NY Jets: What a 4-3 defense might look like under Robert Saleh

NY Jets, Robert Saleh (Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images)
NY Jets, Robert Saleh (Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images) /
NY Jets, Robert Saleh
NY Jets, Robert Saleh /

NY Jets, Robert Saleh Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The NY Jets have run a version of the 3-4 defense for the last 15 seasons. Not since Herm Edwards brought his ‘Tampa 2′ defense to Gang Green have the Jets employed a 4-3 defense.

Even before Edwards run as Jets coach from 2001-2005, New York under Bill Parcells and his crew ran the 3-4 defense in the late ’90s from 1997-2000.

Since Edwards exited stage left, Eric Mangini, Rex Ryan, Todd Bowles, and even Gregg Williams ran their own versions of the 3-4 defense with the Jets. The latter ran a hybrid style but maintained the personnel suited for the 3-4 base.

For better or worse, Gregg Williams made the 3-4 defense his own and didn’t disrupt or force the Jets to change the type of players they have targeted for years.

In the front seven of the Jets 3-4 defenses, the personnel has matched the scheme for so many years. The scheme has called for 300-plus-pound defensive linemen who clog up space and free up room for free-roaming linebackers to make plays and attack from multiple angles.

In a perfect world, the 3-4 defense’s pass rush is supposed to be generated by its stand-up outside linebackers. Although, the Jets have failed, even in the better days of their defense, to find a Von Miller/Khalil Mack type.

An elite edge rusher will still be vital in the Jets’ new defense.

NY Jets, Robert Saleh
NY Jets, Robert Saleh /

NY Jets, Robert Saleh Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

1. Robert Saleh’s defense

Under Robert Saleh, for the first time in a long time, the Jets will be undergoing a huge philosophical and schematic shift on defense. One that will change the way the team targets and utilizes its personnel.

Stylistically, the Jets will be undergoing a huge transformation.

At first glance, many would assume that Saleh will be running a defense that largely resembles the ones he initially earned his keep with. From his days in Seattle with the Legion of Boom to Jacksonville and most recently as defensive coordinator of the San Francisco 49ers.

Evidence shows that Saleh’s defense is one that has evolved a lot in recent years.

Saleh’s base defensive scheme has been the 4-3, with principles from the coaches he has worked under like Pete Carroll, Dan Quinn, and Gus Bradley.

These are defenses that have historically heavily relied on their pass rush up front, with minimal blitzing. One of the knocks against this style of defense over the years is how one-dimensional and reliant it has been in having premium talent on the edge.

But over the years, and most recently, Saleh has evolved and adapted by incorporating new elements to that defense.

Saleh’s version of the ‘Seattle defense’ has introduced some new wrinkles, which has included more man coverage and exotic blitzes sprinkled in. It evolved into that style in 2020, but the truth is Saleh’s defense has been evolving from year to year.

At the outset of his run in San Francisco, Saleh leaned on the 4-3 under, Cover 3 zone style scheme, which he adopted from his early days in Seattle. Over time, though, Saleh started to incorporate different elements into his defense with his assistants’ input.

Chief among them was moving to a Wide-9 base alignment with more traditional Cover 2 elements. The single high Cover 3 scheme was used less and less over time.

In 2020, Saleh was forced to evolve even more so because of the loss of two dynamic edge rushers in Nick Bosa and Dee Ford. Under Saleh, this past season, the 49ers’ defense ranked at the top in several key defensive categories, particularly against the pass.

2020 was arguably Saleh’s best work in terms of adjusting as a coach. Once again, Saleh may have to lean on input from his staff and make adjustments to the type of players he is inheriting in New York.

Luckily for the Jets, Saleh has shown that he is adept at doing that.

Next: 2/3. Saleh's soldiers and the Jets' current defense

NY Jets, Robert Saleh
NY Jets, Robert Saleh /

NY Jets, Robert Saleh Mandatory Credit: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

2. Robert Saleh’s San Francisco soldiers

Ultimately, Robert Saleh’s defense will change who the Jets target in free agency, And it will alter who the Jets draft moving forward on the defensive side of the ball. It will also affect how current players on the roster are utilized.

