New York Jets must exploit Atlanta Falcons’ struggling defensive backs
After facing a gauntlet of three elite defenses to begin the season, Zach Wilson and the New York Jets drew a mediocre Tennessee Titans defense in Week 4 and took full advantage, dropping a season-high 27 points (more than the 20 points they had on the season coming into the game).
Another enticing matchup awaits New York this week.
The Atlanta Falcons have been a bad football team this year (like the Jets). They own a league-worst minus-12.5 point differential, ranking 25th in scoring (19.5 points) and 32nd in scoring defense (32.0 points).
A sputtering secondary is the primary reason for Atlanta’s bottom-of-the-barrel scoring defense.
The Falcons’ cornerbacks and safeties have combined to allow eight touchdowns this season, tied for the second-most of any secondary in the NFL. They have not snagged any interceptions, making them one of only five units that have failed to do so.
Altogether, the 8-to-0 touchdown-to-interception ratio allowed by Atlanta’s secondary is the worst of any secondary in football. The woes of the cornerbacks and safeties have been the driving forces behind the Falcons’ defense yielding an NFL-worst 120.1 passer rating to opposing quarterbacks this season.
Wilson and the Jets must feast.
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Starting cornerback Fabian Moreau is a juicy target. Playing on the right side of Atlanta’s defense, Moreau has allowed three touchdown passes this season, tied for the second-most in the league among cornerbacks.
Moreau is ripe for the picking over the top. Rookie DeVonta Smith got him for an 18-yard touchdown on a wheel route off of a pick in Week 1, and in Week 4, Terry McLaurin ran straight by Moreau’s off-coverage for a 33-yard touchdown bomb.
To top it off, Moreau is tied for second among cornerbacks with four penalties.
Attacking Moreau has to be the go-to plan for Mike LaFleur to generate explosive plays.
Atlanta’s left cornerback, second-year man A.J. Terrell, has a defined set of strengths and weaknesses.
The 2020 first-round pick is hard to beat over the top, as he has given up only 12 air yards over three games. That’s highly impressive.
However, Terrell can be beaten if you make him tackle. He is tied for third among cornerbacks with five missed tackles this season and ranked 11th with 13 missed tackles last season.
LaFleur must target Terrell on designed touches such as screen passes, jet sweeps, and end-arounds. He must get his shifty play-makers – namely Elijah Moore, who has yet to get going in the underneath game – in one-on-one situations against Terrell.
Free safety Duron Harmon is another good target. Harmon is allowing a 147.3 passer rating on throws into his coverage this season. He is a familiar name for Jets fans, as he spent seven seasons with the Patriots from 2013-19.
Now 30 years old, Harmon’s prime seems to be behind him. Harmon was victimized by former teammate Rob Gronkowski for a 20-yard touchdown in Week 2, arriving late to Gronk on a corner route and then failing to bring him down short of the goal line. Last week, he was targeted twice by the Washington Football Team and allowed two catches for 34 yards and two first downs.
There is only one tough player in Atlanta’s secondary to watch out for: strong safety Erik Harris.
Harris has yet to allow a touchdown over 156 snaps in coverage and has been a menace breaking up passes, recording five pass breakups on 12 targets in his direction.
However, Harris is doubtful for the game with a calf injury. Harris will likely be replaced by Jaylinn Hawkins, a second-year fourth-round pick from California (teammate of Ashtyn Davis’) who has a brutal 46.2 coverage grade at Pro Football Focus this season.
The Jets are weak at tight end, but with Hawkins being thrown in for just his third career start and first of the season, they should not hesitate to use their tight ends to challenge him. Kenny Yeboah will be making his season debut as Tyler Kroft misses the game with a back injury, so perhaps the undrafted free agent’s receiving ability can be used to exploit Atlanta’s big loss of Harris at safety.
In the slot, the Falcons had Isaiah Oliver playing at a high level, but Oliver is now out for the season with a knee injury. He was replaced in Week 4 by Avery Williams, who allowed 4-of-7 passing for 44 yards and three first downs in relief. Williams allowed a very high average of 9.8 yards after the catch per reception (more than double the 2020 CB average of 4.5).
Williams joins Harris in the doubtful category, as he is dealing with a hamstring issue. He will likely be replaced by T.J. Green, who has given up two touchdowns and 107 yards on just 11 targets this season. Green is highly susceptible through the air, giving up 10.4 air yards per reception this season (2020 CB average: 7.7).
It’s clear where the Jets need to attack. Exploit Moreau (RCB), Green (SCB), and Harmon (FS) in the deep game while making Terrell (LCB) come down and tackle. Don’t be afraid to challenge Hawkins (SS) with the tight ends.
The Jets’ offense will likely not get an easier matchup this season than this iteration of the Falcons. This will be a tremendous measuring stick game for them. Can they take care of business against a brutal defense?