One of the biggest fan frustrations I have come across pertaining to Robert Saleh and Jeff Ulbrich is how basic the Jets defensive scheme is.
The team shows a lot of vanilla Cover 3 and Cover 4 looks. This approach makes life easy on an offense.
I’d like to go a bit deeper and explain what the Jets are trying to do here. I think it’s important to note that the scheme is less bland than you realize, especially on third down.
That said, the Jets do play an awful lot of Cover 3 and Cover 4.
They aren’t just doing this with the objective of sitting back and watching the opposing team exploit the holes in their coverages, though.
There are a couple of reasons the coaches are trying to keep things relatively simple. I found some plays run by Saleh’s 2019 49ers defense to illustrate the objective.
Saleh himself has noted that he likes to keep things simple for his players so they don’t have to do a lot of thinking. He wants them to go out and be able to play fast.
An example might be on this play. The 49ers are running a basic Cover 3. One safety is in the middle of the field deep. The outside deep thirds are covered by the outside cornerbacks. Four players are in zone coverage underneath.
On this play the Bengals are trying to bait the middle safety. His responsibility is the yellow route, the guy running down the deep middle part of the field. With him occupied, the red route receiver is going to be open. The cornerback on him is playing with outside leverage, funneling the receiver inside because that’s where the safety help is. The safety is going to be occupied, though.
However, the simplicity of this call allows the safety to read the play, leave his man, and deliver a hit to break up the pass.
The play the Bengals run is actually a great concept to beat a Cover 3 for the reasons mentioned above. But when you do the same thing over and over as a defender, it helps you recognize patterns quickly and make plays. If your team is running a ton of different plays, you might be thinking more about your assignment instead of just instinctively reacting.
Let’s move to another play. Here the 49ers are in Cover 4.
A play fake or RPO draws the linebackers out of position in their zones. The safety (yellow arrow) recognizes this and knows he needs to pick up the man in the area vacated by the linebackers. Meanwhile in the red circle, the cornerback is reading the play and realizes he won’t have safety help on the inside.
Thus he carries the receiver and ends up making the interception. If you look at the start of the play, the safety’s original zone was on the hash. The corner ends up making the interception near that same hashmark because reading the play he knew he wouldn’t have help.
Frequently the discussion about simple vs. complex scheme deals with the sheer number of different plays. However, Saleh comes from a mindset where the complexity is built into plays. There might only be a handful of different plays, but they all have a lot of adjustments built within them.
A lot of this is philosophical. None of it is inherently good or bad. I have seen simple defenses succeed. I have seen simple defenses fail. I have seen complex defenses succeed. I have seen complex defenses fail. Success is determined by talent, scheme fit of the personnel, coaching quality, and matchups.
I couldn’t tell you whether Saleh will successfully build a defense with the Jets. He might. He might not. But I think it is important to understand what he’s trying to do.
The Jets didn’t build this defense to tip all of their calls and pray the opponents avoid the weaknesses.
Last year things didn’t work. In addition to installing a new system, almost every defensive back who saw significant time was a first or second year player. This made it difficult for the Jets to run more complex concepts even if they wanted to. The young players on defense had issues executing even rudimentary coverages.
With more experience and talent on the defense this year, I would guess the hope is the Jets will be able to run more sophisticated versions of these concepts that seem simple on paper.