BGA Weekly: Formation Contemplation

During the offseason, I’ll be looking back at certain aspects of the Jets’ season by analyzing data compiled from all nineteen games, rather than watching film. I will be tackling as many diverse topics as possible, but welcome your suggestions or requests in the comments.

This week, I’m going to be considering what defensive formations the Jets used throughout the season and try to determine whether this was impacted by the available personnel or the opposition gameplan.

I will also try and determine whether there was any correlation between the Jets being in any given formation and how susceptible they were to a big play or how likely they were to come up with a big play themselves.

Once again, this article has used data exclusively provided to us from the guys at PFF. Our thanks, as ever, go out to them.

Introduction

On a semi-regular basis, I am required to reiterate the fact that Rex Ryan plays a hybrid defense. Under Eric Mangini, the Jets were by and large a 3-4 team and any changes from that approach were instantly identifiable as being for strategic reasons. The Jets are no longer a 3-4 team, because they often play as many, if not more, four man fronts as they do three-man fronts, especially on non-passing downs. That was – and remains so since Rex Ryan’s departure – the case in Baltimore too.

The advantages of such a scheme are obvious. First of all, a given formation might be ideally suited to stopping a particular team’s strength. Secondly, it enables you to make use of your personnel by playing them to their own strengths. Thirdly, it creates more possibilities to fool the offense, by switching formations or swapping players’ roles around. Finally, it means you can make use of almost anyone, regardless of their skill-set. If there’s a disadvantage, I guess it could be the fact that the overall complexity might mean that you don’t fare as well at playing a certain type of defense as a team that specializes in that defense might. However, that doesn’t appear to have been a problem since Rex Ryan was hired by the Jets.

From the very beginning, Jets fans were treated to an immediate insight into the flexibility of the new system. Although they were expected to mainly use a 3-4 base defense as the season began and then gradually transition into a full hybrid system, the first regular seasons game of the Rex Ryan regime against the Texans saw them demonstrate their versatility.

Immediately, they opened up with a 4-3 formation for the first four plays. They then went to a 3-4 formation on second and 12 and managed to force a punt. On the next drive, they were in a 4-3 formation for the first play, but then went to 3-4 on second down and then into a nickel package for third down, as they forced a three and out.

However, one factor that we mustn’t overlook was the fact that Shaun Ellis and Calvin Pace were both suspended, so Vernon Gholston was starting. Perhaps they used more 4-3 to make him comfortable and wouldn’t have done so with either of the other two available. Later on in the season (and again in 2010), Kris Jenkins’ season ending injury would also no doubt have a huge impact on their plans.

The following week, the Jets went with at least five DBs on almost every play, as they beat New England. Gholston was only on the field for 15 snaps and Donald Strickland and Dwight Lowery saw action on 125 snaps between them. That continued to be their approach whenever they faced a spread offense like the Patriots, Colts or Chargers. In fact, in the AFC Title Game, they basically went with seven DBs for much of the second half, although James Ihedigbo was essentially operating as a linebacker in place of the injured Bart Scott.

Immediately, you can see how it would be senseless to display a composite breakdown for the whole season. If the breakdown was to say, for argument’s sake, that the Jets were a 3-4 team 30% of the time, a 4-3 team 20% of the time and a five-DB team 50% of the time, that wouldn’t give a realistic insight into what they were likely to do on a game-by-game basis. Instead, we’d need to consider those games when they were in a base set on non-passing downs differently from those games where they went with more than four DBs throughout. In fact, there might be some merit in removing all passing downs from the equation altogether.

Formation Breakdowns

So, let’s filter through the data to try and glean some useful information with regard to the formations used during the season.

Here’s the full breakdown, remembering what I said in the previous paragraph about how this is not indicative of what they’d be likely to do in any particular one-off game:

3-4 formations – 18%
4-3 formations – 14%
Nickel (5 DB) – 30%
Dime (6 DB) – 19%
More than 6 DBs – 12%
Specialist run formations (< 4 DBs) - 7%

Let’s dig a bit deeper to bring out a few more interesting comparisons:

Comparison of Fronts

Four man fronts – 46%
Three man fronts – 44%
Less than three man front – 9%
More than four man front – 1%

This may be surprising to anyone who considers the Jets to still be a 3-4 team. Yes, the Kris Jenkins injury may have meant they played more four man fronts to compensate, but it’s still interesting to note. It will also be something to keep an eye out for when the 2011 season finally gets underway, now that there have been some personnel changes. It is interesting to note that they only ran conventional 4-3 sets more often than conventional 3-4 sets four times all year.

