NY Jets, Jeff Ulbrich, DC, Defensive Coordinator
Jeff Ulbrich, New York Jets, Getty Images

Will the real New York Jets defense please stand up?

In 2022, the New York Jets defense was unquestionably elite. The Jets allowed the second-fewest points per drive (1.57) and second-fewest yards per drive (27.3) of any team in football.

We have seen the Jets defense repeat this elite play in 2023 – but only half of the time. For the other half, the Jets defense has not looked nearly the same.

So far in 2023, Jeff Ulbrich and Robert Saleh‘s defense has been a two-faced unit. On a weekly basis, the defense stumbles out of the gate but proceeds to dominate in the second half.

The Jets are the only team in the NFL that has yet to allow a touchdown in the second half. In the first half, though, the Jets have allowed six touchdowns, tied for the sixth-most.

Additionally, the Jets are allowing 22.3 yards per drive in the second half and overtime (fourth-best) compared to 37.3 yards per drive in the first half (28th).

Largely because of the defense’s first-half woes (although the offense obviously deserves more blame), the Jets have trailed by double-digits in the first half of every game so far. This has made life tougher on the offense, which has been forced to consistently get into catch-up mode early in the game.

What gives? Why is the Jets defense getting off to slow starts? How can they turn around their defensive performance in the first half?

Let’s dig into two of the primary issues with the Jets’ first-half defense.

Coverage busts against tight ends

Of the six first-half touchdowns allowed by the Jets, four were passing touchdowns, and all four of those went to tight ends. Unsurprisingly, it stands as the most first-half touchdowns allowed to TEs of any team – no other team has allowed more than three total touchdowns to TEs, let alone solely in the first half.

Only one of those four touchdowns featured the TE beating a Jets defender in man coverage, which was Luke Schoonmaker’s 1-yard touchdown against Jamien Sherwood in Week 2. Each of the other three was a result of the TE breaking free against zone coverage.

Also in Week 2, Jake Ferguson found a soft spot between Sauce Gardner and Quincy Williams for a 4-yard touchdown. In fairness, that was a relatively minor mistake – it was a perfect concept by Dallas in the red zone to beat the Jets’ defensive call on that particular play. However, the Jets committed downright unforgivable errors in back-to-back games against New England and Kansas City.

In each of the past two weeks, the Jets allowed a blocking tight end to run wide-open for a freebie deep touchdown. Pharaoh Brown broke loose for a 58-yard touchdown in Week 3 and Noah Gray followed up with a 34-yard touchdown in Week 4. For both players, it is the only touchdown they have scored this season and the longest catch they have made in their careers.

While it’s tough to point fingers without being in the huddle and knowing the exact play call, Jordan Whitehead appears to be involved in both touchdowns. Whitehead got in the good graces of Jets fans with a three-pick season opener, but his coverage was an issue last season and that weakness might be rearing its ugly head once more.

Seen below are all four touchdowns the Jets have allowed to TEs.

Whitehead looks like the top suspect on both of the deep touchdowns, but again, I won’t speculate too much without being in the Jets’ meeting room. Only they know exactly who was at fault for those two busts. Regardless of who is to blame, the Jets need to clean this up going forward.

In 2022, the Jets’ secondary played with excellent communication and chemistry. They did a great job of smoothly passing off routes, which helped them avoid blown coverages. This was a big reason why they allowed so few deep completions. So far in 2023, though, the Jets have had an alarming number of busted coverages, leading to some easy deep receptions by players who should never be allowed to catch bombs.

Simply remove the touchdowns allowed to Brown and Gray, and the Jets’ last two first halves would have looked a lot better.

The Jets have the NFL’s No. 1 red-zone defense this year (25% touchdown rate). If they did not allow those deep touchdowns to happen, they likely would have held New England and Kansas City to no more than a field goal on those drives (the Patriots weren’t even in FG range yet, so they could have punted). Suddenly the Patriots’ 10-point half turns to a 3-point half and the Chiefs’ 20-point half turns to a 16-point half.

Coverage busts are enormous back-breakers. The Jets cannot allow any more of them to happen if they want to reclaim their status as an elite defense. This is easily the No. 1 priority when it comes to fixing the first-half defense.

