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The Rise and Fall of the Rex Ryan Blitz - How Do the Jets Defend the Pass?


This is a follow up post to my Is Rex Ryan Building the Wrong Kind of Defense? post which raised the question as to the relevance of Rex Ryan's Reputation for a Pass Blitz and Run Defense approach in a league that in accelerated fashion has become extremely pass heavy. Some of the discussion there had me wanted to take a closer look at just what Rex had been doing with his blitzes over time, possibly from his Raven days on. Because Pro Football Focus has the most complete stats on pass rush success and totals, and because their data only goes to 2008, I kept most of my study to 2008 (Rex's last year in Baltimore) and to all of his Jets years (with two games remaining to be played in 2013). It would make more sense to do this at the end of the year, perhaps. But because this question will have bearing on the Keep Rex or Fire Rex talk that will be going on it seemed more interesting to do it now.

Ravens versus Jets - How Pass Rush Is Generated

First I looked at the overall Pass Rush Production, comparing the 2008 Ravens to the 2013 Jets. This gives a kind of bookend snap shot of where Rex had come from and to where he has arrived. The data picture allows us to see the top pass rushing performances of each roster. Pass Rush Production is a stat that also includes a weighted (.75) counting of QB hits and hurries, and involves a per pass rush determination. It is basically an attempted determination of how likely QB pressure is each time that player rushes the passer.

Ravensvjetsprp_zps1d5dec85_medium

In the above I show where each player ranked according to their position against the league (100 means you lead the league, 50 means you were average) among qualifying players within 25% of pass rush snaps. PFF counted the Baltimore defense as a 4-3, so Suggs is a 4-3 end, for instance, but in general I tried to place Jet Players near their counterparts. I made bold the data bar where the Jet or Raven player scored higher than his likely counterpart. One can see that the Ravens got very notable position pressures from Pryce, Lewis, Leonhard and Ivy in terms of efficiency. Also Ngata, in comparison with Harrison, is a stark difference in production. The real clue to the Rex future are in this Leonhard and Ivy production I think, as well as the big benefit the Hall of Famer Lewis gave when he blitzed.

Because these are two different Defenses, I present the same numbers but shown in raw PRP numbers, the actual pressure numbers created by the players. There are arguments for both graphics. The first shows the relevance of player performances to the league they were in.

Ravensvjetsactualprp_zps0dd4f51a_medium

Most important when comparing these numbers is to take into account that when I compared the average PRPs of the top 25% of pass rushers by Line positions I found that on average 2013 PRP numbers were 15 - 20% higher in 2013 than in 2008. This would, only tentatively, suggest that the league became more productive for pass rushing, and that if a Jet player had the same PRP in 2013 to one in 2008, this was not truly an equivalence. Perhaps the biggest difference in the two graphics is the performance of Lewis to Harris. I give you both data sets because it is best to see data in more than one way. The league though simply is not the same league it was 5 years ago, which may be part of the bigger question about Rex Ryan and the relevance of his Defensive Philosophy.

Bring on the Blitz

The productivity of the lines is not dramatically different, one might say, though there are significant small differences that really add up: There was no Pryce performance this year; that Ngata could pressure the passer occasionally, while Harrison could not, and that Lewis could be counted on for timely, perhaps game turning blitzes were likely very significant contributions. It is interesting to note - for all you Quinton Coples to Outside Linebacker supporters out there, and I am not one - Suggs was not a big pass rush producer in 2008 (though he was devastating in run defense). I think it a mistake to assume that because their raw PRPs are similar they are similar players, but the data is here to show.

The picture that may be coming out may jibe with the sense that Rex Ryan had a very good defense in 2008 because he had 3 Hall of Famers at three levels (Reed, Lewis, Suggs) plus Ngata, and that in 2013 he really has none (though there could be budding HoF like DLmen on the Jets). This raises the question as to what kind of Defense can Rex put together without Hall of Famers at every level. 2009 would tell us.

