When people talk about the way the Jets are looking to model their team, the Super Bowl Champion Seattle Seahawks sounds like a natural fit. General manager John Idzik's last job before coming to the Jets was with Seattle. Stylistically the Seahawks are built around a great defense and power football on offense, the recipe for the Jets during Rex Ryan's early successful years. In a broad sense, the comparison makes sense. One funny part of the comparison comes when one compares the way the Jets and the Seahawks play defense. In many ways they are polar opposites with the strong defense that defines both teams. Please forgive me if in the coming paragraphs I risk oversimplifying things.
Rex Ryan's biggest influence as a coach likely was his father, Buddy. Buddy was an assistant coach with the Super Bowl III Jets. I have heard stories that his experience with the Jets shaped the outlook of his defensive philosophy. Head coach Weeb Ewbank put protecting Joe Namath as a top priority. Buddy as the story goes thought about it from the defensive perspective. If protecting the quarterback was the most important thing for an offense, getting to the quarterback must be the primary objective for the defense.
As Buddy Ryan's career progressed, he developed innovative pressure packages around the blitz. On offense the ball has to be snapped to the quarterback. That leaves a maximum of 10 blockers on a given play. Since a defense can have as many as 11 blitzers, there can always be somebody left unblocked.
The idea was to show all different types of blitzes from different angles to put as much pressure on the offensive line as possible. In the context of pass protection, even one second is an eternity. If an offensive line is not sure where pressure will come, it has problems since it will need to figure out in unison quickly off the snap what is happening and how all pieces of the unit need to react.'
As the league has evolved, Rex Ryan has not adopted his father's playbook page for page, but many of the general concepts remain the same. The Jets are a team that runs a dynamic defense. They throw numerous fronts at offenses. Even as the blitz rate has decreased in later years, the different fronts the Jets throw at opponents and different spots from where pressure come can cause problems for blocking schemes. There is always the threat of the Jets throwing something new and unexpected at you. When they throw an unusual look, they put stress on your blockers, and this is where breakdowns occur.
The Jets don't stop trying to fool you in the front of their defense. They also vary their looks at the back. They want to fool you. They want you to never stop guessing. They want to show you things you aren't expecting and have never seen before to plant doubt in your mind.
Think back to the 2011 opener and Tony Romo's game-losing interception by Darrelle Revis. The reaction coming from that game tended to be LOLRomo, but part of what happened was the Jets tricked him. When Romo saw the snap, he thought he had Dez Bryant one on one against Revis in yellow. This was a coverage he had seen before. Jim Leonhard in red was the only safety deep, and the Jets were shading him to help the other side of the field as they were known to do because of how much trust they had in Revis. Romo was counting on trying to complete a back shoulder throw to Bryant as he had earlier. It was one on one, and at worst his guy would be able to ensure it was an incompletion. He wasn't considering that the Jets had disguised their front, and that Brodney Pool in blue would drop back to provide Revis with deep help.
Because he had Pool over the top, Revis could undercut the route without concern about Bryant getting behind him. He picked it off. Nick Folk hit the winning field goal. The Jets had a win.
On New England's first offensive play in the October game with the Jets, Rex had a play where Rob Gronkowski was covered man to man, while everybody else in coverage played zone. The Jets wanted to take away the dynamic weapon Gronkowski is, and this would force him to not only deal with a man defender, but he would also have traffic in a zone. There was more to it, though. The Jets were making an educated guess Gronkowski would be Brady's first read. Maybe if he thought he was dealing with man underneath, he would make a mistake. At the very least, it would make him hesitate, not only for this play but for the game. The Jets wanted to get him thinking that he couldn't trust his eyes.
A Rex defense is all about pressuring you to make the big mistake.
The Seahawks take a different approach, one that has worked quite effectively. They don't try to trick you. They rarely do much that varies from their base packages, and they seldom disguise their calls. In this era of spread offenses, they played their base defense on over half their plays last season (Football Outsiders 2014 Almanac). They played defense straight up with no deception on over 85% of plays and they brought a blitz of at least six at a rate of under 5% (Football Outsiders 2014 Almanac).
There are a few ideas at play here. First, they think they can just outexecute you. It is difficult to argue with their success. While a defense with less concepts is simpler for an offense, it is also simpler for the guys playing on defense. These guys find it easier to get comfortable with the system. When you do the same thing, you learn quickly the correct thing to do in any situation. The offense runs a certain route combination? You know what to do running your defensive play. You've deal with it all the time.
They tend to have a few favored fronts, and their coverages usually either use a Cover 1 or a Cover 3. There are different varieties of their coverages, but they aren't trying to trick the opponent.
This is one of Seattle's favorite looks. It is a Cover 3. There are three men deep. A safety has the deep middle. The two corners are responsible for the deep parts on their sides. Four men rush. Three linebackers and a safety play zone underneath.
This is a pretty conservative look. Keeping three guys deep minimizes the big play, but only four men underneath leaves a lot exposed. A patient offense could make this death by a thousand cuts. Seattle makes it work, though, because their physical fronts apply pressure, and the underneath defenders are speedy.
The Seahawks also at times have their corners play up like this and get physical with the receivers, pressing to throw them off balance and mess up timing routes.
