Although I was already pretty familiar with the Cardinals defense, having reviewed plenty of film over the last few years while covering Yeremiah Bell and Antonio Cromartie for our Expendables series, I've been doing extra research into the personnel groups, formations and individual roles to try and figure out how the pieces might fit. This includes players like Calvin Pryor, Buster Skrine, Leonard Williams and Quinton Coples.
After the jump, I'll be comprehensively breaking these down and trying to figure out what this could mean for the Jets in 2015. I'll also be talking extensively about zoo animals, for some reason.
Todd Bowles: The Mad Zookeeper
It all started with an innocent exchange in the comments section of this very blog. Someone - it may even have been me - came across a quote Bowles had made having just taken over as defensive coordinator in Arizona:
We have to make sure elephants stay elephants and giraffes stay giraffes.
This set the imagination wheels turning. Clearly he's talking about an elephant in the context of the elephant position. The elephant position is a hybrid end/linebacker position (E/L = Elephant, get it?) which is basically the same as the rush linebacker position that Quinton Coples played for Rex Ryan last year. It's the name the Packers give to the position Julius Peppers played for them last season and is also sometimes referred to as the leo position (linebacker/end = L/E = Leo, get it?) including by teams such as Seattle.
So we know what an elephant is - or at least we think we do - but what's a "giraffe" within this context? Well, when considering the main trait that a giraffe brings to the table - length - the answer seemed obvious. The 6'8" Calais Campbell is an integral part of that defense, maybe even the key player, so it seemed obvious that Bowles must value length on his defense and that a player with extra-ordinary length - like the 35.5 inch-armed Muhammad Wilkerson - is viewed as an essential component on the line. Then, clearly, the above quote is about putting each player into the correct role where he can have the most success.
Except...it doesn't actually mean any of that. So, while we were getting ahead of ourselves and assigning anthropomorphic characteristics to a bunch of different animals ("Damon Harrison must be a hippo!") and losing track of where the line between reality and assumption was drawn, it turned out that the whole thing was a red herring.
Bowles had also made some comment about elephants and giraffes when coaching with the Dolphins in 2011, so clearly it's just phraseology he uses to emphasize the difference between the attributes some of his players bring to the table. In that context, all he's talking about here is ensuring his players are disciplined within their roles rather than just taking the attacking mindset too far.
As best I can determine, the positional nomenclature Bowles uses for his defense is similar to what Jets fans would have been used to under Eric Mangini. In a four-linebacker alignment, the strongside outside backer is not a hyena, or a tiger, he's just a SAM. The weakside linebacker isn't an elephant, a leo or even a RUSH, he's just a WILL. The two inside linebackers were both just referred to on team literature as ILB. Clearly one of the two will be the MIKE, and if you're not sure, just listen to the quarterback because these days they tell you who the MIKE is before the snap. The other ILB position, commonly called TED or JACK in some systems, doesn't seem to have a specific name under Bowles, so I guess it's the MIKE-and-NOTMIKE show on the inside.
A few things must be mentioned here before we get completely de-railed. One is that although these will likely be the positions shown on the official depth chart, the Jets won't be completely married to having four linebackers on the field most of the time, as indeed the Cardinals weren't. Also, their defense maintains the same kind of hybrid flexibility as a Rex Ryan defense, so even though the positional terminology has more in common with the Patriots, Steelers or Mangini-era Jets, the flexibility for that player listed at the WILL position to put his hand in the dirt and create a four-man line is still inherent. Finally, as if this wasn't confusing enough already, the WILL position in the Rex Ryan defense is an inside linebacker role (weakside inside linebacker = W.I.L. = WILL, get it?) whereas in this defense, it represents that weakside pass rusher role. Essentially, Demario Davis is staying where he is but the WILL position is changing and moving outside to be occupied by someone else, if that doesn't blow your mind too much.
So, perhaps somewhat disappointingly, Bowles doesn't have time to assign animal-based nicknames to each of his defensive positional roles, instead concerning himself with such minutiae as creative formations and play-calling. However, I actually think it's an effective device for helping to understand how the defense works and what's required from each of the component parts, so there's no reason why we can't use such terms in fan parlance to help us to get our heads round some of the dilemmas the coaching staff face. I'll therefore be revisiting this concept further down.
First though, let's get into the nitty-gritty of who did what for Bowles' defense last season.
