Despite fielding seven new starters while losing the best defensive player on the planet during the offseason, Ryan has used his increased role in the defensive game plan to field what is currently the third-ranked defense in the game, five spots higher than where the unit finished last season.
How is he getting so much more production out of what is virtually a brand-new defensive roster that is loaded with young, inexperienced players?
In short, Ryan is reverting to his old aggressive ways that allowed him to field the league's top-ranked defense in 2009.
Since his memorable 2009 run, Ryan has gradually spent less and less time doing hands-on work with his defense—the type of work that made him so successful as a coordinator and that landed him a head coaching gig in the first place.
He passed off most of his responsibilities to ex-defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, who, while a very good defensive mind in his own right, does not think outside the box on as regular of a basis as Rex.
To be fair, no one does. Rex is willing to utilize risky-yet-effective schemes that simply get the job done—the word "prevent" is not in his vocabulary—but it was in Mike Pettine's.
Here is a picture of a defensive snap from last season. Notice the two deep safeties—that signifies the defense was willing to let up a shorter pass and be less equipped to defend the run in exchange for extra insurance against a big play. The cornerbacks were also giving a lot of cushion on the outside.
For the most part, the Jets defense in 2012 was effective—it finished eighth overall—but it was far from dominant.
The Jets' unwillingness to blitz at the end of an early-season game against the Patriots in 2012 cost them what could have been a season-altering win. The Jets were accused of playing out of fear of losing rather than simply trying to win the game:
A year later, and the Jets are running a highly aggressive scheme, blitzing like there is no tomorrow—because after all, for Ryan's head coaching career, there may not be a tomorrow.
The correlation between Pettine's growing role and the Jets' gradual decline on defense was difficult to ignore, and the slow change in philosophy was far from popular in the locker room:
Now that Pettine is out of the picture and Rex coaching as if he has nothing to lose, the Jets have already showed plenty of signs that they plan on reverting to being the attacking defense that built their success in Ryan's early days in New York.
Back to Cover 0
You may have heard the term Cover 2 or Cover 1 thrown around as some of the more popular coverage schemes used by NFL teams. What does it mean? The second number is simply the amount of deep safeties left back in coverage.
Because of the number of players in coverage, only Cover 2 can be used as either a man or a zone scheme. Cover 3 and Cover 4 (often referred to as "quarters" coverage) are zones, while Cover 1 and Cover 0 must be man coverage.
In the NFL, Cover 1 and Cover 2 are the most popular, but very few teams revert to the dangerous Cover 0, especially in critical situations when defending a lead. Without a deep safety in the back end, an ill-timed blitz or a cornerback losing his feet could lead to six points the other way.
For Ryan, however, Cover 0 is the scheme of choice when the game is on the line.
Here is a fourth-quarter third-down situation against the Bills from Sunday. As you can see, there was no deep safety in the back end. The outside corners were not only in man coverage—they were in press-man coverage.
The eight other defenders were lined up at the line of scrimmage, showing an overload to the right.
EJ Manuel tried to get the Jets to tip their hand in terms of their blitz scheme, with some success. He sent his tight end in motion, which caused a defensive back to run with him. This took the Jets out of their "overload" look and into a more balanced blitz, and Manuel adjusted the protection accordingly.
The defensive back was in what is often referred to as a "green dog" blitz. In other words, if the tight end went out in a route, he would have followed him. However, since he stayed in to block, he blitzed.
However, the Jets sent a defensive back to the other side of the line, recreating the overload concept they had intended on using. It was too late for Manuel to make a line adjustment without taking a penalty.
The ball was snapped, and the overload worked: The running back had to pick between two players to block, forcing a rushed throw. Interior pressure from Muhammad Wilkerson took away room for Manuel to step up, causing an errant pass.
Meanwhile, Darrin Walls was stride-for-stride with his receiver on the back end and was nearly able to make the diving interception.
Stopping the Run Before It Starts
This aggressive style of play is not limited to obvious passing downs. The Jets' style of run defense is also centered around the idea of swallowing up the play before it even has a chance to develop, ignoring the risk of a missed tackle.
On this run, the Jets loaded the box with eight players, bringing the strong safety up to play more of a linebacker position. Already, the Jets had a numbers advantage.
In fact, EJ Manuel should have checked out of this play and gone to a pass, but he may not yet have that privilege because of his inexperience.
The ball was snapped, and the Jets got great penetration by Muhammad Wilkerson. Meanwhile, the rest of the line crashed inward, baiting Spiller to bounce inside (which he picked up on after the game):
This created an easy path for David Harris to close on the ball.
As a result, Spiller's brief hesitation made for an easy stop for a three-yard loss.
Of course, this aggressive style of defense is not foolproof. Fred Jackson was able to turn a missed tackle by Calvin Pace into a 59-yard run because there were few linebackers and safeties behind the play to minimize the damage.
The Jets nearly lost a game this year after a missed tackle on Vincent Jackson led to what should have been the game-winning field goal in Week 1. Had it not been for a great play by Demario Davis to run down Jackson, the Jets would be 1-2 right now.
Even if the Jets do give up big plays from time to time, it is clear that their philosophy has been much more productive than detrimental. Players love to play in "attack" mode rather than sit back and react to what the offense is doing.
Of course, this scheme is useless without quality players running it. Cornerbacks must be able to hold up on the back end and tackling must be pristine. Setting edges and getting off blocks are essential to preventing big-run plays from occurring.
This is the natural, organic way for Ryan's defense to play; don't expect it to change anytime soon.