Defensive Coordinator Jeff Ulbrich, 6.1
[please click photo for link to the video]
Brian Costello, New York Post: Are you a happy man with all the new players you have?
I am happy. It’s been a good off-season so far. The addition of the guys from a free agent standpoint and from a draft standpoint, I’ve been blown away by the character of the men, as much as the players. Guys that are just obsessed with this game and getting better at it and obsessed with being great teammates and connecting with the guys that are here. So, yeah, great additions all around.
Rich Cimini, ESPN: What are your early impressions of Sauce (Gardner)?
Ultra-competitive, tons of swag, tons of confidence. Plays with different urgency. He’s a high cut guy, longer guy, which you typically don’t get the change of direction in the foot speed, which it looks as though, and it’s early, it looks as though that he has that. I’m excited about what he could be.
Brian Costello, New York Post: The secondary overall, you guys had some young guys last year, now you’re bringing in (DJ) Reed, bringing in (Jordan) Whitehead, you got Sauce, how much better do you think that unit could be and what could add in the overall for this season?
Time will tell. In this league, especially in the current landscape of pass happy every week, it’s huge to have a revamped secondary and these guys, it’s so early to name starters and to say who the four or the five are going to be. It’s created great competition and with competition, these guys will all grow and get better and with a good secondary, you could be a pretty good defense in this league.
Connor Hughes, The Athletic: It’s super early, but one of those guys who has kind of been running around a little bit is (Jason) Pinnock. It seems like he impressed you guys for the tail of the last year, maybe it’s something during the off-season. Could you talk a little about him?
Yeah, he’s a guy that obviously he came here as a corner, so playing the safety position was brand new to him. So, there are some growing pains associated with that, but he’s got all the stuff that you can’t coach. He’s long, he’s fast, athletic, he’s tough. Just the position is new and he’s got limited experience at it. So, he will be another guy that’s thrown in the mix. The cream will rise, just more competition for the group.
Brian Costello, New York Post: What about the defensive line, the additions you guys have made there, how do you see that unit right now?
It’s exciting to think like the character of the men, if you watch practice and you watch OTAs, they work at an uncommon rate, and I think that’s a testament to Aaron (Whitecotton) and the way he runs those guys and (Greg) Scruggs. It’s also a testament to the makeup of that group. Insanely obsessed from tip to tip, every single guy in that room. It’s exciting to think about what they can become as a group. This defensive line, this style in which we play, this attack front, it’s best when you’re playing 30-35 snaps a game. We didn’t have that luxury last year because of the depth that we didn’t have, so the fact that we have some more depth now, you can get back to really the essence of this front. Let these guys just absolutely rip it, jump off the ball, run all day long and then when they get tired, boom, you’ve got another guy to go in for him. A lot of depth, a lot of competition, it’ll be exciting to see who emerges from that group.
Connor Hughes, The Athletic: How amped up do you get, I mean you can talk about that pass rush and how dominant it can be, but then when you also marry it with this secondary that can now potentially lock down receivers long enough to get the quarterback to hitch, just how those two pieces will work together.
That’s the secret to good defense. When we play complementary football, rush and coverage, when they work together, that’s when you play really competitive, tough, stingy defense. We’re working towards that. We have a lot of work to do. Adding pieces is obviously a huge part of it, but it’s also refining the scheme, getting these guys dialed into exactly how to play the defense we want to play. Just fine tuning all the details, polishing it up, so that’s where we’re at now.
Rich Cimini, ESPN: You lost a good run stopper in Foley (Folorunso Fatukasi), how do you replace him?
It’s probably a little bit by committee right now. We got the addition of Solomon Thomas and we’ve got Shep (Nathan Shepherd) inside, and obviously we’ve got Quinnen. We’ve got guys in there. We don’t necessarily have the size that we had, but we’ve got guys who will absolutely strain and work their ass off and fight and scrap and we’ve got the right guys in there. We’ll continue to work with those guys. The attack front and the way that we’re built, it’s such about explosion, jumping off the ball, it’s about getting on their side of the line of scrimmage. So, sometimes being a little bit smaller isn’t the worst thing on earth as far as our front is concerned. Where we lack size, I think we’ve got strain and we’ve got toughness.
Brian Costello, New York Post: Jeff, after last season after finishing last in defensive categories, you did some self-scouting and some stuff after the season. Do you tinker with the scheme after that? Do you make any changes, or do you say, “We need better players?” What’s kind of your feeling after that season and what do you do in the months between then and now?
