The New York Jets defense took a step back in Northeastern Ohio
Robert Saleh and Jeff Ulbrich‘s defense was the silver lining of the New York Jets‘ season-opening loss to Baltimore. The unit rose to the occasion against a talented offense it matched up poorly against.
However, most of the positive momentum the New York defense generated in Week 1 flew out the window in Week 2.
The Jets pulled off an odds-defying comeback in the last two minutes against the Cleveland Browns, but prior to that miraculous turn of events, they were about to take a multi-score loss in which the defense would have received the majority of the blame.
Cleveland generated 405 yards of offense and converted 8-of-12 third downs. The Browns were highly efficient in both phases, rushing for 184 yards on 37 carries (5.0 yards per carry) and passing for 229 yards on 27 attempts (8.5 yards per pass attempt).
Let’s discuss some of the most notable question marks that arose from this disappointing performance.
Coverage at linebacker
The Jets’ linebacker trio of C.J. Mosley, Quincy Williams, and Kwon Alexander had a rough game against Jacoby Brissett’s dink-and-dunk passing attack. Whether it was on screen passes, dump-offs, or short routes over the middle, New York’s linebackers couldn’t stop anything through the air.
When targeting Mosley, Williams, or Alexander, Brissett completed 10 of 11 passes for 111 yards and 6 first downs. The only incompletion was a wide-open drop by tight end David Njoku in which he beat Mosley for a gain of at least 10 yards and a first down.
Alexander has been a reliable coverage defender throughout his career and should prove to be a solid player in that phase this season. He only allowed one of those first downs. Mosley and Williams are the question marks. Williams coughed up three first downs and Mosley gave up two (should have been three).
I think Mosley still does a good job in zone coverage. He is a smart player who excels at reading route concepts and has an innate feel of where to position himself to shut down routes in his area. Where Mosley struggles at this point of his career is in situations when he is challenged one-on-one.
Going to back last year, Mosley has struggled when he has had to pick up a route and cover it man-to-man. When tight ends or running backs get a chance to square him up, he simply does not have the quickness to stay with them on horizontal breaks. This is how Njoku toasted him for a should-be first down; getting Mosley to bite outside before cutting back inside.
Williams is still struggling with screens, as he did last year. His pursuit angles are far from ideal. Most notably, on a third-and-7 play with 2:22 to go in the fourth quarter while the Jets were looking to stop Cleveland from icing the game, Williams got pancaked in the open field and coughed up 11 yards on a screen to Kareem Hunt.
Free safety Lamarcus Joyner was the only starter on the Jets’ defense who had a noticeably poor game against Baltimore. Joyner followed it up with another bad game on the shores of Lake Erie.
Joyner was credited with a whopping total of four missed tackles, tying for the lead among all NFL safeties in Week 2. One of those actually proved to be a good thing, as Joyner let Nick Chubb score a fourth-quarter touchdown that opened the door for the Jets’ comeback. Obviously, though, it’s not as if Joyner was trying to do that. He whiffed. Joyner is proving to be an incredibly unreliable last line of defense.
On a Cleveland touchdown pass from Brissett to Amari Cooper, Joyner (in the slot) and Sauce Gardner (outside) appeared to botch a match coverage against two receivers (WR/RB). Joyner followed the running back into the flat while Gardner also stayed outside rather than following Cooper inside, leaving Cooper wide open on the slant.
Gardner was probably the man at fault, but nonetheless, you’d like the team’s veteran free safety to do a better job of making sure his rookie cornerback knows what’s going on. There was a lot of talking in the back-end prior to the play, with Joyner pointing out instructions to multiple teammates while Gardner appeared slightly confused. Joyner and Gardner immediately started chatting after the play was over. It’s clear they were not on the same page. You start a veteran free safety to avoid situations like this.
Jordan Whitehead also had a poor outing. He matched Joyner’s total of four missed tackles. In coverage, he was targeted twice and allowed two catches for 37 yards and two first downs. Both catches were yielded to Browns tight end Harrison Bryant.
It’s clear that safety is the Jets’ weakest defensive position.
