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Finding the Right Defense for the Jets

A path to respectability

NFL: NOV 28 Jets at Texans Photo by John Rivera/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The history of civilization is strewn with stories of people who create great things just from ideas in their heads. Rockets that launch people into space are not natural. They were dreamed up then engineered by people not unlike you and me. Rockets that took men to the moon were not the original idea. They evolved over time from tiny bottle rockets to awesome avenues of scientific research into the voids of space.

That’s what great people do. They dream up things that seem impossible by ordinary standards then make them spectacular. Then over time they become, well ordinary. The problem is that there are things that man will mess with that cannot be changed. No matter how hard he tries they remain a constant. Heck, even time isn’t a constant. Still some things are. Take the wheel for example. The guy who came up with the idea was not necessarily a genius, but he got it right. It really hasn’t changed over time. You can adorn it, chrome it, do anything you want to it. It’s still just a wheel and works just fine.

Mathematics is a constant. No matter how you look at it 2 + 2 = 4 on the earth or on any planet in our solar system or galaxy.

People still try to change the unchangeable. It’s in our human nature to try to change things to become better or more efficient.

In football nearly all of the offensive/defensive systems run today have grown or been developed from previous offensive/defensive systems. Basically someone devises a new system and is mocked for doing so. Then if the system actually works, well then every team will steal it to try and retrofit it to their team. Coaches who worked with the creator of great systems are coveted for head coaching positions but most fail because they didn’t actually create the system so they have a rough time adjusting it to their new personnel. It’s not the system. It’s the coach. Unless you have the right coach, your chances for success are minimal at best.

Bill Walsh was a great innovator, a great coach in the NFL. I can’t begin to say enough good things about him. Walsh created the “West Coast Offense” in 1979. Parts of his offense are in every NFL playbook still today. Walsh had conviction in what he was doing like a preacher giving a sermon. He fully believed what he was teaching even though no one had ever seen an offense like his Walsh’s mantra was, “Your path and purpose will become crystal clear when you begin to trust your vision.”

Walsh became the head coach of the 49ers in 1979 and went 2-14 that first year. He then won the next three games the following year only to lose the next 8 in a row. The fans wanted him gone. Yet Walsh persevered and from that point on won 87 games, 3 Super Bowls, and lost only 37 games in the regular season. e had found a system that worked and continued to use it. He once said, “Innovation involves anticipation. It is having a broad base of knowledge on your subject and an ability to see where the end game is headed. Use all you knowledge to get their first. Set the trend and make the competition counter you.”

Bill Walsh was a very smart man, and a reason he was such a great offensive mind was because he started out his career as a defensive coach. He was the defensive coordinator at Cal under Marv Levy and the defensive backfield coach under John Ralston at Stanford. Walsh knew all the checks and adjustments defenses would make against certain offensive formations. He knew the holes in the defense. He created an offense that would counter the general defensive designs at the time.

Yet as great as Walsh was, he knew that some principals were hard to break. The Walsh system is known for the pass, but the run was a staple of the offense to keep his team in makable downs and distances. In today’s game it is critical that teams keep out of 3rd and long situations because of the risk of a turnover.

Offensive coaches have been known to create some wildly crazy offenses like the run and shoot and what ever the hell Chip Kelly was trying. Defenses have used 3-4-4, 4-3-4, 3-3-5, 5-2-4, 3-2-6, and derivatives of each over many seasons. They also feign blitzes, use zone blitzes, or drop 9 players into coverage using a QB spy.

I believe in innovation on offense and defense, but there are times when coordinators can lose their way I believe that (especially on the defensive side of the ball) coordinators and teams try to do too much. By that I mean they try to stop everything an offense can do, and that works when you are facing a struggling offense or one with a poor talent. Yet when you face Playoff type teams the defense struggles mightily. You just can’t stop a great offense, but you can limit it and frustrate it.

The Aaron Donald syndrome

There is a situation that has developed over the last few years (since 2018) that I call the Aaron Donald syndrome. When you watch Donald play you are watching a future first ballot Hall of Fame player right before your eyes. Donald is a defensive tackle who has been a Pro Bowl player every year he has been in the league and an All-Pro the last 7 years in a row. He has 98 career sacks and 285 solo tackles with 150 tackles for loss. Nearly all of this has come from the defensive tackle position.

The problem is that there is only one Aaron Donald in the world. Yet teams draft players early in the Draft that they believe could give them the same production. However, it is a pipe dream. If you draft a defensive tackle early, he better be a difference maker or you are wasting a pick that could have been used to bolster your team in other areas. That’s not to say that you can’t draft a defensive tackle early. You most certainly can as long as he fits your system and adds value to your scheme. Yet if that scheme is to have a penetrating player with the upside of Aaron Donald then you made a mistake.

