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Ranking biggest culprits for NY Jets’ woeful 2021 run defense

Sheldon Rankins, NY Jets, PFF, Contract
Sheldon Rankins, New York Jets, Getty Images

Who is to blame for the New York Jets’ struggles against the run?

Throughout the first 10 years of the New York Jets’ active 11-year playoff drought, fans could only rely on the team to be consistently good at one thing: stopping the run. From 2011-20, the Jets allowed the fewest yards per carry of any team in the NFL (3.9) while giving up the fourth-fewest rushing yards per game (105.1).

That all changed in 2021.

For the first time in many years, the Jets were one of the NFL’s very worst teams at defending the run. Here are some of their run-defense rankings in the 2021 season:

  • Rushing yards per game: 138.3 (29th)
  • Rush defense DVOA*: -2.6% (26th)
  • Rushing touchdowns: 28 (32nd)
  • Yards per carry: 4.5 (24th)

*DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average), per Football Outsiders, is a metric that “measures a team’s efficiency by comparing success on every single play to a league average based on situation and opponent”

I was curious to find out which players on the team had the biggest role in causing the Jets to be so bad at stopping the run.

To figure that out, I compiled a bunch of different run-defense statistics for every qualified Jets defender to appear in the 2021 season. My goal was to figure out how well each Jets defender performed against the run compared to their peers around the league at the same position.

With that goal in mind, I concocted a one-number score that estimates each player’s performance against the run. We’ll call it the run-defense score (RDS).

RDS was calculated by taking each player’s percentile ranking among qualifiers at their position in three different statistics and averaging those three percentile rankings together. Here are the three statistics used:

  • Pro Football Focus run defense grade: PFF’s one-number estimation of the quality of a player’s run defense based on the grading of every snap.
  • Missed tackle rate vs. run: The player’s ratio of tackles to missed tackles in the run game. Estimation of finishing ability. Formula: Missed Tackles Vs. Run ÷ (Missed Tackles Vs. Run + Total Tackles Vs. Run)
  • Run-stop rate: Percentage of a player’s run-defense snaps in which he recorded a “run stop”, which is classified by PFF as a tackle that constitutes a failed play for the offense. Estimation of knack for playmaking.

A minimum of 90 snaps played against the run was required to qualify for these rankings. That gave us 21 qualified Jets players to rank out of 592 qualified NFL players.

To exemplify the calculation of RDS, we’ll use the numbers of Quinnen Williams (one of the Jets’ good run defenders). Here are Williams’ numbers and where they ranked out of 145 qualified interior defensive linemen:

  • PFF run defense grade: 59.0 (48th) – Percentile: 67.36
  • Missed tackle rate: 5.0% (32nd) – Percentile: 78.47
  • Run-stop rate: 10.0% (20th) – Percentile: 86.80

Take the average of those three percentile rankings and you get Williams’ RDS: 77.5. That’s an elite score, ranking 11th-best out of 145 qualifiers at the position (Percentile: 93rd) and 65th out of all 592 qualified defenders (Percentile: 89th).

Now that we’ve got the methodology down, let’s reveal some of the primary culprits for the Jets’ ghastly run defense in 2021.

These nine Jets players were easily the worst qualified run defenders on the team when it came to RDS.

9. Nathan Shepherd (37.7 RDS)

  • Run defense snaps played: 248
  • Overall RDS rank: 409th of 592 (Percentile: 31st)
  • Interior Defensive Line RDS rank: 102nd of 145 (Percentile: 30th)
  • PFF run defense grade: 46.8 (101st) – IDL Percentile: 30.56
  • Missed tackle rate: 7.4% (66th) – IDL Percentile: 54.86
  • Run-stop rate: 5.2% (105th) – IDL Percentile: 27.78

Nathan Shepherd was decent when it came to finishing tackles but did not make productive plays very often, collecting 13 run stops over 248 snaps against the run.

8. Shaq Lawson (36.7 RDS)

  • Run defense snaps played: 239
  • Overall RDS rank: 420th of 592 (Percentile: 29th)
  • Edge Defender RDS rank: 81st of 120 (Percentile: 33rd)
  • PFF run defense grade: 69.0 (28th) – EDGE Percentile: 77.31
  • Missed tackle rate: 17.4% (99th) – EDGE Percentile: 17.65
  • Run-stop rate: 3.8% (102nd) – EDGE Percentile: 15.13

Shaq Lawson actually earned an excellent PFF run defense grade of 69.0. However, his on-ball production was bad. Lawson had nine run stops over 239 snaps against the run and missed four tackles in comparison to just 19 total tackles.

