The New York Jets defense needs to improve in many areas
An NFL team’s regular-season slate does not have an official halfway point now that there are 17 games, but for the New York Jets, their eighth game can be considered a solid halfway point considering it was followed by the mini bye week that a Thursday night game provides.
That eighth game was a nightmare for coordinator Jeff Ulbrich‘s defense. New York coughed up 532 yards in a 45-30 defeat at the hands of the Indianapolis Colts, wasting a great second-half performance by the offense.
Just two weeks earlier, the Jets allowed 551 yards and 54 points to the Patriots.
The Jets had zero takeaways in both games. Those two outings mark only the third and fourth performances in franchise history in which the Jets allowed over 500 yards and registered no takeaways. It had only been done by a Jets defense once each in 1986 and in 2003 – now, it’s been done twice in a three-week span.
New York’s defense is reeling heading into the quasi-halfway point.
To turn things around, Ulbrich’s unit needs to be drastically better in these five categories.
Receiving production allowed to running backs
Teams have been killing the Jets with short passes to running backs all year.
New York has allowed opposing running backs to catch 64 passes for 615 yards and two touchdowns. No team has allowed more receptions per game (8.0) or receiving yards per game (76.9) to running backs.
An enormous chunk of that production has come on designed screen plays – 232 of the 615 yards, to be exact.
Teams have thrown 25 screen passes to running backs against the Jets, gaining an average of 9.3 yards on those plays. Of those 25 passes, 11 of them (44%) resulted in a first down or touchdown.
Outside run defense
Once a team that could hang its hat on great run defense every year, the Jets now have one of the most embarrassing run-stopping units in football. They rank 32nd in rushing touchdowns allowed (15), 27th in rushing yards per game allowed (133.3), and 27th in yards per rush attempt allowed (4.6).
Outside runs have been a major problem for the Jets. They have allowed 8.3 yards per carry on rushes directed toward “left end” or “right end” in the official play-by-play – essentially, runs aimed outside of the tackles. That stands as the worst mark in the NFL.
New York’s cornerbacks deserve a lot of blame for that.
Echols owns a run-defense grade of 32.3 at Pro Football Focus, which is the worst in the NFL out of 118 qualified cornerbacks. Hall is not too far ahead. His run-defense grade of 37.2 ranks eighth-worst.
The Colts gashed New York for 260 rushing yards in Week 9. On many of Indy’s best runs, Echols and Hall could be seen taking poor angles from the outside, vacating room for running backs to make plays at the second level (Echols is caught red-handed in the header image of this article).
Echols and Hall need to play with much better discipline and recognition in the run game to refrain from allowing lanes to open up. They have each struggled against the run all season – the Colts game was just the latest and most glaring example.
New York has been infamously bad at starting games this season. The offense has received the bulk of the vitriol for that, but the defense should be getting just as much blame.
Within their first three defensive drives of games – they have faced 24 of those in total, three per game in eight games – the Jets have allowed 10 touchdowns on 24 drives. That is a rate of 41.7%, which ranks second-worst behind only the 0-8 Lions (45.8%).
New York also allowed seven field goals on those drives, meaning they have allowed a score on 70.8% of their opening three drives. That is the league’s worst rate.
Plus, the Jets have allowed those drives to last an average of three minutes and 51 seconds, which is the worst mark in the league. Opponents are chewing up a ton of clock early in the game, preventing the Jets’ offense from getting in a rhythm.
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Pressure from the defensive line
The Jets do not generate a lot of simulated pressure. They need their defensive tackles and edge rushers to win battles.
Since the bye week, New York’s pass rushers are producing at a league-worst level. It is a disappointing freefall for a unit that showed top-10 potential early in the season.
From Weeks 1-5, the Jets’ defensive linemen combined for 15.8 total pressures per game, which ranked ninth-best out of all 32 units in the league.
Since Week 7, the defensive line is generating 7.7 pressures per game. That ranks dead last since Week 6.
The Jets’ cornerbacks have been decent in coverage this season, but playmaking is not something they have thrived at.
Opposing quarterbacks have tossed only one interception against the Jets this season, and that was courtesy of defensive end Shaq Lawson against Joe Burrow in Week 8. Every other NFL team has at least two interceptions, and the average team has 6.7 of them as of Monday, Nov. 8.
No cornerback or safety has snagged a pick for the Jets this season.
However, the corners should not be criticized too harshly for their lack of plays on the ball. New York’s defensive scheme – which usually plays its corners in soft zone coverage – is not conducive to creating interceptions.
The 49ers never ranked higher than 14th in interceptions (with 12 in 2020) over Robert Saleh’s four years as their defensive coordinator. Ulbrich’s Falcons tied the 49ers with 12 picks last season. Back in 2018 – Saleh’s second season as the 49ers’ DC – the 49ers finished with a league-low two interceptions.
With that being said, the Jets should definitely be picking off far more passes than they are. It is difficult to have defensive success with zero interceptions by a non-defensive lineman through eight games.
But who is to blame? How can the Jets fix the problem?
According to Pro Football Focus’ tracking, no Jets cornerback or safety has dropped a potential interception this season.
The main issue is not a failure to make plays on the part of the secondary. The problem is that the secondary is not getting enough opportunities to make plays.
This could only mean one thing – we have to call back to the previous section of this article.
The Jets need to create more pressure to force quarterbacks into tossing bad passes that can be picked off.
Ulbrich can afford to be more blitz-heavy in certain situations to facilitate turnover-worthy plays. The four-man rush also just flat-out needs to be better.
Ultimately, the simple fact is that the Jets need to get more defenders in the faces of opposing quarterbacks if they are going to start collecting interceptions.
Pressure, pressure, pressure – it all comes down to that for the New York Jets going forward, even when it pertains to weaknesses on other parts of the field, such as a lack of interceptions from the secondary.