This is the first article in a new series detailing key elements of the systems the Jets run. The articles will appear on an irregular schedule based on events that deserve closer examination.
One of the biggest influences on Robert Saleh through his rise as a defensive coach in the NFL has been Pete Carroll. Saleh worked an entry level job for Carroll as a Seahawks defensive quality control coach from 2011 through 2013. His tenure coincided with the rise of Seattle’s iconic Legion of Boom.
The Jets cannot run the exact same defense at the exact same level as those Seattle teams. They lack the star power throughout the roster at the moment and don’t have a secondary full of Hall of Fame talent.
Still you can see broad philosophical similarities in some ways. One in particular seemed on display in Sunday’s season opener in Carolina as detailed by an ESPN article on Carroll from a few years back.
Limiting explosive plays
It’s not unusual during a Seahawks game to see defensive players give one another high fives after a quarterback completes a 6- or 8-yard pass.
Why? Because they don’t think most offenses can score a lot of points that way over the course of an entire game. They’ll limit yards after the catch and deliver punishing hits. They’ll find a way to create turnovers. Or their pass rush will force the quarterback into negative plays.
Even if those things don’t happen, forcing the offense to string together long drives will likely keep the game within reach in the fourth quarter. That’s why Carroll emphasizes finishing.
Carroll’s greatest Seattle teams dominated playing this way. They were willing to allow the opposing quarterback to dink and dunk and complete short passes all day. The Seahawks defense rallied to the ball, minimizing gains and delivering hits that added up over the course of the game, wearing out and weakening the will of the opponent over four quarters. Frequently the opposing quarterback lost patience by throwing short and would make a game changing turnover trying to force the ball into traffic.
The Jets had their own experience with this last year as they put together a number of long drives against Saleh’s 49ers defense but couldn’t finish them. Adam Gase refuted the notion his offense had been shut down, but his comments only proved that he didn’t understand how touchdowns happen in the NFL. When the defense prevents big plays, it’s difficult for the offense to execute. Over the course of a long play drive, something eventually is likely to go wrong. Somebody might jump early on a false start or commit a holding penalty. A receiver might slip, or the quarterback might miss a read.
It’s easy to say the defense got lucky when Sam Darnold misses a red zone pass on an 11 play drive, but the whole point of preventing the big play is forcing the offense to execute 11 straight times. It’s a very difficult thing to do.
Over the course of Week 1, the Jets pass defense was focused on trying to wall off the deep part of the field and force shorter, less productive completions.
Even on plays where the Jets were making aggressive calls up front, they were willing to surrender completions and rally to the ball. Here are how a couple of blitzes looked.
When blitzing many defenses will play tight coverage at the line of scrimmage to close off passing lanes since the quarterback will likely need to get the ball out quickly under pressure. This is the opposite approach. The Jets are almost trying to bait these throws.
It can be effective if you are confident in your defenders’ ability to tackle in space. There also must be awareness and commitment from everybody on the defense to make this work. In the top clip you see Brandin Echols leave the man he was covering to deliver a tackle.
Through the first week of the season, I think you could argue the approach worked reasonably well for the Jets. Crunching the numbers with Stathead I found that one-third of Sam Darnold’s completions on Sunday netted five yards or less, the sixth highest figure in the NFL.
According to Next Gen Stats, Darnold’s average completion traveled 4.8 yards through the air, ninth lowest of any quarterback in Week 1. Meanwhile his average attempt traveled 7.5 yards. That 2.7 yard difference between the length of his average attempt and completion was the sixth highest of any quarterback in the opening week. It’s a sign the Jets did a relatively good job conceding the short completions while protecting down the field.
It isn’t clear that Carolina’s plan was just a bunch of quick hitting passes either. Darnold’s average time to throw was a middle of the pack 2.61 seconds.
Of course the Jets weren’t perfect. It might be frustrating to watch your defense surrender a bunch of moderate gains through the air, but a primarily reason the Jets lost might have been the big play they did allow, the touchdown pass from Darnold to Robby Anderson.
In any event, don’t be surprised if this approach sticks around. And if you get angry with the defense for allowing quarterbacks easy completions, keep in mind it might be part of a bigger plan.