The NY Jets have several areas in which their defense may improve in 2023
The New York Jets‘ 2023 defense may well turn into a major paradox.
Multiple contradictory propositions can be true simultaneously: the Jets’ defense can be due for some regression, and they can still show significant improvement.
The combination of factors and the extent of regression vs. improvement will determine the team’s total output.
Yesterday, I dove into the factors that could cause the Jets’ defense to take a step back. Today, let’s go with the more positive scenario. In what areas is the defense most likely to improve in 2023?
The Jets’ defense struggled mightily with tackling in 2022. As a team, they ranked 25th with a 14.5% missed tackle rate.
While some of the worst culprits are no longer with the team (Nathan Shepherd, Vinny Curry, Lamarcus Joyner, Sheldon Rankins), many of the other poor tacklers are still with the Jets.
Most notable are Jordan Whitehead, who tied for 11th-worst among 66 qualified safeties (min. 650 defensive snaps) with a 15.6% miss rate, and Quincy Williams, who was 10th-worst out of 64 qualified linebackers (min. 450 snaps) with a 14% rate.
While Whitehead could still be released, the fact is that the Jets still have several suspect tacklers on their team. So how will their tackling improve?
The answer is Chuck Clark. Seeing as safety was the team’s weakest tackling link, bringing in one of the league’s best tacklers as a box safety is a huge boon. As Michael Nania detailed, Clark has been the ninth-best tackler in the NFL at safety over the past three seasons, missing just 7.3% of his tackles.
In addition, Clark is an above-average run-stuffer, racking up a ratio of 4.9 stops for every 1 missed tackle. The NFL average for safeties was 1.6-to-1. (Whitehead was at 1.3-to-1.)
This level of surehandedness is just what the Jets needed. It can make a difference in both the run and pass games.
Third down efficiency
By the end of 2022, the Jets were the 10th-best defense in opponent third-down conversion rate at 38.1%. Somehow, this stat does not seem to pass the eye test.
DVOA provides some insight into the Jets’ money-down splits defensively compared to first and second down. On first and second down, regardless of distance, the Jets ranked no lower than sixth in defensive DVOA. However, on third and fourth down, that dropped to 22nd in short distances, 16th in mid, 13th in long, and 14th overall.
Although those are still not bad numbers, the drop from first and second-down efficiency often made it appear that the Jets’ defense struggled on third down.
However, there are a number of reasons to believe that this efficiency level could improve in 2023.
For one thing, having a better offense than the 26th-ranked unit by DVOA will likely give the Jets more leads and better defensive field position. Both of these bode well for forcing third-and-long attempts, allowing the team’s pass rushers to pin their ears back.
Additionally, Carl Lawson‘s second year returning from his Achilles surgery has a decent probability of improving his performance. He was an average to slightly above-average pass rusher in 2022 after dominating with Cincinnati. This gives the Jets another pass-rushing weapon to affect offenses on third down. More on that soon.
Another factor to keep in mind is better safety play. It’s hard to get worse coverage than the Jets received from Joyner and Whitehead last season. Clark is not great in coverage, but he’s better overall than the 9.4 yards per target the Jets’ duo gave up in 2022.
The Jets have yet to truly replace Joyner, but just about anyone should be better. This will likely lead to better third-down results.
The Jets have been almost supernaturally unlucky in the turnover department over the last two seasons. After finishing dead-last in the NFL with 14 takeaways in 2021, they followed it up with a 16-turnover effort in 2022, ranked 29th. That included zero takeaways during their season-ending six-game losing streak.
However, Michael Nania uncovered a hidden reason that the Jets might have struggled to generate turnovers. The blindside edge rusher is usually the most responsible for forcing QB errors, whether strip-sacks or affecting the trajectory of a pass via a QB hit. Lawson was the Jets’ blindside rusher, and his play was mostly league-average in 2022.
Without that elite play from the blindside, it was harder for the Jets to force defensive mistakes. As much as turnovers are luck-related, this particular element could have affected the Jets over the past two seasons.
If Lawson improves as expected, this can already provide the Jets with a big boost in the possibility to force turnovers.
