This is one in a series of articles that will also appear in the New York Jets 2022 Yearbook, which will be published later this summer.
Through a challenging 2021 NFL season, Jeff Ulbrich, the Jets' first-year defensive coordinator, kept his focus as he, his staff and his players were forced to improvise. While the staff installed a new scheme under the watchful eyes of head coach Robert Saleh and Ulbrich, they also dealt with injuries, coronavirus and an influx of young, mostly inexperienced competitors.
"It's interesting," Ulbrich said this spring. "Not only youth got in our way a little bit at times but also the injuries and COVID, and we had a lot of guys come through here that weren't necessarily here in the offseason, let alone in training camp. We picked up all these guys who ended up playing a substantial amount of plays for us that didn't have the background of this defense."
Ulbrich, 45, played 10 seasons as an NFL linebacker, all for San Francisco. After retiring, he was hired by Seattle as a special teams assistant and coached with Saleh in 2011 under HC Pete Carroll. Ulbrich spent a couple of seasons at UCLA coaching linebackers and special teams before moving back to the NFL with Atlanta in 2015. Before decamping for the Jets, he was elevated to the Falcons' defensive coordinator in October 2020.
Now, at the start of year two, Ulbrich's defense will have a distinctly different, improved look. DE Carl Lawson is back after a season-ending injury. The Green & White added defensive talent in free agency — DEs Solomon Thomas and Jacob Martin, S Jordan Whitehead and CB D.J. Reed — and in the draft — CB Ahmad "Sauce" Gardner and DEs Jermaine Johnson and Micheal Clemons. They join a cadre of "youthful veterans" as Ulbrich builds a defense with more depth that can compete in the AFC East and beyond.
"So, will some things look the same?" Ulbrich said. "Yeah, because we're not a high-volume defense as it is. We pride ourselves on playing fast, great technique, great effort and violence. But at the same time, I think now we will have the ability to grow a little bit schematically, provide some more answers, provide some more problems for offenses.
"I'm super-excited about the future of this group and the guys that are here and the guys that we'll add to it."