Despite fielding a top-five unit in 2022, there was a key area in which the New York Jets’ defense failed
When the New York Jets drafted Sauce Gardner and Jermaine Johnson in the first round of the 2022 NFL Draft, they clearly signaled what their defensive game plan for the season was going to be.
The idea that cornerbacks did not matter in Robert Saleh’s defense was shown to be a myth, as the team already had a capable CB2 in Bryce Hall but still chose to spend premium draft capital on a cornerback.
Meanwhile, the team left some seeming holes up the middle at defensive tackle, linebacker, and safety.
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What the Jets wanted to do was play a two-high, keep-away strategy focused on minimizing big plays. The two elements to bookend that plan were the pass rush and cornerback trio, who were supposed to wreak havoc for offenses and force turnovers.
Early in the 2022 season, the latter concept appeared to be working well. Although the Jets’ pass rush took a while to find its legs, the team had forced nine turnovers through the first five games.
By the end of the season, though, those areas had reversed: the Jets’ pass rush found its legs, while the turnovers went dry. In the season-ending six-game losing streak, they failed to nab a single takeaway. They finished the year with 16 takeaways in 17 games, ranking 28th in the NFL.
Michael Nania theorized that the lack of turnovers was primarily due to the lackluster production of the Jets’ blind-side edge rusher, Carl Lawson. Strip-sacks and tipped passes often happen when the QB did not see the rush coming, but Lawson did not make that happen often enough.
Another potential reason for the lack of takeaways was the defensive approach of the Jets’ top two cornerbacks. Sauce Gardner and D.J. Reed both played at an elite level in 2022. However, as Oliver Cochrane explained, they are both cover corners rather than ballhawks, focusing more on breaking up passes than picking them off.
This is not a knock on either one; ballhawks tend to give up a lot more yards in coverage. However, it is possibly an explanation for the fact that the two combined for just three interceptions in 2022.
A third and highly significant reason for the lack of turnovers forced was the ineptness of the Jets’ safeties in multiple areas. Jordan Whitehead had four dropped interceptions, tied for the second-most among 64 qualified safeties (min. 415 coverage snaps). His wooden hands were a big issue for the Jets in key spots.
Whitehead and Lamarcus Joyner combined for five interceptions, which doesn’t seem that bad until you consider that one of Joyner’s picks was on a Hail Mary attempt from Kenny Pickett. Joyner also had a dropped pick of his own. Five picks vs. five dropped picks is a bit of a problem, especially for a team that struggled with forcing turnovers.
Furthermore, Joyner in particular was so bad in coverage that the Jets needed more takeaways to balance out his ineptitude. He was charged with four touchdowns allowed in coverage, including two where he failed to get anywhere near the player he was responsible to cover.
Whitehead got more of a free pass statistically, but that doesn’t mean he was much better in coverage. He also gave up two touchdowns, but more than that, his routes to the ball were putrid.
When you throw in the Jets’ inability to recover defensive fumbles, you have the perfect storm resulting in six consecutive games with no takeaways (and seven out of the last eight post-bye).
Between Lawson’s lack of impactful pressure, the cornerbacks’ focus on pass breakups over takeaways, the safeties’ poor production, and the lack of fumble recoveries, the Jets did not execute one of the mainstays of their defensive gameplan.
As good as the team’s defense was in 2022, they often had a hard time getting off the field. Part of this was third-down conversions, but I don’t necessarily think that was so concerning for them. Part of playing bend-but-don’t-break is that there will be space between the 20s.
In fact, there were times that the Jets lined up in such soft coverage on third-and-short that it felt like they were conceding the first down.
But not getting those takeaways made life harder for both the Jets’ offense and defense. The defense was on the field longer, while the offense rarely got the benefit of a short field.
The Jets were 23rd in average starting field position at 27.2, which is not absolutely terrible (and could partially be attributed to losing the field-position battle due to a poor offense) but was not helped by causing turnovers.
Fixing the problem
Heading into 2023, there are several ways the Jets can try to fix this problem.
First of all, there is the distinct possibility that Lawson will improve next year if the Jets decide to keep him. The news that he underwent a second procedure on his Achilles and was not initially expected to be ready for the start of the 2022 season could explain why Lawson seemed limited to a bull rush.
It’s conceivable that he’ll be in much better physical shape as his Achilles continues to heal, bringing about a return of the Lawson who was in the top four in the league in pressure rate during his time in Cincinnati.
Whether or not Lawson is back to himself, though, the Jets can move Bryce Huff (assuming he returns) to the quarterback’s blind side to try to get those strip sacks and wreak more havoc with the QB’s release.
Huff played right end in 2020-21, so even if the Jets want to keep him exclusively as a pass-rush specialist, it likely makes sense to move him around the defensive line more. In 2022, Huff played exclusively on the left side of the line (across from the right tackle).
As far as the cornerbacks are concerned, I don’t think the Jets would want Reed or Sauce (or Michael Carter II, either) to give up more yardage in pursuit of interceptions. However, Sauce could improve in this area by getting his head turned around and placing a little more focus on picks rather than breakups.
Additionally, the Jets should run their defensive backs through receiver drills to improve their catching skills. The old adage in the NFL is that “if they could catch, they’d be wide receivers.” Seeing how WR salaries have skyrocketed, that likely is the case. (Richard Sherman switched from receiver to cornerback under Jim Harbaugh in college because he, well, couldn’t catch.)
Still, as cornerbacks, there is tremendous value in improving their hands to whatever degree they can.
Getting at least one safety who has some sort of track record of recording interceptions would also be helpful. This shouldn’t necessarily be the Jets’ top priority in their quest for a new starting safety, but it can be a consideration.
Some safeties on the free-agent market with past histories of pick counts are C.J. Gardner-Johnson (6 in 2022, although he played a lot of slot corner), Tashaun Gipson (5 in 2022), Jessie Bates (16 in five seasons), Vonn Bell (4 in 2022), Jordan Poyer (9 over the past two years), and Jimmie Ward (6 in the past two years).
However, many of these players had variable INT numbers over their careers. That’s the nature of the beast with picks. Even Trevon Diggs, who recorded 11 picks in 2021, had just three in 2022. Antonio Cromartie had 10 interceptions in his sophomore NFL season, then never recorded more than three in any other year of his career.
As far as recovering fumbles is concerned, I’m not sure the Jets can do much more than focus on strip sacks. Fumble recoveries do seem to be luck-related, although the fact that the Jets have been so poor in fumble recovery rate for two consecutive years is difficult to chalk up to chance.
Overall, if the Jets are going to continue to play a bend-but-don’t-break strategy, they are going to need to find a way to force more turnovers. A better offense will obviously help with field position, but for a team that is bound to give up some long drives, putting a stop to it with takeaways is key.
This is something for the team to keep in mind as the offseason progresses.