Besides Lawson’s potential impact, the Jets are also likely to find themselves in a better position to force turnovers. In 2022, the offensive team was losing by an average of 3.59 points when they threw an interception. In the fourth quarter, this increased to 6.20 points.
Furthermore, of the 436 interceptions thrown in 2022, 276 of them occurred on second or third down (63%). The average distance of those second and third downs was 8.83 yards. In other words, forcing an unfavorable down-and-distance situation is more likely to lead to interceptions.
If the Jets do play with more leads, they will have an easier time forcing unfavorable down-and-distance situations. This is more likely to lead to turnovers. When playing from behind so often, it is more difficult to generate takeaways.
There is also room to say that the Jets are finally due for some fumble recovery luck. They’ve been terrible in this area for two consecutive seasons, ranking 29th and 31st in fumble recovery rate at 26.9% and 23.5%, respectively.
It’s worth noting, though, that the Jets also didn’t force that many fumbles in 2022, unlike 2021. They forced 26 fumbles in 2021, good for third-best in the NFL. However, that number decreased to 17 in 2022, which ranked 25th.
Even with this lowered rate, the Jets’ differential between expected defensive fumble recoveries and actual fumble recoveries was still the second-highest in the NFL at 3.6. With a league-average defensive fumble recovery rate of 44.9%, the Jets would have been expected to recover 7.6 fumbles, while they actually recovered 4.
The Jets did actually have seven strip-sacks in 2022, tied for the sixth-highest mark in the league. It appears that their issue with forcing fumbles was in the rest of their defense, not their pass rushers.
You’ve got to force fumbles to recover them. The Jets need to actually improve in punching the ball out besides the luck factor of recovering it.
The 2022 Jets tied for the worst offensive time of possession per drive in the NFL, averaging just 2:34 of game time. They tied for 17th with 2:52 in defensive time of possession per drive. Overall, the Jets averaged 28:44 time of possession per game, ranked 29th in the NFL.
Between an offense that could not sustain drives and a defense that was average in getting off the field, the Jets’ defense saw an extensive amount of playing time. This is considered an offensive goal in and of itself—to sustain drives and tire out the opponent’s defense. This happened to the Jets time and time again.
With the expected offensive improvement in 2022, the Jets’ defense is likely to be a lot fresher. This automatically gives them a chance to perform better defensively.
Overall, these are reasons for the Jets’ defense to expect some improvement in 2023. Will they offset the reasons to expect regression? I do not believe so (as I explained in my previous article), but I still think they will keep the regression to a relative minimum.
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I noticed that in all four of these reasons improvement from the offense is a factor, at least a little, and in some cases a lot. So the Jets’ beat addition on defense this off-season will be…Aaron Rodgers?
It’s also interesting to learn that while we’ve been told by countless broadcasters that the turnover battle is critical, you’ve seemed to uncover we’ve got it backwards: having leads on the scoreboard is in fact what leads to turnovers. Huh.
I would add expected improvement from Johnson and Clemons with a year under their belts.
I don’t think either one will improve as much as it might seem. Johnson is entering his age-24 season; Clemons will be 26 before Week 1. Pass rushers tend not to improve as much at this age, which means both players might have been close to their ceilings.
To be honest, if the Jets believed so much in Johnson, they would have gotten rid of Carl Lawson by now. Johnson showed very little as a pass rusher in his rookie season, pretty much the same that was on film from when he was in college. He’s a rock-solid edge-setter in the run game, as is Clemons, but both players do not show that much pass-rushing potential.
My question would be: Is the correlation between the player’s age and plateauing a function of age or years in the league?
Certainly, we would not see improvement from a player who is age 25 or so because he has usually been in the league 3/4 yrs and is as good as he’s going to get.
Regardless of the ages of Clemons and Johnson, it’s only their second year and I do anticipate considerable growth. I think Clemons already has shown a good ability to pressure the passer.
When it comes specifically to edge rusher it’s pretty well-established that the player’s actual age is very important. An older edge rusher coming into the league is already close to their ceiling. That’s likely one of the reasons Johnson dropped in the draft. (The other is that it was evident on tape that he has very few pass-rush moves, and his film showed a corresponding low pass-rush win rate.)
That’s why it was thought that Clemons would make more of an impact from Day 1 but then not improve all that much.