Some of these players must maintain their level of play, while others need to step it up
New York Jets fans are all talked out about 6-3: They’re thinking playoffs.
Yes, those playoffs that the Jets haven’t sniffed in seven seasons and haven’t made in 11. If the season ended today, the Jets would be the No. 5 seed in the AFC and head into Baltimore for a rematch with the Ravens in the Wild Card Round. That’s a tough matchup.
However, the division is in sight. If the Jets win against the Patriots, they’ll be 7-3 and in first place via the tiebreaker over Miami and Buffalo, no matter what the Bills do against the Browns. If they lose, though, and the Bills win, the Jets will be in last place. It’s crazy that the No. 2 seed in the AFC is within just as close grasp as last place in the division. That’s how competitive the AFC East is this season. It’s never easy for the Jets.
If New York truly wants to compete for the division, or at bare minimum maintain pace for a wild card berth, they’ll need many key contributions. According to Football Outsiders, the Jets faced the second-toughest strength of schedule through the first nine games, and that goes down ever so slightly to fifth in the second half of the season.
While the good news is that their division opponents also face fairly tough schedules (third, eighth, and 11th for New England, Miami, and Buffalo, respectively), given the competition in the division, the Jets will need players other than their biggest stars to step up. While anything can happen, players like Quinnen Williams, Sauce Gardner, and D.J. Reed‘s contributions are expected and taken for granted.
It’s the non-Pro Bowlers whose contributions will be even more critical. Some are playing well, while others are underachieving. Here we rank the five biggest X-factors for the Jets down the stretch, the players who can make the difference between a win or loss without a large level of fanfare.
5. Michael Carter II
The Jets’ slot corner has established himself as a home run pick by Joe Douglas. The 2021 fifth-rounder is one of the better slot corners in the game in only his second season.
As Michael Nania detailed today, Michael Carter II would rank third in the NFL among slot corners with a 64.6 passer rating allowed if not for two boneheaded plays by his teammates (a John Franklin-Myers roughing the passer penalty erasing an interception and a missed tackle by Jordan Whitehead causing a 53-yard touchdown on a short pass). Remove just the missed tackle by Whitehead, and he would still be sixth at 75.8.
With the success of both Reed and Gardner on the outside, opponents have sought other ways to beat the Jets. Although the two outside corners each have 46 targets, Carter II is close behind them with 39. I expect that number to increase as quarterbacks recognize that due to the makeup speed that both Gardner and Reed possess, “open” against the two of them is different than against the average cornerback.
In response, turning to slot receivers, running backs, and tight ends is the natural response. Carter II is often covering the slot man-to-man or playing as a hook-curl defender in the middle of the field. As a result, his targets may increase significantly. Carter II has proven himself capable, but his continued strong play is a key cog in maintaining the Jets’ stout defense.
Additionally, one of the Jets’ defensive weaknesses has been third down. They rank 22nd in allowing a 42.06% conversion rate on the money down, which has hurt them in the time of possession and field position games. For a team that is constructed around pass rush and cornerback play, this particular stat can hurt the Jets significantly down the stretch. The slot is often targeted on third down; as the nearest defender in coverage in those situations, Carter II has allowed 10/13 receptions for 163 yards (12.5 YPR) with 1 TD and 1 INT on 73 cover snaps, per NFL Next Gen Stats. He will need to stand tall for the Jets to get off the field.
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4. Quincy Williams
Quincy Williams has improved significantly in the run game this year. He may be the single biggest reason why the Jets’ run defense has improved so dramatically. His run-play tackling has actually been pretty stellar, as his 6.1% missed tackle rate against the run is in the 78th percentile among 72 linebackers (min. 100 run defense snaps). His stop rate of 10.8% is tied for fifth (93rd percentile). Note: a defensive stop is a play made that results in a “failure” by the offense, i.e., gaining less than 40% of the required yardage on first down, 60% on second down, or 100% on 3rd/4th down.
Just to illustrate the difference, last season Williams was in the 41st percentile with a 10.1% missed tackle rate on run plays. Although he was stellar with an 8.4% stop rate (78th percentile), even that has improved by a significant margin.
However, it’s in coverage that Quincy struggles:
- His missed tackle rate in coverage is a whopping 26.9%, which is in just the 5th percentile among 75 linebackers (min. 100 coverage snaps).
- It’s a testament to the Jets’ backup tackling that Williams ranks 12th-best in YAC allowed per reception at 4.7 (tied with Kwon Alexander).
- He’s 11th-worst, though, in allowing an 86.8% catch rate (albeit at an average depth of target of just 3.1 yards, tied for the 16th-shortest).
- He’s allowing only 8.2 yards per reception (73rd percentile), but that’s largely a function of his short ADOT.
- Overall, quarterbacks have a 104.9 passer rating when targeting him, which is in the 27th percentile.
- As the nearest defender in coverage on third down, he’s allowed 5 receptions on 5 targets for 36 yards (29 total cover snaps) per Next Gen Stats.
