Robert Saleh’s vaunted defensive scheme has shown both its virtues and flaws with the New York Jets
After the 2021 season, the picture looked different. The Jets ranked dead last in the NFL in most defensive categories, which was actually worse than they had been the year before. Fans wondered if Saleh had leveraged the elite 49ers’ talent toward a head coaching job rather than leading the defense to success.
However, a year later, things have once again taken a turn. The Jets had a top-five defense in most categories in 2022. Saleh has reprised his standing in the media as a defensive genius.
The truth is that Saleh’s defensive scheme caused those 2021 failures, and Saleh’s defensive scheme caused those 2022 successes. The things that make Jets fans want to tear their hair out are the same things that led the Jets to field a top-five defense in 2022. At the same time, there are definitive flaws in the defense that good offensive coaches can exploit.
What are the pros and cons of Saleh’s defense? Is he truly a defensive genius, a coach who rides the coattails of elite players, or something else altogether?
Pro: Defensive line is always fresh.
The 49ers’ defensive line was always considered one of their top strengths. In 2022, the Jets’ defense had the same. The line could be even better heading into 2023.
One of the reasons that line is so dominant, though, is that it’s fresh. The Jets rotate their linemen regularly, and almost no one sees 60% or more of the snaps. Therefore, players have a chance to rest and can be at their best at key moments late in the game. Meanwhile, the opposing offensive linemen are far more tired.
When Jeff Ulbrich said in the 2022 offseason that no defensive lineman was going to get more than 35 snaps per game, Jets fans were alarmed. While that was not strictly the case, the team stuck to its desire for a heavy rotation, and it worked.
Con: The best defensive linemen don’t get a chance to show it.
Despite earning first-team All-Pro honors, Quinnen Williams is still underrated in some segments of the media. A key reason is that many of his numbers (beyond sacks) were not as lofty as some other defensive tackles.
However, that was because he played significantly fewer snaps. Williams’ 690 defensive snaps ranked 29th among interior defensive linemen. Some of the other top defensive tackles had between 250-315 more snaps than him. Williams played 60.6% of the Jets’ defensive snaps, per Pro Football Reference. The other top linemen were all at least 72%; Daron Payne played 87%, and Christian Wilkins was at 84%.
Some Jets fans questioned whether it’s worth paying $24 million annually for a player who plays 60% of the snaps. That undersells how critical Williams is to the Jets’ defense.
With Quinnen Williams on the field, the Jets go from 31st to 1st in sack rate 😳
— NFL on ESPN (@ESPNNFL) July 13, 2023
John Franklin-Myers and Carl Lawson also don’t receive enough snaps to make the kind of statistical impact you would expect from starting edge rushers. Lawson ranked 36th among edge rushers with 663 total defensive snaps and 27th with 432 pass rush snaps. Franklin-Myers ranked 38th and 41st in those categories, respectively.
Meanwhile, Jermaine Johnson‘s 2.5 sacks seemed underwhelming for a first-round pick. However, Johnson ranked 111th among edge rushers with just 312 total defensive snaps, including 151 pass rush snaps. Most of those snaps were on first or second down and were heavily impacted by play action, screens, and quick throws. This gave him few good opportunities to rush the passer.
Sacks are far from the only stat that matters for defensive linemen. Still, it’s harder for the best players along the line to make their presence felt regularly because they’re simply not on the field as often as others around the league.
Pro: It is easy for defensive players to learn.
There have been many narratives around the league this offseason about players struggling to acclimate to playbooks. Just look at the overblown concern about Joe Tippmann’s learning curve. That narrative has not come out of the Jets’ defensive room, though. The defense is kept simple for the purpose of allowing players to react rather than constantly think.
This may have partially helped Sauce Gardner succeed as a rookie. His responsibilities were very defined: stick almost exclusively to one side of the field and follow specific coverage rules.
Con: It’s easy for offenses to learn, too.
