How does each member of the New York Jets secondary fare in man coverage versus zone coverage? The numbers reveal some interesting takeaways.
Man and zone coverage are two very different skills, each requiring its own set of abilities and traits that are necessary to achieve success. For that reason, it makes sense to evaluate the coverage talent of individual players separately: how do they fare in man and how do they fare in zone?
It seems reasonable to believe that the Jets will most likely be a zone-heavy defense in 2020. The Pete Carroll-led Seattle defense that both Robert Saleh and Jeff Ulbrich hail from is consistently one of the most zone-heavy defenses in football. Saleh’s 2019 San Francisco defense (when the entire unit was healthy as opposed to its injury-ravaged 2020 season) played zone at a top-five rate.
However, in 2020, both Saleh’s 49ers and Ulbrich’s Falcons employed a relatively league-average split of man and zone coverage. So, there’s no guarantee as to exactly where the Jets will fall in terms of their split between man and zone.
Perhaps we can get a feel for which way the Jets are leaning by taking a look at the man and zone coverage production of each secondary player on the roster.
Javelin Guidry, Slot CB
- 2020 PFF man coverage grade: 66.2 (84th percentile among CB)
- 2020 PFF zone coverage grade: 77.8 (87th percentile among CB)
Guidry was far more consistent in zone coverage (5.3 yards per target / 0.80 yards per cover snap) than man coverage (10.3 yards per target / 1.88 yards per cover snap), but his knack for fumble-forcing helped boost his man coverage grade up to a top-notch level. Guidry forced a fumble on two of the six receptions that he allowed in man coverage.
Regardless of his strong grade in man coverage, Guidry was clearly at his best in zone coverage last year. Take out the two fumbles and the quality of his man coverage was shaky over his limited amount of reps (only 33 man coverage snaps). His zone coverage was stingy, largely thanks to his sound tackling ability when coming downhill. On plays where he dropped into zone coverage, Guidry made eight tackles and missed zero.
Lamar Jackson, Outside CB
- 2020 PFF man coverage grade: 56.4 (64th percentile among CB)
- 2020 PFF zone coverage grade: 38.5 (2nd percentile among CB)
Jackson was a solid playmaker in man coverage, posting 10 tackles and zero missed tackles while also recording three forced incompletions (two pass breakups, one tightly-covered incompletion). Those things helped push his grade above-average, but he still allowed quite a few big plays in man coverage, giving up three touchdowns and 8.9 yards per target.
In zone coverage, Jackson struggled badly, giving up two touchdowns over only 16 targets and allowing 12.3 yards per target.
Blessuan Austin, Outside CB
- 2020 PFF man coverage grade: 55.2 (62nd percentile among CB)
- 2020 PFF zone coverage grade: 47.0 (9th percentile among CB)
- Career PFF man coverage grade: 55.4 (2020 CB average: 52.3)
- Career PFF zone coverage grade: 56.0 (2020 CB average: 66.4)
In 2020, Austin did a decent job of limiting big plays in man coverage as he only gave up 7.0 yards per target, but he allowed two touchdowns, no interceptions, a 72.7% completion rate, and a 122.0 passer rating. As a zone defender, Austin’s tackling was a major issue. He tied for 14th among cornerbacks with five missed tackles in zone coverage despite placing 56th with 262 snaps in zone coverage. Austin has allowed a 100.7 passer rating in zone coverage throughout his two-year career.
Austin had a rough season altogether in 2020, ranking at the 23rd percentile among cornerbacks with a 51.1 overall PFF grade.
Corey Ballentine, Outside CB
- Career PFF man coverage grade: 35.0 (2020 CB average: 52.3)
- Career PFF zone coverage grade: 43.3 (2020 CB average: 66.4)
A 2019 sixth-round pick, Ballentine played 405 snaps for the Giants from 2019-20 and was terrible regardless of his assignment. Overall, he owns career numbers of a 9.8 yards per target, 1.93 yards per cover snap, and a 134.2 passer rating, giving up five touchdowns and no interceptions.
Ballentine played six games with the Jets in 2020, but only appeared on special teams.
Bryce Hall, Outside CB
- 2020 PFF man coverage grade: 43.1 (33rd percentile among CB)
- 2020 PFF zone coverage grade: 75.4 (80th percentile among CB)
Hall’s per-target production in zone coverage wasn’t amazing, as he allowed 18-of-20 passing for 168 yards (8.4 per target), no touchdowns, and one interception (80.8 passer rating), but it was his ability to prevent targets in zone coverage that stood out. Hall was targeted once every 9.2 coverage snaps in zone coverage, which ranked at the 76th percentile among all cornerbacks. That’s highly impressive for a rookie cornerback, as teams usually look to go hard after any youngsters who take the field. Hall allowed 0.87 yards per cover snap in zone coverage (+0.19 differential versus the CB average of 1.06).