I think you look at everything. I think as coaches, we have to have the humility and really look at ourselves and how we can do it better from a scheme standpoint, from a technique standpoint, from a teaching standpoint, from a drill standpoint, from everything. And then, obviously take a fine-tooth comb through the roster and where we can improve in every single area. So, that’s where we’re at. We devoted the majority of the offseason to that. Obviously, acquiring free agents and guys in the draft, that’s a big part of the offseason, but a big part of the offseason is also refining our scheme and all that we do. So, just continue to evolve and grow in that way, too.
Rich Cimini, ESPN: The 30-35 snaps, I think probably JFM (John Franklin-Myers) may have had the most last year, I’m just guessing he was probably close to 40-45. 30-35, is that ideally a hard and fast rule?
Yeah it is, regardless of what style of team you’re playing. Whether they’re run stopping or they’re jumping out of their shoes and pass rushing, there’s a level of fatigue that’s associated with how we play. We don’t catch blocks, we don’t read blocks, things are on our terms. When you play like that, when you play with your hair on fire, when you play with the energy and the strain that we demand of them, asking them to play any more than 35 snap I think is detrimental to their health and to the quality of play.
(follow up) Would you do that no matter who you had out there? What about Aaron Donald?
That’s right. That was (Nick) Bosa). Bosa we could all say is one of the best.
Mike Kaye, Pro Football Network: What have you learned about Jordan Whitehead since you guys have had him in the building?
Amazing human being, teammate, like constantly bringing people along, bringing the young guys along, great communicator. All the stuff, obviously we study the tape, and we get a good feel for the player, but as far as the man, he was everything that was advertised coming from Tampa. I got some people over there that I really respect from a coaching standpoint and a playing standpoint, and he was stamped by everybody as far as the character. He has absolutely lived up to that. He increases, obviously, what we do on the grass, but he improves the locker room as well.
(follow up) When you have a guy like that that can gain the personal trust, how much better does that make your secondary when he is communicating out there and being that leader in the secondary?
It is absolutely huge. We talk about it all the time, we talked about it this morning. There is no wrong page if we are all on the same page. Great communicators, demonstrative communicators, especially from the safety position to get us all on the same page, it just elevates everybody. To have a guy like him, it’s huge for us.
Ralph Vacchiano, SNY: I know that there were other issues, youth and injuries with the defense last year, but not being able to have that front line with that way that you want, 30-35 snaps, how much did that really hamper, not only the play, but the scheme that you were going to run and what you were going to do on defense?
It’s hard. What we do is like, we play a lot of vision, zone defense. If you’re playing vision, zone defense, you want your guys to really be able to melt on the intentions of the quarterback and jump it when he takes his hand on the ball. If you’re doing that and then the ball is being held for too long, guys pop open. They come out of the grass and bad things happen. So, in order for us to play the style of zone defense that we want to play, and we want to be on the quarterback and we want to jump his intentions and we want to be aggressive in that way, you need a d-line that does not let plays extend. For us to have the numbers of guys that we have now, from the d-line perspective, it’s going to help us immensely.
Dennis Waszak, Associated Press: To piggyback off of that, with the improvements in the back end and the additions up front, in the middle there with the linebackers, will their roles change at all in terms of the scheme and how you want to play them? And then, what are your thoughts on the depth in that particular area with C.J. (Mosley) and Quincy (Williams)?
I think what we ask of them, it’s always going to change a little bit as we fine tune the scheme and change it and adapt it to them and their strengths. So, it’s going to change a little bit. But more than anything, it’s just another year in the system. Although we’ll change somethings, there’s a lot of things that we won’t change. So, for these guys, I really believe this defense puts a ton of pressure on linebackers, especially from a coverage standpoint. Another year in the system is going to be huge for those guys and their growth, especially for a guy like Quincy who hasn’t played a ton of defensive football in this league. To see the strides I think that he’s capable of, I’m excited. As far as the depth is concerned, I’m excited about the addition of Marcell (Harris), he’s obviously a guy that’s familiar with our system. He brings athleticism, toughness, all those things. I’m also excited about Jamien (Sherwood), Hamsah (Nasirildeen). These are two guys, as we all know, that came here as safeties and they weren’t linebackers, they’re rookies, they’re new to the NFL, but they’re also new to the position. I think, just because I know the two men and I know their makeup and I know how committed they are to it, they should make a huge jump as well to provide the depth that’s necessary because, especially at that position, you will sustain injury, for sure. You have to have guys that are capable of playing winning football.
Brian Costello, New York Post: What was your draft evaluation of Jermaine (Johnson) and what have your early impressions been of him?
