Takeaways were the one area that the NY Jets’ defense failed to improve in 2022
The superlatives to describe the 2022 New York Jets‘ defense are manifold.
They were top-five in defensive DVOA, points and yards allowed per game, yards per play, first downs, passing touchdowns, net yards per attempt, and rate of drives ending in a score. The Jets’ 7-10 record included five losses in which the defense gave up one touchdown or less.
It’s easy to believe that the Jets’ defense will continue to be strong in 2023. With Aaron Rodgers in tow, they are less likely to be on the field as often and are more likely to play with leads. Those conditions generally lead to more favorable defensive outcomes.
Still, defense is generally far more unpredictable than offense. According to Five Thirty Eight, from 2009 through 2018, just 9.7% of a team’s defensive DVOA could be explained by the prior season’s defensive DVOA, compared to 18.9% of offensive DVOA. The biggest reason for that is the instability of turnovers; while winning the turnover battle accounts for close to 70% of game outcomes, just 2.4% of interception totals and 1.6% of fumble recovery totals were explainable from the previous year’s results.
Over the last two seasons, the Jets have forced the second-fewest turnovers in the NFL with 30 combined takeaways (14 in 2021, 16 in 2022). Only the Las Vegas Raiders (28) have fewer. Such an unstable metric will most likely change over time.
Still, despite the luck factor, is there anything the Jets can do to increase their takeaways?
Continue QB hits
Interestingly, the Five Thirty Eight article points out that two defensive statistics tend to be fairly stable: quarterback hits and quarterback completion percentage when hit. In other words, if you want to make it hard for a quarterback to perform well, keep hitting him.
Over the last five seasons, there has been some correlation between quarterback hits and forcing interceptions, too. When there was a quarterback hit, 2.4% of pass plays resulted in an interception compared to 2.1% without a quarterback hit. Considering that 2.1% of total passes were intercepted over that period of time, that means that hitting the quarterback makes a relative difference of 14.3% when it comes to forcing an interception.
The Jets had some trouble converting pressures to sacks in 2022, but one thing they were actually pretty good at was hitting the quarterback. According to Pro Football Focus, Jets defensive players had a sack or quarterback hit on 4.94% of their combined defensive snaps in 2022, which led the NFL. Overall, their 131 sacks-plus-hits accounted for 21.8% of the defense’s passing snaps, also the highest rate in the league.
(Note: whenever a player gets a sack, official NFL statistics credit him with all four of the following: a sack, a quarterback hit, a hurry, and a tackle. This is one of the reasons that I am less inclined to use those numbers in my articles.)
Will McDonald had a 6.36% sack-plus-hit rate during his four primary seasons at Iowa State. In 2022, among 127 qualified FBS edge rushers, that would have been the seventh-best rate. He adds to the skill the Jets have in this area.
Overall, if the Jets continue to hit the quarterback, they’ll give themselves a better chance to force turnovers.
More blindside hits
Michael Nania explained that in 2022, one of the reasons for the Jets’ struggles in forcing turnovers was Carl Lawson‘s underwhelming season, as he is the Jets’ primary rusher from the right-side edge (the quarterback’s blindside).
Despite a decent rate of quarterback hits, Lawson was merely average when it came to generating pressure as a whole. He certainly was not affecting the quarterback on a consistent basis. The pass rusher from the blindside has the best chance of forcing turnovers since the quarterback does not see him coming. That simply wasn’t happening often enough.
In 2022, with the selection of McDonald, at least some of Lawson’s snaps will likely be cut into. This factor of forcing mistakes from the blindside could be the single biggest reason that McDonald was drafted. The rookie forced 10 fumbles in his college career and has 34 7/8-inch arms at just 6-foot-3. Combined with his elite flexibility off the edge, McDonald could make a game-changing impact in Year 1.
As mentioned before, the Jets are more likely to play with leads this season. In 2022, the defense had a lead on just 30% of their snaps. In the same year, even Rodgers’ underperforming Packers had a lead on 38.5% of their defensive snaps. From 2019-21, his defense had a lead on 64.7% of their snaps.
