Limit Christian McCaffrey’s efficiency on the ground
The New York Jets defense’s success against the Carolina Panthers offense will largely hinge upon its ability to stop the run. Minimizing early-down yardage and forcing Sam Darnold into predictable third-down passing situations is essential to exposing his weaknesses.
Darnold is at his worst in obvious passing situations. In 2020, Darnold moved the chains just 21.3% of the time when facing third down and six or more yards to go. That was better than only Alex Smith among qualified quarterbacks.
Since 2018, Darnold has thrown 14 interceptions on third-and-six-plus, tied with Jared Goff for the third-most in the NFL over that span.
The returning Christian McCaffrey figures to handle the vast majority of Carolina’s carries. His production on the ground will be the primary factor behind determining the favorability of the situations that Darnold passes in.
McCaffrey’s rushing efficiency has had a fairly large impact on Carolina’s success throughout his career. The Panthers are 10-17 (.370) when he rushes for 4.2 yards per carry or less and 13-11 (.542) when he rushes for more than 4.2 yards per carry.
Shutting down McCaffrey on the ground all comes down to simply finishing tackles and not letting him add more yardage than what is blocked for him. In 2019, McCaffrey averaged 6.3 yards per carry over six games in which he was credited with at least four missed tackles forced. Carolina went 3-3 in those games. Over 10 games in which he forced fewer than four missed tackles, McCaffrey averaged only 3.7 yards per carry. The Panthers went 2-8.
Linebackers C.J. Mosley, Jamien Sherwood, and Hamsah Nasirildeen must consistently wrap up McCaffrey at the tackle point and prevent him from gaining bonus yardage beyond the spot where they meet him.
Create pressure against Taylor Moton
Right tackle Taylor Moton is Carolina’s only good starter on the offensive line entering 2021. It’s a distinction that he is used to, as he was the unit’s lone solid player for the majority of 2020 as well (left tackle Russell Okung was good when healthy, but he missed nine games).
The Panthers need Moton to be dominant to keep their offensive line afloat. When he is at the top of his game, they can be a competent football team. But when he shows some cracks, everything falls apart.
Moton had nine games last season where he posted a pass-blocking grade of 74.0 or better at Pro Football Focus, allowing just one pressure across those nine games. Carolina went 5-4 and averaged 22.2 points per game offensively.
In the seven games where Moton had a pass-blocking grade below 74.0 – a group of games in which he allowed 18 pressures – the Panthers went 0-7 and averaged 18.6 points.
Carolina was especially brutal when Moton played his absolute worst in pass protection. In the four games where Moton allowed at least three pressures, Carolina went 0-4 and averaged a paltry 14.3 points, failing to eclipse 17 points in a game.
It remains to be seen how the Jets will deploy and rotate their edge rushers, but it seems like John Franklin-Myers and Bryce Huff are the favorites to get the most reps at left-side defensive end against Moton.
If the Jets can do damage against Carolina’s lone stalwart, the Panthers’ chances of putting together a competent offensive performance will significantly decrease.
Maximize takeaway opportunities off of Sam Darnold
Beating Moton in particular is an important key for the Jets, but on an overall level, pressuring Darnold to create turnover opportunities is an obvious key to the game that does not need to be mentioned.
The big question that isn’t getting talked about enough is whether the Jets’ young cornerbacks will seize their opportunities or if they will pull a Jamal Adams and drop footballs that hit their chests.
One of the most underrated factors of defensive success in the NFL is takeaway capitalization. Everyone knows how important takeaways are in deciding games and seasons, and everyone knows what leads to takeaways being created – pressure on the quarterback and good coverage.
Following the creation of takeaway opportunities, the second-most important aspect of forcing turnovers is capitalizing on those takeaway opportunities.
Dropped interceptions and unrecovered fumbles are killers. Opportunities to make those plays are extremely rare for a defense, so if they miss out on them, it is an enormous blow. The offense cannot be allowed to keep the ball in situations where they should have given it away.
The teams that are skilled enough – or lucky enough – to convert the highest percentage of their takeaway opportunities into actual takeaways are the ones that end up near the top of the leaderboard in takeaways at the end of the year.
Sam Darnold is likely to present the Jets defense with some opportunities to take the ball away. He has turned the ball over in 24 of his 38 career games (63%), and in four of the 14 games in which he did not have a turnover, he had at least one “turnover-worthy play,” according to PFF. Darnold totaled seven turnover-worthy plays across the four games in which the stat-sheet suggested he played a perfectly clean game.
For his career, Darnold has 61 turnover-worthy plays in 38 games, an average of 1.6 per game.
New York has to punish Darnold for his mistakes. If he giftwraps an interception opportunity or two that a defender drops, the Jets are likely going to look back on it after the game as a crucial turning point.
Look at the Jets’ 23-16 win over the Browns near the end of last season. Darnold finished with no turnovers and the Jets won by one touchdown, but he tossed a trio of passes that could have been picked off by a Cleveland defender if they broke on the ball a split-second earlier.
None of those throws were blatantly dropped interceptions – all of them would have been fantastic picks if made – but the result of the game likely would have changed if Cleveland could have capitalized on just one of those three plays.
Darnold generated some hype for his lone extended preseason performance with the Panthers, completing 19 of 25 passes for 162 yards, two touchdowns, and zero interceptions in the first half of a game against the Steelers.
However, Pittsburgh defenders dropped two interception opportunities. If just one of those were caught, Darnold’s outing would have played out much differently and the entire narrative around his performance would change.
The Jets have a lot of youthful upside at the cornerback position, but none of their prospects are known for their ball-hawking abilities.
Bryce Hall, Brandin Echols, Jason Pinnock, Isaiah Dunn, Michael Carter II, and Javelin Guidry have combined for 20 interceptions over 224 college and NFL regular season games. That’s an average of only 1.5 interceptions per 17 games. Pinnock leads the bunch with six picks in 30 games at Pittsburgh (3.4 per 17 games).
A lack of interceptions does not equal a lack of talent at cornerback (not even remotely – interception totals tell you very little about how good a cornerback really is), but it is important as it pertains to this particular aspect of the game.
Darnold has an 0-12 record when he turns the ball over multiple times. He is a respectable 13-13 when he turns it over once or zero times.
Will the Jets’ young cornerbacks capitalize on the opportunities Darnold gives them?