Quincy Williams, Dawson Knox, NY Jets, Bills
Quincy Williams, Dawson Knox, New York Jets, Buffalo Bills, Getty Images

The New York Jets didn’t do much to fix this nagging defensive hole

In 2022, the New York Jets’ defense was excellent at many things. Stopping tight ends was not one of them.

The Jets allowed 61.1 yards per game to tight ends, ranking sixth-worst in the NFL. They also ranked fifth-worst with 5.5 receptions per game allowed to tight ends.

In fairness to the Jets, those numbers make them look worse at stopping tight ends than they actually were. Since the Jets’ cornerbacks were so dominant at shutting down wide receivers, opponents funneled a huge number of targets to tight ends. New York faced the third-most targets per game to tight ends with 7.8. This makes the Jets’ rankings in receptions and yards much more understandable.

When you look at some of the more advanced metrics out there, the Jets’ coverage against tight ends does not look nearly as bad.

EPA (Expected Points Added) is a metric that estimates the impact of each play on a team’s chances of scoring points on that particular drive. In other words, a three-yard grab for a first down on third-and-2 has substantially more value than a 15-yard catch on third-and-20. A positive EPA indicates the play increased the number of points the team is expected to score on that drive, and vice versa if it’s a negative EPA.

The Jets’ coverage against tight ends was respectable in the eyes of EPA. New York allowed 0.14 EPA per target to opposing tight ends, which was equal to the league average on all targets to tight ends.

Still, being league-average in any category was subpar by the Jets’ lofty defensive standards in 2022. New York was a top-five defense in many pass-game categories, but tight ends were a nagging issue that bothered them throughout the season.

Poor coverage against tight ends was a common issue in the Jets’ losses. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, the Jets had a record of 3-8 when they allowed more than 0.0 total receiving EPA to tight ends. Here is a look at the games in which New York allowed the opponent’s tight ends to make a positive impact in terms of EPA.

  • Week 16 vs. Jaguars (L): 9.1 EPA by TEs
  • Week 17 at Seahawks (L): 7.7
  • Week 15 vs. Lions (L): 6.0
  • Week 4 at Steelers (W): 3.0
  • Week 8 vs. Patriots (L): 2.8
  • Week 2 at Browns (W): 2.1
  • Week 11 at Patriots (L): 1.9
  • Week 13 at Vikings (L): 1.4
  • Week 5 vs. Dolphins (W): 0.9
  • Week 3 vs. Bengals (L): 0.9
  • Week 18 at Dolphins (L): 0.6
  • Week 14 at Bills (L): 0.6

When the Jets allowed 0.0 total EPA or fewer to tight ends, they went 4-1.

  • Week 6 at Packers (W): 0.0 EPA by TEs
  • Week 1 vs. Ravens (L): -1.3
  • Week 9 vs. Bills (W): -4.2
  • Week 7 at Broncos (W): -5.3
  • Week 12 vs. Bears (W): -8.1

Overall, the Jets allowed 3.0 total EPA per game to tight ends in their losses compared to -1.6 total EPA per game in wins.

For comparison, the former mark is equal to the Giants’ 31st-ranked performance in 2022 (Jacksonville was the worst with 4.0 per game), while the latter mark would have been the best of any team in 2022 (New Orleans was the best with -1.2 per game).

So, when they lost, the Jets played like the second-worst TE-stopping team in football, and when they won, they played like the best TE-stopping team in football.

This makes it clear: Stopping tight ends is an enormous X-factor for this defense.

While the Jets were not bad against tight ends in 2022, the problem is that they were wildly inconsistent. They had some dominant games, some mediocre ones, and some terrible ones. Ultimately, it all balanced out and the Jets landed at a perfectly league-average performance in terms of EPA per target.

But if the Jets want to make the jump to becoming a truly formidable defense in 2022 – rising from their consensus top-five billing to the league’s unquestioned No. 1 unit – improving their coverage against tight ends has to be a part of it. As we saw last year, the Jets’ performance against tight ends closely correlated with whether they won or lost.

It’s possible this correlation between TE coverage and win percentage was merely a coincidence, as the Jets’ defense played well in many of the team’s losses. The offense deserved the vast majority of the blame for most of New York’s defeats. However, I would argue that the correlation is not a coincidence due to one thing: the timeliness of the Jets’ hiccups against tight ends.

Yes, the Jets mainly lost games such as the Detroit, Jacksonville, and Seattle defeats because of a putrid offense. But with better coverage against tight ends in pivotal moments of the game, the Jets could have made the opposing offense look just as inept as their own, creating the opportunity for ugly, low-scoring wins. Instead, timely catches by tight ends allowed the opposing offenses to do just enough damage to squeak by the Jets’ pathetic offense despite the Jets’ defense doing a mostly great job otherwise.

The Lions game is a perfect example. With 2:00 on the clock in the fourth quarter, the Jets had a 17-13 lead and were one play away from sealing the victory with a fourth-and-1 stop. To that point, the defense was phenomenal, holding an elite Lions offense to six points (seven came on a punt return touchdown) – even without Quinnen Williams. Everything came crashing down with a 51-yard touchdown allowed to backup tight end Brock Wright on fourth-and-1.

