Lockdown zone coverage is on the way for New York Jets fans
When looking at the overhauled secondary that the New York Jets have built, a clear theme stands out to me: there is a lot of zone-coverage talent back there.
Like most NFL teams, the Jets play more zone coverage than man coverage, but, interestingly enough, the Jets are not quite a “zone-heavy team” in a relative sense. Head coach Robert Saleh and defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich use a fairly balanced blend of the two approaches.
According to Pro Football Focus, the Jets’ cornerbacks had a 63.6%/36.4% split between zone coverage snaps and man coverage snaps in 2021, placing New York’s cornerback unit at No. 21 in terms of zone coverage frequency. The league average for cornerbacks was 66.5%/33.5%.
When including players at all positions, the Jets’ defenders had a 75.4%/24.6% split between zone coverage snaps and man coverage snaps, which placed at No. 19. It’s almost dead-on with the league average, which was 75.8%/24.2%.
Saleh and Ulbrich employed a hybrid mentality for their defense in 2021. They relied upon a lot of zone coverage on early downs before prioritizing man coverage on third downs.
Ultimately, the bottom line is that zone coverage is the heavily preferred choice over man coverage in the modern NFL, so it’s extremely important to have defensive backs who thrive in the concept.
And it appears the Jets do indeed have those players.
Let’s take a look at the excellent zone-coverage resumes boasted by the key members of the Jets’ secondary.
CB Sauce Gardner
Sauce Gardner dominated everywhere in college. Right side, left side, man, zone – it didn’t matter. He put his man in a straight jacket.
When playing zone coverage in 2021, Gardner allowed a 34.5 passer rating on throws into his direction, which ranked at the 97th percentile among qualified FBS cornerbacks. His man-coverage rating was even better (12.0), ranking second-best among all qualified FBS corners and No. 1 among Power-5 corners.
Gardner dropped into zone coverage on 210 snaps and allowed 7-of-13 passing for 61 yards, zero touchdowns, and one interception.
CB D.J. Reed
During his breakout 2021 season, D.J. Reed’s zone-coverage excellence was the primary driving force behind his ascension.
Reed played in the most zone-heavy defense in football. Seattle’s defensive players combined for an 88.1%/11.9% ratio between zone coverage snaps and man coverage snaps, which led the NFL. Reed himself had an 80.4%/19.6% ratio, giving him the fourth-highest zone-coverage rate in the NFL among 106 qualified cornerbacks.
After moving from left cornerback to right cornerback in Week 4, Reed earned a zone-coverage grade of 84.0 from PFF over the rest of the season, which ranked second-best among qualified corners over that span (trailing Cincinnati’s Chidobe Awuzie).
From Weeks 4-18, Reed allowed 16-of-30 passing for 187 yards, zero touchdowns, and two interceptions when playing zone coverage. His allowed passer rating of 44.7 in zone coverage ranked fourth-best out of the 108 cornerbacks to face at least 15 targets in zone coverage over that span.
Reed was solid in man coverage even if he wasn’t nearly as good as he was in zone. He earned a 57.8 man-coverage grade at PFF from Weeks 4-18, ranking 47th out of 110 qualified cornerbacks over that span (58th percentile).
Slot CB Michael Carter II
Michael Carter II did a great job of keeping everything in front of him when playing zone. The rookie slot cornerback was challenged with a lot of screens and various other short throws, and he responded well.
Carter II faced 36 targets in zone coverage and those targets traveled an average of only 1.8 yards downfield, tying him for the lowest mark among qualified cornerbacks.
While 32 of those passes were completed (there’s hardly anything he can do about it considering most of those throws were impossible to contest), Carter limited those completions to 218 yards. That’s an average of 6.8 yards per reception, which tied Carter II for fifth-best out of 116 qualified cornerbacks (97th percentile).
Carter II had some trouble with limiting big plays in man coverage. He allowed 15-of-27 passing for 291 yards, ranking 109th out of 116 qualified cornerbacks (6th percentile) with 19.8 yards allowed per reception.
SS Jordan Whitehead
Jordan Whitehead has a reputation as a hard-hitting, downhill safety who excels at stopping the run but struggles in coverage. That’s not entirely true. While he does have some issues in man coverage, he makes use of his aggressive mentality to provide some outstanding zone coverage.
Whitehead’s 81.8 zone-coverage grade at PFF ranked fifth-best out of 96 qualified safeties in 2021 (96th percentile). He ranked 11th-best out of 105 qualifiers (90th percentile) with an allowed passer rating of 51.8 in zone coverage.