7. Bryce Huff (34.2 RDS)

  • Run defense snaps played: 121
  • Overall RDS rank: 448th of 592 (Percentile: 24th)
  • Edge Defender RDS rank: 89th of 120 (Percentile: 33rd)
  • PFF run defense grade: 45.5 (108th) – EDGE Percentile: 10.08
  • Missed tackle rate: 10.0% (55th) – EDGE Percentile: 54.62
  • Run-stop rate: 5.0% (78th) – EDGE Percentile: 35.29

Bryce Huff‘s profile is the opposite of Lawson’s. Huff was not egregiously far below the median when it came to run-stop rate and he finished right around average when it came to missed tackles. However, he was panned by PFF’s grading system.

There’s a huge gap between Huff and the next six players on our list.

6. Brandin Echols (19.7 RDS)

  • Run defense snaps played: 299
  • Overall RDS rank: 541st of 592 (Percentile: 9th)
  • Cornerback RDS rank: 117th of 128 (Percentile: 9th)
  • PFF run defense grade: 31.1 (126th) – CB Percentile: 1.57
  • Missed tackle rate: 46.7% (125th) – CB Percentile: 2.36
  • Run-stop rate: 1.7% (58th) – CB Percentile: 55.12

Brandin Echols‘ total of five run stops over 299 snaps against the run is par for the course at the cornerback position, but he could not overcome his abysmal tackling.

Despite making only eight tackles in the phase, Echols tied for the most missed tackles against the run among cornerbacks with seven. This means that he whiffed on nearly half of his opportunities to make a tackle against the run, which is extremely poor. The average missed tackle rate among cornerbacks in 2021 was 15.8%.

5. Sharrod Neasman (18.4 RDS)

  • Run defense snaps played: 97
  • Overall RDS rank: 547th of 592 (Percentile: 8th)
  • Safety RDS rank: 87th of 97 (Percentile: 10th)
  • PFF run defense grade: 31.2 (97th) – S Percentile: 0.00
  • Missed tackle rate: 20.0% (82nd) – S Percentile: 15.63
  • Run-stop rate: 2.1% (59th) – S Percentile: 39.58

Sharrod Neasman whiffed on a pair of tackles over his short amount of time on the field.

4. Tim Ward (18.2 RDS)

  • Run defense snaps played: 92
  • Overall RDS rank: 549th of 592 (Percentile: 7th)
  • Edge Defender RDS rank: 112th of 120 (Percentile: 7th)
  • PFF run defense grade: 56.6 (78th) – EDGE Percentile: 35.29
  • Missed tackle rate: 20.0% (106th) – EDGE Percentile: 11.76
  • Run-stop rate: 3.3% (111th) – EDGE Percentile: 7.56

Tim Ward was a very unproductive run defender in his limited opportunities, collecting only three run stops over 92 snaps for a run-stop rate of 3.3%. The league average for edge defenders this season was 5.9%. Ward also missed two tackles.

3. Sheldon Rankins (16.9 RDS)

  • Run defense snaps played: 230
  • Overall RDS rank: 557th of 592 (Percentile: 6th)
  • Interior Defensive Line RDS rank: 135th of 145 (Percentile: 7th)
  • PFF run defense grade: 34.4 (134th) – IDL Percentile: 7.64
  • Missed tackle rate: 16.7% (120th) – IDL Percentile: 17.36
  • Run-stop rate: 5.2% (108th) – IDL Percentile: 25.69

The run game was always Sheldon Rankins‘ weaker phase prior to joining the Jets, but he was never this bad of a run defender in New Orleans.

Rankins picked up 12 run stops over 230 snaps for a 5.2% run-stop rate. The league average at his position was 6.9% this year. Since 6.9% of 230 is 15.9, Rankins finished with about four fewer run stops than the league average IDL would be expected to get over his volume of snaps.

Rankins also missed four tackles compared to 20 total tackles, a 16.7% miss rate. That’s nearly double the league average for IDL, which was 8.8%.

PFF scored Rankins with a run-defense grade of 34.4, ranking 134th out of the 145 qualifiers in this batch and 73rd out of 74 IDL who played at least 200 snaps against the run. That grade is likely due to his issues with filling his gaps and holding his ground. Rankins was moved fairly easily by opposing linemen when you flip on his 2021 film, allowing a lot of running lanes to open up.

2. Ashtyn Davis (14.6 RDS)

  • Run defense snaps played: 325
  • Overall RDS rank: 568th of 592 (Percentile: 4th)
  • Safety RDS rank: 90th of 97 (Percentile: 7th)
  • PFF run defense grade: 43.1 (93rd) – S Percentile: 4.17
  • Missed tackle rate: 14.3% (61st) – S Percentile: 37.50
  • Run-stop rate: 0.0% (95th) – S Percentile: 2.08

Ashtyn Davis is the lowest-scoring player on this list who started for the majority of the year, making him a strong candidate for New York’s “Run Game LVP” award.

