The New York Jets will likely need to work around a shaky run defense. Can they do it successfully?
Many facets of the New York Jets‘ roster are headed in the right direction. However, the defensive run game is one area where the Jets still have a long way to go.
New York ranked 32nd in rush defense DVOA* (defense-adjusted value over average, via Football Outsiders) during the 2021 regular season. This offseason’s events did not inspire confidence that the Jets will significantly improve that ranking in 2022.
*- DVOA is a great statistic for evaluating team performance quality in specific areas of the game, as it accounts for different variables to evaluate each facet of the game independent of other facets. It is a per-play efficiency metric that compares the result of each play to the expected result based on down, distance, situation, and opponent quality.
While the Jets made substantial improvements to their run-stopping talent at the cornerback and safety positions – adding good run defenders in Jordan Whitehead, D.J. Reed, and Sauce Gardner – they did little to improve their run-stopping in the trenches, which is where run defense is most important.
Between the linebacker, defensive tackle, and edge rusher positions, the Jets only added one player who is known for providing good run defense: first-round edge rusher Jermaine Johnson (who is a rookie and thus is not a guarantee to succeed in Year 1).
The Jets didn’t do anything to upgrade their run defense at linebacker or defensive tackle, two positions where they had major woes in the run game. In fact, their up-the-middle run defense is arguably worse when you consider that they lost solid run-stuffing nose tackle Foley Fatukasi to free agency.
All things considered, there is a real chance that the Jets’ run defense only improves slightly over last year’s struggles. The second-level security will be better, but the first-level gap-plugging seems poised to be a consistent issue once again. Another bottom-10 finish in rush defense DVOA feels likely.
However, with so many holes on their roster entering this offseason, the Jets had to choose a few holes to punt into 2023. They couldn’t fix everything.
And as I argued a few weeks back, I believe that the Jets were wise to choose run-defense as the weakness they were willing to deal with for the time being.
In my opinion, if I were in charge of the Jets right now, I’d rather my team lack run-stuffing linebackers and defensive tackles than lack things like good cover corners (Reed), explosive edge rushers (Johnson), quality starting guards (Laken Tomlinson), or offensive weapons that support Zach Wilson (Breece Hall, C.J. Uzomah, Tyler Conklin, etc.).
That was my hypothesis. I wanted to put that claim to the test.
I looked at each of the past two NFL seasons and analyzed the combined records of teams who finished in the bottom-10 of rush defense DVOA, pass defense DVOA, rush offense DVOA, and pass offense DVOA.
How much does it hurt a team to struggle in each facet of the game? Is it more manageable to struggle in some facets than others? These are the questions I wanted to answer.
Seen below are the results. Here are the combined win percentages of 2020’s bottom-10 DVOA finishers and 2021’s bottom-10 DVOA finishers in each of the four phases of the game (giving us 20 total teams for each group):
- Rush Defense bottom-10 finishers: 0.412 (7.0-win pace)
- Rush Offense bottom-10 finishers: 0.408 (6.9-win pace)
- Pass Defense bottom-10 finishers: 0.383 (6.5-win pace)
- Pass Offense bottom-10 finishers: 0.321 (5.5-win pace)
My hypothesis turned out to be true. Stopping the run is the “best” thing to be bad at. Bottom-10 finishers in that category had a better record than bottom-10 finishers in the other three facets of the game.
Rushing defense (0.412) only barely beats out rushing offense (0.408), but from a roster-construction standpoint (as it pertains to the Jets in particular), the gap in importance is widened when you consider that rushing offense directly affects the quarterback and the Jets badly need to support their young franchise quarterback in any way possible.
A sizable gap separates rushing offense from passing defense, and an enormous gap separates passing defense from passing offense.
These numbers seem to support the modern-day NFL theories of “passing > rushing” and “offense > defense”.
Now, none of this is to say that having a bad run defense means your team is likely to succeed. Only four of the 20 bottom-10 rush defenses in the data sample finished their season with a winning record. It just means that it’s an easier weakness to work around than any of the other three facets.
I don’t think many people are expecting the Jets to be a playoff team, but most observers would consider a passable record in the 7-to-9 win range to be a good stepping stone into the future. Luckily for New York, it seems a win total in that range is still plausible to attain with a bad run defense. Of the 20 bottom-10 run defenses over the past two years, 10 of them had at least seven wins and 7 of them had at least eight wins.
Failing to stop the run will certainly limit the Jets’ ceiling this year (if, of course, they actually do struggle in that area). With that being said, it’s a more manageable weakness than anything else. The Jets made the right call to choose it as the hole to bypass with their premium assets in this crucial offseason.
Next offseason, stopping the run can take center stage.