Looking at the PRP numbers from 2008, of course the thing that really stands out is the high production of pressures from Leonhard at safety and Ivy at corner. These players were very effective when they blitzed, and blitzing is a big tactical advantage that may not even show up enough in the overall stats of a Defense, which is why it is important to separate it out. A smart coach like Rex might be able to turn a game with a great blitz call, even when the Defense is having a poor day. And the role of the blitz would come to become perhaps the biggest part of Rex Ryan's growing reputation as a Defensive genius.

In fact, Rex Ryan had pretty good success with other DB blitzers in 2008, from safety, although they didn't rush enough to quality for the top 25% data:

2008blitzers_zps5c9be7fe_medium

So in answer to the question as to the kind of Defense that Rex could build if he didn't have Hall of Famers at every level is this one: A serious onslaught of blitz chaos from the DB position. And this, unfortunately is where the story also shows an arc that does not look very hopeful, even as we bask in the glow of those first 2 Jet seasons. The league caught up to Rex's brilliant trick (which was aided by the cover presence of the one Hall of Famer he did have in Revis). Below are the telling DB blitzes by percentage. Right away you can see how vastly different the 2009 Jet Defense was from the 2008 Ravens defense:

Dbblitzpercentages_zpsb40dfc00_medium

Now these "percentages" are not true chances in the sense of a single DB blitz per pass play. The stat is total number of DB (CB and Safety) pass rushers divided by total pass attempts against. Remarkably Rex went from an average of sending a DB just over 20% of all pass attempts against, to well over 50%. These are the individual blitz numbers from the safety position of the 2009 Jets:

2009jetsafeties_zps9ba3010c_medium

But almost as remarkable as this increase was also the dramatic decline in the same from 2011 on. One can argue how much of this decline was due to the league's counter measures, how much of it was the loss of Revis, or even other factors, but the one thing that is clear is that Rex has lost what seems to have been his primary adjustment to not having Hall of Famers at three levels of the defense (Ravens).

You can see the overall relationship between pass defense and the falling off of the DB blitz here below (correlation, not presumed causation, though the relationship does feel causal to some degree):

Dbvqbratingjets_zps2e89c1ff_medium

2009 was an extraordinary year, and perhaps is mistakenly lumped in with 2010 because of team success. 2009 witnessed one of the great cornerback years in the history of the league by Revis, and the Rex Ryan organized DB chaos really took opponents by storm. But already in 2010 there were signs that the league was catching up and inventing counter measures which worked at important times. There also has been the general rise of pass offense potency through this period, and the increased role of the athletic TE (both discussed at the article's end). It is worth noting that 2010 - 2012 had comparable DB QB rating productions though.

The Importance of the Safeties - Blitzing

Below is a breakdown of where the pressures came from in the Rex years 2008 through 2013 (so far). They are in PRP numbers, and the safeties (and then the corners) are presented in the order of most pass rushes to least. Safety 1 and Cornerback 1 rushed the most number of times for that year:

Prpdbs_zpsf973aa99_medium

This is an efficacy graphic that reveals the distribution of that efficacy. One can see that even though the early Jet years showed a dramatic increase in pass rush frequency they didn't match the PRPs of the 2008 Ravens (which is to be expected, as blitz volume was so high in 2009). One interesting difference is from 2009 to 2010. Already in 2010 Rex's safety blitzes by his main blitzers were becoming less successful so he turned to "other" safety (a category of occasional blitzes from fringe players) which for a short time compensated for the problem. You can see this increase in volume in graph below (light pink, below). 84 blitzes came from specialized safeties in 2010. The systematic blitz attack in terms of numbers was weakening, but Rex still had success with lots tactical blitzes. He was trying to compensate for the league, to stay one step ahead. By the time 2011 came though the safety blitz was no longer working the way he hoped. The distribution of where Rex was sending the blitzes from can be seen below (the efficiency graph above is to be paired with this volume graph below). In 2011 he tried to compensate again with a rise in corner blitzes (dark blue, below), but they were not efficacious either, except of the occasion "CB 2" attempt.

Totaldbpassrushes_zps68142db6_medium

Perhaps knowledgeable others can see into this data more interesting things. It is a kind of x-ray into the changing Rex Ryan DB blitz. In the wide view though Rex Ryan had excellent success in 2009 with his aggressive safety blitz attack, but in the years following he was forced to draw it down, famously with Pettine's heavy influence in 2012, until it has become practically a non-factor.

