It’s been two months since Robert Saleh made the cross-country flight to New York. Now, he’s bringing a piece of the Bay Area with him.
The Super Bowl-caliber defensive scheme Saleh built for the San Francisco 49ers is starting to take shape on One Jets Drive after New York’s initial free agency signings. It marks the start of an arduous process to convert Gregg Williams’s blitz-heavy, base 3-4 defense into a 4-3 scheme that emphasizes Cover 3 principles, creating pressure while rushing only his front four.
Joe Douglas seems eager to facilitate that transformation. After using the franchise tag on safety Marcus Maye, Douglas has gone out and signed three defensive players in Lamarcus Joyner, Jarrad Davis and Carl Lawson. New York added Justin Hardee as well, but he’ll be used more often as a special teams stalwart.
Those signings all parallel the foundational pieces of his 49ers’ defense.
Most recently, Gang Green signed Joyner to a one-year, $4.5 million deal to fill the free safety role that Jimmie Ward broke out in for the Niners in 2019.
Ward struggled mightily for San Francisco after being selected in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft. Despite excelling at safety in college for Northern Illinois, the 49ers moved him around the secondary, using him primarily as a slot corner for his first few years in the league.
Saleh moved Ward back to free safety in 2019, allowing him to roam the field and anchor the back-end of the defense. Ward responded with his best season, posting a Pro Football Focus grade of 84.2 and earning himself a contract extension.
Like Ward, Joyner’s tenure with the Los Angeles Rams highlighted how impactful he can be when he lines up at free safety. He was able to ball hawk in the back of the zone, and play downhill to make tackles in the box on short and intermediate routes, posting a PFF rating of 90.1 in 2017 and 74.9 in 2018. He parlayed that into a long-term deal with the Raiders, where he mysteriously played exclusively at slot corner and he didn’t look like the same player. His PFF grades plummeted into the 50’s and he was cut earlier this offseason.
The Jets will reportedly use him as a free safety, with Saleh looking to return Joyner to the spot where he found the most success early in his career, just like the new Jets head coach did with Ward before him.
Prior to acquiring Joyner, Douglas opened his offseason account by signing linebacker Jarrad Davis to a one-year, $7 million deal. After a strong start to his career, the former first-round pick’s production dropped off under then-Lions head coach Matt Patricia. He’ll look to return to form in New York as Davis possesses the main tool that Saleh looks for in his linebackers: range.
The 49ers defense seldom rushed linebackers in 2019 and 2020, often dropping them into coverage roles on passing downs. Fred Warner posted a 91.1 PFF coverage grade under Saleh last year, best in the league amongst linebackers. Kwon Alexander was able to thrive in Saleh’s system before signing with Tampa Bay last offseason. Dre Greenlaw saw the field immediately as a fifth-round pick for San Francisco because of his coverage ability from the linebacker position.
Saleh and defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich will look to extract the coverage skills out of Davis, who ran a 4.56 40-yard dash at his Pro Day and has the speed and range to keep up with running backs and tight ends in the open field. He’ll likely move to SAM linebacker in this defense, a major position of need, since Gang Green’s roster was devoid of 4-3 outside linebackers.
The glue that holds the Cover 3 defense together, though — and what allows Saleh to drop guys like Davis into coverage and Joyner into centerfield — is an organic pass rush using only his front four. The Niners got that with the likes of Nick Bosa, Dee Ford, DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead.
The Jets already had the interior pieces. The combination of Quinnen Williams, John Franklin-Myers and Foley Fatukasi was one of the lone bright spots for the two-win Jets a year ago. The edge rusher was the missing piece, and the Jets addressed it in a big way, signing Carl Lawson to a three-year, $45 million deal.
Lawson gives the Jets a legitimate pass-rushing presence at defensive end, playing that 5-technique role that Nick Bosa performed so well in a year ago. The former Bengal finished with 64 pressures (4th in NFL) and 32 QB hits (2nd in NFL) in 2020. He posted just 5.5 sacks, but if the pressures and QB hits keep up, the sacks will come. Lawson cited Saleh as a major factor in his decision to sign with New York, and he projects to be a perfect fit on the Jets’ defensive line.
Of course, Saleh’s defense in New York might not exactly replicate the one he implemented in San Francisco. He could wipe the slate clean and determine his scheme based on personnel. He could create a hybrid of his 49ers approach with some of Ulbrech’s philosophy from Atlanta.
If these first few signings are any indication, however, this defense might look a whole lot like the one Saleh is used to running, and if the results can match, the Jets will be looking at a much improved defensive unit in 2021.
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