FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- At 1:10 p.m. every Friday, the New York Jets' defense holds a players-only meeting in a big, colorless room on the first floor of their facility, where they prepare for the upcoming game in a high-tech world that incorporates a hint of old school.
Jets players watch cut-ups of their opponents' plays, but this is more than your typical football film session. This is like a trip to your neighborhood movie theater, except there's no concession counter and the experience is interactive.
The screen is massive -- 37 feet by 9 feet -- stretching the length of the entire back wall and nearly connecting floor to ceiling. There are three overhead projectors hanging from the 11-foot ceiling, resembling a trio of condors flying in the same direction. There are 25 straight-back chairs along the perimeter of the room, pressed against white boards that are filled with X's-and-O's diagrams, scouting reports and coaching points -- i.e. "Pass Rush Rules." Sorry, no cushy reclining chairs with cup-holders.
A few feet in front of the giant screen are five gray plastic garbage cans, flipped upside down. They represent the offensive linemen. (There's your old-school touch.) The defensive linemen take their positions in front of the garbage cans, with the linebackers behind them and the defensive backs on the third level -- 11 players standing in the middle of the room, their mini field.
A video staffer on the computer in the back of the room controls the camera angle. He can punch up a wide view from the defensive end zone, making it appear as if the offense is coming right at them. When the offense gets to the line of scrimmage, the Jets' players do their thing, shifting, barking signals and making pre-snap adjustments in the room, which gets loud. When the ball is snapped, the players -- at walk-through speed -- carry out their assignments.
Each week, the Jets defensive players play the game 48 hours before the actual game -- call it a 21st-century dress rehearsal. Players and coaches absolutely believe it's one of the reasons why their defense, riddled with injuries, has overachieved.
Plus, it's fun.
"It's like we're playing in our own video game," Jets linebacker Brandon Copeland said with a smile.
They call it the virtual reality room even though, technically, it's not true virtual reality. No one wears a VR headset in the room, which, in previous years, hosted the offensive meetings. When coach Adam Gase visited the room on his first tour of the facility in January, he immediately envisioned a different purpose. He had heard about other NFL teams and big-time colleges upgrading their video technology, and he wanted the same for the Jets.
Quarterback Sam Darnold used the room a lot in the offseason as he learned Gase's offense. It's available to any player or any unit, but it's home for the defense, which spent the past few days preparing for its biggest challenge of the season: Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens (11-2), whom they face at 8:20 p.m. ET on Thursday (Fox/NFL Network) at M&T Bank Stadium. The defense had to alter its schedule because of the short week, but the process was the same as usual.
"Pretty cool," defensive coordinator Gregg Williams said of the room, joking he should have patented the idea a long time ago. "We can take 1,000 reps and never have anybody take a bump, bruise or anything.
"I've got a call structure and game film, and they're going to be playing a game in there -- in the virtual-reality room -- just like they're doing all the steps, all the reads, all the eyes, and it looks like they're playing the game."
Williams learned the basic concept from former NFL and college coach Bobby Ross, back when Ross coached at West Point (2004-06). The video technology took it to a new level.
ESPN was granted access to the room during an off hour last week. For competitive reasons, no pictures or video were allowed. On the big screen was a life-sized image of Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick facing the Philadelphia Eagles. Embedded in the video was the Miami playcall, translated into Jets terminology. It had the feel of a Madden game on steroids, sans a game controller.
Funny thing is, the room isn't located in a tucked-away place in the facility. The room is in a high-traffic area, but it's hard to spot because there is no signage on the door. It's one of several rooms on a 100-yard hallway that connects the front lobby to the locker room. The wall is adorned with life-sized photos of past Jets greats, which camouflage the door openings. You can walk past the door and not even realize what you're missing.
For the record, there is a VR room and it is located behind a picture of Aaron Glenn, a star cornerback and first-round pick by the Jets in 1994.
The Friday meeting has several benefits. No coaches are in the room, so the players -- on their own -- must communicate among each other and iron out any issues.
Actually, the process starts on Tuesday, when the linemen and linebackers meet on their day off to review how they will set their fronts against certain formations. On Friday, they receive a play script from Williams, and they work off that. Typically, the middle linebacker runs the session, with C.J. Mosley (injured reserve), Neville Hewitt and James Burgess Jr., alternating duties.
"If somebody isn't on the same page, we can sit there and talk it out," defensive end Henry Anderson said.
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That might explain why the Jets haven't suffered as many blown assignments as they did in recent years. They've surrendered six pass plays of 40 yards or more, down from 11 in 2018. They have allowed four rushes of 20 yards or more, down from 24. Their stout run defense will be tested by Jackson & Co., the No. 1 rushing offense.
Instead of running plays against the scout team on the practice field, the defense gets extra reps by lining up against life-sized images of the actual players they will face, so to speak. Linebacker Jordan Jenkins likes it because he can study the offensive linemen he will face on game day, looking for tells in their body language. The pass-rushers like it because they walk through their line stunts, using the garbage cans as props.
"We go through footwork and steps," said Jenkins, who leads the Jets with seven sacks. "It's almost like a practice, like a walk-through, while we're watching film."
Free safety Marcus Maye, who often goes to the room on his own to watch extra video, likes the technology because a reverse angle can be employed -- the view from the quarterback's eyes. This allows him to see pass coverage from the offensive perspective.
"There are a lot of different tools with that room that we use," Maye said. "It's actually been helpful. We used it a lot in the offseason, too, working on gap fits and seeing the eyes of the quarterback."
The coaches love the high-tech study hall because it fosters team chemistry and it captures the players' attention better than a typical classroom lecture. Today's players enjoy video games, and this is a chance for them to star in their own game.
Call of Duty: Jet Ops. (Or something like that.)
Because of injuries, the Jets have started 23 different players on defense -- six linemen, eight linebackers and nine defensive backs, including seven at corner. This much instability can wreck a team, but they have managed to stay competitive and cohesive, climbing to seventh in total yards allowed (4,171). Except for injured safety Jamal Adams, it's a no-name group comprised largely of castoffs and journeymen.
Last week was a great example of the unit's personality. The defense held Miami without a touchdown on six red zone possessions, becoming the fourth team since 1991 to do that. The Ravens (11-2) will be a much tougher challenge, especially on a short week.
"He's got a lot of tricks up his sleeve, but it's always based on fundamentally sound defense, guys running to the ball -- very aggressive," Baltimore coach John Harbaugh said of Williams. "I think he tries to make a statement, as he should, with his guys."
Williams' players already have played the game in their high-tech room. Now they have to make sure they don't end up as extras in a Lamar Jackson video.