The return of Darrelle Revis has been huge for the 3-1 Jets, who had their way with the Dolphins in London. But it’s Todd Bowles’ unique pressure concepts that have allowed Gang Green to dominate as the NFL’s best defense in 2015
After Sunday’s 27-14 shellacking of the Dolphins in London, the Jets have now unofficially been the NFL’s best defense of 2015 on two different continents. In four games, first-year head coach Todd Bowles’ pressure-packed scheme has generated a league-high 13 turnovers, held opposing quarterbacks to a passer rating of 62.3 and, most importantly, keyed three victories.
The Jets look like a bona fide playoff contender at the quarter point. To fully appreciate their success, one must understand how exactly they are coming by it.
For starters, the Revis Factor cannot be overstated. The league’s best corner since Deion Sanders, Revis has continued to stifle opposing receivers snap in and snap out. The significance of this lies not just in the fact that Revis can win one-on-one (something many corners in today’s pass-happy NFL can’t do consistently) or even that he can do it against true No. 1 receivers (something that, with Cleveland’s Joe Haden struggling so far, no other corner is currently doing). The significance lies in the fact that the Jets know Revis can play this way, and can therefore build game plans around it. With Revis trusted to remove the opponent’s top receiver, 10 other Jets defenders can put their focus elsewhere. That’s more energy to devote to fewer offensive players and to less area of field.
On Sunday, Revis proved his mettle by taking Jarvis Landry. The second-year Dolphins receiver often lines up in the slot, where defenders must contest with a wideout having a two-way go. The bulk of Miami’s offense runs through Landry; he’s not only their best receiver but also the key to their misdirection concepts, both through the air and on the ground. Revis capped off a sensational day with a fourth-quarter end zone interception, undercutting Landry’s short seam route. Landry, in the way that defeated players sometimes do, lost his temper in the aftermath.
When Revis wasn’t in the slot, fellow free-agent pickup Buster Skrine was. Skrine was brought in specifically to play this role. On Sunday, it seemed like on every snap from the slot the ex-Brown blitzed. Which brings us to the meat of New York’s defensive approach. Bowles’ players and assistants marvel at his willingness to blitz anytime, anywhere. Unlike the majority of defensive play-callers, Bowles does not limit his pressure concepts to inside the 20-yard-lines or to certain third-down situations. The unpredictability and aggressiveness of his blitzes puts his unit in command, forcing the offense to play as the reactor.
Bowles has a deep appreciation for the nuances of blitzing, understanding that sacks are not an outcome of blitzes, but rather, one of the byproducts. Blitzes are supposed to make a quarterback play fast and without clarity. Hence, many of Bowles blitzes attack right up the middle, through the A-gaps. Not only is this the quickest path to the quarterback, it’s also the best way to obscure a quarterback’s vision. Most passes leave the quarterback’s hand and initially travel between the guards and center. By putting bodies in those lanes (and often lanky bodies, if available), you put attackers immediately in a QB’s line of vision, stoking any tendencies he has for speeding up while also obscuring his downfield informational processing. (On Sunday, Bowles’ game plan centered less around the A-gaps and more around the edges, taking away Ryan Tannehill’s comfort blanket in the flats. At one point in the second half the Jets brought three straight edge blitzes, and Tannehill had three consecutive passes batted down at the line of scrimmage.)
Forcing QBs to play off schedule like this often leads to interceptions. Just ask Andrew Luck, whose Colts fell victim to this multiple times in his team’s Week 2 Monday night loss to the Jets. In that game, the Jets strived for turnovers by playing matchup zone concepts behind the blitzes. That approach allowed their defensive backs to keep their eyes not just on their receiver (as they would in man-to-man) but also in the backfield. This is how you jump routes. Bowles loves matchup zones, especially in his base 3-4 packages, and he understands that they’re often only effective if a secondary’s members can transition smoothly from zone into man coverage. If you’re going to blitz—and especially if you’re going to send safeties or corners, which usually means an overload blitz featuring six or even seven rushers—then you must be sturdy in coverage across the board.
That’s why The Revis Factor isn’t the only thing driving New York’s defense. No. 2 corner Antonio Cromartie, though inconsistent in his technique, is one of the league’s better matchup-to-man transition players. Skrine is sturdy here, as well, and the team’s fourth—and far less heralded—free-agent DB, safety Marcus Gilchrist, was a corner early in his career with the Chargers and has the versatility and coverage aptitude to defend tight ends on an island. Bowles also believes in playing a lot of defensive backs, which is why, on Sunday, No. 4 corner Marcus Williams saw significant snaps, often lined up across from Jordan Cameron whenever the tight end was split wide. Cameron, whom Miami was hoping would be an X-factor, wound up being soundly defeated by a dime corner in several one-on-one scenarios.
With two reliable, if not remarkable, inside linebackers (David Harris and Demario Davis) operating behind a dynamic three-man front line against which many teams, including the Dolphins on Sunday, cannot consistently run the ball, the Jets are all but assured off seeing a sizable helping of third-and-long situations each week. Not that Bowles has to wait around for them in order to put his D on the offensive.