New York Jets fans want to see more of Bryce Huff in 2023, but do the New York Jets want to see more of him?
Bryce Huff was a breakout star for the New York Jets in 2022. In his third NFL season, Huff blossomed into one of the most efficient pass rushers in the NFL, if not the most efficient. Huff’s 20.8% pressure rate was the best among 134 edge rushers who played at least 100 pass rush snaps. Huff also had the fastest average get-off time at 0.67 seconds.
If anyone in the Jets organization told you they saw this coming, they’d be lying, as Huff was not even deemed worthy of being on the active roster over the team’s first three games. Huff was a healthy scratch from Weeks 1-3 and did not debut until Week 4 when the team was itching for a spark on the defensive line. He made an instant impact and played every game from that point forward.
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However, despite his elite efficiency, Huff remained limited to a minuscule snap count throughout the entire season. Huff played 191 defensive snaps in 14 games, a measly average of 13.6 snaps per game. He only played 20% of the team’s defensive snaps on average, going as low as 8% in a game and no higher than 29%.
The Jets’ usage of Huff puzzled fans. It was baffling to see such an effective player take the field so infrequently.
There was one reason for the Jets’ sparse usage of Huff: They were deathly afraid of having him on the field in a running situation.
No defender in the NFL played a more pass-heavy role than Huff. Of Huff’s 191 defensive snaps, 175 of them came on a passing play. That’s an incredible 91.6% rate, which was the highest mark in the league among the 727 defensive players (regardless of position) who played at least 100 snaps.
When Huff did face a running play, it was usually on third-and-long with the opponent just giving up and playing for field position. Simply put, the Jets were completely averse to having Huff on the field in a situation where the run was a real threat.
This is why Huff’s snap counts were so low. He was only used in obvious passing situations. The majority of his snaps came on third down with more than two yards to go. He would sometimes play on first or second down if the opponent was in obvious passing mode at the end of a half, but for the most part, the Jets only placed him on the field if it was third down and there was a minimal chance of a run.
Despite having the highest pressure rate in the NFL, Huff finished the year ranked 108th among edge rushers with 173 pass rush snaps (12.4 per game). It’s hard not to imagine how dominant Huff could be if he got the opportunity to play a starter-caliber diet of pass rush snaps.
For instance, let’s say Huff played 25.0 pass rush snaps per game, which would give him a total of 425 pass rush snaps over 17 games (that would have been the 30th-most among EDGE in 2022). If he extrapolated his 2022 pressure rate (20.8%) and sack rate (2.3%) over 425 pass rush snaps, Huff would record approximately 88 pressures and 10 sacks.
While it’s optimistic to think Huff would maintain those exact rates over a larger sample of snaps – as he would not be as fresh on each play and would also not enjoy the luxury of going all-out in obvious passing situations on every rep – Huff undoubtedly deserves the chance to rush the passer more frequently in 2023. How can the Jets give him the opportunity to do so?
If the Jets are going to increase Huff’s snap count in 2023 (assuming he returns, as he is a restricted free agent), they must be willing to place him on the field in more situations where a run is possible. Huff was already playing most of the Jets’ third downs, so to get more snaps, he will have to take the field on first and second down, too.
On most first and second down plays, it’s unpredictable whether the opponent will run or pass. This means Huff would have to face some run plays occasionally if he is going to get his pass rush snap count up. If the Jets give him, say, 20 more defensive snaps per game, and they all come on first or second down, it’s likely that 10 of them will be a run play. Perhaps the Jets can get Huff to a point where he plays about 35 snaps per game with 25 of them against the pass and 10 of them against the run.
Therein lies the question: Is it worth it to give Huff 10 more pass rush snaps per game if it comes at the cost of 10 more run plays?
To answer that question, we have to know exactly how good of a run defender Huff is. Is Huff’s run defense truly bad enough to the point where the Jets are warranted to be so afraid of using him in the run game?