It’s reasonable to assume, and it’s already been speculated upon in several circles, that Saleh will bring in veteran players to the Jets who are familiar with his style and schemes and have had success operating within it.

Some potential free agent targets from Saleh’s last team could stand out more than others, like Richard Sherman, Solomon Thomas, or K’Waun Williams.

Still, other role players like defensive linemen Ronald Blair and Kerry Hyder could also help the Jets seamlessly transition to Saleh’s style of defense.

In a perfect world, Saleh brings in players he is familiar with on all three levels of his defense. From the defensive line to linebacker to the secondary. Saleh’s soldiers will help get the current Jets defensive players up to speed and on the right track.

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3. The NY Jets current defensive roster

Two key questions emerge. What will the new defensive scheme mean for the players currently on the Jets roster, and how will each player be utilized differently than they have been?

The Jets do have players that seem to be excellent fits for the new scheme deployed. The types of players that the Jets will be looking for at each level of their defense will be different than what they have looked for in the past.

Speed will be a large part of the defense’s emphasis, especially at defensive end and linebacker. Determining which of the players on the current roster best fit those roles will be important.

It’s best to avoid trying to fit square pegs into round holes in a year of transition. The sooner the Jets identify ideal fits for the new scheme, the easier it will be for the defense to be good in 2021.

The Jets will have some big decisions to make in free agency to retain players from the 2020 roster who will best fit what Saleh and his staff will be looking for.

Next: 4. The Jets' front seven

NY Jets, Robert Saleh
NY Jets, Robert Saleh /

NY Jets, Robert Saleh Mandatory Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

4. The NY Jets front seven

Up front, all the focus will be on Quinnen Williams.

The belief is that Saleh will maximize Williams’ ability. The thought of that is very promising, considering that Williams has already reached an elite level as a disruptive force in the trenches. The 4-3 scheme might free up Williams to play more on the inside as a true defensive tackle.

One of the biggest strengths on the entire Jets’ roster is their young interior defensive linemen, from Folorunso Fatukasi to John Franklin-Myers to Nathan Shepherd. Along with Williams, all three players figure to be a huge part of the team’s rotation at defensive tackle.

The majority of these players have spent time playing defensive end in the 3-4. With a switch to the 4-3, it will require speed rushers as down linemen on the edge.

Linebackers like Jordan Jenkins and Tarell Basham would have most likely been moved to these spots in the new scheme, but both are unrestricted free agents.

That leaves the Jets currently with players like Bryce Huff and Jabari Zuniga, who played as hybrids in their rookie seasons, as likely defensive ends in the new scheme.

While players like Ronald Blair and Kerry Hyder are excellent fits for the Jets and personal favorites of Saleh. Don’t be surprised if the Jets prioritize the defensive end position heavily in the next two drafts.

Finding a premium pass rusher like Nick Bosa or Dee Ford will be crucial to how effective Saleh’s defense will be with the Jets. The shift in defensive scheme changes up the linebacker position as well for the Jets.

The hope is that the Jets’ highest-paid defensive player, linebacker C.J. Mosley, returns from exile and back to his former form.

The field general in the middle of Saleh’s defense will be essential, and it will be difficult for Saleh to get the same level of play that he just got from All-Pro Fred Warner in San Francisco.

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Two Jets’ linebackers that could fit their new scheme really well are impending free agent Neville Hewitt, who is coming off an excellent 2020 season, and Blake Cashman.

Both have played on the inside but would project to the outside in the 4-3. In Saleh’s defensive scheme, the linebackers are expected to cover a lot of space, both against the run but especially in coverage.

Hewitt and Cashman are two superb athletes who can certainly fit that bill. However, the issue is two-fold with these aforementioned players. Keeping Cashman healthy and keeping Hewitt period.

Often, quality players like Hewitt get lost on bad teams. They fly under the radar. The Jets probably hope that’s the case with the former Miami Dolphins’ linebacker.

Hewitt is the best Jets player that outsiders have probably never heard of, and the franchise wants to keep it that way.