Preventing chunk gains on the ground

The Jets are allowing 5.3 yards per rush attempt in the first half. They tighten up in the second half, ranking eighth-best with only 3.3 yards allowed per rush attempt.

Allowing massive breakaway runs hasn’t been an issue for the Jets. Outside of Isiah Pacheco’s 48-yard touchdown run last week (which included brutal non-called penalties), the next-longest first-half run they’ve allowed only went for 15 yards.

New York’s issue is allowing too many chunk gains. These types of runs have allowed opponents to put together long drives that tire out the defense and keep the offense on the sidelines.

The Jets have allowed 12 rushes of 10+ yards in the first half, tied for the second-most in the NFL. That’s 3.0 per game, or 1.5 per quarter – way too much.

In the second half, they’ve only allowed five runs of 10+ yards, tied for 11th-fewest.

One specific area where the Jets can improve is their containment of quarterback scrambles. Three of those 12 runs were scrambles. The Jets have struggled overall to stop quarterback runs this year; they’re allowing 28.5 rushing yards per game to quarterbacks, ranking sixth-worst.

Ulbrich and Saleh must figure out how to improve the defense’s containment of quarterbacks. It’s a tough challenge, as you certainly do not want to sacrifice the defense’s aggressive pass-rush mentality, but there are times when the Jets’ pass rushers get too reckless and lose gap integrity, allowing the quarterback to break free.

Another problem is the Jets’ inability to stop runs that are directed to the outside.

In the first half, New York is allowing 7.7 yards per carry on rushes in one of these directions (as labeled in the official play-by-play): left end, left tackle, right tackle, or right end. That ranks second-worst in the league. This is where the Jets are allowing most of the first-half chunk gains. Ten of the twelve 10+ yard runs the Jets have allowed in the first half went in one of the aforementioned directions.

Runs up the middle have not been a problem for the Jets in the first half. They’re allowing 3.5 yards per attempt (seventh-best) on first-half rushes in one of these directions: left guard, middle, or right guard.

The Jets are clamping down on outside runs in the second half, ranking third-best with 2.9 yards allowed per outside rush attempt. But they need to start doing this for four quarters. In the first half, the Jets are frequently allowing runners to reach the edge for chunk gains, and it’s been a catalyst for long drives by opposing offenses.

At one point in the second quarter of the Chiefs game, Isiah Pacheco ran for 10+ yards on back-to-back runs that were directed toward the right edge. These runs spurred a 10-play field goal drive, preventing the Jets offense from quickly getting the ball back after a touchdown drive.

As shown by their stellar performances in the second half each week, the Jets defense maintains the potential to be elite. But they haven’t been elite on a consistent basis this year.

To reclaim their status as a legitimate top-flight defense, they must get rid of the slow starts. Fixing this problem will start with eliminating the busted coverages and minimizing the number of chunk gains on the ground (specifically the QB scrambles and the outside runs).

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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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2 months ago

I’ve said since Ullbrich started here that we need to temper the “wide nine” on early downs and short yardage. The Niners do.
The wide nine creates great pass rush angles b/c of the distance from initial contact, but it also creates lanes, inside and out, and puts tremendous pressure on our middle defense (DT’s and LB’s). If we played more conventional on some downs it would help.
The secondary miscommunication was a problem last year too. This is why I caution those who say “put Sauce on the Number One all the time”. Doing so creates the need for even more communication among the others.

2 months ago

When it comes to runs around the ends the DE needs to hold the edge. Looked like JFM got beat on both runs but Pacheco. I also see as we saw last year Whitehead is not a great tackle. So many times he tries to hit the offensive player instead of wrapping him up. Sometimes the back or receiver bounces off that hit. He needs a tackling 101 course.

Matt Galemmo
Matt Galemmo
2 months ago

I know this would explain very little of what you’re describing, but I would expect the Jets defense to be better in the second half of games. Their rotation style is intended to get well-rested players matchups with tired players. You didn’t mention pressures in this article, and mostly with reason as they aren’t directly related to blown coverages and bad sideline pursuit, but I would (a) expect pressure rate increases in the second halves of games and (b) wonder if that isn’t an indicator of a tired offense that is going to be less efficient just about everywhere.

I also recall this being somewhat of a thing last year, too.