These five particular matchups on the New York Jets’ 2021 schedule can be exploited by Mike LaFleur’s offense.
Week 1: Run blocking of Jets OL vs. Run defense of Panthers IDL
Carolina struggled defensively in the 2020 season. The Panthers allowed 2.50 points per drive, which ranked 26th in the NFL.
Many of Carolina’s defensive issues stemmed from a weak run defense. Defensive coordinator Phil Snow’s group yielded 4.7 yards per rush attempt, ranking fifth-worst in the league.
The run-stopping issues all started smack-dab in the middle of the trenches. The Panthers’ interior defensive linemen combined for a Pro Football Focus run defense grade of 52.8, which ranked 24th in the league.
Here’s the problem for Carolina fans: things are not trending in a positive direction here. This offseason’s events have the IDL unit poised to perform even worse against the run in 2021.
Carolina’s best run-stopping defensive tackle from the 2020 season by a massive margin, Zach Kerr (77.8 run defense grade), is out of town after signing with the 49ers. If you take Kerr out of the picture, the rest of Carolina’s interior defensive linemen combined for a horrid run defense grade of 46.7, which would have ranked 30th in the league.
Coming into Carolina’s defensive line rotation to take Kerr’s snaps is Morgan Fox, formerly of the Rams, who signed on a two-year, $8.1 million deal with $5.0 million guaranteed. Fox is a solid pass rusher, but his run defense has been terrible throughout his NFL career. Over the past three seasons, he owns a run defense grade of 45.7.
Considering that the Fox-for-Kerr swap is the only major change made to the unit, the Panthers’ greatest hope of fixing this problem is to see a Quinnen Williams-like leap from second-year man Derrick Brown, who was the seventh overall pick out of Auburn in last year’s draft. Brown had a good rookie year as a pass rusher but needs to improve upon his 54.1 run defense grade, which ranked at the 34th percentile among qualified IDL.
This is a matchup that can be exploited by the New York Jets Jets offensive line, which actually run-blocked at a solid level last year. Here are some of the Jets’ numbers and rankings in metrics that aim to capture the quality of a team’s run blocking:
- 4.4 expected yards per rush (9th)
- 15% stuffed-run rate (10th)
- 4.34 adjusted line yards per carry (17th)
Those are solid rankings, especially considering the number of injuries that the unit dealt with. The Jets only had their best run blocker (Mekhi Becton) on the field for 70% of their offensive snaps on the season and saw backup-quality players like Josh Andrews, Pat Elflein, and Conor McDermott get a lot of action.
With the additions of Alijah Vera-Tucker and offensive line coach John Benton, a potential second-year leap coming up for Becton, and the switch to a wide-zone scheme that should benefit most players on the line (especially Connor McGovern and George Fant, who are great athletes), the Jets have the potential to field an indisputable top-10 run-blocking offensive line.
The quality of the opposing team’s run blocking was an important determinant for the Panthers’ success in 2020. Against teams who had one of the top-10 lowest stuffed-run rates in the league, the Panthers went 0-6 while allowing 31.5 points and 152.8 rushing yards per game. They went 5-5 and allowed 21.5 points in all other games.
Week 2: Jets WRs Elijah Moore/Jamison Crowder vs. Patriots defense
New England’s defense was pedestrian in 2020, ranking 26th in defensive DVOA. The primary reason for their fall from grace was the monumental decline in the quality of their pass coverage. After a historically dominant 2019 season in which they fielded an all-time-great pass defense, the Patriots ranked 18th in pass defense DVOA this past season.
One specific issue for the Patriots was their slot coverage. New England’s defenders (at all positions) combined to allow 1.42 yards per cover snap out of the slot, which ranked sixth-worst in the league. Things aren’t necessarily looking up as eight of their top-9 culprits in receiving yards allowed out of the slot are set to return this year, including cornerback Johnathan Jones, who allowed the eight-most slot yards in the league (455).