Two more strong aspects of Hall’s zone coverage were his tackling and his ability to limit big plays. On plays where he dropped into zone coverage, Hall made 21 tackles and missed only one. That ratio ranked at the 81st percentile. Hall also allowed only 9.3 yards per reception in zone, which ranked at the 80th percentile. The longest reception he allowed in zone was only 22 yards.
Hall’s man coverage production wasn’t as impressive. He allowed 15-of-24 passing for 184 yards, two touchdowns, and no interceptions (113.9 passer rating). Hall allowed 1.36 yards per cover snap in man coverage (-0.65 differential versus the CB average of 0.71).
It’s worth noting that many of Hall’s allowed completions in man coverage were against great players like Keenan Allen, Mike Williams, Darren Waller, DeVante Parker, D.K. Metcalf, and Tyler Lockett, so he was put through a gauntlet to kick off his career. Hall had tight coverage on many of the catches that he gave up, too. He was rarely burnt. The Virginia product has a lot of promise in man coverage despite his lackluster numbers in that phase to begin his career.
Ashtyn Davis, S
- 2020 PFF man coverage grade: 65.0 (64th percentile among S)
- 2020 PFF zone coverage grade: 34.1 (2nd percentile among S)
Ashtyn Davis was productive over 84 man coverage snaps in his rookie season, allowing 5-of-9 passing for 51 yards (5.7 yards per target / 0.61 yards per cover snap). He did allow a 13-yard touchdown to Dolphins tight end Mike Gesicki, but he had tight coverage on the play.
Davis struggled mightily in zone coverage, with his issues primarily coming as a deep safety. He allowed 10-of-12 passing for 156 yards and a touchdown, giving up 13.0 yards per target, 1.51 yards per cover snap, and a 146.5 passer rating.
With this discrepancy, it’s fair to wonder whether Davis’ NFL home should be in the box rather than deep.
Marcus Maye, S
- 2020 PFF man coverage grade: 56.7 (31st percentile among S)
- 2020 PFF zone coverage grade: 90.6 (99th percentile among S)
- Career PFF man coverage grade: 62.5 (2020 S average: 62.3)
- Career PFF zone coverage grade: 69.2 (2020 S average: 62.1)
Maye was a dominant zone defender in 2020. Only Adrian Amos of the Packers posted a better zone coverage grade among safeties.
Over 389 snaps in zone coverage, Maye allowed 11-of-21 passing for 130 yards, no touchdowns, and two interceptions, throwing in four pass breakups. That’s 6.2 yards per target, 0.33 yards per cover snap, and a 31.9 passer rating. Tremendous.
Maye struggled in man coverage during his time at strong safety from Weeks 1-5. Over that span, he allowed 7-of-8 passing for 84 yards over 60 snaps in man coverage (10.5 yards per target / 1.40 yards per cover snap). However, Maye fared much better in man coverage after moving back to free safety. From Weeks 6-17, Maye allowed 3-of-5 passing for 11 yards over 159 snaps in man coverage (2.2 yards per target / 0.07 yards per cover snap). Two of those three completions were touchdowns, but Maye also had two pass breakups.
- 2020 PFF man coverage grade: 48.6 (48th percentile among CB)
- 2020 PFF zone coverage grade: 56.3 (23rd percentile among CB)
- 2017-18* PFF man coverage grade: 77.5 (2020 S average: 62.3)
- 2017-18* PFF zone coverage grade: 76.5 (2020 S average: 62.1)
*- Joyner played slot CB for the Raiders in 2020, but he will play free safety with the Jets according to Robert Saleh in a recent press conference. Joyner’s last stint as a starter at free safety was from 2017-18 with the Rams.
During his time at free safety with the Rams from 2017-18, Joyner provided excellent coverage in both man and zone concepts. In man coverage, he allowed 5-of-12 passing for 75 yards over 387 snaps (6.3 yards per target / 0.19 yards per cover snap). In zone coverage, he allowed 14-of-27 passing for 139 yards over 563 snaps (5.1 yards per target / 0.25 yards per cover snap).
Here is a look at the 2020 grades (2017-18 for Joyner) of the Jets’ current projected top-3 players at cornerback and safety (the league average benchmarks listed here are among all defensive backs).
With four above-average zone defenders in Guidry, Hall, Joyner, and Maye, it appears the Jets are likely leaning towards playing zone-heavy, fitting in with the backgrounds of Saleh and Ulbrich.
Let’s see if the numbers of the Jets’ rookie defensive backs line up with the zone-over-man trend.