Huff only played 16 snaps against the run in 2022, so it’s hard to use that sample size to judge him. But he did play against the run routinely over his first two seasons, including a career-high 121 run defense snaps in 2021, so there is plenty of film to judge him off of from that second season.
Let’s look at the tape of Huff’s run defense to figure out whether he can be trusted to handle more snaps in the future. I included a handful of plays from his small 2022 sample, but most of these plays will come from 2021.
When watching through the film, I pulled any plays I saw that were notable, whether it was good or bad. Take a look at the clips I collected and decide for yourself what you think of Huff’s run defense.
Bryce Huff’s run defense film
Huff wears jersey No. 47.
Good hustle from Huff here as he sprints from the back side to get involved in the tackle on third-and-7.
While Huff does not get involved in this play, he has a good individual rep as he defeats the right tackle with a forklift move. He gets underneath the RT’s arms and pushes his elbows upward to beat him. It’s a nice move. Huff would have been ready to stop the run if it went to his side.
Huff lines up over the right guard on third-and-long. He is intentionally left unblocked and finds himself getting lost against the trap play, not knowing where the play is going or where the block is coming from. It doesn’t matter in this particular situation since the Jets stop the run anyway, but the lack of play recognition from Huff on this rep is a glimpse into what the Jets might be afraid of. We’ll see plenty of this throughout the film review.
The Dolphins are able to pin Huff inside with a wide receiver and get to his edge on fourth-and-5. In fairness to Huff, a run play in this situation is very bold and surprising, but you’d like to see better recognition and better resistance against a wide receiver. With a little more vertical push on the WR, Huff could have impeded the path of the pulling RT, which could have given Quincy Williams a better chance to make the stop.
The Lions use Huff’s aggressiveness against him as the tight end lets him run himself up the field, opening a huge gap.
The rest of these clips are from the 2021 season. Starting with this play, Huff does a poor job of containing the edge as he lets the running back bounce to his side and get outside of him.
Good play from Huff as he beats the TE to the inside using a rip move and gets involved on the stuff.
On this red zone play against the Jaguars, Huff bites hard on the handoff to the RB, giving Trevor Lawrence an easy decision to keep the ball. Lawrence is placed in a very favorable spot to score but Jason Pinnock makes a great tackle. To be fair, we don’t know what Huff’s responsibility was on this play (maybe he was tasked with playing the RB), but if I were to guess, I think he was just a little too aggressive here and probably should have played the mesh point more patiently.
Huff faced another option play later in the Jaguars game and did a better job. He stays patient to prompt Lawrence into handing the ball off, and the Jets stuff the run.
On this fourth-and-1 play, Huff is initially left unblocked off the edge, with the fullback picking him up in the backfield. Huff is taken down by the fullback and misses the tackle, resulting in a conversion.
Huff allows the LT to get outside of him and hook him inside, allowing the RB to get to the edge.
Huff isn’t necessarily involved in stuffing this run, but he makes a good individual effort as he beats the RT inside and then blasts the fullback to the ground. Valuable havoc caused by Huff.
Huff is unblocked on the backside edge and does a nice job of pursuing the play. He makes a good open-field finish, contorting his body to take the RB down while he is mid-spin.
On the front side of this zone run, Huff gets some good penetration on the LT and then crosses his face to get outside and force the RB back inside. Huff sheds the block and gets in on the tackle.
This play is similar to the previous clip. Huff creates good vertical push on the LT, cutting off the front side edge. The RB is forced to come back inside, where Quinnen Williams is waiting. Huff sheds the block and teams up with Williams on the tackle.
Nice play from Huff. He initially goes inside against the TE but is able to work his way back outside and get in on the tackle.
Huff is on the ground way too often in the run game, which we will see in the next few clips. While taking on the TE here, the LT ranges over and plants Huff into the London turf. The RB gets a big gain by running straight past Huff while he is laying on the floor.
Huff again gets planted on the front side of the play and contributes to allowing a big lane to open.
