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Sign of times: Jets defense out to eliminate explosive plays

September 17, 2021 GMT
New York Jets head coach Robert Saleh gestures during the first half of an NFL football game against the Carolina Panthers Sunday, Sept. 12, 2021, in Charlotte, N.C. (AP Photo/Nell Redmond)
New York Jets head coach Robert Saleh gestures during the first half of an NFL football game against the Carolina Panthers Sunday, Sept. 12, 2021, in Charlotte, N.C. (AP Photo/Nell Redmond)
New York Jets head coach Robert Saleh gestures during the first half of an NFL football game against the Carolina Panthers Sunday, Sept. 12, 2021, in Charlotte, N.C. (AP Photo/Nell Redmond)

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. (AP) — Jeff Ulbrich walked into his office on his first day as the New York Jets’ defensive coordinator and found a handmade sign on display waiting for him.

It simply read in bold letters written in black marker: “ELIMINATE EXPLOSIVES!!”

The crude artwork was created by Robert Saleh seven years ago when he was the linebackers coach at Jacksonville under Gus Bradley.

“We were talking about certain concepts and we made a decision like, ‘All right, let’s make the decision that’s going to eliminate the explosive (plays),’” Saleh recalled Friday. “It was just one of those deals as a coach, you’re frustrated like, ‘Why are we here until 1 in the morning?’ We can eliminate so much discussion if we just focus on eliminating the explosives.

“So, I made this little cheesy old sign that I’ve had with me since 2014 and passed it on to (Ulbrich).”

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Saleh drew it up himself, writing out the phrase that serves as a reminder of the Jets’ weekly mission on defense.

“It’s got little bombs on it and everything,” a grinning Saleh said. “It’s a cool little sign. It’s in his office.”

For Saleh and Ulbrich, an explosive play means any pass over 16 yards and any run over 12.

“That’s definitely where we all land,” Ulbrich said.

In New York’s 19-14 loss at Carolina last Sunday, the Jets allowed five such passes, including Sam Darnold’s 57-yard TD toss to Robby Anderson, and three such runs.

Focusing on not giving up big plays can sometimes lead to opponents dinking and dunking downfield to gain yardage in small chunks rather than one big one.

“We can play tighter to backs, we can eliminate some of the leaky yardage,” Ulbrich said. “We’ll do a better job at that. But at the same time, our commitment is to absolutely eliminate explosive plays.”

Defenses need to find a balance when they take that approach, but Saleh insists it’s a key to keeping opponents out of the end zone and off the scoreboard.

“When offenses can generate an explosive play in a drive, their percentages of scoring are astronomical,” Saleh said. “It’s almost guaranteed that they’re going to get three points. Two explosives in a drive, you might as well just put seven on the board and kick the ball off.

“So, the objective is to make them go earn it.”

That approach will be in play again Sunday, when the Jets take on rookie quarterback Mac Jones and the Patriots in the home opener at MetLife Stadium.

In New England’s 17-16 loss to Miami last Sunday, the Patriots had five “explosive plays” by the Jets’ measurements: four passes of over 16 yards and one run over 12. Still, Jones had a solid debut while going 29 of 39 for 281 yards and a touchdown in his NFL debut while facing pressure constantly.

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“He’s way better than I wanted him to be,” a smiling Ulbrich said of the former Alabama star. “You anticipate seeing a young, inexperienced quarterback making young, inexperienced quarterback-type of decisions. Didn’t see a whole lot of that. Part of that was, I think he’s got some real skill, poise. Obviously comes from a school where they get NFL-caliber coaching. So he’s probably as NFL ready as you can find from a quarterback position.”

Jones’ longest pass went 26 yards to James White in the third quarter. He also had a 25-yard throw to Nelson Agholor, and his only other long completion went to Agholor for 21 yards.

There were plenty of short tosses, though, that turned into decent gains. And that’s where the balance for the Jets’ defense will come into play.

“You don’t want to be so conscientious of taking away their deep ball that they do just dink and dunk for 5, 10 yards a pop,” Saleh said of the Jets’ general approach to facing offenses. “We do have this thing called the ‘kill zone,’ and it’s inside 5 yards and that’s where we’re trying to keep the ball.

“So, the challenge is, can you eliminate explosives while keeping the ball inside 4 yards or less?”

Being able to quickly recognize what the opponent is doing before the ball is snapped helps the Jets play more aggressively while sticking to the defensive scheme — and, of course, abiding by that white sign with the three little ticking bomb illustrations.

“That comes with so many reps and time, especially when you play a zone defense like we do,” Saleh said. “Man coverage, you’re body on a body — it’s easy stuff. But when you play a zone that we do, your job as a player is to eliminate your explosive, so you can be aggressive on things in front. Again, that takes lots of reps.”

NOTES: Saleh confirmed LT Mekhi Becton will have surgery on his injured right knee and will still be out a minimum of four to eight weeks. “There’s still a lot of things that need to be found,” Saleh said. “There’s still decisions to be made so we’re hopeful, but at the same time, we’re just waiting for him to go through his process.” ... WRs Jamison Crowder (groin) and Keelan Cole (knee) were listed as questionable to play Sunday, and Saleh said earlier they would be game-time decisions. Both were limited at practice Friday. ... LB Jamien Sherwood (ankle) didn’t practice and is doubtful. ... OL Chuma Edoga (non-COVID-19 illness) didn’t practice and is questionable. ... CB Isaiah Dunn (shoulder) was limited and is also questionable.

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