After the Jets drafted defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson last week, I wrote briefly about the option of using him there in certain packages here. However, now that they've announced this is happening, I'm going to look in more detail at what evidence there is that could indicate Coples will be productive in this role. I'll also delve into what the news that he's moving permanently actually means in practical terms.
After the jump, I'll lay out my thoughts, but before then, I'd recommend you read this recent study from ProFootballFocus into where pressure comes from and the effects that it has. My research also makes use of exclusive statistics provided by PFF which are not available to subscribers.
What is a "Rush Linebacker"?
One major problem with the complexity of Rex Ryan's defensive system is that - with all due respect - many media members don't understand how the scheme works, or at least simplify things too much when they are writing about the system to give the illusion that they don't really understand it. The scheme involves multiple fronts, personnel groups, formations, blitz packages, run fits and coverages so even when you comprehend the basics, you risk falling into a trap of over-generalizing. The Jets had five or more defensive backs on the field over half the time last year, so it's pretty rare for them to be in a base defense anyway. However, on the defensive line most of their subpackages operate under similar principles.
One of the key features of the defense is the role of the Rush Linebacker in the front seven (or sometimes six, in certain nickel packages). Since there are four players with "linebacker" in their job title, the media will often make the mistake of referring to Rex's defense as a 3-4 base and then comparing it with the other 3-4 defenses around the league, such as Pittsburgh or Houston - or Eric Mangini's 3-4 defense that the Jets ran from 2006 to 2008. In fact, the defense has more in common with teams like the Patriots and Cowboys ... and of course Baltimore, whose own version of the hybrid system evolved out of what Rex Ryan created as defensive coordinator there until he got the Jets' coaching job in 2009.
Essentially the "Rush Linebacker" is more "Rush" than "Linebacker". In fact, Karl Dunbar reportedly announced that Coples is moving to "rush" on twitter, which was the point at which this story seems to have gone public. The Rush Linebacker is primarily a weakside pass rusher that sometimes, but not necessarily the majority of the time, operates out of a standing stance. He can also play with his hand in the dirt and for certain players, that's what they will choose to do most of the time.
Since that player has the option to play with his hand in the dirt, thereby creating a situation where there are four down linemen, some people see this as a move towards a 4-3 defense, but ultimately it's the same defense, often operating with 46 principles. Most players won't see their role change regardless of whether Coples (or whoever the Rush Linebacker is) chooses to put his hand in the dirt. Of course there are certain personnel groupings that will operate better in a 4-3 than a 3-4 (and vice versa) and there will no doubt be some more conventional formations mixed in to exploit this.
What does Coples' move to Rush Linebacker actually mean?
The news that Coples is making this move - which may not prove to be permanent if it doesn't work out and probably doesn't preclude him from still getting plenty of reps on the inside - has created an interesting situation where you have people both overreacting to the news and underselling its importance.
Some people are overreacting because Coples was a down lineman last year and moving him to linebacker suggests he will have to pursue sideline to sideline and undertake coverage assignments. However, the Rush Linebacker role isn't that different to playing as a 4-3 defensive end, something Coples did on over 130 snaps last year. The role he'd be taking on is closely related to the role Terrell Suggs plays in Baltimore. Suggs dropped into coverage less than 8% of the time last year and when he did it would usually be just dropping off into an area or a passing lane, not tracking a receiver. Coples dropped into coverage 2% of the time last year, so this could well be something he does more of, but is never going to be a primary role or something easily exploitable. If he's coming off the weakside, there often won't be any receivers on his side anyway.
Despite the change in position, Coples is still going to rush the passer the majority of the time. The only change being that he will be an edge rusher more often (but not exclusively) and an interior rusher less often. We'll get into how he fares at each of those disciplines later on.
In simplistic terms, Coples is becoming an edge rusher in the Mario Williams or Julius Peppers mold, not being asked to turn into Jonathan Vilma overnight.
At the same time, a lot of people are writing this off as no big deal and suggesting that it won't mark a massive change to his role since he does so many different things anyway. To some extent that is reasonable, but there are some significant practical changes that will take place. The biggest of these is that Coples will now work primarily with the outside linebackers rather than the defensive ends in practice. We understand he did some of this last year, but was mainly under defensive line coach Karl Dunbar's supervision, whereas now he should be working with the linebacker coaches most of the time. Coples will also be referred to as a linebacker in team literature - note that they haven't changed this on the official website yet, but I'd expect that change to happen at some point soon. That shouldn't have any immediate effect though.
