When the Cowboys welcome the Jets to AT&T Stadium on Sunday, it will be a reunion of familiar faces for quite a few members of each team, even with Aaron Rodgers out for the year with a torn Achilles. We already talked about Jets offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett’s longstanding ties to Mike McCarthy, but the head coach for Gang Green is also plenty familiar with Dan Quinn.
Robert Saleh, in his third season as the Jets head coach, comes from the same Legion of Boom coaching tree as Quinn. After getting his start as a coach in the college ranks, Saleh jumped to the NFL with the Texans before later joining the Seahawks as part of Pete Carroll’s inaugural staff. After two years, defensive coordinator Gus Bradley left for the Jaguars head coaching job and Quinn - a close friend and colleague of Bradley - replaced him in Seattle.
Saleh left one year later to join Bradley in Jacksonville before eventually going to the 49ers - where he reunited with Kyle Shanahan, whose acquaintance he had made back in his time with the Texans - as the defensive coordinator. Saleh may have only coached directly with Quinn for one season, but they both cut their teeth in the same principles of that defensive scheme and both have parlayed their tremendous success calling a defense into head coaching opportunities.
Quinn is no longer a head coach, though he easily could have landed a job each of the last two hiring cycles. Instead, he’s been content to remain in Dallas and play the role of mad scientist, drawing up new ways to deploy Micah Parsons and a whole host of other defensive playmakers each week. Quinn has altered his scheme quite a bit since joining the Cowboys, but the philosophical foundation remains the same as what Saleh has installed in New York.
The Legion of Boom defensive scheme, most simply, is a hybrid front with a lot of single high coverage looks behind it. The Seahawks revolutionized the game by using 3-4 personnel up front to play in a 4-3 alignment, while their extensive use of Cover 1 and Cover 3 made it impossible to run the ball with stacked boxes. Paired with tall and athletic cornerbacks and a one-of-a-kind eraser in the middle of the field in Earl Thomas, Seattle had the perfect formula for success against any opponent.
Many have left Seattle for new jobs, trying but ultimately failing to recreate the same defense. Saleh was one such coach, as the Jets ranked dead last in defensive DVOA in his first year on the job. So Saleh tweaked things last year, adopting the split safety coverage schemes that have been taking the league by storm. In 2022, the Jets aligned in split safety looks at the third-highest rate and led the league in use of quarters coverage.
Instead of loading up the box and daring teams to throw, Saleh was drawing guys back to prevent the big pass plays and daring teams to run. It largely worked, as the Jets finished sixth in defensive DVOA and were inside the top 10 in both pass and run defense DVOA. The tweaks in the coverage scheme paired well with a revamped secondary that featured four new starters - free agent signings D.J. Reed, Jordan Whitehead, and Lamarcus Joyner alongside Defensive Rookie of the Year Sauce Gardner - to give the Jets success on Saleh’s side of the ball.
That said, the overall formula remains the same. Saleh’s defense features very similar looks up front, with a defensive line that is almost always the sole source of the pass rush and uses a deep rotation to keep those guys fresh. Last year, the Jets had the lowest blitz rate in the league, and they had 11 different defensive linemen play at least 10% of snaps, with star defensive tackle Quinnen Williams leading the group with just 60.6% of defensive snaps.
Many of the rules in coverage seemed to be the same, as well, despite the change in actual coverage calls. Richard Sherman recently explained how a defense can be beat when an offense exploits their rules, and specifically how Kyle Shanahan (with the Falcons) used his intel from Quinn, his head coach, to do just that when the team faced the Seahawks:
Kyle Shanahan knew the holes in Dan Quinn's Seahawks defense so well and broke its defensive rules so thoroughly that they had to change the rules. Richard Sherman on Kyle Shanahan is such good stuff. Watch: pic.twitter.com/AGxQmrK660— Kevin Clark (@bykevinclark) December 14, 2022
This is notable because the Jets had several games last year where the defense got exploited by more creative offensive play-callers in moments where it seemed as if the rules were broken similar to what Sherman describes above. Losses to the Lions, Bengals, and Jaguars all featured a variety of crossing routes that seemingly broke the coverage rules for Saleh’s defense and allowed for big plays that made it hard for the Jets to overcome.
Of course, it’s hard for a quarterback to exploit the rules of a defense if they don’t have time to throw, which is what the Jets are counting on. Last year, they were third in the league in pressure rate and seventh in sacks. Williams was eighth among interior defenders in pressures while John Franklin-Myers was 26th among EDGEs in pressures, despite neither of them playing as frequently as their colleagues. That continued on Monday night, with the Jets totaling 21 pressures against Josh Allen, who ultimately finished the night with three interceptions and a fumble.
Quinn will undoubtedly be giving all of his notes to McCarthy and Brian Schottenheimer as they try to look for ways to poke holes in this defense. The Jets have a lot of talent on that side of the ball, so being able to exploit the rules of the defense might be what it takes to level the playing field. Still, this figures to be a much more challenging test of McCarthy, Dak Prescott, and the new Texas Coast offense that was hardly tested in Week 1.