The New York Jets are winning close games, but they still haven’t scratched the surface of their potential
The New York Jets are 2-2. That’s something I believe any fan would have signed up for prior to the season, especially considering the team’s AFC North gauntlet to open the schedule. Toss in Zach Wilson‘s injury and the Jets’ 2-2 record is an absolute godsend in the eyes of many.
However, the Jets are still far off from playing their best football. They stole a pair of games in which they were trailing by double-digits in the fourth quarter and lost a pair of games that did not feel very competitive. All told, they still have the league’s fourth-worst point differential (-25).
In some ways, this is encouraging. They’re a .500 team even though they have not come close to playing at the level many people think they are capable of. If their best is yet to come, these two bonus wins will prove to be extremely valuable at the end of the year.
In other ways, this is discouraging. If this is who the 2022 Jets really are, and they do not improve as the season goes on, they will eventually pay for it. They’re probably not going to continue pulling out every close game they find themselves in.
Things will even out. If you get blown out (multi-score losses) in half of your games and the other half are close games, you’re only “supposed” to win half of those close games, making you somewhere around a .250 kind of team.
The key for New York is eliminating the multi-score losses and picking up more multi-score victories of their own. This way, they protect themselves from the coin-flip nature of close games. If you want to have a good record at the end of the season, you have to win more blowouts than you lose. It’s very risky to continue relying on your ability to win games that come down to a handful of plays.
With all of that in mind, let’s analyze two of the biggest negatives from the Jets’ win over Pittsburgh. These issues were some of the primary reasons New York nearly lost to Kenny Pickett, and they are among the main things the Jets need to improve going forward if they want to play sharper football.
1. The Laken Tomlinson conundrum
The Jets have a Laken Tomlinson problem on their hands. Tomlinson is the highest-paid player on the Jets offense in terms of the total value of his contract ($40 million). Yet, he is arguably the team’s worst offensive player at the moment.
Tomlinson continues to be a liability for the Jets offensive line in both the pass and run games. He’s taking clean losses in pass protection that put the quarterback in immediate danger. In the run game, he often gives up disruptive penetration that muddies the running back’s path.
Pro Football Focus’s grading system can spit out some wonky conclusions, but I think they are on the money with Tomlinson. They have him ranked as the NFL’s third-worst left guard this season. That’s very accurate based on his film.
I am having a hard time deducing the main problem with Tomlinson since he is losing reps in so many ways. Tomlinson will duck his head and get beat with a swim move over the top. He will come in with wide hands and get bull rushed. He will be late to pick up a looper on a stunt. It’s baffling to watch such poor technique from a reigning Pro Bowler with 108 career starts.
Jets fans watching the Pittsburgh game witnessed a shaky performance from the offensive line. The easiest explanation for that performance was the team’s injury woes. But none of the guys involved in the game of musical chairs were the main problem. It was Tomlinson. He was responsible for many of the stuffed runs and pressured dropbacks that Jets fans screamed at their TVs about.
That’s not to pit all of the blame on Tomlinson – other guys struggled against the Steelers too – but he certainly took the most losses of any Jets offensive lineman in Pittsburgh.
The Jets badly need Tomlinson to get back on track. It is understood that other parts of this offensive line will struggle due to the onslaught of injuries. But Tomlinson is supposed to be someone they can lean on. He was brought in to be a steady, durable, and consistent veteran who knows how to succeed in this scheme. Instead, Tomlinson is just as much of a problem as anyone else.
This offensive line would take such a massive step forward if he returns to his previous form. At the very least, it’s encouraging for Jets fans to know that the unit has a realistic path to significant improvement in the form of Tomlinson, who is capable of providing much better production than he currently is.
I wonder how long the Jets will allow this to go on before thinking about making a change. Considering Tomlinson’s contract, I think he still has plenty of weeks left until the Jets even think about switching things up – especially when you throw in the plethora of offensive line changes they are already dealing with. Maybe they won’t want to create even more continuity issues.
But Tomlinson is playing so poorly that I think the Jets will have to at least consider doing something about it if he does not turn it around. Right now, he is struggling to a problematic degree.
2. Get off the field!
Third down is crushing the Jets’ defense. It’s frustrating to watch since the Jets are actually doing a nice job on first and second down.
New York is allowing 4.8 yards per play on first and second down plays. That ranks 11th-best in the NFL. Because of this early-downs success, the Jets are forcing their opponents into an average to-go distance of 7.2 yards on third down, which ranks 10th-best.
Despite setting themselves up in great situations on third down, the Jets defense cannot stop letting teams convert. New York ranks 31st on third down, allowing teams to convert 51.0% of the time.
This story continued against Pittsburgh. The Jets forced the Steelers into an average to-go distance of 6.7 yards on third down – not far off from their season average of 7.2. Yet, the Steelers converted on 6-of-12 (50.0%) third down plays.
I searched feverishly for parties to label as the main culprits for this issue. But I instead stumbled upon data that will make Jets fans optimistic.
When analyzing the Jets’ third-down metrics, there are many reasons to believe the Jets actually might be victims of bad luck in this department.
Per NFL NextGen Stats, the Jets have allowed the second-lowest target separation on third-down pass attempts at only 2.2 yards (NFL average on third down: 3.0). Basically, this means that the Jets are forcing teams to throw into tight windows on third down.
Additionally, the Jets have created pressure on the second-highest rate of third-down pass plays at 50.0%, per NFL NextGen Stats.
With tight coverage and a high frequency of pressure, the Jets are making things difficult for their opponents on third down. Maybe they’ve just been victimized by incredibly good execution by opposing offenses. If that’s the case, things are due to start going their way more often in the future.
For example, check out this third-and-4 completion by Pittsburgh in which Kenny Pickett connects with George Pickens. C.J. Mosley gets into the backfield pretty quickly and D.J. Reed can hardly cover Pickens any better, but it’s just a perfect throw and catch.
Kenny Pickett to George Pickens 🎯
That sounds nice to say, doesn’t it? pic.twitter.com/zJHNYmhnjR
— PFF PIT Steelers (@PFF_Steelers) October 2, 2022
Sometimes, there isn’t anything a defense can do. I think the Jets have been beaten by perfect offensive execution at an unusually frequent rate so far.
Of the eight teams who have generated a pressure rate above 40% on third down this season, the Jets’ allowed passer rating of 122.6 on third down is the worst by a large margin – 14.4 points ahead of the next team. The other seven teams combined for an average allowed passer rating of 79.1. This showcases just how unusual the Jets’ third-down failures are for a team that is generating this much pressure.
I know it sounds like a cop-out to chalk up the Jets’ third-down woes to bad luck rather than blaming anyone or making suggestions on how to improve. But there is real evidence in both the data and the film that the Jets have just been catching some bad breaks. Crazy outliers can happen in a small sample of four football games.
If these issues continue to drag on throughout the season, it will be time to start to pitting blame. For now, I think most signs suggest the Jets defense’s third-down conversion rate will regress to the mean sooner rather than later.