The Bills have specific strengths and weaknesses that these Jets players can counter
Big Brother is coming to town once more.
No, not the Patriots (thank heavens). This time, it’s the preseason Super Bowl favorite, the team that righted the axis of the universe by regaining the No. 1 seed in the AFC in Week 13. The pundits are still on: Buffalo is going to win the Super Bowl.
Well, the New York Jets hope to sow doubt once more, just as they did in the Week 9 matchup at MetLife Stadium.
To shock the NFL world once more, the Jets will need to play their best game. The Bills are out for revenge. They’re hungry, they’re getting healthier (mostly), and they’re ready for a stretch run.
There are specific players who must come out strong for the Jets to have a chance in this game. Some of them are due to favorable matchups, while others are at a disadvantage and will need to hold their own.
Let’s ignore Mike White right now, since he’s, well, the quarterback. Obviously, he’s going to hold the keys to any game, victory or defeat.
Who will be the main drivers of the Jets’ upset quest?
The weakest link in the Jets’ defense is almost certainly their safety play. As much as the linebackers struggle in coverage, each one has strengths to bring to the table. Lamarcus Joyner and Jordan Whitehead, on the other hand, have both mostly put deficiencies on tape throughout this season. What was hidden by a dominant pass rush for the middle part of the season was exposed thoroughly by the Vikings: the Jets’ safeties struggle mightily in coverage.
In the Week 13 matchup, Joyner allowed all three of his targets to be caught for 65 yards, yielding a 118.1 passer rating against. Whitehead’s stats look better on paper, as he allowed one reception for 12 yards on three targets and a 46.5 rating. He also had a pass breakup. However, Joyner and Whitehead both had huge botches in this game that killed the Jets defensively.
In the second quarter, Nathan Shepherd hit Cousins as he threw to force a ball into double coverage, but Joyner and Whitehead completely lost Jalen Reagor to allow a 38-yard gain.
Later, Whitehead had dropped an easy interception that could have changed the tenor of the game.
In the second quarter, following the Jets’ failed fourth-down attempt from their own 43, Minnesota faced a 2nd and 7 from the 40. Kirk Cousins dropped back to pass, looked right, and then came back to the middle/left of the field. Whitehead read Cousins’s eyes and jumped the route as the QB released the ball to Adam Thielen. The ball literally went right through Whitehead’s hands. On the live broadcast, it was difficult to see, as Whitehead did not even make contact with the ball. But Whitehead was looking at his hands after the play for a reason. Take a look at the All-22 angle:
You be the judge.
Whitehead has now been charged with four dropped interceptions on the season, tied for the league lead among all safeties. One of his worst was against Josh Allen in the last Bills game. Although Whitehead did have a pick earlier in the game, the dropped INT came at a critical moment for the defense. He was bailed out by the rest of his classmates when the Jets’ defense forced a punt, but nevertheless, the opportunity was there—and Whitehead just let it slip through his fingers.
When a defensive player drops an interception, you will hear on many a broadcast, “Well, if they could catch they would play on offense.” However, look at what the Jets did this offseason at cornerback. Despite having Bryce Hall, whose numbers last season were solid for a No. 2 cornerback, the Jets brought in two corners to replace him, and Hall had such a short leash as to have been benched after giving up one TD in the opening game this season. One of the big reasons for that is that Hall only had one interception in his first two seasons in the league. (D.J. Reed and Sauce Gardner have only three picks combined, so it hasn’t necessarily paid off in a big way on that front.)
The Jets need their players to be opportunistic with the football, and at no position is that more important than safety. Joyner and Whitehead will be tested often, and rightfully so. The way they can atone for their coverage mistakes is by coming up with the ball when they do read a play correctly. Joyner has three picks and one drop this season, which is a more reasonable mark. Whitehead does have two picks (one on a Hail Mary to end the Steelers game), but his four drops were costly: besides that one against Allen and the Vikings one, he also dropped a pick in the end zone against the Broncos that could have ended the game.