The Jaguars game is another fantastic example. Jacksonville came into MetLife Stadium with a scorching hot offense (679 passing yards and 76 points over the previous two games), but against New York’s cornerbacks, the Jaguars’ wide receivers could only muster up an embarrassing total of 59 receiving yards. This was one week after Jacksonville’s wide receiver unit dropped 230 yards on the Cowboys’ elite defense.

With such a lockdown performance on the outside, the table was set for New York to completely shut down the Jaguars’ offense. That opportunity was foiled because the Jets allowed tight end Evan Engram to catch seven passes for 113 yards with six first downs, each of which either came on third down or with six-plus yards to go. In the end, the Jets still allowed only 19 points to Jacksonville. If Engram were neutralized to his season averages entering that game (4 catches for 45 yards and 2 first downs), who knows how the game could have gone?

You could also throw in the Seahawks game, where the Jets allowed one touchdown apiece to no-name tight ends Colby Parkinson and Tyler Mabry. Outside of the Jets game, Parkinson and Mabry have combined for one touchdown in their entire careers (six total seasons).

Parkinson and Mabry’s touchdowns against New York both came on second-and-long, in the red zone, and within the first 16 minutes of the game. If the Jets did not start off the game by allowing two second-and-long red-zone touchdowns to nobodies, perhaps they could have gotten two red-zone stops to change the early trajectory of a game where Seattle still only managed to score 23 points in the end – the Seahawks did not score any more touchdowns after these two.

In each of these three games, the Jets’ coverage against tight ends was the primary difference between a suffocating performance that could have given the Jets a chance to win even with a horrible offense, and a great-but-not-dominant defensive performance that was too much for the Jets’ pathetic offense to overcome.

Outlook for 2023

Looking ahead to the 2023 season, it is difficult to see how the Jets will get any better in this area. The majority of the same defensive players will return, and the Jets did not add any new players at safety or linebacker that are particularly adept at covering tight ends.

Well, the Jets actually did add one player who has a good reputation against tight ends, but he is unfortunately done for the year with an ACL tear. Chuck Clark would have been the Jets’ best path to improvement in this area. His injury leaves the Jets with a group that does not look like it will perform much differently against tight ends than last year’s.

Clark’s replacement, Adrian Amos, is coming off a rough year against tight ends. In 2022, Amos allowed 5.9 total EPA (0.35 per target) as the nearest defender in coverage against tight ends, per NFL Next Gen Stats. Amos also allowed 3.2 yards of separation per target, which tied for seventh-worst among the 25 safeties to face at least 15 targets against tight ends (the league average for safeties vs. TEs was 2.9). He was only two spots ahead of the Jets’ Jordan Whitehead, who placed fifth-worst with 3.5 yards of separation per target.

Amos was solid against tight ends prior to 2022, so there is a chance he returns to that level of play and proves 2022 was an outlier. Over his first three years with the Packers (2019-22), Amos allowed -5.4 total EPA to tight ends (-1.8 per season, -0.11 per target) and yielded just 2.2 average yards of separation. This gives him a promising ceiling, but with Amos entering his age-30 season, it is probably more likely that he continues trending down rather than bouncing back to his previous levels.

Turning our attention to the linebacker position, the outlook is similarly bleak.

Quincy Williams was the Jets’ worst offender against tight ends and he is set to reprise his starting role. Williams led all Jets defenders with 9.5 total EPA allowed to tight ends, which ranked eighth-worst among linebackers. While Williams showed improvement in 2022 as a run defender and in coverage against running backs, he remains a liability against tight ends until proven otherwise.

C.J. Mosley is back after a pedestrian year against tight ends, allowing 1.4 EPA on 19 targets (0.07 per target). He did not seem to be a huge problem against tight ends, but like Amos, age is a concern. Mosley will be 31 this season.

At the third linebacker spot, it currently looks like the Jets will be moving on from Kwon Alexander, though he remains a free agent. If this is the case, it may actually give the Jets a chance to improve at covering tight ends.

Alexander was an outstanding run defender and did a fantastic job of closing on dump-off passes to running backs, but like Williams, he was a liability against tight ends. Alexander ranked 13th-worst among linebackers with 8.4 total EPA allowed to tight ends (0.56 per target).

The problem is that the Jets did not add anyone to replace Alexander. As things stand, they will be relying on an unproven young player to replace him – most likely Jamien Sherwood. It’s impossible to know who Sherwood is considering his lack of playing time. It’s certainly possible Sherwood could be an upgrade, but it seems more likely that a former fifth-round pick with a 4.25 Relative Athletic Score will not be any better than Alexander.

Still, solely based on the fact that he hasn’t proven anything yet (good or bad), Sherwood might be the Jets’ best hope at improving their coverage at tight ends. He has a higher ceiling than anyone else we have mentioned so far – again, only because he hasn’t played enough to rule out the possibility that he could be a positive-impact player. Who knows? Perhaps he will shine after three years of development under Robert Saleh and Jeff Ulbrich, who each have a strong history of developing linebackers.