Playing with a lead is conducive to forcing turnovers: on average, a team that threw an interception in 2022 was trailing by 3.59 points. Over the last five seasons, it was a 4.35-point average deficit. In the fourth quarter, that drops to 6.20 and 7.73 points, respectively.
Interestingly, even fumbles tend to happen to a team that’s behind. In 2022, a team that fumbled was trailing by an average of 1.72 points; in the fourth quarter, it was 3.54 points. Over the last five seasons, that number was 1.92 and 2.97, respectively.
These numbers do not change significantly when filtering out plays in which the score is not in doubt—i.e. when the win probability for one team is greater than 80% or less than 20%. Therefore, it does seem that a defense is more likely to force turnovers when they are ahead. The Jets should be in that position more often in 2023.
Play for INTs, not just PDs
This aspect of the game is the most related to coaching. As dominant as Sauce Gardner and D.J. Reed were in 2022, they combined for just three interceptions. That isn’t to say that they didn’t play the ball, though.
Gardner had a 27% forced incompletion rate, the best among cornerbacks. His film demonstrates that he played the ball a lot. However, he did so with the intent to break up the pass rather than focusing on interceptions. Reed ranked 28th with a 13% forced incompletion rate, still above average for cornerbacks.
Some elite cornerbacks will never garner big interception numbers. Darrelle Revis had a 3.8% career interception rate. Darius Slay and Stephon Gilmore are at 3.3% and 3.7% in their careers, respectively. On the flip side, players like Asante Samuel Sr. (8.7% INT rate over his last eight seasons in which PFF data is available) sold out for interceptions.
Furthermore, interceptions don’t correlate from year to year because there is luck involved. For example, Antonio Cromartie had 10 interceptions in his second year in the NFL but never exceeded four in any other of his 11 seasons in the league.
However, both Gardner and Reed have the potential to grab more takeaways than they did in 2022. Gardner had nine interceptions on 112 targets over three college seasons (three in each season), an 8.0% rate; in 2022, he had two picks on 74 targets, just a 2.7% rate. Clearly, he has some untapped potential.
Reed had four interceptions on 123 targets over the prior two seasons, a 3.3% rate, and did not record an interception in his first two seasons in the NFL. Even so, his one pick in 2022 was just a 1.2% rate over 83 targets, so he left some meat on the bone, as well.
Other than the two top cornerbacks, there isn’t too much potential for improvement. Jordan Whitehead dropped four interceptions in 2022. Adrian Amos had two interceptions per season from 2018-21 before nabbing only one in 2022, so he’s never been a big ballhawk. Michael Carter II, notwithstanding his lost pick-six against the Patriots, had his first two career interceptions in 2022.
As a defensive philosophy, the Jets seek to avoid big mistakes. Part of that ideology is generally going to be to keep everything in front of them and mitigate catastrophes. Therefore, they’re not going to sell out for the big play as often as other defenses.
For the most part, that philosophy makes sense, but they do need to be a bit more opportunistic in playing the ball when it’s in front of them.
The Jets simply do not recover forced fumbles on defense. Including aborted plays, the Jets had 15 opponent fumbles when they were on defense, not including special teams. They recovered just four of them for a 26.7% recovery rate, the second-worst in the NFL.
Note: other outlets may report different fumble numbers due to discrepancies in what is considered an aborted snap and whether or not to include it in defensive fumbles. Data provided uses nflfastR play-by-play data and includes aborted plays.
This is not a new issue, either. In 2021, they recovered 31.8% of their defensive fumbles, which ranked 25th in the NFL. Overall, in the past two seasons, the Jets have recovered just 29.7% of their defensive fumbles, ranked 30th in the NFL.
For reference, the average fumble recovery rate in 2022 was 46.4%. That means that the Jets were expected to recover 6.96 fumbles instead of the four they actually did, a net of 2.96 fumbles below expected. The average EPA on a lost fumble in 2022 was -3.78. That means the Jets had 11.19 EPA below expected on defensive fumbles.