The Importance of the Safeties - Coverage

But if the safeties have become less and less capable as blitzers, what is perhaps more troubling is that they have at the same time become worse and worse in coverage as well (graph, below).

When talking about differences between the 2008 Raven's Defense and where the Rex Ryan Defense has evolved to in 2013 it is hard to leave out the importance of Reed. In 2008 Reed had a thrown-at QB Rating of 57.55 with 9 INTs, while the quality of Jet safety coverage has been in the decline steadily quite far from Reed, a decline that started as early as 2010:

Cbvssafetyqbratings_zps221819bc_medium

As much as we want to think about the corners as fundamental to Rex Ryan's Defense, it is important to note that this slide of Safety efficacy in coverage may have been a hidden source of Defensive weakness, one that has corresponded to the failure of the DB blitz over time. Safety weakness may even be more important than overall defensive numbers, because just like the blitz itself it's a tactical weakness. A Defense may be doing quite well, but if the safeties (or in this year the corners as well) can be attacked for a big play at important moments, momentum swings can be pronounced.

In the larger narrative scheme it looks like Rex came from a loaded Ravens Defense in terms of talent and made a bold attack on the league with his safeties in blitz, aided by the greatness of Revis, allowing him to walk a tight rope; but as the league adjusted and improved in the pass over all, safeties - which oddly Rex seems to have not developed in favor of other positions in his defense - has proven the weakest link of all, especially once the safety net of Revis was removed. What comprised a most valuable weapon Rex had to compensate for a change in talent, safeties, now makes up a significant trend in the failures of a Ryan Pass Defense on the whole.

The Importance of Linebackers

While not as dramatic as the story of the safeties, we can see a parallel story with that of the Inside Linebacker. Like the safeties they once blitzed much more, and like the safeties they also cover more poorly than ever:

Lbrushpercentages_zpsc985726d_medium

Inside Linebackers (now that Scott is gone) blitz almost half as frequently as they did in 2009 - Raven numbers are not included because they are 4-3 numbers.

Lbqbratings_zps40b0d530_medium

While the Pass Coverage of Inside Linebackers has been progressively worse with the exception of 2011 (where, if I recall, Harris has 4 interceptions that provided a big boost). It has gone from Ray Lewis's sub 80 rating, to 100+ ratings for 2012 and 2013.

While the pass defense of Inside Linebackers is never the backbone of a Pass Defense the parallel arc here is symptomatic of the crisis the Rex Ryan Defense has faced from as early as 2010-2011. The blitz simply stopped working, yet falling back into coverage has been proving less and less successful as well. One could also argue that the rise of the Tight End has played a role in this as well.

Tes_zpsddc7cd70_medium

While TE coverage falls to a combination of Inside Linebacker and Safety, the Jet increased weakness in this area (in terms of league rank) coinciding with the rise of this importance of the Tight End suggests that the Rex Ryan defense is really behind the curve. While his corners (up until this year) and Defensive Line remain the focus of his scheme, it is really at the level of the safeties and the linebackers that the whole approach is failing. Some of this comes out of league development, perhaps, and some of it is a lack of talent at those positions.

Big Picture

In the big picture as we examine Rex's move from a Hall of Fame loaded Defense with the Ravens to a Jet Defense marked by the greatness of Revis (who Rex helped make into an all time player), we have to ask whether Rex Ryan is capable of dealing with the new league. It seems that the primary innovation and adjustment Rex made in 2009 was the unleashing of an extreme DB blitz attack that really took the league on. One of the great things about this kind of attack was that not only did it produce organized chaos that would stress the Offense, in general, it allowed Rex (or Pettine) to do what he does so well, to call a Defense. The DB blitz allowed great tactical play calling at every turn that could swing a game at just the right time. Rex could steal or seal games with that dramatic weapon. But that weapon is now gone, and has been gone for a while now.

The replacement of that weapon is instead just the opposite. Cover weakness at safety, linebacker (and now cornerback) has put the Defense in a position where - instead of being able to turn a game with a great blitz call - can itself be hit by timely long down conversions on important plays. The one advantage Rex seemed to have, the card up his sleeve has now, slowly, by scheme and league, been given over to the other side.