When breaking downhill out of his zone, Whitehead is capable of both making great tackles in the open field and making plays on the ball while it’s in the air.
Whitehead allowed only 7.0 yards per reception (154 yards on 22 receptions) in zone coverage, a testament to how well he finished plays when passes were completed in front of him. That mark ranked third-best among the 65 safeties to defend at least 10 receptions in zone coverage.
In terms of making plays on the ball, Whitehead led all safeties with seven forced incompletions in zone coverage, per PFF. Whitehead also had two interceptions in zone coverage.
Man coverage is a weakness for Whitehead. He coughed up a 155.8 passer rating in man coverage, which ranked 83rd out of 85 qualifiers. Nine man-coverage targets thrown at Whitehead were turned into seven receptions for 118 yards and a touchdown with no interceptions.
FS Lamarcus Joyner
It’s been a while since we’ve seen Lamarcus Joyner get extended action at safety. The last time we did, though, he looked pretty darn good.
Joyner was an efficient deep-coverage defender for the Rams when playing free safety for them from 2017-18. The Raiders moved Joyner to slot cornerback from 2019-20 and his production declined.
In 2018, Joyner ranked fourth-best out of 73 qualified safeties with an allowed passer rating of 41.5 in zone coverage. Joyner gave up 8-of-13 passing for 63 yards, zero touchdowns, and one interception. His zone-coverage grade at PFF was 71.0.
In 2017, Joyner ranked No. 1 out of 69 qualifiers with an allowed passer rating of 20.8 in zone coverage. He allowed 6-of-14 passing for 76 yards, zero touchdowns, and two interceptions. It all culminated in an 85.4 zone-coverage grade.
The odds of Joyner getting back to these numbers are probably low. Joyner will turn 32 years old in November and we are talking about numbers from four/five years ago. Plus, he’s coming off a season-ending elbow injury. It would be a pleasant shock for the Jets if Joyner were able to reclaim his status as a top-end starting free safety.
But if Joyner can just be an above-average zone defender in the deep parts of the field, the Jets will gladly accept that. They simply need him to hold the fort down while they continue searching for a long-term answer at the position.
Related Article: Film Breakdown: Revisiting Lamarcus Joyner's days as a safety
CB Bryce Hall
Bryce Hall seems likely to serve as the Jets’ No. 3 cornerback on the outside. Hall is coming off a respectable season as the Jets’ No. 1 corner in just his second year, so his low placement on the depth chart is a testament to how strong this unit has become.
Hall’s zone-man splits are interesting to dissect. In terms of his overall consistency at preventing yardage, he was clearly better in zone last year. Hall ranked 65th out of 106 qualifiers with 1.45 yards allowed per man-coverage snap. He ranked 33rd with 0.81 yards allowed per zone-coverage snap.
However, Hall had trouble preventing touchdowns in zone whereas he excelled at preventing them in man.
Hall gave up five touchdowns in zone coverage, the most of any cornerback in the NFL. Conversely, Hall gave up zero touchdowns in man coverage. His total of 201 man-coverage snaps without allowing a touchdown was the best among all cornerbacks.
I see Hall as a balanced cornerback in terms of zone and man coverage. As of right now, he can be relied upon for average-to-solid production in either phase. You can hardly ask for more than that out of a team’s No. 3 outside corner.
The Jets are ready to lock down in zone coverage, and it will create a positive ripple effect across all three downs
This Jets defense does not involve many bells and whistles on first and second down. Speaking in a very broad sense, Saleh and Ulbrich’s main goal is to drop seven guys into zone coverage and let the four-man rush go to work. Then they get fancy on third down.
Last year, the Jets’ pass-rush struggled to get going in these early-down situations due largely to the poor coverage behind them. If four rushers are going to create pressure on their own without the help of any blitzers, they need the guys in the back end to buy them some time.
They didn’t get that in 2021.
New York’s Week 5 loss to the Falcons is a perfect example of this. The Jets’ pass-rushers generated a high rate of wins and pressures, but because the coverage behind them was so poor, they never had enough time to turn their wins and pressures into sacks. Matt Ryan spent the entire afternoon completing quick passes against porous zone coverage. He took zero sacks and threw for 342 yards despite great pressure numbers from the Jets’ defensive line.
Now that the Jets have a secondary full of players who excel in zone coverage, the Jets’ pass-rushers will get more opportunities to make some noise on first and second down. In turn, the Jets will create far more third-and-long situations for their opponents than they did last year, allowing them to improve greatly on their No. 27 ranking in third-down defense (44.4%).
Improved zone coverage will change everything for this Jets defense.