Keeping the Jets afloat in this area are the cornerbacks. They were dominant when charged with covering tight ends last year, and their success was the reason New York managed to be fairly average at covering tight ends on a per-target basis.

New York’s cornerbacks allowed -10.4 total EPA when they were the nearest defender in coverage against a tight end. That came on 44 targets for a stellar average of -0.24 EPA target. Sauce Gardner led the way with -4.4 EPA on 13 targets (-0.34 per target) while slot man Michael Carter II took on the most targets of the group, allowing -2.8 EPA on 18 targets (-0.16 per target).

If you take out the cornerbacks, the rest of the Jets’ defenders allowed 24.5 EPA on 89 targets for a poor average of 0.28 EPA target.

Thanks to the cornerbacks, tight ends were not a back-breaking issue for the Jets in 2022. However, the porous coverage of the linebackers and safeties caused tight ends to be a minor problem that occasionally hurt the Jets in big spots.

Is there any hope for the Jets to improve here? Sure there is – it just feels wildly optimistic to say it will happen. But if it does, I think the biggest keys will be Adrian Amos and Jamien Sherwood.

Amos has been a good starter in the past and could still have a chance to revisit that level. While turning 30 is not promising, it also isn’t a death sentence – especially at a cerebral position like safety where we have seen a lot of players in the league enjoy success into their thirties. A bounce-back year for Amos is not completely out of the question.

Alexander quietly struggled against tight ends in 2022 and Sherwood has a chance to be a significant upgrade. The coaches speak highly of him. It’s possible that Sherwood’s fundamentals and football IQ are strong enough to overcome his lackluster athleticism and make him a solid player in coverage. With three years of development going into the 2023 opener, he’ll be as prepared as he possibly could.

If you want to get greedy, I would throw in the hope that Quincy Williams continues developing. Williams took noticeable steps forward in a few areas last season. Maybe he can still get better in coverage. He’s turning 27, though, so this seems overly optimistic to even mention, but it’s not totally inconceivable for a player who has already shown he is a late bloomer.

A breakout from Tony Adams could also help, although if he ends up playing in the Lamarcus Joyner role as a deep safety, his involvement in covering tight ends will be minimal. In 14 games last season, Joyner was the nearest defender on only five targets against tight ends (-1.5 total EPA).

That’s about every path to improvement I could think of, though – and even the Amos and Sherwood paths feel rather optimistic.

The reality is that the Jets did not do much to improve in this area. Their lone attempt was Clark, and to be fair, it was a great attempt. Clark alone could have been a tremendous answer to the Jets’ problems. From 2020-22, Clark allowed -11.4 total EPA to tight ends, with -0.22 EPA per target. His injury is a more significant blow than many realize.

Going into 2023, it seems likely that the Jets’ performance against tight ends will be quite similar to 2022. The cornerbacks will continue doing their part to prevent tight ends from completely taking over games, but the ceiling is limited by the returning cast of safeties and linebackers who struggled last year.

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Michael Nania is one of the best analytical New York Jets minds in the world, combining his statistical expertise with game film to add proper context to the data. Nania scrapes every corner, ensuring you know all there is to know about everyone from the QB to the long snapper. Nania's Numbers, Nania's QB Grades, and Nania's All-22 give fans a deeper and more well-rounded dive into the Jets than anyone else can offer. Email: michael.nania[at]jetsxfactor.com - Twitter: @Michael_Nania
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Matt Galemmo
Matt Galemmo
2 months ago

Can Echols or Guidry in a dime be part of a solution (especially in two minute situations)?

Jonathan Richter
Jonathan Richter
2 months ago

I see the correlation, but not causation. Bottom line, early in the year we won games even if the TE went off. We went 4-1 with the only loss to Cincy. Late in the year we lost everything.

Peter Buell
Peter Buell
2 months ago

Saleh has alot of confidence Whitehead will be much improved in his 2nd year.
In a most likely 2 year window with Rodgers and a mostly elite D, I’m not taking that chance on a guy with an $8.5 cap hit even though he did stretch it out over 5 years.
Linebacker is still weak with a smart but aged Mosely, an improving Quincey and then a whole lot of questions…One is why isn’t Kwon back. Another is why wasn’t linebacker a priority in free agency.
Bills let Tremaine Edwards walk and before you could blink he signed with the Bears.
Ik dealing with Rodgers set alot of things back but if I had a say in things after watching so many 3rd and it dosent matter how long become 1st downs, my 1st signing while waiting out Green Bay would have been a top safety or LB and Edwards would have been my guy.
Mosely is a year older and on alot of those third downs he wad trailing the play as crosses and flat passes for a fee yards turned into 1st downs from 3rd and 7 or longer.
Edwards was over-paid but sometimes you need to bite your lip and pay it because that bleed is alot less than rbs and slot guys running wild.
Most importantly the deal was structured as cap friendly and escapable after 2 years with a total of $7m in dead cap over 2 years.
Edwards would have made this D #1 imo