The Importance of the Pass

Regressedcoefficient_zps7c42fc4f_medium

I'm still studying the data on AdvancedNFLStats.com, but in 2010 they offered a very interesting regression analysis of coefficients to winning. You can see that data above. I'm still not completely sold on the interpretative relevance of this data, more questions have to be answered, but at least preliminarily it talks about just how significant the passing game has become both on Offense and on Defense - there have been some revisions as the importance of the running game coefficient on Offense to this data using Success Rate, but it still does not compare to the Passing game...Provocatively his data is before the recent 2011 - 2013 explosion in passing.

If we take this picture to be representative of important factors, even in the general sense, we can see that in 2009 with the Rex blitz completely in effect, indeed the Jets were a potent team because of their number 1 Pass Defense, and because their Passing Offense was not completely terrible. But even since 2010 there have been widening cracks in the Rex Ryan defense in one of the most important areas, defending the pass. The once dominant blitz is no more and coverage is leaking from every area. It has been a double-whammy. Add to that - and one can blame whomever you will - at the same time the Jet pass Offense has been crumbling to bottom of the league levels - of small note, the most important winning coefficient of yards per pass this year - 6.8 - actually showed an improvement over 2012 when it was 6.4. It would seem that one just cannot win with a very poor pass Offense, and an only average pass Defense.

The Ultimate Answer needed from Rex remains what it was back in 2009 when he came. If you look at the basic profile of blitzes and Pass Rushes we are almost really back with the Ravens of 2008, before Rex invented his solution to specific talent of the Jet roster. But the upper level talent differences on Defense between the 2013 Jets and the 2008 Ravens could not be any more stark. Instead of an in-prime Ray Lewis there is an aging David Harris. Instead of an out of this world Ed Reed, there is Ed Reed at the end of his career or young players who never will be Reed. Instead of the athletic freak of Suggs, we have a lumbering Quinton Coples who appears out of position. We have Richardson/Harrison to compare to Ngata perhaps, Wilkerson to Pryce...but the bones of a Pass Defense, the very substance of it in terms of talents is so different. Once the DB blitz is removed as an option, even improved corner play does not seem like it would save the Defense from what could be a schematic deficiency.

Can Rex Ryan come up with a dramatic solution to this huge talent disparity, something equal to his blitz packages? Or was it that without a loaded Defense of Hall of Famers (and without frequent exotic blitzes) Rex is just limited in what he can do with disguised coverages, as smart as he is as a defensive mind? If you aren't going to regularly pressure the passer at important times in the game, you have to have top, playmaking defenders of inordinate skill.

What I Am Not Saying

What I'm not saying is that Rex is a bad Defensive coach. Rather, indeed he is good at putting a Defense together. An excellent measurement of this is the Adjusted Defense Success Rate%. The Ryan Jets have been at or near the top of the league in this significant measure (which has a good correlation to winning).

Adjusteddefensivesuccessrate_zpsd47f04d0_medium

What this measures is the percent of plays wherein a defense produces a result that enhances their chances of winning (expected points).

This year the Jet Defense produced a favorable result 58.5 percent of the time, 3rd best in the league, so far. It is a stat that measures defensive consistency. Is the Defense, the majority of the time, producing a favorable result? Yes. This characterizes a large portion of what we see when we watch a Rex Ryan Defense. He knows how to defend. But what this stat doesn't measure is how porous the Defense is to the big play, and not just the big yardage play, but also the big play in timing. When a stop has to be made, can it be made? It is this area of the Defense where the schematic concern is: what happens the other 40%+ of the time, when the Offense gains the advantage, especially in close games like the kind that Rex wants to play, when the game gets flipped. It is here, when Rex's low-completion percentage, moderate pass rush, good run Defense approach deployed by non-playmaking, non-Hall of Fame personnel, suffers the most, perhaps to a fatal-flaw degree.

This is what is so difficult about the Rex Ryan Head Coach question. Without the blitz or several top of the league pass defending players, how can he turn general defensive consistency into excellence or dominance?


There is a lot of transcription of data here, so there may be errors.

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