Will McDonald, Jermaine Johnson, NY Jets
Will McDonald, Jermaine Johnson, New York Jets, Getty Images, Jet X Graphic

The New York Jets pass rush can return to its 2022 dominance with some lineup changes

Much has been made of the New York Jets’ questionable snap distribution on offense, but there are some issues with the defense’s snap distribution, too. These decisions have primarily affected the pass rush.

The Jets are not getting after the quarterback like they were in 2022. After ranking in first quarterback hits (130), seventh in sacks (45), and third in pressure rate (25.4%, via Pro Football Reference), the 2023 Jets are currently ranked 17th in quarterback hits (18), 21st in sacks (6), and 22nd in pressure rate (19.2%).

When you dig into the Jets’ snap distribution across the defensive line, it’s clear that the Jets are not maximizing the potential of the players at their disposal. The pass rush can improve with a few simple tweaks to the defensive line rotation.

Here are three changes the Jets can consider making to improve their pass rush.

1. Remove Jermaine Johnson from the third down package and replace him with Will McDonald

The Jets are showing an immense amount of faith in Jermaine Johnson this year. After playing only 34% of the Jets’ defensive snaps in his rookie season, he is up to a whopping 67% this year, ranking second among the team’s defensive linemen behind only Quinnen Williams (69%). It is the highest rate among New York’s edge rushers.

The primary source of Johnson’s snap increase is his insertion into the primary third-down rush package. Johnson hardly played at all on third down in 2022, but in 2023, he has been a mainstay.

Johnson has partook in 34 of the Jets defense’s 40 third-down passing plays this season (85%). That stands as the most third-down pass-rush snaps of any Jets edge rusher (Bryce Huff is second with 28) and the second-most of any player on the team (Williams leads with 36).

This increase in third-down snaps is understandable considering the progress Johnson displayed throughout the offseason and in the preseason. The Jets clearly believed he was on the verge of a breakout and decided to bet on it.

However, through three games, that progress has not translated into much of anything. Johnson has shown no significant signs of development as a pass rusher.

Overall, Johnson has a pass-rush win rate of 5.7% this season, per PFF, which ranks 64th out of the 74 edge rushers with at least 50 pass-rush snaps this season. Johnson also ranks 66th with a pressure rate of 5.6%, as he’s recorded just five pressures (65th among EDGE) despite playing 90 pass-rush snaps (21st).

Johnson has especially struggled on third down, recording only one pressure on 34 third-down pass-rush snaps (2.9% pressure rate) according to NFL Next Gen Stats. It’s the lowest third-down pressure rate in the NFL this season among edge rushers with at least 20 third-down pass-rush snaps.

Meanwhile, the Jets’ 2023 first-round pick, Will McDonald, has only played one third-down pass-rush snap all season – despite the fact his skill set is much better suited for third downs than Johnson’s skill set.

McDonald was considered a player who might need some development with his all-around game, but it was widely agreed that he could contribute immediately as a situational pass rusher in obvious passing situations. Yet, the Jets have elected to rely on Johnson in those situations over McDonald despite Johnson’s woeful production.

Make no mistake: Johnson is a good player. His run defense is tremendous. He has a great motor that he uses to track down ball carriers in both phases. In the passing game, he does a nice job on stunts.

But Johnson still has a very long way to go with his one-on-one pass rushing consistency. Until he develops that part of his game, the Jets would be wise to limit Johnson to first and second-down reps while giving the majority (if not all) of his third-down snaps to McDonald.

Taking away Johnson’s third-down reps wouldn’t be a sign that the Jets no longer believe in him. He would still be able to develop his pass rushing ability on first and second down. This would simply be a move that places each player in a role that makes the most sense for their skill set at the moment – therefore maximizing the team’s chances of winning.

In the long run, if Johnson shows progress as a pass rusher, the Jets can give him more snaps in passing situations at that point. For now, though, McDonald is a much better option on third down. His ceiling is immensely higher while the floor cannot be any lower.

Perhaps the Jets don’t trust McDonald’s all-around game just yet. That’s perfectly fine. But with his explosion, speed, bend, and already-vast package of rush moves (including an uber-consistent spin move he unleashed in the preseason), McDonald is more than ready to make plays on third down when he can just pin his ears back and go.

I understand why the Jets decided to bet on Johnson, but it’s about time for them to put this experiment on hold and give McDonald a chance. Making this switch would put both players in a role that emphasizes their strengths.

2. Give Bryce Huff more snaps on early downs

The Jets have been deathly afraid of using Bryce Huff against the run over the past two seasons, solely utilizing him in situations where the run is not a threat. The decision has paid off, as Huff has been a superstar in his role.

But the man is so ridiculously good that it’s hard to believe his run defense is so bad to the point where it wouldn’t be worth it to deal with a few more run-defense snaps per game to give him even more pass-rush snaps. In fact, Huff has made a great play against the run in back-to-back weeks, showing signs of hope that he might not be as poor of a run defender as the Jets treat him.

Huff recorded an absurd pressure rate of 20.8% in 2022, and so far in 2023, he’s been even better, ranking third-best out of 91 qualified edge rushers with a 22.4% pressure rate. He’s pressured the quarterback 11 times (26th among EDGE) despite playing only 49 pass-rush snaps (75th).

Despite his superstar-caliber efficiency, Huff is never able to make too big of a stamp on the game because of his limited snap count. He is only fifth on the team in pass-rush snaps this year, including third among edge rushers. Johnson (90) has played nearly twice as many pass-rush snaps as Huff (49).