Huff allows himself to get stamped by a WR, who pins him inside to create an outside running lane. Huff’s awareness in the run game is problematic. He does not diagnose blocking schemes quickly and it leads to him getting victimized by these types of blocks quite often.
Huff gets pinned inside by a WR once again. You don’t expect Huff to make the tackle in these situations, but you want to see him recognize the play and engage with the WR to try and create traffic that muddies the running lane. By allowing himself to get pinned by the WR exactly as the play calls for, Huff isn’t doing anything to disrupt the intended lane. If Huff recognized this pin and blasted the WR toward the outside, he could have tripped up the pulling linemen, making it easier for his teammates to beat their blocks.
Yet again Huff is pinned by a WR and the offense generates a successful run to his side.
Huff is in a wide alignment and the LT comes out of his stance aggressively, climbing out to meet Huff. The LT creates good movement as he pushes Huff about a yard beyond the line of scrimmage. Huff eventually sheds the block but he misses the tackle.
After digging into Huff’s film against the run, I can see why the Jets were skeptical of using him in that phase. There are certainly a lot of holes in his game as a run defender. His recognition and awareness are poor, he gets moved around fairly easily, and he is on the ground much too frequently.
There are some occasions where Huff uses his power and athleticism to make a good play, but everyone makes a good play once in a while. It’s about the entire body of work. Overall, I would certainly classify his run defense as well below average for the EDGE position. He makes mistakes much more frequently than average. There are also aren’t any “splash” plays on his run game film. His best plays are routine. Meanwhile, his worst plays are ugly.
But we knew it was likely that the film would prove Huff is a subpar run defender. The debate here is whether you think it’s a net positive to deal with a few extra run snaps from Huff to maximize the number of pass snaps he gets. If Huff gets 20 extra snaps per game, in which 10 are against the pass and 10 are against the run, would he make a positive impact over those 20 reps? In 2022, the Jets clearly believed the answer was no.
It’s also worth noting that playing more snaps could decrease Huff’s pass rush efficiency since he will not be as well-rested and will play more snaps where he has to tone down his aggressiveness to respect the run threat. Huff was able to go full-throttle on every play in his 2022 role. The majority of his plays occurred after a long stint of rest on the sidelines, and because he always played in obvious passing situations, he could explode off the ball on every play and never worry about getting burnt by a handoff.
If the Jets decide to keep Huff in his pass rush specialist role, I would understand it. Even if his role is small, he’s an absolute star in that role, so you can’t fault the Jets if they don’t want to mess up a good thing.
The main counterargument is this: There are a lot of top pass rushers around the NFL who struggle against the run, and their teams put up with it so they can get the most out of the player’s pass rushing.
Brian Burns and Trey Hendrickson are two current examples of top-tier edge rushers who have consistently struggled against the run throughout their careers, yet their teams still play them in full-time starting roles so they can be maximized as pass rushers.
In each of the past two seasons, Burns and Hendrickson each ranked outside the top 60 among 100-plus qualified edge rushers in run-stop rate (if you’re wondering, Huff ranked 75th out of 116 in this category in 2021). Despite the lack of productivity against the run, Burns still played 20.5 run defense snaps per game and Hendrickson played 13.9. Playing on run downs allowed Burns to play 30.2 pass rush snaps per game and Hendrickson to play 27.0.
Maintaining elite efficiency in their large-volume roles, Burns recorded 21.5 sacks and 119 pressures over the last two seasons while Hendrickson amassed 22.0 sacks and 137 pressures. Most people would agree that their lack of run-stopping ability is a price worth paying for the dominant pass rushing.
Do the Jets agree? That’s the question. It did not seem like they agreed in 2022. If they did, they would have thought the positive value of 10 elite snaps from Huff against the pass would outweigh the negative value of 10 poor snaps against the run. But they seemed to weigh the impact of both phases equally, meaning they figured Huff’s overall impact would decline if he played more reps.