As is becoming increasingly common these days around the league, the Cardinals weren't actually in their base defense the majority of the time. So, while the media flaps over whether or not the Jets will follow in their footsteps and play a 3-4 defense or try and play more 4-3 to accommodate their defensive line depth, the truth is that the Cardinals were in base less than 40% of the time last season and spent the majority of the rest of the time in sub-packages.
(As an aside, I'm not sure the distinction between 3-4 or 4-3 makes that much difference to the amount of available defensive line reps anyway, but we'll be revisiting that lower down).
You'd therefore assume that the Cardinals spent the majority of the time in nickel. That was indeed the case, although when I charted two games from last season (one from November and one from December) in detail, I found that the personnel used was as follows:
Base Personnel (4 DBs) - 56 plays
Short yardage (3 DBs) - 6 plays
Dime personnel (6 or more DBs) - 69 plays
Nickel personnel (5 DBs) - 0 plays
The reason for this was that rookie safety Deone Bucannon was actually employed as a linebacker in dime packages. Not as a strong safety coming up into the box, but literally as an undersized linebacker alongside the other linebacker (Larry Foote) 4-5 yards off the line and between the tackles.
To an extent, Bowles' hand was forced here by injury, but it did show one way he might employ his personnel if necessary. I don't believe it would have been Bowles' first choice to employ Bucannon in that way, nor do I expect him to employ any defensive backs in that way with the Jets unless he has no other options. Still, it's worth considering. As noted, on these plays, there were typically five other defensive backs in the game.
In terms of the personnel upfront, this can again be misleading. In the two games I charted, which do seem to be representative of the numbers for the whole season, the Cardinals had four defensive linemen in the game on 30 plays, but three or less on 101 plays. This doesn't necessarily mean they played with a four man front on those 30 plays because there were times where linebackers came up and played at defensive end (and, actually, some rare plays where the defensive linemen were standing up). However, the total number of times they played with a four man front was 35, so it wasn't too far off. Basically, they played with a four man front just over 25% of the time.
To dig a little further still, let's consider some case studies from the Cardinals defense over the last two seasons and see if we can apply the findings to current Jets personnel:
Case Study #1 - The Hippo
Let's refer to the nose tackle role here as the HIPPO position. Ideally here, you want somebody heavy, tough to move and that will take up a lot of room. Maybe this does today's brand of athletic nose tackles somewhat of a disservice, but at least it differentiates them from the quicker, one-gap, attacking interior linemen they'd be paired with on the line.
Of particular interest to the Jets is perhaps not how Harrison will fit into the role, because we know he can control two gaps and stuff the run with the best players in the league. Instead, we want to consider whether other players on the Jets roster can also play the same role and also whether there are packages where the HIPPO can come out of the game to be replaced with another player. In other words, is it realistic to expect the Jets to get the likes of Sheldon Richardson, Wilkerson and Leonard Williams on the field together and, if not, how many reps will there be to go around?
Let's make our starting point the Cardinals defense from 2013 and 2014. Their starting nose tackle, or HIPPO, was Dan Williams. Williams, a 327-pound former first round pick, is a little smaller than Harrison but basically plays the same role.
In 2013, he was backed up by Alameda Ta'amu, a similarly built player, but in 2014 he played most of the time without a direct backup as he played more snaps himself to make up for this. In each year, the total number of reps allocated to this role was less than 50% of the total snaps.
As you'd expect, Williams lined up directly opposite the center, sometimes shading to one side or the other. However, in one of the two games I charted, he only did this just over half of the time and instead played extensive reps across from the right guard, even shading him to the outside at times. In the other game he just had one series where he lined up opposite a guard and a couple of plays where he lined up in the "A" gap. (The gap between the guard and center).
These are all things Harrison could handle, although perhaps they could align the rotations so that he could be two-gapping most of the time and that another lineman could enter the game in those situations where they would try to exploit a mismatch on a guard. The difference between Williams' role in those two games is an interesting insight into how Bowles' gameplan may differ from week-to-week in an effort to exploit mismatches or nuances in the other team's protection schemes. This is made all the more interesting by the fact that both games were against the same opponent (Seattle). Against a more pass-happy team like the Packers or Saints, maybe the gameplan would need to be tweaked, perhaps so that the HIPPO wasn't required as much. I'd consider the Seahawks to be at one extreme in terms of their offense being geared towards running rather than passing.
