The NY Jets’ defense was one of the strongest in the league last season, but some regression is likely
After a dead-last finish in 2021, the Jets’ defense rebounded to place in the top five in 2022, a historic turnaround. No other defense in NFL history had gone from worst to top-five in just one season.
However, as Michael Nania previously wrote, both the Jets and their fans must be wary of the fallacy of guaranteed replication. The fact that the Jets’ defense was this good last year does not mean they will reproduce the same results in 2023.
There are some teams that can sustain defensive success from year to year. However, there are many reasons to believe that the 2023 Jets will deal with some defensive regression.
As Michael explained, the Jets were almost unnaturally healthy on defense in 2022. For all of their offensive injuries (which are likely to regress to the mean in the opposite direction), their defensive core was almost entirely intact. Their starters averaged 16.2 games apiece. Only Lamarcus Joyner missed more than two games (three), and that was hardly a loss.
According to Football Outsiders, the Jets were the healthiest team in the NFL on defense by a long shot. The Jets had just 8.6 Adjusted Games Lost (AGL) on defense, which was over 11 fewer than the next-lowest team (Jacksonville, 19.9). This was a whopping 68.9 AGL fewer than the team had on offense, the biggest discrepancy in the NFL. The Jets’ offense was extremely unhealthy (29th at 77.5 AGL), while their defense was overly healthy.
This kind of health rarely happens in the NFL. Just by random variability, more injuries are likely to occur on defense next season. Perhaps the Jets’ backups can keep up to the same standard as their starters, but the loss of a key defensive starter usually has a big impact on overall performance.
In general, defensive play is much more variable from year to year than offensive performance. This has been shown in many analytical studies of the NFL, the details of which are explained well in FiveThirtyEight’s article from a few years back. Simply put, if a defense is good one year, it’s hard to predict how they’ll perform the following season.
The reasons for this are not entirely clear. It appears that a lot of defensive play is somewhat fluky, such as forcing turnovers and even converting pressure into sacks. With all that randomness involved, there is going to be significant fluctuation in play. On the offensive side of the ball, given the quarterback’s outsized impact on performance and the relative stability of many QB metrics, there is a lot more predictability.
Therefore, the Jets’ strong 2022 defensive performance does not automatically foreshadow a repeat in 2023.
Superior offensive competition
On paper, the Jets faced the most difficult slate of opponent offenses in the entire NFL, garnering an average matchup DVOA of 4.8%, per Football Outsiders.
The 1.8% difference between the Jets and the second-ranked Bears is more than the difference between the Bears and the 13th-ranked Cardinals (1.7%). That’s how difficult the average matchup that the Jets faced was.
However, this skips over a very important fact: the Jets faced five backup quarterbacks in 2022. Between facing Skylar Thompson (twice), Kenny Pickett (and three picks), the fearsome Brett Rypien, and Trevor Siemian, there was quite a bit of lackluster QB play.
The Jets faced five compromised offensive opponents. This padded their defensive adjustments significantly, as they received a lot of credit for playing well against Miami twice despite having actually faced Thompson.
(The only caveat to add here is that a record 69 quarterbacks started NFL games in 2022. The Jets were hardly the only team to face numerous backup QBs.)
The Jets’ slate of offensive opponents in 2023 seems even tougher than their 2022 competition. They have eight games against teams with top-10 offenses by DVOA in 2022. As stated earlier, offensive performance tends to be more stable year-over-year than defensive.
Facing Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen twice, Tua Tagovailoa twice, Justin Herbert, Deshaun Watson, Jalen Hurts, Dak Prescott, Russell Wilson, Daniel Jones, and likely Bryce Young or C.J. Stroud is a daunting slate. That’s a potential Murderer’s Row of quarterbacks.
Of course, the NFL isn’t played on paper. Watson and Wilson could show that they are truly not the same players they once were, and injuries can occur anywhere along this line. The rookie QB could struggle mightily. But just Mahomes, Allen twice, Herbert, and Hurts is a brutal showing.
Variability of CB play
The strength of the Jets’ defense in 2022 was their cornerbacks. Quinnen Williams was the team MVP and the most important play, but without the trio of Sauce Gardner, D.J. Reed, and Michael Carter II, this defense would have been mediocre at best.