There may be suggestions in some circles that the Jets made this move in response to ending up with Richardson in the draft and it could be seen as something of a panic move after none of their desired OLB choices fell to them. However, based on what we've been told by multiple team sources, this was something that began before the draft. Maybe they would have moved Coples back inside had Barkevious Mingo or Dion Jordan fallen to them at the ninth pick of the draft, I don't know. However, the Coples moves was something where the wheels were already in motion.
Looking at 2012 Pass Rushing Data
I was interested by a comment made by Sackdance99 in the comments section earlier today that Coples will still get plenty of reps on the inside because he is a better interior rusher than off the edge. There are really two ways of reading "better" in that comment and rather than ask for clarification, I thought I'd just investigate both. One would be that "better" means "more productive" and the other would be that "better" means "more skilled". I'll therefore be looking at film later to see where and how he did the most damage, but let's first investigate the data in respect of his pass rushing numbers to investigate productivity.
One thing to bear in mind is that you would expect edge rushers to have better productivity anyway, so even if Coples was more productive from the edge, that wouldn't tell us too much unless the amount he was more productive by compared favorably to the usual differences between outside and interior pressure (discussed in detail in the PFF link above the jump). Also, we would need to look at per-snap or per-rush productivity rather than total productivity because, although Coples might have recorded more pressure on interior rushes, that may just be a product of the fact he rushed up the middle a lot more than off the edge.
Another PFF article commented briefly on the Coples move this morning and touches on those issues:
He played with his hand up on only 27 occasions last year and dropped in coverage a mere 10 times (none of which were from a two-point stance), but before you write it off consider that with a Pass Rush Productivity of 8.0 he had the fifth-best rating among his peers, which would have put him mid-table in the 3-4 OLB rankings despite having the clear disadvantage of rushing from the inside.
As I mentioned in my previous Coples article (linked earlier), most of those 27 snaps were from the "Amoeba" formation where there are no down linemen because the linemen and linebackers mill about at the snap to try and confuse the defense and shoot a gap. Coples was surprisingly effective at this which makes me wonder if he might choose to play standing up more often than we might expect from a defensive tackle making such a move. There were a handful of plays at the end of the year where he did line up as an outside linebacker in a standing position, including a couple where he beat the left tackle to generate pressure.
We're going to look at the pressure he generated last year and it breaks down between interior and edge rushing. However, first of all, let's look at how often he attempted to rush from each position:
4-3 Defensive End - 17%
3-4 Defensive End - 48%
Defensive Tackle - 28%
Standing - 7%
Immediately we can see that he doesn't have an enormous amount of experience rushing from the edge at the NFL level. However, we can also say that this would explain why he might have generated more interior pressure during the season. In terms of which side he rushed from, there were more reps from the right side (ie the blindside, and usually the weakside) but not significantly so.
Here's the position he was playing as he generated that pressure:
4-3 Defensive End - 13%
3-4 Defensive End - 39%
Defensive Tackle - 39%
Standing - 10%
(Note: These percentages represent the proportion of his total pressure generated from each position)
This suggests that he is more productive with an interior rush. However, a review of the film shows that often - not always - when he was lined up as a 3-4 defensive end, he was opposite and sometimes even outside an offensive tackle, so this should perhaps be treated as an edge rush attempt. So, perhaps a better way to break it down would be to see who he was matched up against:
Tackles - 42%
Guards - 23%
Centers - 13%
Coverage/Unattributed - 23%
Now we're starting to get a picture of how he actually has slightly more success on the outside. We're not going to be able to tell how that pressure was generated without looking at the film, which we'll do in the next section.
Before we move on though, let's analyze whether he generated more pressure from the right side or the left side of the defense. The easy answer is that, however you slice it, he was better from the right - going up against the left side of the offensive line.
If you treat all pressure against guards as being "up the middle" pressure came from:
Left side of the offensive line - 29%
Right side of the offensive line - 13%
Up the middle - 35%
Unattributed - 23%
However, if you treat each guard as being from the relevant side of the line, the difference is even more pronounced:
Left side of the offensive line - 45%
Right side of the offensive line - 19%
Up the middle - 13%
Unattributed - 23%
This is also backed up if we break down Coples' pressure by his position on defense at the snap:
Left Defensive End - 13%
Right Defensive End/LB - 45%
DT/NT - 36%
Amoeba - 6%
Looking at 2012 footage
You may wonder why it's necessary to break down the numbers by both offensive and defensive positions. There are two main reasons. One is that a 3-4 Defensive End could be matched up with a guard in certain fronts and a tackle in others. Similarly, although it didn't apply here, you might get an edge rusher being blocked by a tight end. The other reason is that the Jets will often run stunts, so a guy like Coples might start off matched up with a guard and generate pressure off the edge, or conversely might be matched up with a tackle, only to blitz up the middle. We can't get that from the data, so I instead went back to the footage to see if I could spot any developing trends.