The Jets lost tight games to the Patriots (twice) and the Dolphins, all three of which included fumbles that were not recovered. Who knows what would have been if the Jets could have just recovered an average number of fumbles?
To be clear, fumble recoveries are considered a fluky stat. There is almost no year-over-year correlation in recovering fumbles, which is why defenses that performed really well due to a high number of fumble recoveries are likely due for regression. The Jets don’t have that particular concern (unlike the Dallas Cowboys, for example, who recovered 16 fumbles in 2022).
However, there remains the fact that the Jets also didn’t force that many fumbles. In 2022, the Jets’ defense forced just eight fumbles, tied for the third-lowest total in the league. By comparison, they forced 12 in 2021, which was tied for 14th. Obviously, a team can recover fumbles only if they have the opportunity. While unforced fumbles are fluky, a team can do something about forcing fumbles, to a certain extent.
Some of those forced fumbles tend to come on strip sacks. The Jets actually had six strip-sacks in 2022, which tied for sixth in the NFL. They recovered two of them, a 33% rate that ranked 21st. The league average was 48.7%, but that can be attributed to luck. All the Jets can do is keep getting to the quarterback.
In terms of other forced fumbles, though, the Jets were pretty lackluster. They had just two non-strip-sack forced fumbles, the least in the NFL. Although even forcing fumbles can be fluky, going for the ball is at least somewhat a coachable skill. With the Jets’ tackling woes, though, perhaps their coaches were more focused on wrapping up than ripping the ball out.
Interestingly, when it came to non-forced fumbles, the Jets got lucky in 2022. They had seven defensively, tied for the eighth-most in the NFL. They also recovered two of those seven fumbles, a 28.6% rate that tied for 11th in the league. Still, the sample size is quite small. Therefore, even if this regresses to the mean, there isn’t too much stock to put into it.
What to make of this long-winded section? The Jets can work on forcing more fumbles, but recovery is largely out of their control. They hope that the number will regress to the mean and work in their favor.
Improve short-area coverage
This is an area that the Jets are less likely to improve. One of the reasons the Jets had a hard time forcing turnovers is that teams schemed to throw outlet passes against their defense. The Jets’ linebackers and safeties consistently struggled in covering running backs and tight ends. This allowed quarterbacks to find open targets when under pressure.
Michael addressed this issue in an article, as well. He demonstrated that their tight-end coverage was porous in 2022 and has few outlets to improve in 2023. Unless the Jets get a breakout performance from Whitehead, Amos, Jamien Sherwood, or Quincy Williams in this area, the Jets will once again most likely have a hard time covering tight ends. This, in turn, will make it harder to force turnovers no matter how dominant their cornerbacks are.
In a similar vein, the Jets struggled with covering running backs in 2022. They ranked 21st in football with 38.7 receiving yards per game allowed to running backs. Their DVOA was still strong in this area at -5.4%, which tied for 10th-best. Still, there were times that teams like the Patriots used running back screens and dump-offs to attack the Jets’ poor coverage and tackling. This is an area in which their linebackers and safeties will also play a role, and the chances for improvement don’t seem all that great.
The main reason to think that the Jets could finally break their turnover funk is Rodgers. They haven’t been a good offensive team in a long time, and those conditions make it harder to force turnovers. 2023 could be different.
There are also a few other factors that could work in the Jets’ favor. McDonald’s presence, potential Year 2 increased aggressiveness from Gardner, and overall regression to the mean in fumble recovery luck could help them add to their takeaway total.
On the flip side, it’s possible that poor linebacker and safety coverage will continue to limit their ceiling in this area. That’s been a hallmark of the Saleh era with the Jets so far.
Ultimately, turnover differential tends to be a big predictor of game results. Even if the Jets can’t force many turnovers, a better outcome on the other side of the ball should still move the needle in their favor.