These five particular matchups on the NY Jets’ 2021 schedule will be problematic for Robert Saleh and Jeff Ulbrich’s defense.
Weeks 2/7: Patriots RG Shaq Mason vs. Jets DTs John Franklin-Myers and Sheldon Rankins
John Franklin-Myers and Sheldon Rankins are excellent pass rushers, but neither guy excels when defending the run. Franklin-Myers placed at the 42nd percentile among qualified interior defensive linemen with a 57.1 run defense grade at Pro Football Focus in 2020. Rankins was in the same ballpark, placing at the 41st percentile with a 56.7 run defense grade.
Franklin-Myers lined up on the left side of the defensive line (across from the right side of the opponent’s offensive line) on the majority of his snaps in the 2020 season (89.2%). Rankins has been versatile throughout his career, playing plenty of snaps on both sides of the line, but he has leaned toward the left side as well, playing 56.5% of his career snaps on that side.
Opposing right guards who excel as run blockers will have a favorable matchup against Franklin-Myers and Rankins, and New England’s Shaq Mason is perhaps the best run-blocking right guard on the Jets’ 2021 schedule.
Mason earned a run-blocking grade of 88.1 at PFF in 2020, which ranked third-best among right guards.
In Week 9, Mason had a highly successful outing in the ground game against Franklin-Myers and the Jets. Mason posted a run-blocking grade of 79.8 that was the second-best among right guards in Week 9. He helped the Patriots rush for three touchdowns on carries to the offense’s right side in New England’s 30-27 victory.
Week 4: Titans run game vs. Jets edge defenders
While the Jets are loaded with passing-game potential on the edge, their run defense at the position could be a weakness. In a recent ranking of the league’s 32 EDGE units, I had the Jets’ unit ranked as the fourth-worst against the run. That ranking was created prior to the addition of run-stopping specialist Ronald Blair, who will help against the run quite a bit, but even with Blair in the rotation, this EDGE crew is still mediocre at best when it comes to run defense.
Teams that thrive at running to the outside could be trouble for the Jets defense. New York’s Week 4 opponent, the Titans, might be the best outside-running team in football.
In 2020, Tennessee led the league with 12 rushing touchdowns on carries directed to the “left end” or “right end” in the play-by-play log (carries outside of the tackles). Their total of 172 carries in those directions ranked second behind only the Ravens, and their average of 5.8 yards per attempt on those runs ranked fifth-best.
That success was no one-year fluke. In 2019, the Titans led the NFL with 11 rushing touchdowns on runs directed outside of the tackles while placing third with 6.9 yards per attempt on those rushes.
Derrick Henry could find himself with plenty of room to the outside against the Jets in Week 4.
Week 5: Falcons TE Kyle Pitts vs. Jets LBs
The returning C.J. Mosley gives Robert Saleh and Jeff Ulbrich one excellent coverage linebacker on defense. The problem against the passing game comes elsewhere, as the Jets will have two major question marks on both sides of Mosley.
On one side of Mosley will be free-agent acquisition Jarrad Davis. The former first-round pick has generally been a sieve in coverage throughout his career, allowing seven touchdowns, one interception, 8.5 yards per target, and a 114.1 passer rating on throws in his direction. He allowed a career-high 136.9 passer rating in the 2020 season.
On the other side will be a player who is a complete unknown. Blake Cashman, Hamsah Nasirildeen, and Jamien Sherwood will be battling out for the WILL linebacker role. Nasirildeen and Sherwood are Day 3 rookies. Cashman is a former fifth-round pick who has started six games in two seasons and struggled in most of those games.
In Week 5, the Jets’ linebacker group will be challenged by rookie tight end Kyle Pitts, one of the best prospects at the position in recent memory.
The Jets’ safety trio of Marcus Maye, Lamarcus Joyner, and Ashtyn Davis may be up to the task of handling Pitts and other solid tight ends on the Jets’ schedule such as Dallas Goedert, Hunter Henry, and Mike Gesicki. However, the Falcons may aim to isolate Pitts against the Jets’ linebackers considering New York’s issues at the position and Pitts’ dominance against linebackers in college.
When covered by linebackers in 2020, Pitts grabbed 8 of 13 passes thrown his way for 235 yards, seven first downs, and a touchdown. Those numbers. . . are not of this world. That’s 18.1 yards per target and a 61.5% conversion rate. Every single catch was a conversion.
This linebacking core will be tested early on in the season, facing Dan Arnold in Week 1, Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith in Week 2, and Noah Fant in Week 3, but its ultimate measuring stick challenge just might be its duel with Pitts under the London lights in Week 5, even if he is just a 20-year-old rookie (he will have just turned 21 years old the week prior to his game against the Jets).
Weeks 11/15: Dolphins WR DeVante Parker vs. Jets CB Bryce Hall
Bryce Hall had a mostly respectable rookie season. His greatest nemesis was divisional rival DeVante Parker, who beat up on the rookie a bit in Week 12.
Parker caught 4 of his 6 targets against Hall for 58 yards and four first downs. Hall also committed a 12-yard pass interference penalty against Parker, giving Parker a total of 70 yards and five firsts across seven throws against the Virginia product.
Many of those throws were tightly contested, and Hall did notch an impressive pass breakup against Parker, so the potential is certainly there for Hall to turn things around and have success against Parker this year. For now, this must be looked at as a mismatch considering the numbers that Parker hung on Hall’s head.
Week 12: Texans WR Brandin Cooks vs. Jets CB Blessuan Austin
The Jets have a wide-open competition going on at the CB2 position featuring a bevy of young Joe Douglas draft picks and undrafted free agent signings, so Blessuan Austin may not even be an opening-week starter on the outside opposite Bryce Hall. Pittsburgh product Jason Pinnock is looking like an early favorite to steal the job.
However, as things stand, Austin is the penciled-in starter by default due to experience.
If Austin does end up starting, he will be considered a liability against almost any matchup until proven otherwise, but the most frightening days for the Jets will be the ones in which Austin matches up against smaller, faster wide receivers. Austin has been particularly poor when asked to cover short wide receivers.
Over 18 career targets into his coverage when matched up against a wide receiver who stands under six feet tall, Austin allowed 13 passes to be completed for 178 yards (9.9 per target), eight first downs, and two touchdowns. That’s a 55.6% conversion rate and a 140.5 passer rating.
Brandin Cooks, who is listed at 5-foot-10, ranked second among sub-six-foot players with 76.7 receiving yards per game last season, trailing only Tyreek Hill. His deep speed will be daunting for Austin, who is susceptible to biting on double moves and has a difficult time staying over the top against vertical routes along the sideline.