However, it’s more likely that based on his play from last year that Hewitt has created a market for himself with teams who are on the lookout for hidden gems in free agency.

Next: 5. The Jets' secondary

NY Jets, Robert Saleh
NY Jets, Robert Saleh /

NY Jets, Robert Saleh Mandatory Credit: Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

5. The NY Jets secondary

The area that figures to see the most change for the Jets in 2021 is their secondary. There could be a whole new crop of players brought in to shore up this area of the team.

Cornerback Brian Poole has been the team’s best coverage corner over the past two years. Still, he is a free agent, and with so many 49ers cornerbacks potentially available in unrestricted free agency, the Jets may move on.

Poole is an excellent slot corner, but so is 49ers defensive back K’Wuan Williams, who is coincidentally from Paterson, New Jersey.

There was a lot of promise in 2020 shown from the Jets’ younger corners in Blessuan Austin, Bryce Hall, and even Javelin Guidry, but there’s going to be new blood and competition at the position in 2021.

Players like Richard Sherman and Ahkello Witherspoon, among others, could be donning the green and white.

Pending free agent Marcus Maye, who was graded as one of the league’s top-five safeties in 2020 by Pro Football Focus, will almost certainly be a top priority for Jets general manager Joe Douglas to sign.

The Jets must retain his services, and of the teams’ defensive players, Maye seems like the perfect catalyst for Saleh’s secondary.

However, on the outside, potentially looking to join the Jets at safety is 49ers free-agent Jaquiski Tartt. In a perfect world, Tartt is paired up with Maye, but whether or not the Jets want to commit that type of cap money to the safety position remains to be seen.

After all, the team did draft Ashtyn Davis in the third round last year. Bradley McDougald is an unrestricted free agent who does have experience playing in a defense similar to Saleh’s in Seattle, but the Jets could be looking elsewhere at the position.

Next: 6. Staff hires/final summary

NY Jets, Robert Saleh
NY Jets, Robert Saleh /

NY Jets, Robert Saleh Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

6. Staff hires/final summary

Since the Jets made the hiring of Robert Saleh as their head coach official last Thursday night, there have been plenty of reports about who will be joining Saleh on his staff.

Although not yet official, it’s expected that Mike LaFleur will be announced as the Jets’ offensive coordinator.

There’s talk of former NFL receiver and current assistant coach Miles Austin joining the Jets staff from San Francisco. As well as John Benton (49ers OL Coach), Greg Knapp (Falcons QB Coach), and Rob Calabrese (Broncos quality control coach).

What also hasn’t been made official yet, is who will be joining Saleh on his defensive staff in New York.

The assumption is that regardless of who takes the reins as defensive coordinator, it will be someone who runs the same defense that Saleh has earned his stripes with.

Perhaps, someone he has already worked with. Someone like the 49ers’ great defensive line coach, Kris Kocurek, comes to mind immediately.

Some rumors suggest that former Seattle Seahawks and Cowboys coordinator Kris Richard, who coincidentally interviewed for the Jets’ head coaching position back in 2019, could be a target to reunite with Saleh in New York.

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Recent reports suggest that Falcons interim defensive coordinator and ex-49ers player Jeff Ulbrich could be tabbed as the Jets’ next defensive coordinator. Saleh and Ulbrich worked together in Seattle.

It’s possible that Saleh looks away from his past and hires someone he’s never worked with. Similar to how Saleh got the Jets job, despite never working with Joe Douglas.

After all, Saleh has gone on record about ideally having a diverse staff with different types of coaches who complement and make each other better by bringing qualities that he himself doesn’t have. A good part of Saleh’s success has come from his willingness to receive input from his staff.

However, it’s reasonable to assume that whomever Saleh appoints as defensive coordinator, that coach will be working in lockstep with him and will be someone who embraces the scheme and system that Saleh is most comfortable with.

Next. NY Jets: 3 trade packages to consider for Deshaun Watson

Robert Saleh was hired to change the franchise’s culture and, in some ways, to change the image of the Jets off the field. How Saleh changes the Jets defense on the field could determine how soon the new culture is a winning one.