 96% of his snaps on the right side.
For the Buffalo game, the Jets significantly altered their usage of Gardner and Reed. It marked the first time all season in which the Jets deviated from their usual gameplan for the cornerbacks.
New York played the matchup game against Buffalo, as Gardner and Reed were asked to swap sides on a routine basis. Gardner had a 44%-56% split in favor of the right side while Reed had a 56%-44% split in favor of the left side.
New York typically placed Gardner on the side of the formation where Buffalo’s tight end lined up. Reed would play on the other side.
This turned out to be a good decision. Both corners had productive outings.
When targeting either Gardner or Reed, Josh Allen completed 4-of-9 passes for 82 yards, no touchdowns and an interception. More than half of those yards came on Buffalo’s first offensive play of the game, when Stefon Diggs beat Gardner for a 42-yard bomb. For the rest of the game, Gardner and Reed coughed up just 40 yards and three catches on eight targets.
Playing Jermaine Johnson off the ball
Rookie defensive end Jermaine Johnson made his return after a three-game absence, playing 15 defensive snaps. The Jets used three of those snaps to experiment with an unorthodox role for the speedy edge rusher. It was a small sample, but the results were intriguing.
On three plays – each occurring in a passing situation (third or fourth down) – Johnson lined up about two-to-three yards off the line of scrimmage as a stand-up inside linebacker (although he aligned in a rush position rather than the typical squatting position for an ILB). He never aligned in this position over his first five games.
Each time, Johnson would come in to rush the quarterback. Presumably, the Jets’ had two goals with these packages: to create confusion and to give Johnson some extra momentum into his rush.
While Johnson himself did not win or create pressure on any of these three reps, there were two plays in which his unusual path into the backfield caused some confusion for the offensive line and opened up room for a teammate to create pressure. On each of those two pressured plays, Allen fired an incomplete pass on a deep shot. This includes Allen’s final pass of the game, a last-ditch heave to Gabe Davis that was broken up by Sauce Gardner (who lined up at right cornerback on the play, fittingly giving us two unique alignments in the game’s most important rep).
Allen ultimately went 1-of-3 for 7 yards over the three reps in which Johnson aligned off the ball. I’m curious to see if those results inspire the Jets continue experimenting with these packages.
You cannot help but admire that the Jets were bold enough to try some ambitious things against an elite opponent. Ulbrich and Saleh pulled out all the stops. They showed no fear whatsoever.
The Jets coaching staff’s creativity and gutsiness were integral aspects of this stupendous defensive performance.