This syndrome may have led to the drafting of Daron Payne (#13) and Taven Bryan (#29) in 2018 whereas the drafting of Vita Vea (#12) was a good selection (I’ll explain later). The drafting of Quinnen Williams (#4), Ed Oliver (#9), Christian Williams (#13), Jeffery Simmons (#19), Jerry Tillery (#28) in 2019; and Derrick Brown (#7) and Javon Kinlaw (#14) in 2020 might fit as well. These are all decent players, but they pale in comparison to Donald (#13) in 2014. In that Draft I was praying Donald or Zach Martin (#16) would make it to the Jets at #18, but it was not to be.

What Donald did was give defensive coordinators hope that the defensive linemen they selected would be able to rush the passer, make TFL’s, and hold up against the run. So they gave them the same freedoms Donald has to make his own way to the play by reading the blocking scheme and defeating it. Except like I said earlier they are not Aaron Donald. What that does is open rushing lanes when players sell out to get into the backfield. Sacks are nice but not at the expense of allowing huge rushing lanes and offensive linemen to get to the 2nd level to get on linebackers.

The reason these players were selected so high was not because they can stuff the run. You can find that player much lower in the Draft. They were selected because they have the athletic ability to get to the QB or make TFL. Elite run stuffers who can push the pocket like a Vita Vea are a different bread and are worth a higher selection if you have that scheme.

A defense that Works

On defense one system has worked over time and still does today. It’s an alignment that hasn’t changed much. You just have to have the right personnel then tweak it to the down and distance. Tampa Bay won a Super Bowl using it in 2020, and it was used by both teams in the NCAA national championship game. There are variations I will explain that you can use with equally great effect. It’s just your choice on the specific system you want to run. The key is if you choose one of those variations you must have the right personnel to run it no matter which you choose. You have to draft for it, and then there is no turning back on that specific system. he Walsh axiom “Your path and purpose will become crystal clear when you begin to trust your vision” rings true here.

I believe the most effective defensive systems are sometimes the simplest in their structure. Many people want the most elaborate or sophisticated systems, but in reality you want players reacting with confidence in what they are doing not thinking about what to do. Make it easy then put great athletes who fit your system best to run it. The defense I have in mind makes thing easy for the players.

That defense is a standard 4-3 alignment with players with defined roles not freelancers. Players with defined roles are more efficient, and you can put them in position to make plays knowing they will be there. Of course they have to make the plays needed but the job of a team-coach-GM is to put players in the best position to make plays. Sometimes it’s not flashy, but it usually gets the job done when you have the talent in those positions.

This system’s base defense has two defensive tackles, two huge defensive tackles. These tackles will look to “two gap” then push the pocket. What two gap means is that each player plays over top of the guard position and controls the gap to either side of that guard. In this way you have two players covering 4 gaps. The center position is not a gap/space. Their first priority is to stop the run then push the pocket once a QB goes back to pass. What this does is clog rushing lanes with the size/power of these players they are nearly impossible to handle individually (if they are talented players) so the center has to assist either or both guards in blocking. What this also does is allow the linebackers to stay clean, race around and make plays. hey can run sideline to sideline which allows to them to blitz from any weak spot they find. In passing situations you can of course switch out your huge defensive tackles for speedier interior linemen, pass rushing types.

In this way you are forcing the offense to play on your terms. Of course opposing teams will still try to run on this defense, but if your team has the right players the opponents will soon realize that this is folly. To dictate the game to an offense is the true goal of a defense. Once you can do this you can focus on pass defense with a combination of man/zone schemes that can confuse a QB forcing mistakes.

Back in 1996 the Baltimore Ravens drafted future Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis. His first year he had 95 solo tackles, but the Ravens went 4-12 that year and had the 28th ranked defense. GM Ozzie Newsome (also a Hall Of Famer) brought in defensive tackle Tony Siragusa 6’3” 330 lbs and moved nose tackle James Jones (Jones was only 6’2” 292 lbs) to defensive tackle. In 1997 The team lost 3 fewer games, improved to #18 in defense ,and Ray Lewis made 156 solo tackles which is a record for solo tackles that still stands today.