So, we gave consideration above to whether the HIPPO would come out of the game in certain packages. While you'd obviously expect that player to leave the game on passing downs, the Cardinals did run plenty of base packages without Williams, so they provide an insight into what packages the Jets might opt to run without Harrison in the game and how these might help them to get their defensive line talent all on the field at once.
We've already (sort of) established that Wilkerson is a GIRAFFE. Let's assume he'll play that role full time and that it corresponds to what Campbell would do in the Cardinals defense. Like Wilkerson, Campell will line up outside and match up with a tackle at times and also will play on the interior (sometimes at nose) on passing downs, so it seems like a role that's tailor made for Wilkerson to fill.
Let's refer to the other interior lineman role as the RHINO position. This is pretty self-explanatory in terms of having a player who will be explosive and charge into the backfield to make plays. I think that explains Sheldon Richardson's capabilities adequately. While we can also acknowledge that Wilkerson and Richardson each have the length and explosiveness to be interchangeable between these two roles, it might leave you wondering where rookie Leonard Williams - who, if he's all he's cracked up to be should also be able to perform well in either role - fits in.
Here's an excellent article from Chase Stuart of Football Perspective that makes many of the basic points I wanted to cover here. He reaches the conclusion that a three-man rotation would probably be the best approach for 2015, while agreeing with my earlier contention (which I still intend to revisit below) that switching to 4-3 doesn't really solve anything.
So, three defensive linemen rotating into two spots. That can work, right? Where have I seen that before? The first team that sprung to mind was Atlanta, who have operated a three-man rotation for their defensive tackles in recent years. When they faced the Jets in 2013, Corey Peters, Peria Jerry and Jonathan Babineaux shared reps at the two interior line positions with Jerry and Babineaux also getting reps at defensive end. The next team I thought of was Miami. For the past few years, they've been a 4-3 team with three defensive tackles splitting reps (Randy Starks, Jared Odrick and Paul Soliai/Earl Mitchell). Again, there are times when all three would get in the game at once.
Miami, in particular, is an especially relevant comparison because the Jets' new defensive coordinator - Kacy Rodgers - was their defensive line coach. While we're looking at this through a Todd Bowles paradigm, the role of Rodgers shouldn't be overlooked. As they've coached together, Bowles and Rodgers presumably have common ideas about defensive concepts and approaches, but that doesn't mean Rodgers won't bring his own influence to the fore. In an effort to get their best players on the field, Miami ran about five plays per game on average last year where all three defensive tackles were on the field along with both starting defensive ends. So they did have some packages with five defensive linemen, albeit that one of the ends would often be required to stand up and maybe drop into coverage and that Cameron Wake and Olivier Vernon would be outside linebackers on team with a 3-4 base.
For what it's worth, the Falcons had two coaches on their staff who are now on the Jets staff (Mark Collins and Joe Danna) and while these two are coaching linebackers and defensive backs, again they likely share many of Bowles' coaching principles.
So, how would the rotation work? Campbell played 990 snaps in 2013 and 800 snaps in 2014, whereas Wilkerson played over 1,000 snaps in 2013 but only 739 in 2014 (although he missed time through injury and was also ejected from one game). Assuming Wilkerson will remain with the Jets throughout 2015 at least, the team will likely want to see those snaps counts stabilize somewhat, especially after he was banged-up towards the end of last year. Since the rookie Williams brings many of the same things to the table, we can readily assume that he will be able to consume the remainder of these reps backing up Wilkerson, as long as he stays healthy and lives up to his potential.
Returning to Richardson and the RHINO role, here's another place where the rookie can take all the reps that Richardson doesn't. Richardson played over 900 snaps as a rookie, but this dropped to 835 last year. I'd imagine the Jets would prefer to play him less than that to keep him fresh throughout the season. While Richardson didn't miss any time last year, he too was banged up in December.
Within the Cardinals defense, that RHINO role was primarily played by Tommy Kelly last year and Darnell Dockett before him in 2013. Let's focus on Kelly in particular. He is a player whom Pro Football Focus identified as the protypical 3-technique tackle in 2011. That's a role where you'd be matched up with a guard. With the HIPPO over the center and the GIRAFFE opposite one of the tackles, that means the ELEPHANT (whether or not they have their hand in the dirt) would be outside the other tackle, giving you an effective four man front whereby the personnel (with Coples as the ELEPHANT) would essentially be the same as the Jets' starting unit last year.
