The New York Jets have to mitigate some tough mismatches in Minnesota
We at Jets X-Factor have already spent quite a bit of time explaining some of the areas where the New York Jets have an advantage over the Minnesota Vikings. Now, it’s time to flip the script. Where do the 9-2 Vikings have an advantage?
These three matchups favor Minnesota.
Dalvin Cook vs. Jets’ linebackers and safeties
Vikings running back Dalvin Cook is having an excellent season on the ground. He is sixth among all players in rushing yards (841) while averaging an efficient 4.7 yards per carry.
Cook is one of the league’s toughest runners to bring down. Among 43 qualified running backs, Cook ranks eighth in yards after contact per carry (3.5) and 11th in missed tackles forced per carry (0.219). He is one of only seven running backs who are ranked top-12 in both categories.
This is bad news for a Jets defense that has been struggling to finish tackles lately.
As we broke down earlier in the week, the Jets missed 20 tackles over their last two games, a total that ranked fifth-worst in the NFL over that span. The linebackers and safeties were mostly responsible for that. They combined to record 16 of the 20 misses. C.J. Mosley, Quincy Williams, Lamarcus Joyner, and Jordan Whitehead tied for the team lead with three missed tackles apiece.
New York was able to survive in its past two games despite the woeful tackling. I’m not sure that will happen this time around. The Vikings are much better equipped to make the Jets pay for missing tackles than the Patriots and Bears were.
The good news for the Jets is that defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins will return this week. I think Rankins’s return can help stabilize the tackling issues at linebacker and safety. Throughout this season, Rankins has done an excellent job of holding his ground at the point of attack to buy extra time for the second-level defenders to rally. With Rankins absent, the Jets took a step back in this area at the defensive tackle position, and it made things a bit tougher for the linebackers and safeties.
I expect the Jets’ defensive line to do a nice job of plugging holes against Minnesota’s offensive line. The big question is whether the second-level defenders can answer the bell when they meet up with Cook in space.
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T.J. Hockenson vs. Jets’ linebackers and safeties
Yep, we are once again looking at the Jets’ linebackers and safeties as the subjects of a potential mismatch. If the Jets lose this game, I think there is a strong chance these two units will be the primary reason why. They are the weakness of the Jets’ defense and the Vikings have the weapons to exploit them.
Tight end T.J. Hockenson has been an excellent pickup for the Vikings. In four games since coming over from Detroit, Hockenson has caught 26 passes on 34 targets for 192 yards, 1 touchdown, and 10 first downs. Hockenson ranks second among tight ends in receiving yards and second in conversions (11) since the trade. He’s also tied with Travis Kelce for first in receptions.
The Jets actually have not been too bad at covering tight ends this season. While they are 22nd in receiving yards per game allowed to tight ends (53.5), that is mostly because opponents are targeting their tight ends quite often against New York (6th-most opponent targets per game to TEs with 7.5).
What’s most important is that those targets are not leading to much. The Jets join the Bills as one of two teams that have not given up a touchdown to a tight end. New York has allowed a receiving DVOA of -20.9% on targets to tight ends, which ranks fifth-best.
Here’s the problem: Those numbers might not matter. Hockenson has been cooking against defenses that are even better at stopping tight ends than the Jets.
Since joining Minnesota, Hockenson’s two best games in terms of receptions and yards came against the Bills and Commanders, who rank second and third, respectively, in receiving DVOA allowed to tight ends.
The Vikings won both of those games and Hockenson was instrumental in each of them. He had two third-down conversions on Minnesota’s game-winning drive against Washington, and against Buffalo, Hockenson came up with a massive fourth-and-5 conversion in the fourth quarter to keep the Vikings alive.
New York’s middle-of-the-field defenders have surpassed expectations when it comes to their coverage against tight ends. This was expected to be an issue coming into the year, but it’s actually been a strength. The Jets need that to continue in Minneapolis. If they allow Hockenson to overcome their great TE-stopping numbers like Buffalo and Washington did, they might suffer the same fate as those two teams.
Za’Darius Smith and Danielle Hunter vs. Jets tackles
Rivka Boord touched on this matchup in an earlier article. By far, Minnesota’s greatest advantage over New York is the edge duo of Za’Darius Smith and Danielle Hunter against the Jets’ tackle duo of Duane Brown and Max Mitchell.
Smith leads all edge rushers with 61 pressures while Hunter is tied for 11th with 44. Their combined total of 105 pressures (9.5 per game) is the best of any EDGE duo in the league.
The Jets will counter with Brown and Mitchell, a duo that can be considered approximately league-average in pass protection.
Among 70 qualified tackles, Brown ranks 31st with an allowed pressure rate of 5.14% while Mitchell ranks 46th with a rate of 6.05%. The average rate between them is 5.60%, which is right around the league average for tackles this season (5.50%).
Smith and Hunter rotate between both sides of the line, so Brown and Mitchell will each be tasked with blocking both players.
Minnesota’s interior pass rush isn’t anything special. The Vikings’ interior defensive line ranks 21st with a 6.34% pressure rate. It’s really just Hunter and Smith off the edge that scare you. If the Jets can survive on the edges, they should be able to create an environment in which Mike White can succeed.
The Jets heavily increased their usage of two-tight-end packages against Chicago. Perhaps they maintain that this week in an effort to provide extra help for the tackles against Minnesota’s star edge rushers.
Mike White’s ability to step up in the pocket could help mitigate the edge pressure, especially since the Vikings’ lack of a dominant interior rush could ensure that White does indeed get the room he needs to step up. White’s fast release time could also help keep the edge rushers at bay.
Still, the cleaner the pocket, the better. Letting the edge rushers dominate can only lead to bad things.
If the edge rushers are winning cleanly and quickly, it won’t matter if White steps up or gets the ball out quickly – they will get in there and take him down. If you’re the Jets, you also don’t want to get into a spot where you are forced to continuously get the ball out immediately just to avoid letting the edge rushers affect the game. This would make their passing attack predictable and easier to stop. Plus, it would eliminate White’s opportunities to take the occasional downfield shots that were a big part of why he looked so impressive in the Bears game.
In Minnesota’s recent 40-3 loss to Dallas, the Cowboys held Smith and Hunter to a combined total of three pressures. Keeping these guys quiet is a formula for success.