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The Development of the Jets New Look Defense and the Advent of the Safety-Backer


It seems like injuries have forced the Jets into a new look defense, and I think it may send shockwaves throughout the NFL and revolutionize defenses for years to come.  Prior to the injury to Jim Leonard, Rex Ryan had been content (some may say overly reliant) to put a man on a man in the secondary and blitz everybody else.  And he had a plethora of ways to bring that heat.  This approached did wonders last year, as it led to the Jets having the best defense in the league.  However, this year it seems that the league has adjusted.  More and more it seems that opposing offenses have to come to expect the Jets to bring the house, and they have left more blockers in for protection.  As a result, offenses have often feasted on the Jets third DBs and safeties in coverage.  Then Jimmy got hurt and everything changed.

Leonard's injury, along with a concussion to Eric Smith, forced the Jets to move Brodney Pool from Free Safety to Strong Safety and Dwight Lowery from Cornerback to Free Safety.  This had the immediate effect of making the secondary more athletic and rangey.  Now there's a SS with the ability to cover ground like a FS, and a FS that can cover like a corner.  The effects of the upgrade were immediate, and as a result the coverage tightened up considerably.  The injury to Leonard also forced Rex to dial back the blitzes.  Leonard's intelligence and ability to align the secondary was highly regarded, as well as highly relied upon.  Some of us here at GGN believed that he was overly relied upon.  And we vociferously opined our displeasure with Rex's frequent decisions to blitz the house in 3rd and very long situations only to have the blitz picked up and the secondary getting picked on for easy first down conversions.  So the change caused by the injuries made us much more athletic and forced us to simplify the scheme.

Then came Chicago game.  The coverage of the safeties was still coming along at that point, but a new issue popped up in that game that forced another change.  The Jets were getting killed by the Bears running back, Forte, sneaking out of the backfield and outrunning the Jets' linebackers for huge gains (this was also an issue in the Patriots blow out).  I believe this issue led to another change that we've seen incorporated over the last two weeks.  The Jets now often use a hybrid safety/linebacker (namely Eric Smith) to mirror running backs out of the backfield, as well as to drop into passing lanes or blitz unexpectedly.

We now see the Jets using a lot of nickel formations with Smith as a hybrid linebacker and this scheme allows Rex to do so many things with the coverage that it is very difficult to overcome.  In the new defense, opposing receivers are locked up in man coverage with defenders in zone coverage underneath and over the top.  This makes is extremely difficult to decipher for QBs and it causes a lot of miscommunication.  Often routes of receivers aren't determined until they know whether the defense in a zone or man scheme.  When offenses do their pre-snap shifts and motions, this is what they're often attempting to reveal.  However, what route do you run when the defense is playing both?  I think this is why Brady had such difficulty this past Sunday, and Manning before him.  They had no idea what route their receivers were going to run before the snap (something that elite QBs thrive on knowing) and had to wait for something to develop.  Mixing in pressures with the coverage makes it all the more difficult.  The QBs are trying to decipher if its zone or man, blitz or not blitz, all after the snap and it causes them to miss windows of opportunity because the windows aren't opening as expected.  An extra split second to recover is all our corners need.  Couple that with the forcing of quarterbacks to stare at and "lock-on" to a receiver to wait for an opening, and QBs become very distrustful of even open receivers because they know that they have eyed the target for too long and may have brought unseen defenders to the target area.   

I think that the Steelers offense, Big Ben in particular, is the perfect opponent to allow Rex to really play with his new look defense to its fullest effect.  Brady and Manning thrive with making quick pre-snap reads and attacking the weakness of a defense.  Big Ben likes to hold onto it a bit, which plays right into Rex's hands.  We all know that Rex likes to bring the heat, particularly with DBs.  I think we'll see a lot more blitzing this week as a result of Ben's tendencies.  Hopefully Rex won't revert back to bringing EVERYBODY ALL THE TIME, but keeps the Steelers guessing about who's coming from where and how to find somebody open against the Jets' unorthodox coverage.

I'm guessing the Jets' base defense will still be a nickel package, basically a 4-2-5.  But on early downs we'll see Digs and Smith as the hybrid safety-backers, and then Pool come in for Digs when the pass is more of a threat.  This will let Rex have adequate coverage against the run, while also maintaining the ability to drop these guys into coverage or blitz them from odd angles.  I also think that this defense will completely gridlock the Steelers' offense.  The usage of the safety-backer will revolutionize the sport.  Much like the 3-4 OLB did in yesteryear. 

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