(Remember, these terms have been invented by us solely for the purposes of this article the real names for these positions would be HIPPO = Nose Tackle, RHINO = Defensive Tackle, GIRAFFE = Defensive End and ELEPHANT = WILL/OLB.)
That leaves Williams on the bench, unless there's an injury or he can unexpectedly unseat one of the quality veterans ahead of him. Still, he'll be getting plenty of reps in a three man rotation. Can they get him on the field more though? What would the Jets do when removing their HIPPO from the game?
Most of the time, when the nose came out of the game for Bowles, it was simply a passing down, so you'd typically see the other two defensive linemen remain in the game and an extra defensive back enter, while they brought up a linebacker to come off the edge. I suppose it's possible that they could opt to run some pass rush packages whereby Wilkerson or Richardson comes off the edge with Coples off the other edge and the rookie Williams completing the four man front. Wilkerson lined up on the edge of a four man line or outside the tackle in a three man line almost 300 times last year, so he is capable of lining up outside a tackle. Richardson himself did this almost 200 times and it was also something Williams did at times in college.
This four man package looks alluring on paper, but I wouldn't necessarily expect it to be a primary pass rush package for Bowles. I think it's just as likely that you would use Calvin Pace (or his heir apparent) off the edge on the strong side because they have the ability to drop into coverage. Also, you might prefer to have more of a speed edge rusher - someone like IK Enemkpali, if he can make the team, coming off the edge on the weakside, perhaps moving Coples and/or Wilkerson inside.
There were also plenty of base packages where Dan Williams would come out of the game for the Cardinals though and these might provide a better idea of how the Jets could scheme to get the rookie on the field with Wilkerson and Richardson. Ordinarily, the Cardinals would operate with two of their three linemen playing the 3-technique and the other one lined up outside. As we established above, the Jets could line up their GIRAFFE outside the tackle and this would enable them to have a balanced line with two RHINOS on the interior. You might not need anyone to two-gap in this look, as you could exploit the speed of your linemen to shoot gaps, although you might have to employ an inside linebacker to take on a lead blocker, Bart Scott-style. Again, Coples would presumably fill the ELEPHANT role across from the GIRAFFE and it wouldn't matter whether or not his hand was in the dirt.
Kelly, at times, also played the nose tackle position in this personnel grouping, which would involve another rotational lineman (usually Frostee Rucker) entering the game. While you wouldn't want to limit the production of a guy like Richardson or Wilkerson by playing them at nose tackle all the time, Bowles' use of Kelly in this role rather than using an actual backup nose would suggest he might be prepared to roll with Wilkerson or Richardson there in limited doses.
Case Study #2 - The Badger
One of the most interesting players Todd Bowles has had at his disposal over the past two years is Tyrann "Honey Badger" Mathieu, a diminutive and controversial return man and slot cornerback who was effectively employed as the team's starting safety.
As I've written about before, the media usually associates run-stopping ability with strong safeties and coverage skills with free safeties, but actually that's an over-simplification that can cause confusion. In his rookie year, which coincided with Bowles' first year as Arizona's defensive coordinator in 2013, Mathieu was paired with ex-Jet Yeremiah Bell. While you'd assume the ageing Bell was employed in the box and the converted cornerback Mathieu would use his coverage skills to play deep, the opposite was true in the Cardinals' base packages.
Mathieu would primarily match up with someone in the slot, making use of those slot coverage skills and playing aggressive press coverage at the line. This meant Bell had to play deep. In many respects, Bowles was eschewing the traditional two cornerback, two safety alignment in his defensive backfield and instead playing with three corners and one safety.
In subpackages, Mathieu would remain in the slot, while Bell would come up into the box and Rashad Johnson would enter the game to play as a deep safety.
When the Jets acquired Marcus Gilchrist, the eponymous BADGER role seemed like it was ideal for him to assume within Bowles' defense. Gilchrist is also a converted cornerback, who has played in the slot and typically matched with slot receivers in both base and sub-packages for the Chargers in 2014. Eric Weddle played deep in the base defense and Jahleel Addae entered the game to play deep in the subpackages with Weddle coming up into the box.
Gilchrist's role in 2013 was actually to play as more of a conventional deep safety most of the time, though; a role he handled well. This affords the Jets some useful flexibility.
