It seems obvious, but defensive play is mainly a reactive activity. As Dave Campo explained to me a few summers ago, players on an offense leave their huddle knowing where they are going on each play. It's the defense's duty to tease out their intent as much as possible pre-snap and to react as quickly as possible once the play is recognized.
The challenge for innovative coordinators is how to minimize and even eliminate the offense's edge. Some, like Buddy Ryan and Jerry Glanville, pressured the offense and made them the unit which adjusts. In Pittsburgh, Tony Dungy played in and later coordinated a scheme which used power and penetration to disrupt opponents. It relied on four-man pressure and looked for that pressure to feed turnovers into a back seven which played controlled zones.
When Dungy moved to Minnesota in the early '90s, he worked with a coach who took a very scientific approach to line play. John Teerlinck had earned a Masters degree in physical education which coordinating Eastern Illinois' defense in 1979. Teerlinck's topic was on movement and reaction in a sports context. Teerlinck wanted to learn what factors affected an athlete's reaction time. He looked at stimulus-response activities, looking for ways he could reduce his players' reaction times.
Teerlinck drew four conclusions from his research, which he began applying to line play:
- Stronger stimuli produced better reaction times;
- All reaction times are reduced through repetition;
- Stimuli which are the hardest to identify can be improved the most by repetition;
- Any type of response can be taught to respond to any type of stimuli.
Teerlinck used his stimulus-response research to produce the Jet technique. This is an attacking, pass-first approach which attempts to win the snap. Teerlinck and Dungy looked for linemen who had natural explosion (they call it get-off) and trained them to react to balls being snapped the way sprinters react to starting guns.
The tackles and ends played one-gap at all times. They were not to give their opponents clear targets to hit. They were schooled to give offensive linemen "half a body" at most and to "make themselves small."
They lined up like sprinters in blocks with all the weight on their hands. Their stimulus was the ball -- if that was the first object that moved. The coaches took it upon themselves to find earlier stimuli, if they existed. If the quarterback moved a leg a fraction before the snap, that became the stimulus to track in that week's game plan.
The players were taught to bend the rules on snaps. They were to crowd the line of scrimmage as much as possible, leaving a "credit cards worth of space" between themselves and the football. If the center lifted the ball every time, that was licence to crowd a few inches closer. The coaches studied officiating teams, looking for those who could let the defensive line creep across the nose of the ball. The defense received weekly reports on the officials' tendencies.
When the ball was finally snapped, the lineman's initial task was to explode across the line, to gain penetration. While that was going on,the linemen were to key on a second stimulus, the offensive lineman's movement. Teerlinck's players were drilled on which action to take once they recognized the stimulus, and to make these reactions second nature. In this frame, you see how the tackles react to a lineman's down block, which is supposed to tip a trap:
While Teerlinck's linemen deeloped automatic recognition of the blocks they would encounter, the Jet was above all a rushing technique. The linemen were to get upfield and attack the quarterback. If they encountered a run, they were supposed to stop it on the fly. The technique tried making play-action passes ineffective; if linemen were rushing all the time, they should not be fooled by a run-fake.
The Jet technique seems vulnerable to teams which could run effectively, yet it worked. In '94 the Vikings ranked 1st in rush defense, allowing just over 68 yards a game. Though his line had lost Pro Bowl end Chris Doleman, Teerlinck's tackles, John Randle and Henry Thomas, combined for 20.5 sacks.
Teerlinck left to become the Lions DC in '95. Dungy also lost his linebacking coach Monte Kiffin that year, Kiffin leaving to coordinate the Saints defense. The following year, Dungy became Tampa Bay's head coach and hired Kiffin to run his scheme. Kiffin recruited USC's line coach Rod Marinelli to teach Teerlinck's speed roles. Marinelli got Warren Sapp and Simeon Rice to thrive in the scheme, and he and Kiffin won a Super Bowl in 2002.
Teerlinck, meanwhile, moved to Denver, where he helped DT Trevor Pryce reach the Pro Bowl. He also helped Mike Shanahan and DC Greg Robinson win two Super Bowls. When Tony Dungy was fired by the Bucs in 2001, he took over the Colts. There, Dungy re-united with Teerlinck, who developed Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis. They won a Super Bowl in 2006.
The Jet has worked, for tackles and ends alike. Most important for Cowboys partisans, tackles and ends who appear too small have thrived in it. Freeney played over a decade of super football at 6'1", 268 lbs. His book-end Robert Mathis played at 6'2", 245. Henry Thomas, the Vikings nose tackle Jimmy Johnson tried in vain to include in the Herschel Walker trade, weighed only 277 lbs.
Size matters less than quickness in the Jet. If fans have any doubts that Marinelli will continue these techniques, the sign outside the Valley Ranch D-lineman's office which reads, "Rush Men" makes it plain. The Cowboys will learn the Jet.