Allen will give you opportunities to pick him off. We said it before the last game, and Allen gave the Jets three golden chances (four total turnover-worthy plays) in that game, two of which they converted for picks. Among 35 qualified quarterbacks (min. 150 dropbacks), Allen has the fourth-highest turnover-worthy play rate at 4.5%. (Zach Wilson is tied for the highest at 5.7%, while Mike White is at 2.2%.) The league average for QBs is 3.3%.
Allen has 24 turnover-worthy plays but just 11 picks on the season, meaning that he gets away with dangerous throws a lot. He has the seventh-highest rate of turnover-worthy plays not converted into picks at 2.93% (Zach Wilson is the highest at 4.26%).
The Jets will need both better coverage from their safeties and opportunistic play. Convert those turnover-worthy plays into interceptions.
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Although Elijah Moore has been moved into the slot, the Jets do their usual mixing and matching with receiver roles. Against Minnesota, Moore saw the majority of the slot snaps with 34, but Garrett Wilson took 16, Tyler Conklin 13, Braxton Berrios 7, and Corey Davis 6.
The slot is a quarterback’s bread-and-butter on third down. Remember Eric Decker, Santonio Holmes, Jerricho Cotchery, and even Chansi Stuckey and Jeremy Kerley making all those catches? That’s because these guys knew how to find the soft spot in the defense and get open quickly.
Although Moore, Berrios, and Conklin have shown flashes of that at times, they all struggled to get open against Minnesota. Part of that was definitely a conscious effort on the Vikings’ part to take away the quick game, but part of it was also less-than-great route-running. Moore had a few very poorly run routes in situations when he was either No. 1 or 2 in the progression, and Conklin’s fourth-down incompletion in the second quarter was likely due to a poor route. Berrios actually did a good job getting open in the end zone but couldn’t complete the catch.
The Jets are currently 29th in the NFL with just a 32.9% conversion rate on third down. That includes just 18.8% against the Vikings. Besides the red zone difficulties, third-down deficiencies are one of the primary reasons that this offense cannot quite get rolling on all cylinders despite the gaudy stats compiled recently by Mike White & Co.
If the Jets are going to sustain drives, they will need to improve their third-down offense. Getting more production from their slot receivers (other than Garrett Wilson) is a crucial factor.
Additionally, the Bills’ Taron Johnson is one of their more vulnerable defensive backs in coverage. Johnson ranks 21st out of 36 slot corners (min. 110 slot cover snaps) with 1.24 yards per cover snap allowed out of the slot, and he’s 23rd with a 105.6 QB rating against. He’s tied for 24th with 5.9 YAC per reception surrendered, though that is largely because many of his targets come on screens. Johnson is also the worst among all slot corners with four TDs allowed.
Although he’s often targeted short, as he’s permitted the seventh-fewest air yards per snap among all corners (0.402), Johnson’s other numbers still show that he can be beaten.
In the first Bills-Jets game, Johnson allowed 4 receptions for 25 yards on 5 targets when he faced C.J. Uzomah, Wilson, James Robinson, and Denzel Mims. He was responsible for the screen pass touchdown to Robinson according to Pro Football Focus. The Jets will need to get more volume from the slot with the return of Tre’Davious White on the outside; Christian Benford and Ka’iir Elam will not see as many snaps, and Matt Milano will likely return to take away the underneath throws (although Milano is day-to-day with a toe injury, per Sean McDermott).
Overall, this is an exploitable matchup for the Jets, and one they will need to take advantage of to emerge victorious.
Bryce Huff and John Franklin-Myers
I could just highlight the whole defensive line and call it a day, as the Jets’ line did a great job getting to Josh Allen in the previous game. Although they pressured Allen on 30.9% of his dropbacks, which is lower than his 33.3% season-long mark and below the 32.9% average among starting QBs, their rate of sacks and hits was 11.9%, which is more than double Allen’s season rate of 5.26%. Over the course of the season, only one starting quarterback, Justin Fields, has been sacked and hit at a higher rate.