Mathieu's role in 2014 was also slightly different as he was coming off an injury. This time, he only played in subpackages (which, remember, is still more than half of the time). Tony Jefferson was the safety in the base packages with Johnson and they mostly played one out and one in, with some level of interchangeability. Again, Bowles' hand was forced here to some extent, but it illustrates how they might work around any unplanned absences.
That brings us to last year's top pick Calvin Pryor, who excitedly announced he was moving to strong safety in 2015 and would be playing more in the box. This differed from my original sense that Pryor would play a similar role to Bell or Weddle, which would involve him playing deep on running downs but coming into the box in sub-packages.
Pryor has yet to establish himself as capable of playing that BADGER role because he hasn't seen significant work (or any success) when matched up with slot receivers. That would mean that if Gilchrist was the deep safety, you'd either have Pryor in an uncomfortable role in the slot or you'd have to move a linebacker over to cover any slot receiver.
Last week, Bowles clarified the situation by saying that actually Pryor would be required to cover deep at certain times. That makes sense because it would enable Gilchrist to cover the slot if the Jets had base personnel on the field.
The next question becomes what happens on passing downs when the Jets have their sub-package on the field. If Gilchrist was going to play the BADGER role, then the Jets would need someone to take over that deep safety role. While the Jets have a few options - Jaiquawn Jarrett, Rontez Miles or new UDFA pickup Durell Eskridge - that could step up and earn that role, none of them will keep offensive coordinators up at night. However, the Jets do have depth at the cornerback position, so it actually makes a lot more sense to use those players (the likes of Buster Skrine and maybe Dee Milliner or Dexter McDougle) in the slot and leave Gilchrist in the deep safety role they know he can handle.
This opens up one other possibility. If Skrine plays well and/or Pryor does not, would the Jets use Skrine as their BADGER in the base defense and let Gilchrist play deep? Gilchrist could then remain deep and Pryor could re-enter the game to play in the box in sub-packages.
As we know from Antonio Cromartie's comments prior to rejoining the Jets, Bowles' system requires the corners to play plenty of cover-zero or "on an island" coverages and clearly they've made every effort to equip themselves to do just that.
Case Study #3 - The Chameleon
As discussed briefly above, the Cardinals employed defensive back Deone Bucannon as an extra linebacker at times last year. While that was primarily because of injuries, it has led to some people wondering whether this would be a role Pryor could play that would enable him to make an impact in the box. My sense is that this would be a poor idea because it would place limitations on Pryor's range, which is one of his better attributes. Also, placing him into an unfamiliar sideline to sideline role might be an adjustment that causes issues for a player who already takes questionable angles at times.
Of course, this kind of look is something that Bowles could re-visit (not necessarily with Pryor as hisCHAMELEON) against certain teams, but I wouldn't expect to see it on a regular basis.
As you'll recall, the Cardinals lost Daryl Washington for the year to a suspension, having already lost Karlos Dansby to free agency. Those two played the majority of the reps as inside linebackers in 2013 and I'd expect David Harris and Demario Davis to do the same for Bowles, as they did in the past for Ryan. In the end, Bowles still helped get the Cardinals to the postseason, which is a credit to the job he did. The ageing Larry Foote was installed as an every-down linebacker and, while he did his best, Jets fans can reasonably expect Harris to emulate his performance and hopefully surpass it. When Bucannon wasn't on the field, Foote was usually paired with another youngster, Kevin Minter, but sometimes he was the only inside linebacker out there.
I haven't discussed every defensive player in the context of Bowles' Cardinals defense here, but I hope I've covered the main ones over whose roles there might be uncertainty. In terms of the rookies, I'll be discussing them in a lot more detail over the next few months anyway.
During the offseason, it seems like the Jets front office has done a good job of not only filling out their roster so that they are equipped to carry out each of the most important defensive roles required within Bowles' system but also in terms of adding depth and flexibility so that they can overcome any injuries or unexpected dips in individual performance.
As Cromartie says, there are plenty of similarities between the Cardinals' scheme and that of the Jets and the transition should be pretty seamless. However, Bowles has brought some creative wrinkles and different approaches to the table, each of which will produce opportunities for players to step up and make an impact.
Now that the draft is out of the way, we'll be bringing you a detailed look at all the draft picks, undrafted free agent signings and the two veterans acquired via trade over the next couple of months as we head into camp. However, before we get into that, I'll be back soon with a breakdown of the Jets offense and how the players acquired since the end of last season might fit into Chan Gailey's system.