In 1998 the Ravens improved to 16th in defense. In 1999 they improved to 6th in defens.e Then Newsome added Sam Adams 6’3” 350 lbs at defensive tackle to play beside Siragusa in 2000. That year the Ravens were #1 in defense, Lewis had 137 tackles with 14 TFL, and the Ravens with journeyman Trent Dilfer at QB won the Super Bowl 34-7 over the New York Giants. Rex Ryan was the defensive line coach on that team.

This is still a recipe for success in the NFL. I remember reading Rotoworld a couple years ago. They claimed it was hysterical that in 2019 the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had the best run defense in the NFL in a passing league. They had a losing record in 2019 but only because their QB threw 30 INTs. Most media outlets have no clue what wins championships. They just want stories many time with little insight. Add Tom Brady to the Bucs in 2020, and they are Super Bowl Champions. How many INTs did Brady throw that year? Well it was 12.

The Bucs ranked 29th in points allowed in 2019, but the defense allowed only the 15th most yards because the Bucs had 41 turnovers compared to 28 takeaways. It’s the reason the Buccaneers had made over 800 more offensive yards than their opponents but scored only 9 more points.

What Rotoworld (NBC) didn’t know is that the major concept of a defense is to make an opponent one dimensional. This is what you strive for. Once you do that you can harass an offense with all types of blitzes or play 7 men in coverage and force the offense to be perfect every drive. Eventually penalties, fumbles, interceptions missed throws or any number of things will stall the drive.

I think the reason that a lot of the Jets defensive tackles had poor seasons is that they were playing in a new system that didn’t fit their talents. You need to give them a limited scheme that they can master. Sheldon Rankins, Foley Fatukasi and Nathan Shepherd are not dynamic players, but they can be effective as rotational players in a limited 2 gap scheme.

Quinnen Williams on the other hand doesn’t really fit a 2 gap system. He is not a typical 5 tech either, but he is athletic enough to play on the edge if the Jets were to use a press the pocket/contain approach (which I will highlight soon). If he doesn’t fit that mode I would trade him for 2nd and 4th round picks; a 2nd and 3rd if the team wanted to split the years the picks were made in. I like Quinnen, but he doesn’t represent the value you need in a 3rd overall selection in the Draft. Actually he is not even close. I would actually prefer the trade option if the Jets could get that kind of return rather than the switch outside which will take some time to get him acclimated.

One of the ways you can alter the type of two gap defense is to choose the type of player you want at the defensive end position. The most widely know defensive end player is the rush end who comes off the edge like a lightning bolt to sack the QB. He is the rock star of defensive ends who (if he is wise and skilled) will not only sack the QB but also use a tomahawk chop to cause a fumble and possible turnover. He is a game changer with the ability at times to salt away a victory when the opponent is trailing. Players with this skill set in this draft at the top are Kayvon Thibodeaux and David Ojabo (who I like a lot).

The problem with the rock star approach is he only makes a few game changing plays a year. T.J. Watt led the NFL in 2020 with 15 sacks and is an all around great player. He is not a typical edge defender. Anyone outside the top ten in sacks had less than 10 sacks on the year and made sometime minimal contributions to the overall defensive effort. Leonard Floyd of the Rams had a renaissance of a season playing with the talent rich Rams along side Aaron Donald. He was 9th in sacks with 10.5 and had his best season with 70 total tackles but had only 7 TFL despite playing on a near All-Star team of defenders.

The biggest problem with speed rush ends is that they are a dying breed because of the type of QB being selected in the NFL today. Kyler Murray, Josh Allen, Russell Wilson, Deshaun Watson, Lamar Jackson, Justin Fields and even Zach Wilson are the type of mobile player at the QB position that can make plays with their feet to get 1st downs, keeping drives alive or rushing for scores. The days of DEs being pushed past the QB will soon end as more actively mobile players are taking over the QB positions in the NFL.

Josh Allen can throw a ball 80 yards with ease, but even though he has over 14,000 yards passing and 103 TDs in four years. He also has 2,325 yards rushing (5.5 yard average) and 31 TDs.

To stay competitive in the NFL you need to see trends and the trends you see are QBs who kill you with their feet as well as their arms. This is not the Bobby Douglas type running from the old Chicago Bears days. This is an added element to the QB skill set that is now near necessary to compete. QB’s used to get killed when they ran but now are protected so offenses are using that advantage to gain an edge.

The other type of defensive end is what I call the press the pocket/contain end. He is your typical 5-tech who is big, long and powerful. Players like this in this years draft are George Karlaftis or Aidan Hutchinson. These players can hold the edge in the run game plus compact the pocket from the edge. This stymies the run game with the help of the inside defensive tackles and keeps the QB inside the pocket rather than a DE being pushed over the top while the QB escapes through the area the DE just left.

