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NY Jets’ preseason showed they are reversing a major 2022 issue

NY Jets Punt, Special Teams, Ranking
Irvin Charles, New York Jets, Getty Images

The New York Jets’ offense is not the only unit showing signs of a turnaround

New York Jets fans across the globe jumped for joy when Garrett Wilson hauled in a perfectly placed touchdown pass from Aaron Rodgers against the Giants. It felt like a sneak peek of exciting things to come over the next few months.

The Jets’ offense has received plenty of attention for its expected turnaround, highlighted by the excellence of Wilson and Rodgers during their brief appearance in the preseason finale. However, the offense is not the only unit that showed signs of potentially remarkable improvement throughout the preseason. Jets fans should be thrilled about what the team showed in another phase of the game, too.

We’re not talking about the defense – that unit had little to prove after its excellence last season. We’re talking about the special teams unit.

In certain facets of special teams, the Jets struggled nearly as much as they did offensively. But a return to prominence may be on the horizon. Special teams coordinator Brant Boyer must be thrilled about what his unit showed throughout August.

While the “it’s only preseason” caveat applies to most aspects of August football, special teams is one phase of the game where you can get somewhat of an accurate feel for what’s to come in the regular season. Most teams utilize their starting kicker, punter, and longer snapper throughout the entire preseason. Many of the other players who handle core special teams roles in the regular season do so in the preseason as well, since the majority of them are backups and get plenty of preseason reps.

For this reason, Jets fans can be legitimately excited about what’s to come for their special teams unit after seeing its improvement in the preseason.

Great punt coverage + The ageless Thomas Morstead

The most substantial improvement was shown by the punting unit.

New York struggled mightily to cover punts last season. The Jets allowed two of the three punt return touchdowns that were scored in the entire NFL and ranked third-worst with 11.3 yards allowed per punt return.

In this year’s preseason, the Jets showed tremendous progress in punt coverage. They allowed 30 yards over 11 opponent punt returns, placing them fourth-best in the league with only 2.7 yards allowed per punt return. This is a relatively sizable sample, too, as the Jets tied for the most opposing punt returns in the NFL.

The coverage team deserves an immense amount of credit, but so does the punter himself. Returning to New York after a brief stint with the team in 2021, veteran punter Thomas Morstead is bringing stability to the punting unit.

The 37-year-old averaged 4.48 seconds of hang time per punt in the preseason. For perspective, that would have ranked third-best out of 34 qualified punters in the 2022 regular season. His ability to punt with hang time and accuracy will make life easier for the Jets’ coverage team, and it showed in the preseason.

Kickoff coverage is also strong

Covering kickoffs wasn’t an issue for the Jets last year. They actually ranked sixth-best with only 20.9 yards allowed per return. However, that came over a small sample size as they only had to defend a league-low 12 kickoff returns.

Fortunately, the Jets appear to remain in good shape here after getting a solid sample of opportunities in the preseason. They defended nine kickoff returns in just four games, and those returns went for a measly average of 20.1 yards with a long of 26 yards.

Part of the reason New York defended so few kickoffs last year was the touchback-producing success of Greg Zuerlein. He ranked third among qualifiers with an 83.9% touchback rate.

At times this preseason, it seemed like Zuerlein deliberately pooched a high kick that landed outside of the end zone, likely by request of Boyer so the Jets could evaluate the coverage unit. Zuerlein only kicked 10 touchbacks out of 19 kickoffs (53%), a far cry from his 76% rate over the past six regular seasons.

Most likely, this was intentional, and it makes sense. Touchbacks are a waste of time in the preseason. It makes more sense to just force a return and let your guys play so you can see what you have. The Jets were able to see a good chunk of reps from their kickoff unit, and the results were promising.

Zuerlein looked sharp

Zuerlein enjoyed a solid preseason. He made all seven of his extra points and eight of his nine field goals, including makes from 53 and 54 yards. His lone miss came from 40 yards.