Interior defensive line vs. gap runs
I don’t think there is any particular part of the defense that is most at fault for the Browns’ electric rushing performance. Just about every player had a part in it. The defensive backs missed tackles and couldn’t contain the edge. The linebackers did not take great angles.
However, I specifically want to discuss the interior defensive line here.
This game exposed all of the run-stopping concerns about the Jets’ group of defensive tackles. Cleveland showed that gap-blocking concepts will still steamroll the Jets with ease, and it is largely because of the DTs. Outside of Quinnen Williams, New York is loaded with smaller DTs who play highly aggressive football with little discipline or gap-control ability. Teams that like to pull their offensive linemen can easily punish the Jets’ DTs for their playstyle.
Guys like Nathan Shepherd and Solomon Thomas are predictable to block, especially in this Jets scheme where their style of play is encouraged. Opponents know they are just going to explode off the ball with reckless abandon and pursue straight downhill. So, they allow them to do so and then seal them out of the play, clearing big lanes right up the middle.
Sheldon Rankins typically falls in the same boat as Shepherd and Thomas, but I have to give him some credit this time around. Rankins quietly had himself a good day in Cleveland, even as a run defender. Rankins showed that an aggressive, athletic gap-shooter can be successful against the run in this scheme if the athleticism and aggression are paired with discipline and awareness.
Quiet start for pass rush
We’ve yet to see the Jets’ vaunted pass-rush have its breakout game.
In Week 1, the unit had a legitimate excuse for its lack of pass-rush production as it had to adjust its playstyle for the dangers of Lamar Jackson. The Jets’ defensive front lightened up its aggression, focusing on containing Jackson in the pocket and staying ready for any option plays that threaten the edge. This strategy was effective as the Jets held the Ravens to their lowest rushing yardage total with Jackson as their starting quarterback.
But in Week 2, the Jets’ defensive line got plenty of opportunities to pin its ears back and go. They just couldn’t win. The Jets picked up only one sack and four hits on Brissett over his 32 dropbacks.
Brissett had the luxury of being pressured on the 13th-lowest percentage of his dropbacks among all QBs in Week 2 (28.1%) despite holding the ball for the 7th-longest amount of time per dropback (2.93 seconds).
If a QB is taking pressure at a low frequency while holding the ball for a long time on average, it’s a sign that his offensive line was pass-blocking tremendously. As an example of how rare it is to see such a combination, Brissett was one of only three quarterbacks in Week 2 who ranked top-13 in both of the aforementioned categories. Jalen Hurts and Lamar Jackson were the others.
Carl Lawson and Quinnen Williams paired up for a big sack in the fourth quarter that knocked the Browns out of field goal range. Other than that, it was a quiet day for the Jets’ top pass rushers. The sack was Williams’s lone pressure on 20 pass-rush snaps. Lawson had only one other pressure outside of the sack across 22 pass-rush snaps.
Jacob Martin might have been the Jets’ most consistent winner up front. He had two pressures on only 13 pass-rush snaps. However, Martin struggled to finish, as he missed some point-blank chances to take down Brissett in the backfield.
This is an elite Browns offensive line – maybe the best in the NFL – so it’s not as if the Jets were stomped by a bunch of slouches. With that being said, the Jets have invested heavily in this defensive line in hopes that it can compete with any offensive line in the NFL. If the group isn’t going to rise to the occasion against great opponents, the Jets will have trouble defeating teams with top-notch offensive lines. They rely extremely heavily on their four-man rush to win without the blitz. When that’s not happening, they struggle to succeed – as we saw in this game.
Luckily for New York’s defensive linemen, the next offensive line on their schedule is much less formidable than Cleveland’s. The Cincinnati Bengals’ offensive line ranks 25th in pass-blocking efficiency this season, per Pro Football Focus. Bengals QB Joe Burrow has taken a league-leading 13 sacks.
Next Sunday will provide a golden opportunity to feast. For now, some slack can be cut for this pass-rush considering its first two opponents, but if it can’t have a destructive outing against Cincinnati, Jets fans will have every right to be disappointed.