Number of DB’s

Five DBs more than 70% of the time – Seven games
Five DBs 50-70% of the time – Eight games
Five DBs less than half the time – Four games

As you might expect, the games where they went DB-heavy were mostly against elite passing offenses (New England twice and Indianapolis, Broncos, Packers), but one of them came against the Bills and one came against the Steelers. Clearly this was due to the situation. With a big lead, the Jets resorted to a prevent defense against the Bills and protecting a slim lead against the Steelers, they also went DB-heavy for a lengthy drive at the end of the game.

The four games with less than five DBs for the majority of the snaps actually all came at the end of the season. That was four of the last seven games, which seemed to be an adjustment they made after the Pats blowout. The reason for this could be Jim Leonhard’s injury, the fact that they were headed for winter and more ground-and-pound offense, a reaction to the blowout loss or just the fact that they faced some teams with good running games (including the Dolphins, Bears and Steelers). As always, it’s probably a combination of those factors.

Different Positional Groupings

The Jets used as many as 13 different positional groupings in one game and never fewer than six. (The reason I say “positional groupings” rather than “formations” is because you can have several different formations with the same positional groupings – for example, within a 4-3-4 positional grouping, you could align the linebackers a number of different ways). Contrast this with the Steelers, who in their two meetings with the Jets used a standard 3-4 formation on running downs and a 2-4-5 formation (with a slot corner replacing the nose tackle) on passing downs. Other than three plays where they were in a goalline formation, that was all they used – and they didn’t swap players around within those formations very often, either.

Personnel

Let’s now look at some of the personnel and where they played most during the season, so we can try and determine which players are integral to certain formations and how often they need to play in a role we might consider to be out of position.

Mike DeVito

DeVito, along with Pouha, is almost always in the game when the Jets go to a 3-4 look. He had 328 snaps as part of a 3 man line, but only 309 as a tackle on a four man line. He had another 60 snaps either as a 4-3 DE or in short yardage packages.

Bryan Thomas

Thomas was one of the most versatile players on the defense last year, playing a total of 17 different roles. See if you can guess the percentage of time he spent at each of these positions and then scroll down to the bottom of the article to see how close you were.

4-3 OLB – ???
3-4 OLB – ???
3-4 DE – ???
4-3 DE – ???
Other – ???

Bart Scott

Although Scott is considered to be David Harris’ inside linebacking partner, only 26% of his snaps involved him playing inside linebacker in a four-backer alignment. Most of the rest involved him being an outside linebacker with three linebackers on the field. However, in this situation his position on the field was often unchanged, with the only discernable difference between the 4-3 formation and the 3-4 formation being the fact that the outside linebacker on Scott’s side got down into a three point stance on the end of the line. In those situations, Scott becomes the outside of three linebackers, rather than one of a pair of inside linebackers each with another linebacker outside them. For the record, the Jets had four linebackers on the field 30% of the time, three linebackers 23% of the time and fewer than three 46% of the time.

James Ihedigbo

Ihedigbo is an interesting case study, because he is a defensive back who comes in and plays effectively as a linebacker at times. This is something that Eric Smith does too, but since he has plenty of conventional snaps as a safety it doesn’t make up nearly as high of a percentage of his workload. I always treat a DB as a strong safety if they come into the box or rush from the edge, even if they are stood right where a linebacker might be, unless they match up opposite a receiver, in which case they would be a cornerback or a slot corner. The only exception to the rule were the handful of snaps where Brodney Pool actually played with his hand down, so was treated as a lineman for formation recognition purposes.

So a formation might look exactly like a 4-3 formation, but if Ihedigbo or Eric Smith were one of the outside linebackers, they’d still be treated as a strong safety and the formation would be a 4-2-5. Similarly, if the Jets were in what looked like a 3-4, but one of the guys on the edge was a DB rather than an outside linebacker, it would go in the book as a 3-3-5 formation.

Since Ihedigbo doesn’t drop into coverage very often (43% of the time), one could argue that he’s more like a linebacker anyway, or at least a hybrid. 104 of his 120 snaps saw him listed as a strong safety, but he only dropped into coverage on 39 of those. If we were to treat the other 65 snaps (63%) as linebacker snaps, then that would have a material impact on the numbers for DBs and linebackers on the field. 65 snaps represents over 5% of the season, so this – and similar things like when Smith effectively plays as a linebacker or when there is only two linebackers on the field, but two DBs rush of the edge – would account for some of the unexpected numbers.

