Yesterday, we started to identify some of the trends from the first and last game of the season, two opposing situations with successful defensive gameplans that differed from what the team did over most of the rest of the season.
To recap, in the first game of the season, with Sheldon Richardson suspended, the Jets used their nose tackles more than usual and racked up a season-high eight sacks. Then, in the last game of the season, Richardson played inside more as the Jets used their outside linebackers more and nose tackles less than usual and won by 20 with one of their best defensive performances of the year.
In this instalment we're going to look at the defensive gameplans in more detail. Should the Jets use their outside linebackers more? Can they get their best players on the field without needing to use a nose tackle most of the time?
Week one - Bengals
This game is an important one because the team had a season-high eight sacks without Richardson, who was serving a one-game suspension. Is this a blueprint for what they will do if and when they are able to move him? Or is it a gameplan that could be successfully replicated with him still involved?
It says a lot about the coaching staff's lack of faith in their outside linebackers that they didn't use them much in Richardson's absence. However, when Richardson was serving another suspension in 2015, they had their best success with four man fronts, featuring Muhammad Wilkerson and Leger Douzable as the ends and Leonard Williams and Damon Harrison inside.
The first thing to note is that they were hardly ever in a base defense anyway. The Jets operated with just four defensive backs on just 12 plays, 10 of which were in the first half.
Everyone gets caught up in 4-3 or 3-4 but actually these are minor packages. In fact, the Bengals are less of a spread-style offense than many NFL teams so the Jets would probably be in a base defense even less against a lot of other teams.
The next thing to note is that when they were in base, they were basically always in 4-3, not 3-4. On just two snaps were they in a 3-4 alignment, but only because a defensive lineman (Lawrence Thomas in each case) was standing up to be the second outside linebacker.
This doesn't mean they didn't operate out of three-man fronts. They did ... but only in nickel and dime packages.
The Jets mixed up formations, fronts and personnel groupings a lot in the first half, until late in the half when the Bengals went into a hurry-up so the Jets just stayed in the same 4-2-5 nickel package.
Then in the second half, they operated out of that same package most of the time, even with the Bengals no longer playing hurry-up.
Let's return to that 4-3 personnel grouping though. The first two plays immediately illustrate the main look they had out of these personnel packages, but with some built-in flexibility.
Each of these has basic 4-3 under principles. If the weakside end stands up, it would suddenly look a lot like a conventional 3-4. However, the linemen are aligned to shoot gaps and perhaps to force the offensive linemen to decide who to double and who to single-block.
In the second image, moreso than the first image, the linemen are aligned more closely with the center and the two tackles. So they could potentially look to two-gap instead of penetrating into the backfield.
Also, it's interesting to note that in the second image, the nose is Steve McLendon, the weakside end is Wilkerson and the mike is Erin Henderson, whereas in the first image, those roles are handled by Williams, Thomas and David Harris respectively. That illustrates some of the flexibility and interchangeable roles.
As noted, the primary package was a more standard 4-2-5 nickel package. In that package, none of the outside linebackers got into the game, apart from Lorenzo Mauldin, who was one of the defensive ends on a few plays. Jordan Jenkins missed this game with an injury so maybe the approach would have been different with him available. However, it would have been his first ever NFL appearance.
Within that package, there were a few wrinkles. Wilkerson dropped into the slot to jam a receiver a couple of times, Harris and Darron Lee lined up in the a-gaps up at the line on some plays and they mixed up whether Williams or McLendon was lined up as the nose.
This being the first game of the season, the Jets had a special package in store for the Bengals in dime situations. Wilkerson, Williams and the two inside linebackers were joined up front by Mauldin, who rushed from various positions, including middle linebacker a few times. The Bengals seemed ill-prepared for this and it led to a few of the eight sacks.
A different version of the nickel package saw two outside linebackers - usually Mike Catapano and Mauldin as the ends in the four man front. These packages allowed Wilkerson to play "inside" with Williams although typically he was still shading the tackle's inside shoulder. He also lined up inside on some of the dime packages, as he and Williams essentially created a two-man front.
If the Jets were to duplicate this sort of gameplan with Richardson available, they'd typically give him Thomas' role - basically the weakside end. However, if he seems set on playing inside, could Williams play more of McLendon's snaps and Richardson can take over Williams' role inside? Or could Williams even come off the edge sometimes, perhaps?
Let's see what happened in the last game of the year, as McLendon was out and the Jets opted to employ Richardson inside more.
Week 17 - Bills
It probably shouldn't go unmentioned that this was a match-up against a Bills team that were very much going through the motions having once again missed the playoffs and suffered the morale-sapping reality of Tyrod Taylor being benched for contractual reasons. However, while you might not expect the Jets to blow everyone out by 20, the way they played in this game did seem to get the best out of Wilkerson and Richardson like no other game all year.