Cornerback play in the NFL tends to be highly variable, much more so than defensive performance as a whole. As dominant as Sauce is, NFL teams will have an entire offseason to study his weaknesses (and there are some). The referees will likely get an earful about Sauce’s tendency to use his hands, possibly resulting in bigger pass-interference penalties. The same applies to Reed.
Both cornerbacks tend to cheat on shorter throws or open their hips to bail very early. Amari Cooper showed what a strong route-runner can do to beat the pair. The NFL is a copycat league, and they will take notice.
This is not to say that Sauce and Reed will suddenly be terrible. However, to expect them to shut receivers down week in and week out like they did last season may not be realistic.
Although the Jets retained most of their key defensive players, they have a Sheldon Rankins-sized hole next to Quinnen Williams. Rankins’ 2022 improvement was one of the keys to the Jets’ defensive performance, especially in run defense.
The Jets are bringing in Calais Campbell for a visit, but he is not a strong run defender. Although his 7.1% run stop rate was 50th out of 100 DTs last season (min. 150 run defense snaps), his film shows a tendency to be pinned and a failure to hold gap containment. He is also entering his age-37 season.
Regardless of whether Campbell ends up a Jet, the only depth DT the team currently has is Solomon Thomas. Thomas was unproductive in both defensive phases. With the Jets’ emphasis on their defensive line rotation, where will their DT production come from?
The other critical role that the team has not addressed is free safety. One of the key issues that kept the Jets’ defense from being truly elite last season was the poor play of both safeties. Joyner played deep 73% of the time but did so poorly. Right now, the Jets’ starting safeties are Chuck Clark and Jordan Whitehead, both of whom profile as box-first safeties. Where will the team’s center fielder come from?
Of lesser importance is the third linebacker spot vacated by Kwon Alexander. Seeing as the Jets signed Alexander in late July last season, there is always the possibility that they do the same again. Still, Alexander was the team’s strongest coverage linebacker last season and did an underrated but admirable job in the run game. That production will need to be either recouped or replaced.
The Jets are currently in contract extension talks with Williams after his breakout 2022 season. However, a breakout contract year is always a yellow flag for teams: is this a true and sustainable breakout or a one-year fluke?
The increase in Quinnen’s use of his natural power in 2022 makes it less likely that his breakout was temporary. The potential was always there, but he finally learned how to harness it and utilize his physical talent. An actual technique improvement is less likely to disappear.
Still, this is going to be a question until Williams actually puts his play where his money will likely be.
Scheme vs. talent
This is a recurring issue that we at Jet X have criticized Saleh and Jeff Ulbrich for. The scheme that the Jets play is vanilla and does not present any mental challenge for quarterbacks. Essentially, the Jets’ coaches are daring the opponents to outplay them.
The issue is that the Jets’ defense is not really talented enough to do this consistently. Yes, they have top-end elite talent in Sauce, Quinnen Williams, and Reed. However, they also have many less-than-ideal links.
Without that second of confusion, a smart coach can pick the defense apart. Despite not showing up in the numbers, the Jets’ defense had its struggles in the second half of the season. Bill Belichick and Doug Pederson called constant screens and other plays designed to induce YAC, and the Jets simply could not defend them. Seattle ran down their throats, buoyed by poor tackling angles from the safeties and linebackers.
Yes, the Jets’ defense played very well in 2022. Credit to Saleh and Ulbrich for that. However, when combined with all the factors listed above, the lack of a true modern scheme could well do the team in this season. Perhaps their talent will once again rise to the occasion, but it’s hard to rely on that combination game in and game out, particularly against the NFL’s best quarterbacks.
Heading into 2023, the Jets must expect some regression from their defense. This does not mean that they will suddenly revert to the worst unit in the league once more. However, dropping to the No. 10-to-12 unit in the league is possible and even likely.
This is one of the reasons that adding to their offensive firepower is critical. They cannot assume that all things will remain equal from last season. They need the big-play capability to keep up in a potential shootout with some of the league’s best QBs.
Additionally, filling in the remaining gaps on the defense is crucial. The team cannot assume that they will perform well with a JAG (“Just Another Guy”) at free safety just because they did so well with a terrible safety last season. The 2021 season gave them an idea of the poor possibilities that can loom without a competent run-stopping DT next to Williams.
In general, this is not a reason to be pessimistic or negative about the Jets in any way. It is simply a realistic look at what may or may not happen in 2023 and a way to hedge against those realities. The expectation for an above-average defensive unit remains.
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