However, I want to highlight these two for a specific reason. First, they both come off the left end. In the last game, the Jets had a favorable matchup against right tackle David Quessenberry, who has a 7.5% pressure rate yielded this season (the average for a tackle is 5.5%). In that game, Quessenberry allowed 4 pressures on 43 passing snaps, a putrid 9.3% rate. He also allowed Bryce Huff‘s game-changing 19-yard sack near the end of the game, which was the play that injured Allen’s elbow.
Spencer Brown is the Bills’ returning right tackle, but he hasn’t fared that much better than Quessenberry. Brown is tied for the 12th-most pressures allowed among starting tackles (28, min. 220 pass-blocking snaps) despite having the 40th-most snaps. His 7.2% pressure rate is also pretty poor. Brown has particularly struggled since returning from a three-game injury absence, allowing an 8.9% pressure rate in Weeks 10-13, the ninth-highest among 67 qualifying tackles (min. 65 pass-block snaps).
Although Jermaine Johnson and Vinny Curry also line up on the left side and both had critical plays in the first matchup, I believe John Franklin-Myers and Huff have the best chance to take advantage of Brown’s scuffling play. JFM has been coming on lately despite a quiet game against the Vikings. His 11.8% pressure rate is finally above average for edge rushers (the average is 11.1%). It’s on true pass sets that Franklin-Myers has been dominating, though.
A true pass set excludes plays such as screens, play-action passes, and throws that come out in under 2 or over 4 seconds, giving a snapshot of how the rusher truly performs in pass-rushing situations. Franklin-Myers is 12th among 71 qualified edge rushers (83rd percentile, min. 200 pass rush snaps) with a 19.5% pressure rate on true pass sets, and 5 of his 6 sacks have come in those situations. Brown, meanwhile, ranks 10th-worst among tackles with a 12.5% pressure rate allowed on true pass sets.
Huff will go up against Brown, as well. The third-year edge rusher had his quietest game of the season against the Vikings, netting only two pressures on 16 rushes—a 12.5% rate that is still significantly above league average. On the season, Huff still has a 19% pressure rate, the second-best among 108 edge rushers with at least 125 rushes, and his 7.14% sack+hit rate is fifth. On true pass sets, Huff ranks third with a 23.5% pressure rate.
The Jets will need their edge rushers to take advantage of this mismatch. Franklin-Myers and Huff will likely be at left end a lot on third down, where the Jets have struggled to get off the field. These two guys will need to force Josh Allen into tough throws and bring him down as often as possible for the upset to happen.
Interior offensive line
The Jets did not get their run game fully going until the final drive of the last game against Buffalo. When Gang Green got the ball back at their own 4 with eight minutes remaining in the game, they had 23 rushes for 98 yards, a 4.26 yards-per-carry average that reduced to 3.95 when removing Zach Wilson’s scrambles.
On the final drive, the Jets ran the ball nine times for 71 yards, a 7.89 YPC average that helped seal the victory for them. It not only milked the clock past the two-minute warning, but it also used all three of the Bills’ timeouts.
The Jets have had this issue quite often in games, where their run game is stuffed early but wakes up later in the game. While the overall stats often look gaudy, that style of play will not allow the Jets to keep the time of possession in their favor.
One of the Jets’ struggles this season has been running up the middle. According to Football Outsiders, the Jets average just 3.96 Adjusted Line Yards (ALY) when running up the middle, which ranks 30th in the NFL. (ALY measures the push by an offensive line based on down, distance, and game situation, among other factors.) They are tied for 15th in attempting to run in that direction 52% of the time, which means they’re not getting much push an awful lot of the time.
Zonovan Knight has shown an ability to break tackles and produce beyond his line, but James Robinson has struggled mightily in this area, and Michael Carter has been disappointing after being nearly impossible to tackle in 2021. The Jets really need Connor McGovern, Laken Tomlinson, and Nate Herbig to get more of a push. The most common culprit is Tomlinson, but the other two have had their misses, as well.
The Bills are 15th in the NFL with 4.28 ALY surrendered up the middle. That is a pedestrian number that the Jets need to be able to take advantage of if they’re going to run up the middle 52% of the time. It’s also Buffalo’s lowest ranking in ALY among all running locations, making it the Jets’ best target.