Rex Ryan is the type of coach that believes a defense should attack the offense and try to disrupt them before a play can develop, and his defenses have always reflected that. The New York Jets have been running a 3-4 defense since Eric Mangini’s days as head coach, but Ryan has focused on developing his front seven into the type of attacking, blitz heavy team that he wants. However, given the Jets’ current personnel, it might be best for Ryan to consider switching to more 4-3 looks on defense.
3-4 defenses are predicated on the idea that the outside linebackers can create pressure. With only three down linemen, it is the outside linebackers who are responsible for coming off the edge and getting after the quarterback. However, outside linebacker is a major weakness for the Jets. Calvin Pace is coming off a career high 10 sacks, but he turns 34 this year and the Jets would be foolish to expect him to produce anywhere near that level again. On the other side, Quinton Coples converted to outside linebacker from defensive end last season, his second in the NFL, and there was a noticeable adjustment period. Coples ended the season with just 4.5 sacks, though 3.5 of them came in the final month of the season. The strong finish indicates that Coples may have been figuring things out, and the Jets are hoping he has a breakout season.
However, there is no denying that Coples is a much better fit as a 4-3 defensive end. He doesn’t possess the type of mobility you want in a linebacker and he has no experience in coverage, limiting the Jets’ options. However, Coples’ size, speed, and pass rushing abilities make him an excellent fit as a traditional end.
The rest of the Jets’ line can easily accommodate such a change. Muhammad Wilkerson is a prototypical 3-4 end, but he is such an outstanding talent that there is no doubt he would easily succeed as 4-3 end. Sheldon Richardson won NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year for the Jets, causing many people to forget that the team was initially criticized for drafting him because he was viewed as a much better fit as a 3 technique in a 4-3 scheme. Switching to a 4-3 could make Richardson even better than he was a rookie. Finally, nose tackle Damon Harrison is a strong run stopper no matter what scheme he’s in, and although he might be a better fit as a traditional nose tackle, but there is no reason he can’t be equally effective shaded over the guard in a 4-3.
The linebackers could also handle a system change without any problem. David Harris is a solid Mike linebacker, with the instincts and run stopping skills to anchor the defense. Next to him, Demario Davis is an even better fit as a Sam linebacker than the inside linebacker role the Jets use him in. Switching to outside linebacker in a 4-3 would better allow Davis to use his coverage skills and sideline to sideline speed to impact the game.
There is one more interesting detail that a switch to 4-3 would bring about. Most would agree that Calvin Pryor, Dawan Landry, and Antonio Allen all qualify among the Jets’ 11 best defenders, but they all play strong safety and someone will be left out in the base defense. However, Allen played a lot of linebacker in college, and he should be able to make the transition to weakside linebacker. Allen is undersized for a linebacker, but he is a solid tackler who loves to play up at the line of scrimmage, and he would bring excellent man to man coverage skills to the Will linebacker position.
The Jets don’t need to make a wholesale switch to a 4-3, because there are a lot elements to Ryan’s 3-4 that have allowed the Jets to succeed defensively. Additionally, the Jets use some of these personnel combinations and scheme ideas in their nickel package. However, the Jets should certainly consider working in more 4-3 looks as a base defense in order to maximize the effectiveness of players like Coples, Richardson, Davis, and Allen. The best coaches adapt their schemes to fit their personnel and set them up to succeed, and Ryan and the Jets must consider such a change for their defense this season.