The Jets are constructed to expose that weakness, boasting one of the NFL’s most intriguing trios of slot receivers with offseason superstar Elijah Moore, the newly-restructured Jamison Crowder, and the shifty Braxton Berrios.
Crowder ranked sixth in the NFL with an average of 39.9 yards per game out of the slot last season. Moore ranked second in the FBS with 111.0 yards per game out of the slot (yeah, college football is a different game).
New England’s slot coverage was particularly poor outside of Massachusetts. On the road, Patriots defenders combined to allow 1.47 yards per slot cover snap out of the slot, which would rank fourth-worst on the season. At home, that mark dipped to a more respectable 1.36, which would only rank 12th-worst.
For that reason, keep your eyes peeled on the Patriots’ Week 2 trip to MetLife Stadium as a potential breakout game for the Jets’ slot men.
Week 9: Jets WR Corey Davis vs. Colts CB Rock Ya-Sin
Corey Davis torched second-year Colts cornerback Rock Ya-Sin in two meetings last season. When matched up against Ya-Sin, Davis snatched 6-of-6 targets for 79 yards (13.2 per target) and five first downs (83.3% rate).
The Jets should be able to isolate Davis against Ya-Sin almost whenever they please. Under defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus, the Colts’ outside cornerbacks typically stay on one side of the field for the entire game rather than matching up man-to-man, which allows the offense some flexibility to dictate matchups. Ya-Sin lined up on the left side of the defense on 96.9% of his snaps last year. Xavier Rhodes handled the right side on 93.2% of his snaps.
Putting Davis on the right side of the formation (across from the defense’s left side) would draw him plenty of matchups against Ya-Sin. This plays right into Davis’ skill-set, as the Titans leaned toward placing Davis on the right side of the field throughout most of his career. In his outstanding 2020 season, Davis lined up on the offense’s right side on 60.3% of his offensive snaps.
Week 12: Jets RB Michael Carter’s elusiveness vs. Texans’ tackling
The Texans were a complete mess in many areas last season (and figure to be once again this year), but their most persistent problem may have been their tackling. Houston’s defenders combined for a league-high 155 missed tackles, according to PFF’s tracking. Six of their top-8 leaders in missed tackles remain on the roster.
Coming off of a UNC career in which he displayed great elusiveness, rookie running back Michael Carter could have a field day against Houston’s abysmal tacklers. In 2020, Carter averaged 4.5 yards after contact per rush attempt, which was the fifth-best mark among FBS running backs with 100+ carries and the second-best mark among Power-5 backs who met that benchmark.
In 2020, against teams that had a running back who ranked top-10 in yards after contact per carry (min. 100 carries), the Texans went 0-5 while allowing 36.4 points and 207.8 rushing yards per game.
If Carter is the real deal and proves to be just as elusive in the NFL as he was in college, expect him to go bananas in Week 12.
Week 16: Run blocking of Jets WRs/TEs vs. Run defense of Jaguars DBs
Jacksonville’s defensive backs were poor against the run in 2020. The Jaguars’ cornerbacks and safeties combined for a PFF run-defense grade of 56.3, which ranked 28th in the NFL. Their lackluster run support on the outside was a big reason that the Jags allowed the third-most rushing yards per game (153.3) and fourth-most rushing touchdowns (23).
Most of the primary culprits of those poor numbers are back in the fold for the Jags, including CB C.J. Henderson, CB Tre Herndon, SS Daniel Thomas, and SS Brandon Rusnak. They did add Shaquill Griffin to their cornerback room, but Griffin is coming off of a season in which he posted a career-low 56.6 run defense grade. Jacksonville needs Griffin to return to the form of his first three seasons, in which he provided solid run support with a 69.0 run defense grade.
It looks like the Jets will have a major mismatch to their advantage on the outside in Week 16. Look for Davis, Mims, Cole, and Kroft to create plenty of running room on the edge.