By keeping the QB in the pocket the defense can drop into deeper zones. Plus with powerful players pushing the pocket from the inside it doesn’t give a QB the ability to step up to make a throw. If a QB doesn’t have the ability to use his complete throwing motion it can affect the throw, hinder accuracy, and increase the chances of a batted ball. Also a defensive player doesn’t have to sack the QB he can get a hand on the ball to force a fumble. A QB may also rush a throw if pressured, throwing into coverage.

This type of defense is not as flamboyant as many but is hell to play against for an offense. If you have solid defenders on the third level plus LBs who can tackle and cover it is tough to score against. These are the type of players Bill Belichick looks for on his defense. Belichick doesn’t use the huge two gap type of defensive tackles as he prefers to have very large inside linebackers.This is an option even if it is a slightly dated approach to defense. Belichick has used variations of this approach since his days with the Giants.

David Wyatt Hupton wrote a really nice article about not forgetting the defensive tackle position in the upcoming Draft. Yet some who read it didn’t understand the complexity of his thoughts. It was commented

I’m not sure what you’re talking about. I just looked at the height and weight of some of the best DTs in the league Aaron Donald, Chris Jones, Javon Hargrave, Jonathan Allen, Grady Jarrett...and they’re all around the same height and weight as Q, JFM and Fatukasi. In fact, Q, JFM and Fatukasi weigh more than plenty of these guys.

Maybe be more specific about who you are comparing...(because it looks like you’re doing the ol’ Moneyball “eye test” on these guys)...and then maybe I’ll believe you.

David was talking about the size of the linemen. Even though some defensive players may have the same relative size, they may be completely different players.

Aaron Donald, Chris Jones, Javon Hargrave, Jonathan Allen, Grady Jarrett are all Pro Bowl type players. How about the other 150 to 200 players in the NFL who play the same position at the same relative size? That is like comparing Kevin Durant to every other 6’ 11” player and wondering why they don’t play as well. It’s ridiculous.

With an eye to planning a team’s defense and the scheme:

The Bucs picked Vita Vea (6’ 4” 347 lbs) with the 12th overall pick to stop the run and push the pocket along side a very powerful Ndamukong Suh (6’ 4” 315 lbs). In 2021 the Bucs were ranked #3 against the run with the least attempts in the league. Teams no longer even try to run on them. Overall their defensive rank is #5 with Lavonte David and Devin White racing around making plays against the run and in coverage. The previous year they ranked #1 against the run and #8 overall (6th in total yards allowed).

Devin White is another player who was drafted for a purpose. Some would say drafting an off ball linebacker at 5th overall was foolish, but of course it was not. The Bucs had a plan for their defense, and White was a central piece of that plan. If you watch the Bucs on this year’s Draft day you will probably see them select another behemoth of a defensive tackle in the first to replace Ndamukong Suh. Suh made a little under $7 million this year and just turned age 35. He is not the same player he was a few years ago, not as dominant. Whereever the Bucs pick, you may see them move up if Jordan Davis falls into the 20’s. Vita Vea’s salary more than doubles next year so they will need a cheap but effective replacement for Suh to keep their defense in the top 10. You may also see them try and draft LB Damone Clark out of LSU in the 2nd round. Clark was 2nd in the nation with 135 tackles and moves well. He is a little raw, especially in coverage, but he should have a year to get some coaching. His athletic talent should show through. Lavonte David turns 32 next week so it would behoove them to find a replacement now that could come in and learn the system.

There are a number of players (defensive tackles) with size that the Jets (or any team) could draft outside the first round as a possible plug and play two gapper. There are Travis Jones (UConn), Phildarian Mathis (Alabama), Otito Ogbonnia (UCLA), or John Ridgeway (Arkansas). You could even grab a player like D.J. Davidson (Arizona State) who could be a UDFA and still be a possible plug and play guy. These are nose tackle type players just being moved out to play the defensive tackle position. The NFL has really never valued the nose tackle position in the Draft so great value (like D.J. Reader) can be found later.

Joe Douglas mentioned in his year end news conference the importance of the trenches, and I couldn’t agree more. Stopping the run, controlling the line of scrimmage is the fastest, easiest way (in my opinion) to turn things around in a hurry. If you can dominate both lines of scrimmage in a game your chances of winning that game increase dramatically. The Jets allowed over 500 points in 2021. They were last in points allowed, last in yards allowed, and 2nd to last in forcing turnovers. The defense I laid out would improve those numbers dramatically and give the Jets a path to respectability and then over time to greatness.

That’s what I think.