The first thing to note about this game was that the Jets stayed in a base defense more than usual and never operated any dime packages.
This was their primary personnel package and defensive alignment, which should look familiar:
This is instantly recognizable as a 3-4 defense - due not only to the fact that there are three down linemen and four linebackers standing up, but also because each of those linebackers is a linebacker by trade and not a defensive lineman masquerading as one. However, aside from the fact that the weakside end is standing up, this is actually the exact same defensive alignment as the 4-3 under package in the earlier images.
(Note: The strongside is the one with the tight end. So, in this situation, the weakside is the right side of the defensive - or the left side of the above image).
One of the key characteristics of this package is that the weakside tackle lines up in the B gap - ie between the left guard and left tackle. This is designed to prevent the offense from double teaming him. The tackle has to pick up the outside linebacker coming off the edge, so the guard is left to his own devices.
These situations were the ones Richardson thrived in earlier on in his career and the Jets' gameplan on this particular day was clearly designed to improve his production. In this case, it worked, as he had probably his best game of the year.
Of course, Richardson wasn't always the weakside tackle. And even when he was, he might sometimes attack the guard's inside shoulder to potentially open up an opportunity for someone else.
So while this is a 3-4 formation, it's really no different from the base formation they used all the time in the Bengals game. I'd call this a hybrid front, with the personnel dictating whether or not the weakside edge was standing. In the Bengals game he stood up twice, but in this game he rarely did.
In this game, however, we did see a different base package and this was more of a basic 3-4:
Unlike the previous formation, all three linemen are within the tackle box. This time, both ends are lined up in the B gap, this time with the opposite intention; to occupy both the guard and tackle and hopefully draw a double team. This leaves the nose tackle - Williams in this case - single blocked and able to control two gaps.
The Jets still played plenty of nickel in this game, but not as much as in the Bengals game. They operated out of two main nickel packages, one of which was similar to the basic 4-2 nickel that was their primary formation in most of that Bengals game. The difference, however, was that Richardson and Wilkerson were both inside with Williams coming off the edge.
The other nickel package was more of a pure pass rush package and saw Corey Lemonier come off the bench with Jordan Jenkins remaining in the game to rush off the opposite edge. Those two were primarily standing up, so it was basically a 2-4 nickel with Richarson and Williams inside. However, one or both of the edge defenders would sometimes put their hands in the dirt.
The key to the success of this gameplan was Richardson playing inside and back to something like his best. Wilkerson was also able to get more reps inside. Enabling this was the fact that Williams lined up at nose more often and also came off the edge in some pass rush packages.
Even though he lined up at nose, that didn't necessarily mean Williams would constantly be occupying blocks. The three technique might crash down on the center and Williams would attack the B gap instead, for example.
Both Wilkerson and Richardson lined up as the nose from time to time too, albeit that neither of them did so in the basic 3-4 look that would require them to two-gap.
While Wilkerson was usually on the bench for the pass rushing nickel package with Lemonier in the game, he was more of a mainstay in the base to compensate for this, so when the Jets rotated Deon Simon and Anthony Johnson in, Wilkerson stayed in the game with them. The net result of all this was that all three played most of the time with the majority of their reps inside. Surely that should have been the plan all season.
With the modern flexibility of defensive systems and the players themselves, there are many approaches you can try in terms of trying to find the right combination of players.
The 2016 season should provide the Jets with a series of options in terms of personnel packages, defensive alignments and defensive gameplans, some of which worked well last year and others which need refining or abandoning altogether.
It's surprising that the media continues to treat this team like it's a pure 3-4 defense, something they haven't been since Eric Mangini left after the 2008 season (except for in one game against the Broncos in 2011). For most of the last two years, they were more of a 4-3 team when in base, although actually their primary formation was a 4-2 nickel.
While it's often been suggested that shifting away from the 3-4 would be the answer because it would open up another defensive line position, that's actually already what they've been doing and it hasn't worked. If anything, based on the last game of last year, a shift back towards the 3-4 could have a better effect, if coupled with a rotation that uses a nose tackle less often and employs one of their starters in that role instead.
The danger here is that playing more reps at the nose tackle position could cause any of these players to wear down more quickly. Also, it might marginalize their production if they are occupying blockers rather than getting favorable match-ups to create havoc in the backfield. One warning sign here is that although Wilkerson and Richardson had big games against the Bills, it was one of Williams' least productive games of the year and he actually had no sacks or quarterback hits over the last three games as he played more nose tackle with McLendon out.
Ultimately, the obvious answer remains that they probably need to balance out the personnel by moving one of their three stud linemen. Richardson looks to be the one with one foot out the door as we speak.
However, in the short term, there's no reason why these three can't co-exist and create some havoc next season. If nothing more this could re-establish Richardson's trade value and bring them a decent asset back with which to continue the rebuild next season.