Doug Pederson had a field day against the Jets’ defined rules, using them to consistently move the sticks with crossing patterns. Opponents know what the Jets’ defensive rules are, and the good ones can use them to their advantage. Which Jets fan doesn’t get sick to their stomach thinking about Jakobi Meyers running rampant on crossers and Rhamondre Stevenson going against the Jets’ linebackers and safeties?
When playing creative play-callers like Andy Reid, Nick Sirianni, and Mike Kafka this season, this could be a tremendous issue.
Pro: It prevents the big play.
The Jets converted from a Cover-3 to a Cover-4-based scheme in 2022. They tied for the third-highest usage rate of two high safeties (50.9%), leading the league in usage of quarters coverage (31.3%) and ranking fifth in Cover 6 (14.5%).
Their goal is simple: keep everything in front of you and don’t allow the big play. As a defensive strategy, it’s actually not a terrible one. The chance of an offense stringing together two first downs is 52%, and that decreases with more required first downs. If you force teams to methodically drive downfield, they’re likely to make a mistake at some point.
We saw this with the Jets’ defense in 2022. They ranked third-best in the NFL in allowing just 49 explosive plays (20+ yards) at a 4.55% rate. Coupled with a defense that tied for seventh with 45 sacks, tied for ninth with 45 tackles for loss, and received a second-ranked 1.65 opponent penalties for every defensive penalty, you have a defense that is unlikely to allow many points.
Correspondingly, the Jets allowed the fewest defensive touchdowns in the NFL with just 29. They ranked second in points allowed per drive with 1.57.
Con: It can struggle to get off the field on third down and often allows long drives.
Despite ranking 10th in defensive third-down percentage, the Jets ranked 29th with a defensive drive success rate of just 64.8%. Drive success rate measures the rate of series that result in a first down or touchdown. The Jets gave up a pretty high rate of successful series. This is exactly the downside to playing such a soft defense.
The Jets also allowed 6.13 plays per drive defensively, which ranked 16th in the NFL. That’s certainly not terrible, but it doesn’t match up with their lofty defensive point totals. There was plenty of space available in the short area of the field, and offenses took advantage of it.
Pro: Players can aggressively attack.
Saleh wants his players to flow downfield and attack. The Jets’ defense plays a one-gap scheme, which means that defensive linemen are meant to penetrate gaps as quickly as possible. For an athletic group, this can be a dream come true. They can rack up highlight-reel hits that stop ballcarriers in their tracks.
Con: Offenses can take advantage of that aggressiveness.
Offenses know that if they stay patient, the Jets’ defenders will overpursue. In the run game, this means using many counterplays, draws, and delays. In the passing game, bootlegs and screen passes can victimize the Jets’ defenders. Running quarterbacks can also take advantage of the space vacated by attacking defenders. There’s not enough emphasis on gap discipline.
Sheldon Rankins’ improvement in this area in his second year with the Jets greatly improved their run defense. However, with Quinton Jefferson, already a notoriously poor run-stopper and an aggressive pass-rusher, in tow, things could get messy on running plays with Jefferson on the field.
Related con: missed tackles are consistently a problem.
With an attacking mindset, seeking the big hit often trumps good fundamentals and tackling form. This leads to many missed tackles.
In 2022, of the Jets’ eight main linebackers, cornerbacks, and safeties, five had a missed tackle rate that was worse than the average for their position. Only C.J. Mosley (68th percentile), Gardner (88th), and Michael Carter II (55th) were solid. D.J. Reed was okay (46th percentile). Meanwhile, the Jets return Quincy Williams (23rd percentile) and Jordan Whitehead (17th), who were tackling liabilities.
How Tony Adams will replace Lamarcus Joyner’s tackling remains to be seen. Joyner ranked in the 29th percentile among safeties, while Adams’ rate was league average (11.4%) in a small sample size. Still, Adams missed 16.9% of his tackles in college, which could continue to be an issue.
Bringing in Jamien Sherwood for Alexander should be interesting. Alexander was a missed-tackle machine with a career 17.4% rate (vs. the 10.6% linebacker average in 2022). Sherwood, meanwhile, has hovered between the 8-9% mark through his years in college (at safety), preseason, and actual NFL games. So far, it appears that Sherwood may be a more surehanded linebacker.
