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Can the New York Jets survive with a poor run defense?

Bryce Hall, NY Jets, Run Defense, Stats, Rank
Bryce Hall, New York Jets, Getty Images

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”.

New York Jets, Jets X-Factor

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.

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Edward Kirby
2 years ago

Makes you wonder how the Jets beat a run-heavy team like the Titans last year.

2 years ago

Excellent article! I agreed with your hypothesis, and I’m delighted to see that it panned out. While I thought they might sign or draft a DT, I’m glad they went with the players they did. They could still sign or trade for a DT or LB. Coverage LBs are more important than run stuffers, particularly since the Jets have gotten killed over the middle by TEs and RBs seemingly forever.

2 years ago

I think they are also banking on making splash plays in run game periodically throughout game to put offense behind the sticks. Quinnen should blow up his share of plays to make 2nd and 13 or 3rd and 8

Matt Galemmo
2 years ago

As it happens so often when analyzing data, the answer to your hypothesis gives me so many more questions! What is the win percentage of teams with top-10 passing defenses but bottom-10 run defenses? Does that win percentage change if you look at the efficacy of the opponent’s run game? Are there any examples of teams excelling while having a bottom-10 run defense, and if so, what characteristics do they share?

Most of all, I’d love it if you could tell me how that win percentage changes when you consider rushing touchdowns against. My hypothesis is that teams that give up above average yards against the run while somehow being better than average at preventing rushing touchdowns will significantly surpass that .412. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn there are some superbowl contenders in that group.

I’d like to believe that, like the Jets have built a defense for third down, they’ve also built a defense for the red zone. If they choose to play man-to-man with Whitehead in the box and a single high safety, using the back line of the end zone strategically, then what does their run defense look like? Could they be a bottom-10 run defense by yards, but an average run defense in rushing TDs against?

Matt Galemmo
2 years ago
Reply to  Michael Nania

Wow! Thanks for looking.

Barney Miller
2 years ago
Reply to  Matt Galemmo

Great article and conversation guys. I watched one of Saleh’s pressers the other day and he kept talking about how the new additions on D, both the line/edge plus the secondary, was about “3rd down” effectiveness. But I wanted one of the beat reporters to ask, “But what if you never get to 3rd down?”. You guys just kinda’ answered it for me. They may not get to third down between the 20 yard lines, but if they can get to 3rd down in the red zone and then get a stop (or occasionally a sack and/or turnover), then maybe it’s survivable. That’s basically it right?

Saleh was also talking about toughness in the red zone. So maybe this is the stopgap plan for this year. A bend but don’t break philosophy on D. And a “take what they give you” style on O (i.e. less Zach trying to be mini-holmes with crazy super tight window throws and more hand offs to RBs and dump offs to the new big TE’s.)

Does this make sense?

Barney Miller
2 years ago
Reply to  Michael Nania

Makes sense. Are you at all worried that the run defense might actually be WORSE than last year?

2 years ago
Reply to  Michael Nania

Great article Michael. One thing that keeps coming up though and you stated this in your closing above, is there is a need at LB in addition to DT. I dont think this is the case. Mosely is VERY good esp in run game. The issue has been Quincy at times overrunning the hole or more importantly, the DL not being able to keep the LB’s clean. In addition, DT’s shepp and Rankins are blown off ball 5-8 yards downfield which creates creases that LB’s cannot fill. Saleh has basically said as much. if DT’s were better then LB’s would be better in run game.

in year 2 in system and a full off-season the run defense hinges on 2 guys right now. Quincy taking a leap and Shepp being servicable. According to Saleh, Shepp played MUCH better in 2nd half of season. He thinks he was able to understadn scheme more and play faster. They are banking on that carrying over into this year. He’s big enough at 315lb’s.

The last bit of wishful thinking in Jonathan Marshall. He is Big, strong and inredibly athletic but unfortunately those traits havent helped him understand run game – even at Arkansas. I believe he will take those traits and become a really good interior pass rusher in time. However is he can become just average in run game, then we will be significantly better overall against run.

The problem is our 1 tech DT primarily and oour SAM LB. I bet Quincy makes leap and that leave one position to fix next year. Also remember they were really high on Sherwood so we will see.

Barney Miller
2 years ago
Reply to  Michael Nania

Just love these conversations. As a casual fan most of my life it’s good to learn about how all the pieces fit. You hear terms like “Revis island”, but these discussions remind us that football, more than baseball and even more than basketball, is the ultimate team game. Line connects with LBers which connects with the secondary. The fact that a DT being double teamed or even just “filling a gap” gives time for a LB or safety to make the play is so important, right? (Does it sound like I’m getting it?) Hard to see that when you don’t understand the assignments. Thanks for the lesson ‘yall!

2 years ago

Agreed, but now is the time to address this area, or they are going to see a steady diet of run plays. Just extend This season!