Since the main thing I am looking for is pressure off the edge, we'll focus on examples of where he achieved that.
The first thing to note is that, although you would typically associate your edge rusher with speed rushing and getting around the outside, Coples did most of his damage with inside moves - or when he did get pressure to the outside, it was more of a power move than the type of speed move you can expect to see from Antwan Barnes.
Our first example comes from the first game of the season against the Bills. Coples lined up as a defensive end on the right side in a four man front. He beat the left tackle to the outside, but it wasn't a pure speed rush - he initially faked to the inside and then used his speed to get outside (actually getting called for roughing the passer on the play).
In week four against the 49ers, he created a pressure against each tackle with an inside move while lined up opposite them in a three man front. In beating the right tackle, he showed a good combination of speed and power to drive him back and then come off the block to the inside.
In week six, he had a big game, generating most of his pressure up the middle. However, one of his sacks saw him beat the left tackle around the outside (from a three man front). Again, this wasn't a speed rush, but more of a power move. He got outside leverage and drove powerfully upfield to get around the tackle's shoulder.
In the last game before the bye, against Miami, he was matched up with a tackle in a three man front and beat him with a quick inside move.
After the bye is where they started to use him standing up and he hit Russell Wilson in this situation in the first game following the bye. This was perhaps the closest thing we've seen to a pure speed rush so far, although he did it against the left guard, as the left tackle was forced to step to the outside to counter a wide edge rush. Coples blew by the guard on the outside and hit Wilson as he threw.
It was over the last four games where I really started to notice a trend towards bringing him off the edge. They did this on consecutive plays towards the end of the win over the Jaguars in Week 14. Operating from a three man front with the Jets in a prevent style defense protecting a seven point lead, the Jets lined up Coples on the left tackle's outside shoulder. He was matched up with Eugene Monroe, one of the league's better pass protecting tackles. On the first play, he faked to the inside and beat Monroe to the outside, then on the very next play he made a quick inside move and beat Monroe cleanly to force a bad throw that ended up being the clinching interception. You can see that play here (at 2:45).
The following game was the game against Tennessee where they lined him up as a weakside OLB against another top tackle, Michael Roos, and he beat him with an inside move for a hit. You've probably already seen my gif of this play.
Against San Diego, he did the same thing - beating the left tackle on the inside to hit the quarterback from a weakside OLB position. However, that was the only time he lined up there all day. Despite this fact, he showed more signs of having the skills to be a good edge rusher in that game. He had a sack on a play where he made a speed rush off the edge and then stepped inside the left tackle who was thrown off balance. He also had pressure three times on outside stunts where he lined up on the inside and ended up rushing around the edge. On one of these he ended up unblocked, but on the other two, his speed was too much for the tackle coming across and he got around them.
Finally, he beat the tackle to the outside for a pressure in the final game of the year in Buffalo - the same guy (Cordy Glenn) he beat in the first game of the year. Again, this wasn't a pure speed rush, he drove him back and then beat him outside.
The data analysis here does suggest Coples is capable of being productive from almost anywhere. The fact he is "moving to OLB" shouldn't prevent him from being able to do that. If anything, it will enable him to hone that part of his game and make himself all the more dangerous whenever they do employ him on the inside. The numbers certainly suggest he can do more damage on the weakside and that does correspond with what we've been hearing in terms of their plans for him.
In terms of the film analysis, while he did a lot of damage from three man fronts, there were some direct examples of him producing from the position he will be moving to. However, what's more exciting are the examples of success he showed working against tackles (including some good ones) and rushing off the edge. The fact that he showed an ability to do that is important, because that's what he'll need to do, regardless of how the other ten defensive players are aligned.
While I have focused primarily on the pass rush (and dismissed coverage as not likely to be a significant additional responsibility), there is of course the matter of how well he can play the run. I have chosen not to cover that here, but obviously that will play a huge part in how successful and permanent this experiment will be.