Identifying particular areas where the New York Jets struggled in 2021
A basic way to craft an NFL team’s offseason shopping list is to simply point out the team’s weakest positions. For the New York Jets, most would agree that positions like wide receiver, right guard, safety, cornerback, and tight end are among the team’s primary needs entering the 2022 offseason.
You can get far more specific than that, though. One way to do this is by identifying particular areas of the game where the team struggled most in the previous season.
Instead of searching for players based strictly on positional labels, teams can get more explicit with their criteria by focusing on players who provide help in facets of the sport that caused them to lose games.
At its absolute broadest level, this can be pulled off by looking at a team’s overall rankings in common statistics. The Jets gave up a lot of rushing yards? Well, clearly they need to add some good run defenders. The Jets gave up a lot of passing yards? Well, clearly they need to add some good pass defenders.
However, if we want to actually learn anything meaningful about how the Jets can improve, we have to get far more specific than that. Overall statistics like rushing yards and passing yards are too broad to tell us much about what kind of players the Jets should be looking for. Yeah, obviously the Jets want to give up fewer rushing yards and passing yards, and good defensive players will help them do that. Groundbreaking stuff.
We have to take the next step. It’s clear what they struggled with. But why did they struggle with those things? Why did the Jets allow so many yards defensively? Why were they so inconsistent offensively?
Finding the answers to some of those “whys” is what we will aim to accomplish today.
I’m going to identify some of the Jets’ most specific areas of weakness on both sides of the ball in the 2021 season. Hopefully, this can help us discover some of the exact skills that the Jets will be looking for in their potential additions this offseason.
WR performance vs. man coverage
When it came to exploiting zone coverages, the Jets’ wide receivers were actually quite respectable.
According to Pro Football Focus, the Jets’ WRs averaged 1.46 yards per route run against zone coverage, which ranked 17th out of 32 wide receiver units. They averaged 8.3 yards per target against zone, which ranked 15th.
New York’s most back-breaking issue at the WR position was the unit’s inability to make things happen in one-on-one situations.
The Jets’ WRs produced just 1.17 yards per route run and 6.0 yards per target when facing man coverage. Both marks ranked 31st in the NFL, and they were the only unit to rank bottom-5 in both categories.
Opponents exploited this weakness by throwing a lot of man coverage at the Jets. New York’s WRs faced man coverage on 37.5% of their routes run, ranking sixth-highest of any WR unit.
The only New York wide receivers to eclipse the NFL average of 1.61 yards per route run against man coverage were Braxton Berrios (1.81) and Elijah Moore (1.85). It was a rough time in man situations for Keelan Cole (1.11), Jeff Smith (1.09), Corey Davis (1.00), Jamison Crowder (0.87), and Denzel Mims (0.20).
Finding wideouts who can separate against man coverage will be crucial for the Jets this offseason.
Pass protection at RB/TE
The offensive line is not the only place where the Jets must focus on improving the pass protection in front of Zach Wilson. They’ve got to fortify the running back and tight end positions, too.
New York’s RBs and TEs combined to allow 27 pressures, trailing the Titans’ 28 for second-most among all RB/TE units. On a per-play basis, the Jets’ RBs and TEs combined to give up a pressure rate of 9.86% (27 pressures on 284 pass-blocking snaps), the worst rate in the NFL.
As trivial as this facet of the game may seem, it actually correlates quite strongly with winning.
Seven of the 10 teams whose RBs and TEs combined to allow a pressure rate of 6.5% or less finished with a winning record, including the third-ranked Super Bowl champion Rams (4.88%). Six of the seven worst teams in this category finished with a losing record, and the one that did make the playoffs (Titans) failed to win a postseason game.
Pass-blocking ability needs to be at the forefront of the Jets’ minds when evaluating possible additions at RB and TE.
Right-side edge rush/Overall edge rush depth
The Jets’ only reliable source of an edge rush in 2021 was John Franklin-Myers, who made his near-permanent home on the left side of the defensive line. Franklin-Myers rushed off the left side on 397 of his 410 pass-rush snaps and ranked sixth among all NFL edge rushers with 53 pressures off the left side.
Off the right side, though, the Jets had no juice.
New York’s edge rushers combined for only 38 pressures off the right side, tying for second-worst among EDGE units. With those 38 pressures coming on 621 right-side pass-rush snaps, the Jets’ EDGE unit generated a pressure rate of 6.12% off the right side, ranking 31st ahead of only the Falcons.
This is an area where New York should be able to take a big step forward without doing anything at all. Carl Lawson calls the right side of the defensive line home. He led the NFL with 63 pressures off the right side in 2020, 15 more than any other edge rusher. Lawson unfortunately missed the entire 2021 season with an Achilles injury.
All the Jets need is a healthy Lawson and they should be able to rekindle their right-side edge rush.
Lawson alone will likely not save the entire EDGE unit, though. It’s possible that Franklin-Myers could move back to the interior, and if he does, the Jets do not have a reliable player on the roster to take his place on the left side.
Outside of Franklin-Myers, the Jets’ edge rushers combined for a pressure rate of 5.34% from the left side, which is even worse than their right-side rate and would have been the worst in the NFL of any EDGE unit.
Lawson will solve the Jets’ need for a right-side starter if healthy. Franklin-Myers should continue to be a good starter on the left side if he remains there.
But outside of those two players, the Jets’ EDGE unit is barren. They’ll need to look to free agency or the draft to find a starting-caliber replacement for Franklin-Myers if he kicks inside, and regardless of what happens with Franklin-Myers, they also need to work on improving the unit’s depth, especially considering Lawson’s injury history.
Coverage at safety
While the Jets suffered from below-average coverage production at every defensive position, their worst unit in coverage was undoubtedly the safety group.
New York’s safeties allowed an average of 11.2 yards per target on throws in their direction, worst of any safety group in the NFL.
No matter how you slice it, the numbers for this unit were bad. The Jets’ safeties ranked 30th in yards per target allowed when playing man coverage and 31st when playing zone coverage.
It’s tough to find a split that stands out as particularly bad for the Jets’ safeties in coverage (they were so bad at nearly everything) but one weakness that does stand out really glaringly is their inability to prevent yards after the catch.
The Jets’ safeties allowed 6.08 YAC per target, the worst mark in the league among safety units by an enormous margin. The Chiefs’ safety unit ranked 31st with 4.71 YAC allowed per target. The margin separating New York and Kansas City (1.37) is nearly equal to the margin between 31st-ranked Kansas City and 12th-ranked Houston (3.36).
Make no mistake: there is no defensive position where the Jets cannot substantially improve their coverage talent. But if they could only improve the coverage talent of one position, it would have to be safety.