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Jeff Ulbrich looks the part, because he has played the part.
The Jets’ defensive coordinator, 12 years removed from the last of his 10 seasons as a 49ers linebacker, looks like he’d still like to be hammering opposing running backs even as he coaches his Jets defensive players.
Ulbrich, 44, looked that way in Friday’s OTA practice as his players got the better of rookie quarterback Zach Wilson and the offense, which struggled for a lot of the two-hour session.
“Coach ’Brich, man, he’s an old-school linebacker,’’ Jets linebacker Jarrad Davis said after Friday’s OTA. “He’s still got it in him. Every single day, he brings that energy, he brings that fire. It’s something that helps push us as players.’’
Jets head coach Robert Saleh has several former NFL players on his coaching staff, and Ulbrich heads the list. He played a decade with San Francisco, appearing in 120 games and starting 75 of them while amassing 501 tackles, 5 ¹/₂ sacks, two interceptions and six forced fumbles before retiring in 2009.
“I think, at times, it can help me relate to the player and help me connect with the player, the fact that I’ve been in their shoes and know what it feels like,’’ Ulbrich said Friday. “It gives me perspective in that way. Hopefully, it gives me a little street cred, the fact that I’ve done it and played for a while, that there’s a level of trust there maybe that a former player can generate.’’
Ulbrich and Saleh worked together on Pete Carroll’s staff in Seattle. Saleh was a defensive quality control coach from 2011-13 for the Seahawks, and Ulrich was a special teams assistant in 2010-11.
Now, the two have been tasked with improving a porous Jets defense that allowed an average of 28.6 points per game in 2020. There’s a lot to do in a little bit of time, with a largely new cast of players, but the synergy between Saleh and Ulbrich gives this thing a chance.
Unlike the arranged marriage between Adam Gase, the Jets head coach who was fired after last season, and his combustible defensive coordinator, Gregg Williams, Saleh handpicked Ulbrich.
Gase had Williams irresponsibly forced upon him by Jets management, and there was always the impression that Gase couldn’t find defensive meeting room inside the team facility with the aid of a seeing-eye dog he seemed so detached from that side of the ball.
The arrangement was awkward, and it finally imploded late last season when Williams went behind Gase’s back and called that ridiculous “cover-zero’’ defense that allowed the Raiders to steal a win over the Jets in the final seconds on a long TD pass.
It was quite apparent that Williams, who liked to fancy himself as the “CEO of the defense,’’ had little respect for Gase, whom he tacitly threw under the bus on several occasions as the relationship eroded.
Listening to the way Ulbrich speaks about Saleh, his respect for his boss is unmistakable.
“We have a similar belief system, [but] I wasn’t going to get in the way of running the stuff that they had in San Francisco,’’ he said. “Yeah, I’ll add some wrinkles, but the foundation of this is what [Saleh] grew in San Francisco.’’
On Friday, Saleh called Ulbrich, who was the Falcons’ linebackers coach from 2015 into last year when he was elevated to defensive coordinator in midseason, “a tremendous teacher first.
“There’s not a lot of fluff, and there’s not a lot of yelling,” Saleh said. “I don’t believe in that in the meeting rooms, I don’t believe in that on the practice field.’’
Guess who was a yeller in the meeting room and on the practice field? Hint: His initials are “GW.’’
With high energy as Saleh’s calling card and a big part of the way Ulbrich coaches, this should make the Jets defensive meeting room a lively place.
“Hopefully, it’s a relationship where we feed off each other and bring it every day,’’ Ulbrich said. “I love his energy, always have, and what it stands for and the way he’s carried himself, the way he’s connected with the players and motivates the players. I’m going to feed off it as much as the players will.’’
Saleh said the relationship between him and Ulbrich “is going to be a good marriage in terms of not only philosophy but scheme.’’
The best marriages are organic, like the one between Saleh and Ulbrich, not arranged, like the Gase and Williams pairing.
Good for Jets general manager Joe Douglas and team ownership for not playing matchmaker this time.
Better results are almost certain to follow.
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