He was an interesting one. I’m fortunate to have some good friends on the Georgia staff that really gave me some insight. You think twice, he leaves a program like Georgia that is just so amazing and it’s just top-notch coaching and facilities and all the things, why would you leave? That goes to another space, especially when they win a National Championship. But, when you really talk to the guys at Georgia and you ask them, they would all have him over again, they would all have recruited him again, they loved their experience with him. So, I was comfortable with the makeup of the man. Here’s a guy that bet on himself. He went to Florida State because he wanted to play a little bit different brand of football and he put that on full display, and you saw a guy that had a higher sack production because of the style of play which he was allowed to play with there. He’s an interesting guy. Most guys, they are so behind when they get here, but to me, he’s a little bit ahead of most. A demonstration of his obsession with the game is that he’s like the YouTuber that’s constantly watching Lawrence Taylor, he’s constantly watching Von Miller, he’s constantly watching all these guys and adding things to his game and growing and even when it wasn’t provided to him by a coaching staff, he was searching it out on his own. So, his knowledge of the game is probably a little bit better than most rookies, his pass rush arsenal is maybe a little bit better than most rookies and then you put that together with a guy that’s got length and speed and explosion and desire, and a good makeup and you’ve got a guy that’s got a chance. Excited about him.
DJ Bien-Aime, New York Daily News: You guys have brought in a lot of pieces on defense, so how much does it fall on you to integrate those pieces and get the defense up to speed?
It’s huge. It’s up to me, it’s up to our coaching staff, obviously that’s a huge part of it and taking advantage of the strengths of these new guys and really integrating them within the defense. And, it’s a big part of the guys that are here. The CJ’s, the Quinnen’s (Williams) to really bring them along and absorb them into the locker room and start to build those connections. I really believe good defenses, for one is feared, and I think we’re got the guys capable of becoming a feared defense now. But two, are connected on a deep level, on a personal level where there’s a high level of trust. That’s a huge part of the locker room absorbing these guys as well. It’s on both of us.
Bob Glauber, Newsday: You played in the era when rookies would often hold out. How much of a difference is it now when you get these guys signed and they can start from day one?
It’s huge. For the previous era when it wasn’t slotted and guys could negotiate and the whole thing and guys held out, it was detrimental, especially for rookies to miss an offseason and then potentially miss a training camp. In a lot of cases, missing preseason games, like you wouldn’t get a true assessment of these players until year two. As we all know, typically after their rookie season you can’t even make it in a system, so sometimes it was year three. It’s been a huge benefit to get these guys in the door. I believe the current structure and the way that the salary cap is and the way they have the rookie caps, I think that’s awesome. Pay the players, reward the players that have played in this league. Obviously, the rookies are still making good money, but devote the money to the vets and it allows these rookies to have absolutely zero excuses to be here and to be involved.
Brian Costello, New York Post: Speaking of your era, these OTAs have been tempered back since you’ve played. As a coach, is it tough? I understand the injury concerns and everything but would you like more intensity this time of year or do you think this is good?
I think it’s good. It’s constantly like I’ve got this guy on my shoulder saying like this isn’t football. But it’s the best way to do things. To think about, like I always put myself in their shoes, with the current roles and the way that it’s structured, for one I wouldn’t have the headaches every night that I have because of my brain, and I think I would’ve played longer, too. So, at the end of the day, you’ve created a league now that provides what the fans want as far as the excitement, the physicality, all the things that football provides, but a safer environment for the players not only when they’re playing, but probably more importantly, for their post-career lives.
Ryan Dunleavy, New York Post: I wanted to ask you about D.J. Reed from two specific standpoints. One, it seems like he’s a guy who embraces like really high challenges, mindset wise, he doesn’t shy away from big expectations, if he’s brought that to your room. He’s always talking about his diet on Twitter, so I’m wondering if he’s fanatical about the shape he keeps and all that stuff.
I’d imagine, just getting to know him, there’s not a stone he leaves unturned. A lot of people throw that term around, “He’s a dog.” He is a dog, he epitomizes it in every way. Obviously, not the stature of a guy you think, ‘Okay, that’s what it looks like.’ It doesn’t matter, he overcomes all of that because of all of his intangibles. I had no idea about the diet, but it doesn’t surprise me. It’s a guy that, he’s overcome a lot to be where he’s at today and he will only get better. I don’t think this league has seen what he can become. So, super excited about him. He’s a guy that drives that room. A lot of times corners are, just by nature because they’re out on these islands, sometimes they’re not the most inclusive teammates, if that makes sense and they can be a little bit of a loner because of the life they live on that island. He’s not that way at all, he’s a guy that’s constantly challenging the group, constantly bringing guys along, brings energy, brings passion and he will make everyone better. Not just the corners, he’s going to make our entire team better in that way.