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How the NY Jets can win with a poor run defense: By the numbers

Robert Saleh, New York Jets, Run Defense, Rank, Stats
Robert Saleh, New York Jets, Getty Images

Diving into the advanced numbers, we begin to find some patterns of how the New York Jets can still win in 2022 if their run defense is poor

Heading into the 2022 offseason, the New York Jets’ roster was riddled with holes. Joe Douglas has done a masterful job of replenishing the roster with talent through free agency and the draft. If there were an Executive of the Offseason award, Douglas would be a top candidate.

Still, the Super Bowl is not won in the offseason. There was also no way the four-win Jets were going to plug every single hole in their roster overnight.

The Jets’ run defense appears to remain an issue entering 2022. However, as Jets X-Factor’s Michael Nania detailed, poor run defense is a relatively manageable team weakness.

Teams can still win with a poor run defense. But how do they do it?

Let’s find out by taking a deeper look at some patterns in the NFL over the past 10 seasons. I chose that cutoff to get a large sample size but also stay within the timeframe in which passing offense exploded.

How teams win games despite struggling to stop the run

One of the statistics I use in my analysis is DVOA, or Defense-adjusted Value Over Average. This statistic from Football Outsiders ranks each team’s offense, defense, and special teams value compared to the league average, adjusted for opponent. (Ignore the word “defense” or replace it with “opponent” if it is confusing.)

Another is EPA, or Expected Points Added. It measures how well a player or team performed on a play based on what was expected in that situation. Expectation values are calculated based on historical in-game performance in the given situation.

In the last 10 seasons, teams who ranked in the bottom quarter of the league in rush defense DVOA averaged 6.94 victories yearly. The number is remarkably similar when ranking EPA; the bottom quarter of the league averaged 6.97 wins per year.

To contextualize that, teams who ranked in the bottom quarter of the league in pass defense DVOA averaged 5.76 victories per season, and 4.97 wins when in the bottom quarter of the league in pass defense EPA. This indicates that pass defense is more important than rush defense in the win equation.

When you break it down further, teams who ranked between 9th and 24th in defensive rush DVOA averaged 7.90 victories per season. Again, the number was remarkably consistent with EPA rankings and average win total; in this EPA ranking range, the average number of victories was 7.94. The number was 8.25 wins in the same range for pass defense DVOA and 8.32 for pass defense EPA.

There were 30 teams that ranked in the bottom quarter of the NFL in rush defense but still finished with a .500 record or better. On average, those teams ranked 10th in offensive passing DVOA and 11th in offensive rushing DVOA. They averaged middle-of-the-pack pass defense.

Therefore, it appears that when fielding a subpar run defense, overall offensive prowess is the way that teams managed to be moderately successful.

As the win total increases, each of those three numbers also increases, but none more prominently than offensive passing DVOA. Teams who cannot stop the run are still able to win games at an elite level by fielding explosive pass offenses. That is hardly a new insight in today’s NFL landscape, but the DVOA numbers prove it.

Assuming that the Jets’ run defense is putrid, Zach Wilson would need to take a leap for the team to win at least nine games. Many project that the Jets’ rushing attack will be in the top 10 in the league. This leaves the pressure almost solely on the quarterback’s shoulders if the run defense fails.

A more realistic target is a rush defense that ranks below average but not horrific (between 16th and 24th). In that case, teams who won eight or nine games averaged a rank of 16th in pass defense DVOA, 17th in pass offense DVOA, and 17th rush offense DVOA.

With a run defense in the 16-to-24 range, the Jets can approach .500 if they hover around league average in each of the other three categories.

The rankings were similar when looking at EPA data, although the average pass defense EPA rank was slightly higher (13th).

To win 10+ games in this defensive scenario (ranking 16th to 24th against the run), the average DVOA rank for passing offense is 8.95. This may be outside realistic expectations for the Jets this season. It’s possible that the rushing offense and pass defense can decrease the reliance on Wilson just a bit. Still, he will need to play at near Pro Bowl level for the Jets to compete for the playoffs with a somewhat-below-average run defense.

I decided to look at red zone statistics to see if there is a “bend but not break” trend among winning teams with bad run defenses. I did not find any particular correlation. Winning teams with bad run defenses have averaged a middle-of-the-pack ranking in red zone touchdown percentage (16th).

This is similar to every other group with average or below average run defenses, regardless of the number of wins. Winning with a bad pass defense is not affected by red zone defense, either; the red zone TD percentage is similar to that of teams with worse records (anywhere between 15th-18th league-wide).

Overall, a strong two-way offense can camouflage a bad run defense. The biggest question for the team will be if Zach Wilson can take significant strides. If the defense stays near league average, though, the Jets have a good chance to compete for a winning season.

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1 year ago

Statistically I definitely embrace the article but scheme wise and definitely player position (location On the field)for the Jets is not good. Just go back to the Colts game they destroyed us within the first 7 yards. The constant switching of DLine personnel is not a bad concept but you can’t play chess if your not in a constant flow as a player. Some players play better as the game goes on because they are constantly in on at least 70% of the snapps

1 year ago

I’d have to see a little more statistics regarding defensive ratings per run play, not just overall to be convinced by this analysis. As everyone knows, teams run the ball most when they’ve got a lead, and even more when they have a large lead. So overall statistics can be skewed according to which teams had enough offense to keep up with scoring. That was absolutely not the Jets last year, so teams ran a lot against them, and that may have accounted for their poor run defense statistics. I say may have because I suspect statistics will show they rated poorly on a per-run basis as well as overall, but I would to see those statistics.