If you live by the blitz, then you die by the blitz.
Instant Debate: NFL's best defense?
The bodacious defensive guru has promised to restore the aggressive mentality that carried Gang Green to consecutive AFC Championship Game appearances in the 2009 and '10 campaigns. During those seasons, Ryan acted as the defensive play caller for units that finished first and third, respectively, in total defense. He utilized blitz-heavy tactics with his initial teams to create chaos for quarterbacks in the pocket, while limiting available seams and creases for runners in the ground game.
Looking at the numbers from Ryan's stint as the defensive play caller, it's apparent that he lives and dies with blitz pressure. He called blitzes on 50 percent of the Jets' defensive snaps during that two-year span, including an astonishing 52.4 percent blitz rate in 2009. Those percentages blow away the Jets' blitz frequency over the past two seasons, under the direction of former defensive coordinator Mike Pettine: New York blitzed 32.8 and 34 percent of its defensive snaps in 2011 and 2012, respectively. Interestingly enough, the unit's effectiveness gradually declined over the past two years, finishing fifth and eighth in total defense.
Given Ryan's desire to put the bite back in the Jets' defense, I decided to pop in some tape to see how the unit might evolve with him back at the controls. Here are three things I expect to see from Ryan's defense:
1) Rex Ryan's innovative blitz schemes will create chaos in the pocket.
It's hard to find a more creative defensive play designer in the NFL than Ryan. He pushes the envelope with innovative tactics designed to confuse quarterbacks in the pocket, while exploiting vulnerabilities of the protection scheme. This is the mission of every defensive coordinator in the business, of course, but few orchestrate the madness like Ryan.
Breaking down the tapes from Ryan's initial years with Jets, I was blown away by the myriad of overload, gap and simulated pressures he utilized throughout a game. Additionally, I was impressed with the pre-snap disguising from a variety of personnel packages, keeping quarterbacks from anticipating the direction of the pressure or the designated rushers poised to blitz on a given play.
Looking ahead to how Ryan will rejuvenate the Jets' rush in 2013, I believe we will see a return to the exotic pressures that gave opponents problems in 2009 and '10. This should lead to more cross-gut pressures from the base defense, allowing the Jets to attack the A and B gaps to neutralize the run, while creating pressure up the middle to disrupt the quarterback's rhythm and timing.
In the screengrab below, taken from a 7-6 win over the Arizona Cardinals in Week 13, the Jets are executing a cross gut blitz with Bart Scott and David Harris attacking the interior gaps from a deep alignment. The Cardinals are worried about the pressure coming off the edge from Bryan Thomas (highlighted in red), forcing them to slide the protection to his side:
When Thomas bails out after the snap, the Cardinals leave a gaping hole in the middle, allowing Harris to sprint through for an easy sack:
Ryan complements his inside pressure package with a clever overload scheme. He frequently aligns his rushers in the A gaps -- to force quarterbacks to change the direction of the protection -- before sending crashers off the edge. This frequently leads to free hitters coming off the edges for big shots on the quarterback.
In the screengrab below, from the Week 10 loss to the Seattle Seahawks, the Jets position six men on the line of scrimmage, with a defender in each of the A-gaps prior to the snap. The Seahawks must respect the possibility of the double A-gap blitz and change their protection call to keep Russell Wilson from facing heavy pressure up the middle:
2) A young, athletic defensive line will rise in an aggressive scheme.
The lack of a consistent pass rush has played a major role in the Jets' defensive decline in recent years. The team finished 25th in sacks last season with 30, and routinely failed to disrupt the timing of the quarterback under the coverage-oriented approach favored by Pettine. That number should rise dramatically in 2013 with Ryan promising to dial up more pressures.
In Ryan's last season directing the defense, the Jets finished with 40 sacks and tormented foes with a blitz-heavy scheme that sent five, six and seven rushers from all angles. Of course, blitzes are designed to get designated rushers to the quarterback, but astute defensive coordinators call blitzes to get their best pass rushers in one-on-one matchups at the line of scrimmage. By routinely sending five or more rushers, Ryan can prevent offensive coordinators from consistently double-teaming one of his young, athletic defensive linemen, leading to more sacks from the front four. Additionally, the confusion created by diverse blitz tactics produces more free hits on the quarterback. Given the talents of Muhammad Wilkerson, Quinton Coples and first-round draft pick Sheldon Richardson, the aggressive approach could yield big results.
Muhammad Wilkerson: Wilkerson quietly is emerging as a dominant force in the NFL, with a versatile game that blends strength, power and explosiveness. He is capable of manning any position along the line, but is at his best working as a 5-technique in the Jets' hybrid scheme. In two full seasons, Wilkerson has tallied eight sacks and six pass breakups, while forcing four fumbles. Additionally, he has shown the potential to wreak havoc on opposing offenses as an interior rusher in nickel situations -- like he demonstrates in the video just above. Wilkerson's versatility gives Ryan a variety of options to combat the spread formations that are trending heavily in the AFC East.
Quinton Coples: Coples has spent some time in Ryan's doghouse for his inconsistent work ethic and energy, but there is no denying his immense talent and potential as a pass rusher. He has a knack for getting to the quarterback, and Ryan will attempt to maximize this skill by utilizing Coples' versatility. In the video clip to the right, Coples shows his ability to rush the passer from a defensive tackle alignment by executing a looping DT/DE pick stunt to record a sack. These are the kinds of tricks Ryan will undoubtedly use to spice up the Jets' pass rush.
Sheldon Richardson: Richardson is the X-factor on the Jets' defensive line with his athleticism, quickness and relentless motor. The rookie was a disruptive force in the SEC at Missouri and should stand out in the Ryan's aggressive scheme. By positioning Richardson as a 3-technique in the Jets' base defense, Ryan finally has an interior rusher capable of collapsing the pocket on early downs. This should lead to double-teams in the middle, freeing up Wilkerson and Coples for sacks off the edge or David Harris coming up the middle on cross-gut blitzes.
3) Antonio Cromartie's re-emergence as a shutdown corner will be key.
Cromartie finished his seventh NFL season with three interceptions and 13 pass breakups, while relishing the challenge of guarding the opponent's top receiver. He played to his imposing physical dimensions (6-foot-2, 210 pounds) by mauling receivers at the line of scrimmage in press coverage, but also displayed the instincts, awareness and ball skills to be a game changer at the position. As a result, the Jets' pass defense still finished second in yards allowed, despite the loss of a perennial All-Pro corner.
With Cromartie capable of being a shutdown corner, the Jets can get back to pressuring the quarterback relentlessly with the barrage of exotic blitz/coverage combinations used in Ryan's first two years in New York. Cromartie can shadow the opponent's top receiver, with the rest of the defense playing a matchup zone coverage away from his side. The Jets can also place Cromartie on the opponent's No. 2 receiver, double-team the top receiver with a hybrid roll zone and utilize some type of simulated pressure to attack the quarterback.
Finally, the Jets can play traditional blitz-man coverage, with Cromartie assigned to the top receiver regardless of his alignment. This would require the two-time Pro Bowler to occasionally play in the slot, but he demonstrated those skills last season (and in the video clip just above) as the Jets' top dog. If he can remain consistent, hungry and focused as the designated eraser in the back end, Cromartie will play a major role in returning the Jets' defense to the ranks of the elite.