Chuck Clark would have also helped in this area had he not torn his ACL. His career missed tackle rate is 8.3%, far better than the 2022 safety average (11.4%). He was at a measly 6.4% in 2022. Clark’s replacement, Adrian Amos, has a 9.2% career rate. He was at 7.8% in 2022 and 6.4% in 2021, so that should still be an upgrade.
Still, tackling could be a liability for the Jets in several areas, and the scheme contributes to that. It’s not that the players suddenly forget how to tackle, but Saleh targets the sorts of aggressive players that tend to struggle with tackling.
Pro: Elite talent on the backend snuffs offenses out.
With cornerbacks like Gardner and Reed, offenses have a hard time finding their top targets. Although this is the case with most defenses, the simplicity of the Jets’ defensive scheme allows their corners to simply outplay opponents’ receivers with a minimum of fuss. Think Legion of Boom. In Saleh’s mind, there’s no need to fool opponents when his players are simply better.
Con: Without that elite talent, the defense is more vulnerable than most others.
The Jets’ 2021 defensive woes were mainly due to a dearth of talent. However, there are other teams without much defensive talent who manage to perform better than the Jets did. Bryce Hall, Brandin Echols, and Carter II were a serviceable trio that season, and Williams and Franklin-Myers were still on the defensive line. However, because of the lack of disguise, blitzing, or anything else to muddy the reads for the quarterback, the results were ugly.
The Jets’ scheme basically says, “Our guys are better than your guys.” If that’s not actually true, the defensive performance can be brutal. That’s why the health of Williams, Gardner, Reed, Carter II, and Mosley is absolutely vital. All teams suffer from injuries to key players, but for the Jets, it could be catastrophic.
Con: The Mike linebacker cannot call audibles.
One of the most frustrating things about Saleh’s approach to the game is that he doesn’t want his players calling audibles. Obviously, that was not going to fly with Aaron Rodgers at the helm, so the Jets’ offense now has a full array of play-call changes.
However, in 2022, there was one play where Mike LaFleur said he knew the play-call wouldn’t work and was already preparing for 2nd and 11. (Breece Hall turned it into a 34-yard touchdown run.) In what universe should a play be dead on arrival, though? The quarterback and Mike linebacker should both be able to call an audible if they know a play won’t work.
In 2021, there was one play against the Titans where Mosley didn’t listen to Saleh and called an audible anyway. At a pivotal moment, he knew that the Jets’ call wouldn’t work and switched it up on his own.
There could be an argument that Zach Wilson was too inept to call audibles. However, preventing a smart and experienced veteran like Mosley from making changes seems like unnecessary obstinacy.
Implications for 2023
There are many reasons why the Jets’ defense could regress in 2023. From exceptional health to facing backup quarterbacks in 2022 to a brutal 2023 slate, the defense is going to face a stiff challenge. Some of that can be mitigated by Saleh’s scheme and team-building, but in other areas, the deficiencies could be highlighted.
For example, having a big-play prevention approach could work well against high-flying offenses. Although teams like the Chiefs and Eagles are capable of stringing together long drives, there’s still a bigger chance of a mistake if they need to do so over and over again.
However, tackling woes and issues over the middle against teams with that kind of speed is brutal. Facing mobile (if not running) quarterbacks like Josh Allen, Jalen Hurts, Daniel Jones, Patrick Mahomes, Dak Prescott, Tua Tagovailoa, Russell Wilson, Deshaun Watson, and Justin Herbert with those struggles is just as bad.
Still, the Jets’ defensive line appears lethal, and they have the best cornerback trio in the NFL. That alone should help their defense significantly. Assuming their offense is competent, this defensive strategy could run out the clock on opponents even as they seemingly gain yardage.
Saleh’s defensive approach can be infuriating for fans to watch. However, 2022 showed how the defense can succeed in the end despite that frustration. If the play is anything close to what it was in 2023, this could become a special season for the Jets.