All told, Huff has only been on the field for 49 of the Jets defense’s 120 passing plays (41%). It doesn’t seem right that the Jets’ best pass rusher is on the field for less than half of the opponent’s passing plays.

Considering that Huff has recently shown glimmers of hope that his run defense might not be all that terrible, the Jets should think about sprinkling him in on first and second down to boost his pass-rush snap count, even if it means they have to put up with him in the run game for a few extra snaps.

I see it this way: the potential reward of one Bryce Huff pass-rush snap far outweighs the potential risk of one Bryce Huff run-defense snap. So, if the Jets give him 10 extra pass snaps and 10 extra run snaps, he should make a net-positive impact overall.

There are a few different places the Jets can turn to find some early-down snaps for Huff. First and foremost, they should start thinking about whether Carl Lawson is worth using in his current condition.

In two games since returning from his back injury, Lawson has been a complete non-factor. Over 18 pass-rush snaps, he has zero pressures or pass-rush wins. This is a shock to see from Lawson, who only had three zero-pressure games in his entire career (including just one with the Jets) before this season. He never did it in back-to-back games. Clearly, Lawson is not fully healthy.

Unless the Jets have the utmost confidence Lawson will soon return to his previous form, it’s difficult to see a reason why he should continue playing over Huff on early downs. Even if the Jets believe there would be a slight drop-off from Lawson to Huff in the run game, it does not come close to matching how massive the upgrade would be in the passing game.

If the Jets insist on giving Lawson time to figure things out, there is another player the Jets can steal some early-down snaps from: Micheal Clemons.

But I’m not suggesting the Jets should reduce Clemons’ snap count. I’m suggesting the Jets should relocate Clemons’ snaps to open up snaps for Huff – which brings us to our third and final point.

3. Reduce Al Woods’ role in the pass rush by giving some of his snaps to Micheal Clemons

In addition to Johnson and Lawson, Al Woods is another player who is crushing the Jets’ pass rush. The Jets’ decision to add Woods into their one-gapping scheme was always questionable, and now we’re seeing why it was such an odd move.

Woods is a 36-year-old, 330-pound space-eating nose tackle with no pass rushing ability, but he’s still been on the field for 38 pass-rush plays this season (12.7 per game). The Jets have felt it on every one of those plays. Woods is yet to record a pass-rush win this year and only has one pressure, which was a cleanup sack that fell into his lap.

When he gets caught on the field for a passing play, Woods is usually stationary for the entire rep, creating no interior cave-in to prevent the QB from stepping up or seeing the field.

We’re in the 2020s. Passing is king in the NFL. Unless you’re an utterly dominant run defender – which Woods is not (he’s still pretty good, but far from dominant at age 36) – you have to be able to rush the quarterback as a defensive lineman in today’s league. Woods is a zero in the passing game and it is crushing the Jets.

Passing the ball with Woods on the field essentially guarantees a clean pocket. Here are the passing stats of New York’s opponents when Woods is on the field over the past two games:

  • 19 for 22 (86%)
  • 176 yards (8.0 Y/A)
  • 1 sack
  • 0 QB hits
  • 1 TD
  • 0 INT
  • 8 first downs
  • 115.2 passer rating

I don’t expect the Jets to completely bench Woods, but they need to make every effort to minimize his pass-rush snap count. One way to do that is to give some of his snaps in potential pass situations to Micheal Clemons.

Despite bulking up to 290 pounds – seemingly to prepare him for more reps on the interior – Clemons’ role hasn’t changed at all this season. He is still playing 93% of his snaps on the edge, which is the same rate as last year.

With Woods struggling, the Jets should think about taking some of his reps and giving them to Clemons. Perhaps there may be a slight downgrade in the run game due to the size difference, but the upgrade in the passing game should be tenfold.

At the very least, Clemons’ smaller frame and substantially better explosiveness off the line should make him a more formidable gap-penetrating threat than Woods. Even if Clemons’ all-around package of rush moves isn’t quite developed, he has the potential to be very valuable as a penetrator on stunts. It’s easy to picture him lining up at 3-tech, penetrating the B-gap, and drawing both the guard and the tackle to open up a lane for the edge rusher to loop inside behind him.

According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Clemons had an average pass-rush get-off time of 1.05 seconds when lining up on the interior in 2022, which was just a hair above the league average for interior rushers (1.04). This year, Woods’ average get-off time is 1.18 seconds, which ranks 106th out of 114 qualifiers.

Simply upgrading from Woods’ snail pace to Clemons’ league-average explosiveness would go a long way for the early-down pass rush.

Then, with Clemons trading some of his edge snaps for interior snaps, more early-down edge snaps would open up for Huff.

Simple solutions are available for Jeff Ulbrich

And there you have it – three simple and completely feasible changes that would improve the Jets’ pass rush in the blink of an eye. No, the NFL is not Madden, and it’s never as easy to change the lineup as it might look on paper. With that being said, I don’t see a good reason why Jets defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich cannot implement any of these changes. All three are realistic.

Johnson, Lawson, and Woods have been some of the least efficient pass rushers in all of football, and the Jets have viable solutions waiting in the wings to replace each of them. Turning to those solutions immediately would yield much better odds of success than simply holding onto hope that their current strategies will eventually work out despite the highly underwhelming results to date.

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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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