The challenge for Huff in a bigger role would be to prove he can add enough value as a pass rusher to outweigh the value that is lost with his run defense. Can he maintain his current pass rush efficiency over a larger volume so he can establish himself as a legitimate star? As a bonus, could he possibly improve his run defense to make himself a more viable three-down player?
I believe that if Huff can finish in the top 10 range at his position in sacks and pressures, his run defense would be worth dealing with no matter how poor it is. But if he gets a bigger role and his efficiency dwindles to where he is only a top 30 kind of pass rusher, his run defense would have to improve significantly for it to be worthwhile to use Huff as a starter rather than in his old role as an unstoppable situational pass rusher.
We shall see if the Jets decide to expand Huff’s role in 2023. Personally, If I were in Jeff Ulbrich and Robert Saleh’s shoes, I would roll the dice and give Huff a chance to handle a bigger role. If it doesn’t work out over the first few games of the season, that’s fine – just relegate him to his old role. But you have to give it a shot. Huff’s pass rush production is too good to be left in a situational role without first allowing him to show what he can do if he is fully unleashed.
I need a little more context. When I think of run stoppers, I think of interior defensive tackles and linebackers, not defensive ends. So, my question is how often statistically are running plays stopped by defensive ends? If teams are used to relying on linebackers to stop outside runs anyway, and getting stops from def ends is more a bonus than an expectation, than maybe that’s why they might put up with ends who are poor on runs. I do remember that the Jets were unhappy with John Abraham, the best pass rusher they’ve had in like 30 years (!), because of the same problem, his performance against the run. In that case, they let him walk rather than pay him.
I’d like to borrow a parallel from baseball to make a point…
There is often a young left-handed hitter who struggles with left-handed pitching. There are reasons for this, chiefly among them that the percentage of left-handed pitching increases as the competition improves, meaning they just don’t see much left-handed pitching early in their careers. Many of these players used to simply sit against LHP, but that just compounded the problem. If the lack of experience against LHP is the main culprit, then sitting against LHP can’t be the solution. Before the advent of advanced analytics, this was the fate of many left-handed batters that initially struggled against LHP.
But analysts discovered that huge platoon splits are exceptionally rare. If a batter was raking against RHP, chance are he would learn to do so against LHP too. Maybe not to the same extent, as platoon splits aren’t entirely fake, but huge ones tend to close up. The bottom line is good hitters are just good hitters and don’t need a platoon advantage to succeed.
This discovery, despite baseball’s slavish devotion to traditional thinking, slowly but surely ended the practice of platooning, which has resulted in teams carrying fewer and fewer position players, which has lead to more 1 inning pitchers, which has led to higher velocities and more strikeouts…and so on…
So what is it in football? Is a good edge player a good edge player given the chance, or are there actually players that are elite pass rushers and unplayable run defenders? It’s hard for me to believe the latter exists–it seems like elite talent in one phase would have to translate to at least serviceable talent in the other.
That’s a great analogy. I think it applies to some degree here, as all of the same traits that can help you defeat a block in one phase can be used in the other, but I do think there are some skills that are unique to each of pass rushing and run defense that can create a wide gap between a player’s overall ability in both phases. For Huff, I think he leans toward pass rushing because he doesn’t have to think too much and can rely on his pure gifts. But in the run game, his aggressive/downhill mentality can hurt him in spots where he needs to rely on recognition and awareness.
With that said, I think he deserves the chance to play more reps to prove he can close that platoon gap, as you mentioned. Because, for the most part, while there are guys like Burns and Hendrickson out there, the majority of the league’s best pass rushing edge rushers are also at least above-average run defenders. Not all are two-way superstars like the Nick Bosas, Von Millers, and Khalil Macks of the world, but just like good hitters are good hitters regardless of the pitcher’s side, good football players tend to be good football players regardless of the phase, though there can be some pass-to-run dropoff (or vice versa) depending on a few different factors.
So I do want to see Huff get his shot to sharpen up some of the recognition/awareness/fundamental things in the run game and translate the same talent that he uses in the passing game to the run game.
Like you say, there’s only one way to find out.