Davis was one of three qualified safeties who failed to record a run stop. His total of 325 run-defense snaps played without a stop was by far the most of any safety (over 200 snaps ahead of the closest player). This occurred despite Davis playing 30.7% of his snaps in the box, per PFF.

Davis had a 14.3% missed tackle rate as he missed four tackles against the run while making 24. The league average for safeties was 12.0%.

1. Jarrad Davis (5.3 RDS)

  • Run defense snaps played: 97
  • Overall RDS rank: 590th of 592 (Percentile: 0th)
  • Linebacker RDS rank: 102nd of 102 (Percentile: 0th)
  • PFF run defense grade: 28.0 (101st) – LB Percentile: 0.99
  • Missed tackle rate: 16.7% (93rd) – LB Percentile: 8.91
  • Run-stop rate: 4.1% (96th) – LB Percentile: 5.94

Jarrad Davis did not play a whole lot this season. Part of that was due to injuries, but much of it was because he struggled so much that the Jets essentially benched him.

Davis ranked bottom-10 at his position in all three categories. He picked up only four stops across 97 run-defense snaps, a 4.1% rate, which is brutal for a linebacker. The positional average this season was 6.9%.

Despite making only 10 tackles against the run, Davis still missed two tackles. His 16.7% missed tackle rate was well above the positional average of 10.2%.

Other qualifiers

Well, there you have it – the worst run defenders on the 2021 New York Jets (from a statistical perspective, at least).

Here is a look at where the Jets’ other 12 qualified defenders fared when it came to RDS (listed in parentheses is their percentile rank out of all 592 qualified defenders regardless of position):

  • Marcus Maye: 78.1 (89th percentile)
  • Quinnen Williams: 77.5 (89th percentile)
  • Ronald Blair: 76.2 (87th percentile)
  • Elijah Riley: 72.6 (84th percentile)
  • Foley Fatukasi: 58.1 (63rd percentile)
  • C.J. Mosley: 56.8 (60th percentile)
  • John Franklin-Myers: 56.3 (60th percentile)
  • Bryce Hall: 53.3 (53rd percentile)
  • Javelin Guidry: 52.0 (51st percentile)
  • Quincy Williams: 47.2 (45th percentile)
  • Michael Carter II: 43.0 (38th percentile)
  • Kyle Phillips: 41.2 (36th percentile)

Can we trust RDS?

To test the value of RDS, I calculated the composite RDS of each team’s qualified players (weighted for playing time) and compared it with each team’s rush defense DVOA to see if there was any correlation.

It turns out there was a strong relationship between the two metrics (r=-0.7286). As RDS improved, DVOA tended to improve alongside it. This suggests that RDS is indeed a useful stat for estimating run defense impact.

The Jets, for example, ranked 26th in composite RDS among their qualified defenders (45.4), which is the exact same ranking they achieved in rush defense DVOA.

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Daniel Johnston
2 years ago

Is Jarrad Davis on a NFL roster at the moment? I’d say he didn’t save his career by performing so poorly last season. How does a guy go from potentially being a long term NFL linebacker to out of the league in just a few seasons? It’s crazy how quickly his decline happened.

2 years ago

Good to see this list. I would think only Huff and Echols play meaningful snaps this year. Huff will be a pass rush specialist and Echols may not be a starter. Run D simply has to improve drastically.

2 years ago

How was Elijah Riley’s performance scored in pass defense? Could he potentially be a long term replacement for Maye? Also, at this stage, one has to think that Ashtyn Davis is a bust given his 3rd round pedigree…

2 years ago
Reply to  Michael Nania

They need to do far better than Riley. He was a nice story but not an NFL player. I root for the guy but their goal should be to replace guys like him every year with a better player. He may evolved into a good special teams player but if he’s on the field for multiple snaps due to injury they will have problems.

2 years ago
Reply to  vnick12

I think you calling Ashtyn Davis a bust is being way too kind. He looked as if he had never played competitive football last year. How he wasn’t first on this list is nothing short of a miracle. He’s lucky Jarrad Davis was on the team.

2 years ago
Reply to  Jets71

I know JD was understandably largely drafting for Gase’s preferences but the misses on Ashtyn Davis, Zuniga and Morgan has been impactful. I don’t think Mims would have been the pick if this regime was in place at that time so I don’t include him in this context though he appears to have been a bad miss also.

2 years ago

Superb breakdown. Thanks Michael…the only player that bothered me in your top 10 was Brandin Echols, since there is some hope for him being a go-forward contributor. Most of the rest of the top 10 were wastelands from the in-season eye-test and should not be part of the team for much longer IMO. From the remaining group, it is not good that none of your LBs are above 70 in RDS. It does suggest making personnel moves of some sort with that unit in the off-season. Mosely was a borderline disappointment though he still has value for what is likely his last year here.