“If you like winning, you like Ronnie Blair.”
That was the sentiment Jets head coach Robert Saleh echoed a year ago as the defensive coordinator of the San Francisco 49ers.
Blair was in the midst of rehabbing a torn ACL that shortened his 2019 campaign, with a setback that derailed any hope of playing in 2020. That didn’t stop Saleh from singing his praises.
“He’s very versatile, he’s a very good football player, very instinctive and he is going to do things, he just finds a way to win. You give him a 1-on-1 situation, he finds a way to win.”
Now, in his return from a long absence, Blair will get his chance to help a team that hasn’t won in quite a while, joining a defensive front that already projects amongst the league’s best.
Prior to his injury, Blair showed promise as a defensive end in Saleh’s scheme. The former fifth-round draft pick out of Appalachian State notched three sacks and 16 tackles in a situational role as a rookie. After missing time with an injury in 2017, he posted his best campaign in 2018, racking up 5.5 sacks, 36 tackles and 10 tackles for loss. This all came in a backup role, as San Francisco relied heavily on Dee Ford and Nick Bosa as its primary edge rushers.
Blair will likely find himself in a similar role with New York, where he enters a crowded defensive line room that figures to rotate heavily throughout games. The Jets have already added Carl Lawson, Vinny Curry and Sheldon Rankins this offseason to pair up with Quinnen Williams, John Franklin-Myers, Foley Fatukasi, Kyle Phillips and Bryce Huff.
The addition of Blair further allows Saleh and defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich to rotate his guys and keep them fresh on Sundays.
Blair won’t just be another guy on the line though. His skillset perfectly compliments that of Curry, who will compete for a starting spot at defensive end opposite Lawson. Curry has had success throughout his career as a pass rusher off the edge, but leaves a bit to be desired when forced to defend against the run.
Simply put, it isn’t one of his strong suits. It isn’t one of Huff’s either.
Blair, on the other hand, excels in the run game. At 270 pounds, he has the strength and speed to shed blocks and set the edge to stop running plays in the C-gap and force them back inside. He’s also showcased his ability to get into the backfield and blow up short-yardage runs on third and fourth downs.
This will also allow Ulbrich to play his lineman more to their strengths. There was speculation that New York would use Franklin-Myers on the edge on some early downs because of his adroitness as a run defender, mostly out of necessity. With the addition of Blair, he’ll no longer have to. Franklin-Myers can stick at defensive tackle, where he’s excelled as an interior pass rusher.
Even in their worst seasons, the Jets have been stout against the run. They ranked 2nd in 2019 and 12th a year ago. Williams had the highest run stop win rate amongst all defensive tackles last season at 49%. Fatukasi ranked fourth in the league at 42%. Add Lawson and Blair on the outside and the Jets look poised to regain their spot as one of the best run defenses in football.
With their offseason additions, they might have the pass rush to match. And they’ll have to, with an extremely young cornerback room that realistically can’t be relied upon with regularity in coverage should the Jets fail to create pressure.
Blair’s contract details are still unclear, and his signing asks the question of why New York didn’t use their remaining money to acquire one of the corners on the market instead. If Saleh’s time in San Francisco is any indication, though, stacking the front line is the foundational piece of his defense. There can’t be any holes. If the Jets can pressure the quarterback just half a second faster, that’s half a second less in coverage.
It might not be the expected position for New York to add talent at this stage of the offseason, but there are a lot of methods to get to a solution. For the Jets, that solution is turning this team around to win games.
And if you like winning games, you like Ronnie Blair.
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