Big Plays

Having considered what formations are used, is it possible to figure out whether some formations are better than others in terms of preventing big plays or creating turnovers?

Before we start, we can predict what’s going to happen. On passing downs, more big plays will occur because even if there’s a low overall success rate, the offense will be looking for big yardage all the time. Also, because they are looking for big yardage, there are likely to be more mistakes made, so we can also expect the turnover numbers to be higher. What might be interesting though, is if there is any significant difference between the conventional 3-4 and 4-3 formations.

Big plays by the offense

Let’s consider plays given up that went for over 15 yards. It’s interesting to note that the Jets gave up 67 in the first nine games (7.4 per week) and only 42 in the last ten games (4.2 per week). That’s a sign of how much of a difference having a fully-fit Revis made and also how long it took them to figure out issues with their zone defense and pass rush. It also suggests that they were able to overcome the loss of Jim Leonhard.

For those 109 plays:
31 came against the nickel package (5 DB)
38 came against the dime package (6 DB)
19 came against seven DB packages
21 came against base packages

Of the 38 big plays that came against the dime package, 33 came in the first 12 games and only five came in the last seven games. That’s another sign of how this unit progressed as the year went on. With seven DBs, they didn’t give up any big plays in the last five games, even though they still used those packages 65 times over the three games. This was more than twice as often as they did over the first 14 games.

In contrast, 13 of the 31 big plays against the nickel package came in the last five games and only 18 in the first 14.

We are, of course, most interested in those 21 plays against base packages. They break down as follows:

Specialist run-stopping packages – 3
Conventional 4-3 defense – 7
Conventional 3-4 defense – 11

Remember that the 3-4 defense was used 18% of the time and the 4-3 defense 14% of the time and we can conclude that the 3-4 defense was slightly more susceptible to the big play, although it’s close.

Now let’s consider the fronts used when those big plays happened:

Three man front – 53 times
Four man front – 38 times
Less than three man front – 18 times

Surprisingly, even though they used more four man fronts, there were fewer big plays against these. For much of the season, until the last few weeks of the regular season, they tended to go with three or fewer on the line in passing situations, which is probably the main reason for that. 13 of the 22 big plays over the last five games were against four man fronts, which backs this theory up.

Big plays by the defense

We’ll finish up with a look into which formations the Jets were using when they forced turnovers. Note that I haven’t included occasions where there was a turnover on downs. Once again, we’d expect many of these to come against pass-oriented defenses.

The Jets forced 30 turnovers in their 19 games, but one again this didn’t happen uniformly throughout the season. The Jets forced 12 turnovers in the first six games, but only five in the next six. They then closed out the year by forcing 13 in the last seven games, although six of these were in a meaningless win over the Bills.

The thirty turnovers happened against the following formations:

Nickel formations – 9
Dime formations – 4
Formations with more than six DBs – 5
Base packages – 12

Again, we are particularly interested in the breakdown of base packages:

Specialist run defenses – 1
3-4 defenses – 8
4-3 defenses – 3

Here we can see that the 3-4 defense appears to be more dangerous in terms of forcing turnovers.

In terms of defensive fronts, the 30 turnovers break down like this:

Three man fronts – 19
Four man fronts – 9
Less than three man fronts – 2

For four man fronts, there were only three turnovers in the first 12 games, but then six in the last seven. Again this is a by-product of the fact that they were using four man fronts more on passing downs later in the season.

Conclusions

It’s always interesting to look at the amount of different things the Jets do with their defensive formations. The extent to which they are being proactive or merely reacting to the opposition gameplan or their available personnel is up for debate. However, as time goes on and Rex Ryan can fill out his roster with hand-picked guys, it should enable him to dictate what approach he’s going to take more often.

In terms of whether we can identify any patterns, it does seem like 3-4 formations were more high-risk/high-reward than 4-3 formations. The late-season success they had with their three and four man fronts on passing downs is also encouraging, as is the fact they gave up fewer big plays over the second half of the season.

Once the lockout ends, many teams are expected to simplify their game plans. Defensively, even if the Jets did that, they’d still be more complex than many other teams were last season. Let’s hope they can continue to reap the rewards.

More BGA next week! Keep those suggestions coming!

P.S. Here, as promised are the positional snap breakdowns for Bryan Thomas. This underlines how often he might be forced to play positions you might not expect him to. How close did you get?

4-3 OLB – 22%
3-4 OLB – 32%
3-4 DE – 12%
4-3 DE – 25%
Other – 9%