The 12th-year veteran’s preseason production is a reflection of his similarly excellent performance in training camp throughout this summer. Zuerlein has been consistent in practice, per reports. The Jets have not had this little drama surrounding the kicker position in a long time.

Seeing Zuerlein perform well is comforting for the Jets as they enter the regular season. While Zuerlein is an experienced veteran who has generally been solid in the league, he is not a sure thing. Zuerlein has had some down years in his career (three seasons with a sub-80 FG percentage). The Jets hope he can replicate his 2022 performance, and it seems he is on track to do that.

In fact, Zuerlein is capable of performing much better than he did in 2022.

Some fans slightly overrate Zuerlein because his predecessors set such a low bar. He was only a smidgen above average last season, ranking 15th out of 33 qualified kickers with a +2.0% Field Goal Percentage Over Expectation, per Jets X-Factor’s Rivka Boord. He was much better than his raw field goal percentage suggests (81.1%, 27th of 33) since he had the fifth-highest average attempt distance in the NFL (42.2 yards). Still, even when accounting for that, he was in the middle of the pack.

The Jets will gladly sign up for another 2022-caliber season from Zuerlein after what they dealt with over the years prior. Still, there’s room for improvement.

Zuerlein is a former first-team All-Pro who has eclipsed a 90% field goal percentage in two seasons. He has the ability to improve upon his 2022 performance with the Jets.

Zuerlein’s extra point consistency is another interesting factor to watch. He was strong in that category last season, missing just one of his 29 attempts (96.6% conversion rate). However, in 2021, Zuerlein missed six of his 48 attempts with the Cowboys (87.5%).

The Jets hope to be scoring far more touchdowns this year than last, so Zuerlein’s extra point kicking will become more important. Ideally, he replicates his 2022 consistency in this area. Zuerlein’s career extra point conversion rate since it moved back in 2015 is 94.8%, so he should be fine, but the 2021 season shows it’s not a guarantee.

With his strong training camp and preseason, Zuerlein has done all he can to inspire confidence entering the regular season.

More flashes from the return units

New York also enjoyed signs of life from its return units.

In 2022, the Jets’ return units were not necessarily “bad”, but they certainly lacked explosion.

While the Jets ranked fourth-best with 11.4 yards per punt return, their longest punt return of the season went for only 22 yards, which tied them for the fifth-shortest maximum return in the league. As for kickoffs, the Jets ranked 21st with 21.5 yards per return while their longest return went for 42 yards, the ninth-shortest maximum return.

Braxton Berrios (who is now in Miami) captained both return units. While Berrios is one of the league’s most consistent returners, he is also one of its least explosive. Across 67 career punt returns with the Jets, Berrios never had a 30+ yard return.

The Jets are hoping to get more game-breaking plays out of their return unit in the future. And in this year’s preseason, they saw some promising signs that suggest they may be on the road to accomplishing that goal.

In just four preseason games, Xavier Gipson already beat Berrios’ 2022 season-longs in both return games. Gipson had a 45-yard kickoff return and a 31-yard punt return (which beats Berrios’ career-long). Gipson also had a 20-yard punt return against the Giants where he likely would have scored if he had not barely stepped out of bounds while toeing the sideline.

It remains to be seen whether Gipson will make the roster. The undrafted free agent from Stephen F. Austin certainly has legitimate return-game potential. Either way, the Jets can be happy about their return production this preseason. Kick returns are a team effort. Great returns can only happen with good blocking, and the Jets generally did a nice job of blocking up their returns this preseason. That is something that can carry over into the regular season regardless of who is returning the ball.

Overall, the Jets are trending up on special teams after a down season in 2022. More than anything, the unit seems poised for stability anchored by the veteran trio of Morstead, kicker Greg Zuerlein, and long snapper Thomas Hennessy. Fans can expect improved consistency from the unit in 2023.

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