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Do NY Jets plan to use this defensive formation more often?

Robert Saleh, New York Jets, Getty Images
Robert Saleh, New York Jets, Getty Images

The NY Jets’ current personnel would indicate increased use of a specific defensive formation

With the NFL Draft only weeks away, the New York Jets‘ plans for 2023 are still somewhat in doubt.

When and how will Aaron Rodgers make his way to Florham Park? What’s the offensive line plan? Who will Rodgers throw to? How will the team replace Sheldon Rankins? Who’s the third linebacker? Those are just some of the unanswered questions.

One particularly perplexing puzzle is the continued presence of Jordan Whitehead on the roster. Whitehead’s $10.2 million cap hit is very steep for a one-dimensional safety, particularly when cutting him would save $7.25 million.

As of now, the Jets have two presumed starting strong safeties on the roster in Whitehead and Chuck Clark, with only Tony Adams as a free safety. Whether or not the team believes in Adams as a starter (and we at Jet X suspect they might), those two box safeties are unlikely to fill out the starting safety duo. Either the Jets will start Adams or they’ll bring in another free safety to start.

That leads to an interesting personnel question: could the Jets utilize both Whitehead and Clark while also using a free safety on the field?

Big nickel

In the Jets’ 4-3 defense, when they use the nickel package, they traditionally substitute a linebacker for a cornerback, making it a 4-2-5. Because of the NFL’s widespread use of 11 personnel (1 back, 1 tight end, 3 receivers), nickel is the Jets’ base package.

What some teams do in the nickel package is that instead of substituting a cornerback for the linebacker, they will bring in a safety. This package is referred to as “big nickel”: still nickel with five defensive backs, but bigger because a safety is closer to a linebacker/cornerback hybrid rather than a corner.

The rate of usage of the big nickel package varies widely. In 2022, the 49ers used big nickel on 70.7% of their nickel plays, while the Bills and Chiefs did not use it at all. The Jets used this personnel on 6.6% of their nickel plays, or 47 total times during the season, which ranked 20th. Will Parks was generally the third safety utilized.

The varying levels of usage among teams are likely due to talent differentials. If a team has a nickel corner that covers and tackles well, they’re less likely to switch to a safety. However, if their nickel corner can be pushed around in the run game or doesn’t cover certain positions well, the third safety can be very valuable.

By the numbers

As Michael Nania detailed, Clark is a Swiss Army knife, playing his best in the box and slot coverage. His struggles are primarily in a two-deep zone, while he excels as a tackler and run-stopper.

Clark has allowed just 5.8 yards per target out of the slot in his career, with a 78.7 passer rating and 59.3% completion rate. He would replace Michael Carter II in the slot.

Carter II ranked fifth among 76 cornerbacks (min. 200 run defense snaps) with a 4.2% run-stop rate in 2022. However, his 15.8% missed tackle rate was 34th. Clark was 31st out of 70 safeties with a 2.6% run-stop rate. He has a 5.3% missed tackle rate in the run game over the past three seasons, making him an upgrade in this area.

Whitehead struggles as a safety. He is a poor tackler who often gets steamrolled in the run game and takes bad coverage angles. However, one thing he does well is run stops. He recorded 30 stops in 2022 at an above-average 2.66% rate.

Whitehead’s weaknesses are best masked in zone coverage. In 2022, he ranked 22nd out of 66 safeties (min. 400 coverage snaps) with 7.6 yards per target allowed, fourth with a 21% forced incompletion rate, and 28th with an 86.4 zone quarterback rating allowed.

Here are Whitehead’s career numbers in two-deep zone, per NFL Next Gen Stats, compared to the 2022 averages for safeties:

  • 20-for-37, 54% completion rate (54%)
  • 358 yards, 9.7 yards per target (10.3)
  • 1.5:1 TD:INT ratio (0.89:1)
  • -0.03 EPA per target (0.125)
  • 8.1% TD rate (7.3%)
  • 5.4% INT rate (8.2%)

While safety stats are often inaccurate, the Jets did a good job of hiding Whitehead’s deficiencies. He curbed the damage on a play-by-play basis in zone (although four dropped picks limited his impact).

Jets’ possible usage

In a possible big-nickel package, the Jets would use Clark in the slot instead of Carter II. This would give them more surehanded run defense while also providing solid coverage.

Meanwhile, Whitehead could take his traditional strong safety position. His aggressive mindset in the box might pay off better with Clark’s tackling vs. Carter II’s. In deep zone, he can continue to hide out behind Sauce Gardner and D.J. Reed while doing a better job than Clark in coverage.

In man coverage, Whitehead’s deficiencies will be manifest. So would either his or Clark’s as the strong safety in a traditional nickel package, though.

Carter II is a good enough player that the Jets would not necessarily want to take him off the field regularly. A Clark-Carter II-FS trio of defensive backs is mostly better than Whitehead-Clark-FS. However, specifically due to the Jets’ tackling troubles in the run game, this sub-package in nickel could definitely help at times.

Furthermore, it is unsurprising that the Ravens used big nickel 68.5% of the time in their nickel packages last season. This was the third-highest rate in the NFL. Despite having signed Marcus Williams to a large contract and drafted Kyle Hamilton in the first round, Clark was too impactful to keep off the field.

Looking ahead

I still think the Jets will end up releasing Whitehead. He counts for too much against the cap. They are content to bide their time for now, but once Rodgers’ contract is on the books, they’ll need to trim cap somewhere.

However, there is a scenario in which the Jets add a void year to Whitehead’s contract, spread out the cap hit, and allow him to continue on the roster. As shown above, Whitehead is actually a better deep zone safety than Clark. Although the Jets don’t play Cover-2 zone that often, they do play two-high a lot. Perhaps they like Whitehead better in that role than Clark.

It has also come out several times from within the Jets’ organization that they like Whitehead and think he can improve in Year 2 of the system.

If both of these safeties remain on the roster in 2023, big nickel is a strong possibility for the defense.

Catch all of Rivka Boord’s articles on Twitter @rivka_boord

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Matt Galemmo
1 year ago

I know that the Jets strategy of drafting 220ish pound safeties on day three and planning to play them at linebacker had me first wondering about the interchangeability of the two, so yeah, it feels like this is definitely something they intend.

What’s holding them back though might be the absence of any trustworthy free safety talent. They may not play much cover 2, but they may actually want to sometimes. They just don’t have the people to do it.

Add in the changes at defensive line and I think we’re seeing the Jets build a defense that can intentionally match-up against what they perceived an offense is trying to do. I believe Saleh had that reputation for flexibility coming in, but we kind of forgot that because Ulbrich initially seemed rather rigid. Now it appears he may not be rigid at all, but instead it was the personnel that hemmed him in.