The New York Jets’ third-and-20 defense was remarkably disciplined
Sometimes you grab the bull by the horns, yet sometimes the black-and-white striped bull horns you. … Or, something like that.
Granted, asking New York Jets fans to watch the third-and-20 play that resulted in a Sauce Gardner defensive holding penalty is akin to revisiting the scene of a horrific accident, but doing so provides insight into what went wrong and how Robert Saleh‘s defense actually executed the down.
Interestingly, the Jeff Ulbrich-led unit played it uniquely and soundly—in spite of that pesky and infuriating flag that came out two decades after the alleged football infraction.
Yes, I realize that breaking down the Sauce Gardner holding penalty is akin to New York #Jets fans revisiting the scene of a horrific crime, but the defensive play itself is so unique and well done that it deserves a shoutout.
To go Cover 1 in a third-and-20 situation takes… pic.twitter.com/up0fqLjwSG
— Robby Sabo (@RobbySabo) October 6, 2023
The Jets’ aggressive call: Cover 1 spy
My tormented football mind was spinning in real time—as this play unfolded.
Facing a critical third-and-20 situation with just 4:29 to go in the game, up three points while on the Jets’ 40-yard-line, calls for anything but a Cover 1.
Something with more cushion, perhaps a lagging quarters shell, a Cover 6, or even a Cover 3 Buzz that starts two high is much more appropriate in such a situation.
Despite my utter shock, the anything-but-safe defense worked out nicely.
The pre-snap look
Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes trotted out an empty, 3×2 look whose strength was to the field side (defense’s left). Although the empty look usually yields extra pressure opportunities for the defense, that isn’t the case here with the double-wing setup (the probability of a chip and release is rather high).
Against a 3×1 look, Cover 6 usually reigns supreme. Attacking the trips side with a quarters look and the solo side with a Cover 2 is a lock-step certainty in football—especially in today’s modern landscape.
However, Cover 6 can still easily work against a 3×2, especially one that may feature two late releases (double wing).
If not Cover 6, a lagging quarters shell is also an option. Remember, it’s third-and-20, and the Jets are only down three points. Yielding five or 10 yards underneath could be the intentional play here—as giving the ball back to a hot Zach Wilson offense down six is more important than allowing the Kansas City Chiefs’ current drive to continue.
Besides, sometimes, down four or six points—as opposed to three—allows an NFL offense to think less and simply attack. When the deficit is just three, conservatism naturally creeps in, considering a mistake is that much more of a killer (when a field goal ties the game).
Of course, the Jets rolled with a Cover 1 spy that worked nicely—save for the crushing Sauce Gardner defensive holding call.
Sure, something safer could be argued as the right call, but a semblance of a spy was essential against Mahomes—who broke their backs with his legs all night—and that limits certain calls on the back end.
Nuance is key with the spy call
When discussing the great defensive minds of football’s past, rarely is it about extravagant play-calls and unique schemes. It usually boils down to nuance, instead.
Look at Bill Belichick, for instance. The way he teaches his defense to work in tandem, by way of bracketing in a specific way and playing the situation appropriately, is brilliant.
Here, in spite of the bland Cover 1 spy call, it still played out uniquely.
First and foremost, C.J. Mosley is the spy. Although he eventually brings the heat as the fifth man, he played it in a green-dog manner—meaning he only rushed Mahomes because he knew it was safe. Due to the EDGE play by Will McDonald and Bryce Huff, containing, Mosley knew he could shoot the interior:
Therefore, the Jets executed the spy in an unconventional manner that works—as long as the pass-rush lanes remain responsible.
And the five-man rush works to perfection, yielding a free-runner (Mosley) towards Mahomes.
Michael Carter II’s instincts
Nuance is also key on the back end, as Michael Carter II’s instincts popped off the page.
Basically, the Jets’ Cover 1 look on the back end essentially turned into a 2-man on the strong side—and it was most likely due to the game plan to slow down tight end Travis Kelce.
Although Kelce isn’t even on the field for this play—making it all the more maddening —Chiefs tight end Noah Gray is in his stead.
Meanwhile, MC2 is lined up on Gray with plenty of soft cushion:
Understanding that bracketing Mahomes’s top option, Gray, but what would have been Kelce, is the key here.
Realizing that it’s likely the other tight end in on the play, the strong-side wing, will most likely chip and release to the flat, Carter plays it perfectly. He dissects the late release to the flat, gets depth, and brackets the Kelce position (Gray) to the outside—along with Bryce Hall on the inside:
Conceding the 5-10-yard flat play is necessary in order to bracket Mahomes’s top option on the play, and Saleh’s defense rolled it out to perfection.
Eventually, MC2’s collegiate safety days were showcased as soon as Mahomes decided on his ultimate target, Marquez Valdes-Scantling:
The reason he can pull this off is due to his responsible eyes. When bracketing with Bryce Hall, Carter kept his eyes planted on Mahomes the entire time.
And what is technically a Cover 1 semi-spy with responsible pass-rush-contain lanes, eventually turns into a 2-man on the strong side.
Why the 2-man on the strong side makes sense boils down to the way Sauce played his responsibility (MVS).
Rather than providing cushion—which should happen when in a third-and-20 situation with only 1-deep safety—Sauce plays it aggressively. He presses via bump-and-run and ultimately trains his weapon. Whether or not he trusted that MC2 would get over-the-top in time is the question.
Fortunately, he did. Unfortunately, the way Sauce Gardner played it (too aggressively) cost the New York Jets in the end—no matter how atrocious the defensive holding call actually was.
Next Article: Has Zach Wilson truly turned the corner? (Film Review)
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