Those coverage numbers may be largely responsible for the Jets’ struggles in getting off the field. Quincy is often late getting over to cover the running back, giving him easy leverage. The Jets have been lucky on a few occasions that big plays did not result from Williams’s poor coverage.
The Jets will gladly take Quincy’s improved run defense, but unless they decide to play Kwon Alexander over Quincy in nickel and dime packages, he will need to improve at least marginally in coverage for the defense to succeed.
3. Elijah Moore
I originally put the Jets’ safeties here, but I think both of those guys are who they are. The Jets knew their safeties were going to be liabilities, and they’re doing an admirable job covering up the weaknesses with their pass rushers.
However, the offensive side of the ball is the part that has been struggling more and therefore needs its playmakers to step it up. It’s easy to say that the Jets have had other playmakers get involved and they don’t really need Elijah Moore. However, I don’t believe this is the case.
The Jets will need to get production from both outside and the slot in order to give Zach Wilson the best chance of success. Fans may be satisfied with Braxton Berrios’s performance there, but Berrios does not win as consistently as you’d like, particularly on deeper routes. Watch Berrios’s drop against Denver and his inability to get open against New England on third down; those were critical plays that the Jets did not convert.
Garrett Wilson may be the Jets’ best slot receiver, but he’s also their best X receiver right now. Additionally, we have seen Wilson break off routes too short or show a lack of awareness of the sticks on third down; Moore has not shown that weakness. Moore can become a security blanket for Zach Wilson, the guy who gets open and allows Wilson to get the ball out before pressure comes his way. Furthermore, his YAC ability rivals Berrios’s and Garrett Wilson’s closely.
For a Jets’ offense that ranks 29th in the NFL with a 33.6% third-down conversion rate, it’s critical that they don’t sleep on their biggest playmaker from last season. What the Jets decide to do with Moore in the offseason is a story for after this year ends. Right now, it’s all hands on deck in the development of Zach Wilson.
2. Laken Tomlinson
Joe Douglas likely has not had a more disappointing free-agent signing in his tenure as the Jets’ general manager, at least thus far. Laken Tomlinson was signed to provide Top 10-15 level of guard play, and instead he’s playing like one of the worst guards in the NFL. With Connor McGovern and the combination of Alijah Vera-Tucker and Nate Herbig both performing capably to excellently at the other interior offensive line positions, the blame for all the pressure Zach Wilson has faced up the middle lies overwhelmingly on Tomlinson’s shoulders.
It’s not just that Tomlinson’s numbers are so bad, either (although they are). It’s not even just that he’s getting beat. It’s how he often seems to have no clue what his assignment is or totally whiff on his block. Even on James Robinson’s screen pass touchdown reception against Buffalo, Tomlinson turned an otherwise perfectly-blocked play into a potential tackle short of the goal line by whiffing on the safety.
Statistically, Tomlinson is in the 21st percentile among 66 guards (min. 275 block snaps) with 20 pressures allowed and a 5.4% pressure rate. Although he has not been charged with any sacks or hits allowed this season, he lets rushers get into the quarterback’s face way too often.
According to Sports Info Solutions, Tomlinson has 14 blown blocks this season, the 12th-most among guards. The majority of those (9) have been in the run game, which is the third-highest guard total. It’s all the more impressive that Breece Hall averaged 5.8 yards per carry running behind Tomlinson.
With all the turmoil the Jets have faced at the tackle position, it’s going to be critical for Tomlinson to turn it around. The Jets are far more successful running outside than between the tackles this season (5.7 YPC between the tackles vs. 3.8 outside, per Next Gen Stats), and their left guard is the main reason why. The Jets love Laken for his leadership, but it’s time for his play to come close to matching his $13 million price tag.
1. Zach Wilson
It’s hard to call a quarterback an X-factor nowadays, but considering that the Jets are 5-1 with Zach Wilson‘s overall below-average play, the team has clearly been winning in spite of him. (Note to Wilson lovers: wins are not a quarterback stat.)
That being said, Wilson’s play against Buffalo showcased exactly what the Jets need from him to be successful: mediocre, mostly mistake-free ball. Get the ball out quickly; take the yards on the ground; step up and don’t run backward; throw it away.
Wilson is actually around the current league average in yards per attempt (7.1) at 7.2. That’s up significantly from his 6.1 mark in his rookie year and is likely a product of having better weapons at his disposal. Although Wilson averaged 8.7 vs. New England and just 6.2 against Buffalo, the Jets would far prefer the latter to the former. Wilson must recognize this. Yes, the Jets will want him to push the ball downfield at times, but not at the expense of protecting the ball.
If Wilson throws a punt on third down, the Jets can live with it. If he throws it into triple coverage on third down and allows a 40-yard runback, that cripples the team’s chances of winning. Zach must be smart with the football.
I’m not going to dig even more deeply into the numbers since we’ve done nothing but that for most of the season. However, Zach Wilson’s ability to play like Jimmy Garoppolo with more mobility and accuracy outside the numbers will likely decide the Jets’ season fate, both in the regular season and, hopefully, the postseason.