Ultimately, though, the Seahawks will live with you taking short completions if you can find them in the zone. The three deep look means you will not be able to pick up huge chunks. You will have to execute ten, eleven, twelve plays against the best defense in the league to score. That is very difficult.
The Seahawks also emphasize hitting hard. If you take the short gain, you will pay. Over the course of a long game, this will wear you down and perhaps make you less willing to pay the price of a short gain.
The scheme itself isn't trying to force you into a mistake. Ultimately mistakes happen, though. The Seahawks force them through pressure. They force them with a ballhawking secondary. They also force them through general impatience. It's easy to say the offense should take short gain after short gain, but quarterbacks naturally want to pick up big chunks of yardage, and make throws into the teeth of a coverage and defensive playmakers designed to take the ball away.
One thing these defenses have shared is being built around the unique talents of a secondary superstar. In Seattle Earl Thomas is the straw that stirs the drink. Richard Sherman gets most of the attention. Make no mistake. The last two years he has been the best cornerback in the league. He's great. He's physical. He's incredibly intelligent and understands routes as well as anybody at the position. He's as good as they come at baiting throws. Windows that appear to be open really aren't because he closes so well, and his size makes the ground he has to cover not as big as it appears on the surface. His ball skills are second to none. He knows how to track and high point the ball. It's probably because he's a former receiver. If you take away his cartoonish persona and just focus on what he does on the field, he's one of my favorite players.
Earl Thomas is the guy who makes the difference in Seattle, though. There are only a handful of non-quarterbacks who totally force the opposition to change strategies. Thomas is one of them. He is such a ballhawk that it is futile and needlessly risky to try and test him. He takes away the deep middle. Pro Football Focus keeps tabs on these things. According to them, in the 2013 regular season, opponents only attempted 9 passes over 20 yards to the middle of the field against Seattle in the regular season. The Jets allowed 9 COMPLETIONS to this area in 2013. Teams have just given up trying to attack there, and those are where big passing plays are born. Think about it. Is it easier to throw deep straight down the middle or diagonally deep to the sidelines?
Thomas also allows All Pro Cam Chancellor to drop into the box and act essentially as an extra linebacker, which helps against the run in addition to other areas. Chancellor lined up within 8 yards of the line of scrimmage on just a shade under of 70% of Seattle's defensive snaps.
A Rex defense could use a guy like Thomas for this reason in addition to a big one. The pressure and disguise the Jets attempt to bring in theory produces a lot of errant throws ripe to be picked off that a ballhawking free safety can clean up. Despite the success of Ed Reed in Baltimore, the Jets haven't really looked for this type of safety under Rex.
The Jets did have their own secondary player on a Hall of Fame trajectory his first few NFL seasons who helped make their defense run. They are still adjusting to life without Darrelle Revis. There's no need to rehash Revis' departure, but he was an exceedingly valuable piece for the Jets. There were reasons obvious to the eye. When you can eliminate guys like Calvin Johnson, Andre Johnson, and Reggie Wayne, it's pretty significant. You take away a weapon, and you make a quarterback uncomfortable by eliminating his security blanket. The quarterback likely trusts that guy and wastes plays trying to throw it up and give him a chance to do something. You can be more aggressive with the blitzes knowing your secondary can hold.
There was also a more subtle less appreciated value Revis brought.
He was used to make the rest of the coverage more effective.
Revis was so good that you could stick him alone on one side with a receiver like Anquan Boldin and then redeploy six guys in an extremely condensed space on the other side of the field to clog passing lanes. This was a Rex Ryan move. Usually you don't see a team make the throwing lane to the top receiver less congested, but Revis' cover skills gave the Jets the ability to do so.
The Jets are still trying to find their way in a post-Revis world. They don't have that kind of difference maker any more. Muhammad Wilkerson is a wonderful player, but he doesn't change the way the other team operates the way a Thomas or a Revis does. How will the Jets manage then?
The answer is that it isn't clear they necessarily need a player like that. If you can find a few other players who are close like Wilkerson, that could suffice. I look to Sheldon Richardson and Quinton Coples, two players the Jets really need to grow as pass rushers this year. The Jets have an elite run stopping front. It's exciting to have such young talent on defense. With all of the Sons of Anarchy stuff, it might get lost that many of these players still have room to grow, and the team is counting on it.
Richardson has a ton of talent. He flashed All Pro potential as a rookie. Coples reportedly lost weight and has people talking about how well he is moving. Now let's move into a world where both guys become difficult pass rushers. Now when you add them to Wilkerson, you have three guys Rex can line up in multiple spots. This fits the Rex Jets style of defense perfectly. They will move around and show all kinds of different looks. Because the offense has no idea where any of these guys will line up, it is difficult to scheme around sending extra blocking help at any of these guys. Even if you could, dedicating too much to stopping one guy leaves the others with mismatches. This makes the threat of the blitz even more effective. With a blitz potentially coming, it makes the offense again think twice about sending extra resources to stop any of these guys because there are only so many blockers available. Use everything on these guys, and you have free runners blitzing.
The Jets have invested heavily in these players up front. They are the ones who can return this defense to the top, and they fit the Rex mindset of defense. While it is tempting to draw comparisons to the Seahawks, there are some major philosophical differences. The end result can be the same. There are many different ways to build a successful defense.